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The Must-Have When Reporting on Disasters: A Satellite Phone

Category: Science & Tech,Technology

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Thomas Fuller, a national correspondent based in San Francisco, discussed the tech he’s using.

As a national reporter, you often find yourself caught in breaking news situations. What tech do you use when covering mass shootings? How about when covering fires?

My previous job was Southeast Asia correspondent, and I would lug around a satellite phone on trips to remote places like northern Myanmar. When I arrived in San Francisco three years ago, I didn’t think I would need it. But the California wildfires of the last two years knocked out cell coverage, especially the wine country fires of 2017.

So the satellite phone became indispensable for filing on tight deadlines. I put the phone, which is about the size of a laptop, on the roof of the car, pointed it toward the satellite and ran a cable through the window into the front seat, where I plugged into my laptop.

When I covered mass shootings, some of the people I interviewed were concerned about privacy, so to communicate securely, we used Signal, the encrypted phone app.

You also write about earthquakes. What tech do you want to have on hand when the Big One hits California?

When I arrived in California, I soon learned that everyone here is conditioned to keep an emergency earthquake bag in a car or somewhere near the door. In addition to my packed bag, I keep a satellite phone in the trunk. I’m assuming that cell networks will be badly disrupted by a big earthquake — that was certainly the case when I covered the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Finding electricity might also be a problem in the days immediately after a big quake, so I’m counting on the cigarette lighters in the car to serve as a generator.

We have a number of satellite phones in the San Francisco bureau, and we’ve distributed them to staff members who live in San Francisco and across the bay.

What tech tool do you dislike the most for reporting?

I used to rely on Twitter very heavily when I covered Southeast Asia — it was the best way to follow events in the 10 countries that I was covering. But I find it much less useful in Northern California for news coverage.

Twitter is very clannish and ideological, and it feels like a platform for self-promotion and virtue trumpeting more than anything else. The way people tweet reminds me of how some people talk when they step up to a lectern at City Council meetings — looking for applause more than conveying information. It’s the nature of the platform, of course, and I’m as guilty as the next guy — if this rant were a tweet and it got no retweets, I would feel a tinge of sorrow.

So Twitter stinks. What tech tools do you think reporters have benefited from?

I find Dataminr useful. That’s the company that scrapes the internet for breaking news and then sends it to you in real time. Its algorithm does a pretty good job of alerting you to shootings, crashes, scandals, big political news — the things we need to know about.

I also use a program that the veteran Times tech reporter John Markoff turned me on to. It’s called Audionote, and it’s a word processor and voice recorder melded into one. So if you’re at a news conference or doing a sit-down interview, you type as you record. Then you can go back to the text, click on the words and listen to the recording from that moment. It’s a great tool for deadline writing.

What tech product are your kids currently obsessed with? What do they do with it?

I’ve been trying to turn all the household electronics into language learning tools, with limited success: TV during the week is fine as long as it’s in French or Thai. (The kids were born in Thailand, and we’re a Francophone family.) That didn’t really work, because as soon as we weren’t watching, they opened a screen in English.

I switched our Alexa to French, but we decided that she is much less entertaining as a French robot. We couldn’t get her to play 20 Questions in French. I gave up and switched her to English with a British accent.

But all of that is a sideshow to the Daily Battle of the Screens. It never ceases to amaze me that outside there can a blue sky, bright California sunshine and plenty of open space to explore — but the kids prefer to flip open a laptop and surf YouTube.

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