Everyone’s talking tech: investigative journo conference

More than 800 journalists from 40 countries around the world wrapped up an intense three days of panels and partying in Miami on Saturday June 7. One of the most interesting threads that ran through the annual meeting of Investigative Reporters and Editors was the impact of change, and technology, on what we do.

People who work for traditional media in North America are rightly nervous about the future, as newspaper circulations slide and advertisers flee in ever larger numbers to the Internet. One thing on which those with a hand in making the future seem to agree upon is that no one really knows what is going to work, or not work, in the emerging multimedia universe.

But ideas and efforts abound. Several journalists at the forefront of change spoke to a panel on Saturday.

Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news technologies at the New York Times, argued strongly for newspapers to take charge of their own web content and make it “of the web” and not simply “on the web.”  Pilhofer said papers that dump content from their paper editions online are “on the web,” but to be “of the web,” organizations need to develop sites with the same two-way flow of information that is taken for granted by users of Facebook and other online success stories.

Pilhofer, a web and data whiz if there ever was one, leads a team of seven journalists and developers responsible for content such as the paper’s 2008 election guide (http://politics.nytimes.com/election-guide/2008/), and its open-source blog (http://open.blogs.nytimes.com/), which has started to distribute some open source applications created at the paper for use by anyone.

Pilhofer criticized newpapers and other organizations that are farming out data and other web applications to outside firms, saying “the future can’t be outsourced.”

The same panel heard from Kate Marymont, vice president of information centre at the Gannett newspaper chain. While executive editor of the News Press in Fort Myers, Fla , she led the effort to make the paper a test site for Gannett “information center” concept. (http://www.poynter.org/forum/view_post.asp?id=11984).

At the Fort Myers paper, staff who find the news are called “collectors,” and carry video cameras on their print assignments. They file where they need to file at a particular moment. Marymont said staff have reached the point where they are now “agnostic about platform.”
Some investigative journalists fear that the need for constantly-updated content and video will favour quick-hit content over investigations, but Marymont said giving up such enterprise work would be a mistake. “You will lose your focus as we rush to understand the world of video,” she said, “if you don’t keep talking about watchdog work.” Fort Myers was the test site for incorporating such work into the information centre.

There was agreement on the panel that online content has the potential to help stop the hemorrhaging at U.S. newspapers. “Traffic is revenue and revenue is manna from heaven in this environment” said Brian Duffy of National Public Radio. He warned, though, that outlets can no longer afford to make costly mistakes in their online efforts. “The 800 pound gorilla here this weekend is the fact that all our outlets are under tremendous financial pressures.”

While survival of the industry was the focus of the Saturday panel, a presentation Friday June 6 was more about how to protect journalist’ work from prying eyes. Led by Steve Doig of Arizona State University, the session showed how easily our computer files, e-mails and telephone calls can be compromised.

The search terms used by journalists are logged by search engines such as Google, and could be subpoenaed by authorities to determine the searches reporters have been making. And so could cell phone call records. Files that reporters have deleted from their hard drives are still there unless the space on the hard drive is actually erased. E-mails can be intercepted. Keylogger programs surreptitiously installed on your computer when you open an e-mail or visit a website can transmit everything you type, including passwords, to a third party.

Snooping may not be an issue for many reporters, but for those on hazardous assignments, or covering organized crime or security issues, using techniques such as these could keep a journalist, and his or her sources, out of danger.

Doig suggested several possible defences.

To keep Internet searches private, he suggested ixquick.com, which erases its search logs within 48 hours. Buying and using pay-as-you-go cell phones and paying for them with cash can keep your record of calls private by ensuring no billing information is ever generated.

To protect hard drives—which could be seized by authorizes or stolen by bad guys—he suggests a program called Webroot Window Washer (http://www.webroot.com/us/en/), which for $30 will not only delete all record of Internet activity, but wipe out deleted files from your hard drive as often as every 15 minutes by overwriting them with random characters.
To keep your e-mails private, he suggested using webmail services such as Gmail, which keep your identity, and your crucial IP address—your computer’s online identity—secret.

As for keyloggers, Doig said they are difficult to defeat, but one way to defend yourself when entering passwords is to enter a character or two of the passwords, then click somewhere else in the window and enter a few spurious characters, before entering one or two more letters in the password box, and so on.

A brave new world indeed.