Silicon Valley Learns Washington’s Language (and Vice Versa)

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? David McCabe, who covers tech policy in Washington, discussed the tech he’s using.

What tech is most important for doing your job?

One element of covering policy is understanding what forces are pushing certain ideas forward in Washington. I often turn to government and private disclosure databases to help answer that question.

There’s a lot of information a few clicks away: Congress maintains databases of whom companies are paying to lobby on their behalf. The Justice Department tracks which operatives are registered to work for foreign firms. The service Guidestar collects the forms that influential nonprofits file with the I.R.S. describing their finances, and many prominent foundations list their grants online.

These records don’t tell the full story, but they can be a source of valuable context when you’re chasing a tip or trying to understand the landscape around a new issue.

I try to speak with sources where they are most comfortable. That can be on the phone, by text or encrypted message, or in person. Twitter’s and LinkedIn’s direct message features can be great ways to reach out to people.

For on-the-record interviews, I’ve recently started using the automated transcription app Otter at the recommendation of other reporters. If I’m doing an interview by phone, I use an Olympus earpiece that plugs into my recorder to capture the conversation.

How is Silicon Valley having an impact on Washington?

Washington has become intertwined with the Valley in lots of different ways.

Every major tech company has ramped up its presence here. Small armies of lobbyists work Capitol Hill and a vast swath of the administration to fight attempts to regulate the industry or to shape the rules when they become inevitable.

The revolving door between tech and Washington may have lost some of its luster — a job at Google or Facebook isn’t as shiny as it used to be — but it is still functioning just fine. For example, Google just hired the chief of staff to Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, to lead its Washington office.

Congress keeps databases of lobbyists and the companies that hired them.Credit…Ting Shen for The New York Times

How do Washington folks use tech differently, compared with other parts of the country?

My unscientific conclusion is that the Washington metro area has the highest per-capita concentration of Twitter users whose profile photo is a shot of them appearing on cable news. Some of those people are my friends, and I would like to take this opportunity to urge them to reconsider.

How has the tech fluency among lawmakers changed, or not, over time?

Many lawmakers have become more fluent in tech — or at least more conversant — since the infamous Mark Zuckerberg hearings in 2018. There’s an understanding that before they became giants, Capitol Hill didn’t pay enough attention to the platforms that now account for a large share of the economy. In both the House and the Senate, lawmakers are often asking sharper questions than they used to and doing a better job of diving into the specifics.

There’s a related issue: For years, “tech policy” largely meant communications policy. It was about regulating the infrastructure that allows us to share information with one another. That has much wider implications than it used to.

If you oversee banking, you have to grok Facebook’s attempt to build a cryptocurrency. Google’s use of patient records is a health policy question as much as it’s a tech policy one. I’m interested in how lawmakers and their staff members adapt to this moment, when major tech companies are trying to play in more and more parts of modern life even as they face scrutiny for the business models that made them successful.

And what is the tech industry like in Washington?

All eyes are on Amazon and, more specifically, on its second headquarters in Northern Virginia. Its arrival has prompted a lot of questions about whether it will trigger even more gentrification in an already gentrifying city.

Amazon has been aggressive in building relationships with local educational institutions. In October, its chief executive, Jeff Bezos, visited a class at Dunbar High School in Washington, and the company is counting on local universities to help build the work force for its new offices.

The efforts have been met with resistance that is emblematic of the wider reckoning tech faces around its impact on society. Jay Carney, the former White House press secretary who leads Amazon’s policy apparatus, visited Trinity Washington University this fall. While he was there, an undocumented student raised concerns about Amazon’s work with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and he was met by anti-Amazon activists outside during his visit.

Outside of work, what tech are you personally obsessed with?

I’m a heavy Spotify user and find that music streaming has broadened my musical horizons. I listen to more artists than I did before and pay more attention to new releases.

I am also one of those people who fell hard for AirPods. They look silly, but they work very well. Contrary to my expectations, I haven’t lost one of the earbuds yet. That said: Buying the new, pricey AirPods Pro seems like tempting the earbud-losing fates. I’m staying away and saving my money.

Frankly, I spend more of my personal time trying to disconnect. I delete Twitter from my phone on vacation and on weekends when I’m being especially disciplined. I have been far less successful in cutting down on my Instagram use, but hope springs eternal.