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How to Turn an iPhone Into a Work-Only Tool

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Conor Dougherty, who covers economics from San Francisco, discussed the tech he’s using.

What tech tools do you rely on most to do your reporting?

This isn’t very remarkable or unexpected, but I spend a lot of time on news apps. Throughout the day I cycle through The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, East Bay Times, three of California’s Bees (Sacramento, Fresno, Modesto) and, of course, The New York Times.

I also read and listen to a lot of books, so I spend a lot of time on the Audible app. In the case of really important books that I’m using for research, I’ll buy the print book and shift between reading it in print and listening on my phone. (I have a monthly subscription to Audible and a lot of unused credits, so it feels as if my audiobooks are free even though they’re anything but.)

That’s a lot of news.

Yes, I’ve packed my phone with news so that I use it less.

Wait, what?

Yeah, so, there’s a catch. The catch is that I have zero social media on my phone. Like a lot of people, I’ve been trying to look at my phone less and to have a better work/life balance. In the past I tried some of those phone monitoring apps but didn’t find them helpful. Instead I hit on what you might call a design solution, which is to curate my phone so that it’s mostly a work tool.

I cover California and the economy and have to read news for work, so the mental bargain I’ve made with myself is that I can use my phone as much or as long as I want — so long as I’m reading books or news. Aside from news, Audible, and service-type things like maps and airline apps, I have nothing on my phone. I even disabled the browser. I find this keeps me mostly sane and mostly productive.

ImageCreditJim Wilson/The New York TimesImageCreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

How so?

A decent definition of technology is any sort of machine or process that helps people do more or better work, so my basic rule of phone curation is: Things that help me work stay on my phone and things that don’t, don’t.

Technology is a hard balance for everyone these days, but it’s especially hard for reporters, who in the pursuit of readers and stories can convince themselves that Twitter wars (“being part of the conversation”) and YouTube holes (“cultural research”) are productive uses of time. My biggest problem with social media is that sometimes I used it for work and sometimes I used it to goof off, and somewhere along the way I lost track of which was which.

Don’t get me wrong: I love wasting time. I just prefer to waste it on things like beer, skateboarding and video games (some of my favorite weekend activities) instead of an argument with someone I’ve never met (and who probably isn’t even who they say they are) on Twitter.

I still use my phone too much, but I use it less than I did before and naturally get bored of it because I don’t have an endless stream of feeds as you do with social media. Even though news apps are updated constantly, there are really only a handful of significant stories on any given day, so I have some semblance of completion after I’ve cycled through a few of them.

Plus, most reporters spend a lot of time on social media, and not that many read lots of hyperlocal news. I get a lot of great story ideas just scanning various small papers and trying to put the pieces together and looking for emerging trends. I once wrote a story about a single house in Berkeley, Calif., whose long and complicated story held various important lessons about how California dug itself into a horrific housing crisis. The germ of that idea came from reading about a bunch of contentious City Council meetings.

But reading is only part of your job.

Indeed. I also interview a lot of people and lately have developed an expensive addiction to transcription apps.

I’ve tried several, but the one I use the most is Rev. It costs about $1 per minute, more for rush orders. I find that I do better interviews when I don’t have to stress out about writing quotes exactly right, but transcription takes forever. This solves that. It’s probably the most useful tech tool I’ve ever come across. I can’t say enough good things about transcription, with the only downside being cost.

Are you worried about privacy?

Not really. I use Rev only to transcribe on-the-record interviews. I turn off my recorder when people go off the record.

So your phone has reading tools and reporting tools. Do you have writing tools, too?

Actually none. With the exception of breaking news, which I write with a keyboard and in a fugue state, I start all my stories longhand on yellow legal pads.

ImageCreditJim Wilson/The New York Times


Writing is all about getting started and keeping going, so whatever system helps you do that is the best system for you. In my case that’s paper, preferably yellow, but I can be flexible on that one.

When I’m typing on a keyboard, I have that thing that a lot of people have where they compulsively backspace and correct things until each sentence is clean, which is great in editing but messes up the flow of first draft composition. Word processors are sort of paralyzing to me. Whenever those squiggly green and red lines pop up to remind me to check grammar and spelling, I find myself sitting there and fiddling until the marks go away and I can begin a clean new sentence.

At one point I looked into getting the Freewrite keyboard, but it seemed a little expensive, and at this point I’ve gotten so used to writing my first drafts longhand that I feel that typing would mess up my rhythm.

You’re very particular.

I’m very social and easily distracted — I love chatting with my colleagues, though I’m not sure if they love it back — so when it’s time to really go for it, I try to create conditions that help me do better and more efficient work.

The best conditions are what I might call manufactured silence. In the days before a big deadline, I have this little system where I print out all my notes and go into a conference room with a stopwatch ($5.99 on Amazon) and put on a set of ear protectors (the kind people use at a gun range) and outline the story on paper, then write the first draft longhand. No phones or computers allowed.

Later I enter what I’ve got into a word processor, which doesn’t feel like a waste of time because it’s sort of like the first round of self-editing.

Anything else?

Sticky notes are also great. I put a lot of sticky notes in my books.


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