Review of The New York Times iPad App

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Product Description Features
Timeline Key People
The iPad Medium “Leaning Back”
La Presse Goes All In Competitors
What It Does Right What It Does Wrong
Key Links

Product Description

NYT-ipad-app-front-

The New York Times iPad app is the publication’s custom-built reading experience for Apple’s tablet devices. It was released at the same time as the original iPad, in April 2010. Instead of readers accessing Times content by loading NYTimes.com in the iPad’s browser, The Times developed a native app. This gave them the ability to provide a more immersive reading experience, and offer push notifications for news alerts.

The app is free to download, but comes with a limit of 10 articles a month. Readers with digital subscriptions get full access.

(The paper has apps for Android and Kindle Fire, but this review will center on the iPad version.)

Experience The Times’s in-depth journalism, elegantly designed with enhanced imagery and multimedia and streamlined navigation. – The NYT iPad app store description.

[We wanted to create] something that joins the best of print with the best of digital all rolled up into one. Something you can really immerse yourself in, lean back, and enjoy. – Martin Nisenholtz, speaking at the launch of the iPad.

In the “Today’s Paper” section of NYTimes.com, users can access a PDF version of today’s front-page. In theory, at least, the paper could have just digitized the pages of each day’s paper and stuck them in the app each day for readers to scroll through and absorb. But they didn’t. Fundamentally, the iPad is the newspaper, but much more as well.

Features

The word that comes to mind using the NYT iPad app is “malleable.” Users have control over the reading experience in an unprecedented fashion. Users can manipulate the content in several ways:

  • Articles can be saved for later, bookmarked and then accessed later on a mobile or a desktop computer, any device where the user is logged into their NYTimes account.
  • Readers can share the article instantly on Twitter, Facebook, or via iMessage or email.
  • Articles can be broken into pages or read in one long scrollable page.
  • Links appear in the text— users can click on tweets referenced or ads featured in the sidebar.
  • The text size can be increased or reduced, which is one reason the iPad is enormously popular among older readers.
  • Images can be enlarged with the familiar pinch-to-zoom motion.

Timeline

  • January 27, 2010 — iPad announced
  • April 1, 2010 — NYT iPad app announced
  • April 3, 2010 — iPad goes on sale
  • April 5, 2010 — Apple announces 300,000 iPads were sold on the first day.
  • 2011 — Apple sells 32 million iPads in the first full year the tablet is on sale, GogoAir reports that one in four U.S. travelers carries a tablet.

In four months, The Times worked on producing a native app to go live at the same time as the device went on sale. This speaks to how important the paper saw this new device.

Key People

Martin Nisenholtz served as senior vice president of digital operations, in charge of strategy, operations and management of all the Times company’s digital properties. Having joined the NYT in 1995, he was at the helm of the NYTimes.com launch in 1996 and stayed with the newspaper until 2011, at which point the digital and editorial aspects of The Times had been consolidated.

During the iPad announcement event, Nisenholtz told the audience that designers at the paper took three weeks to develop the app, which they demoed onstage at the iPad announcement in January 2010.

Also involved were Jennifer Brook, an interaction designer, and Adam Kaplan, an engineer. Brook, a veteran designer, had previously worked on the NYT iPhone app. Kaplan, according to this Quora answer, “spent a month locked away in the Apple campus writing the NYTimes iPad app.

The iPad Medium

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The ability to manipulate text on the iPad is a feature that got passed over in mainstream coverage when the tablet debuted. Many of the reviews tried to answer the question of whether the iPad could exist alongside a desktop/laptop and smartphone.

To me, this ignores a key selling point with the iPad: it is, quite simply, a revolutionary device for people with visual impairments and difficulties with mobility. A few months after the iPad debuted, The Times ran an article describing how the iPad had allowed a child with motor-neuron disease to communicate with his family.

Over the years, Owen’s parents had tried several computerized communications contraptions to give him an escape from his disability, but the iPad was the first that worked on the first try. – IPad Opens World to a Disabled Boy

The elderly is another group with whom the iPad has been successful. Apple’s touch interface, clear display, and one-app-at-a-time simplicity has made it successful with older generations. In short, tablets aren’t intimidating in a way that computers are. Those who criticize the iPad because it isn’t a full-featured web browser, email client, and word processor are missing this point.

In addition, manipulating content on the iPad is easier for those with fine motor control issues than opening and flipping through a full-sized broadsheet newspaper.

To an extent, the success of The Times iPad app depends on the success of the iPad: if consumers can’t find room in their workflow for a tablet, it may not prove successful. But the tablet’s already made a big impact on these two niche communities, and can arguably be called a success on this axis.

“Leaning Back”

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Since the birth of the personal computer, we have been hunched over, squinting at screens — great big terminals, laptop displays, tiny screens on PDAs. With the iPad, the screen has come to us as we lean back in ease. – David Carr, New York Times.

Carr’s intimation is clear: with the iPad, content comes to you. The device represents a tectonic shift in in how media is consumed, and one The Times seemed equal parts scared of and excited for.  (“Is that a bridge to the future?” David Carr jokingly wonders aloud as he unwraps an iPad in the documentary Page One. “Oh wait, it’s a gallows!”) The image of Jobs in a plushy armchair using his iPad is indicative of this change — no longer is computer technology merely the stuff of desks, or work.

The twin concepts of “lean forward” and “lean back” were first discussed in the context of the Internet by Jakob Nielsen, who claimed that the Internet — where people “are engaged and want to go places and get things done” — is active in a way that TV viewers are passive.

The iPad is more of a “lean back” device because it so much better for consuming than it is for producing content. As early reviews noted, the iPad didn’t lend itself to typing. There was no reason anyone would buy a tablet to write the next Great American novel over a laptop or a desktop. But if someone was looking for a content consumption device, a tablet is perfect. As I’ve said above, The Times looks stunning on the iPad: the tablet isn’t just a different way of consuming the paper’s excellent journalism — it enhances the experience.

Part of the concept of “lean back” is also in use patterns. The last thing people who use computers ever want to do in the evening is spent more time at a desk looking at a screen, and in this sense curling up on the couch with a smaller-screened tablet doesn’t feel like work. It’s a more relaxed way of browsing.

“Leaning back” implies the opposite of tuned-in productivity. It carries connotations of taking stock, the opposite of fast movement and intensity.

La Presse Goes All In

The New York Times isn’t the only news organization putting significant time and energy into a tablet edition. Research has found that print media readership is lowest among young people, so it makes sense to aggressively target the digital-first (or, increasingly, digital-only) audiences to sustain the paper’s future.

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La Presse Tablet Edition

In April 2013, Montreal daily La Presse made a massive investment in its free tablet edition. This later encouraged The Toronto Star to partner with Le Presse to do away with its paid model and introduce a similar product, in the hopes that ad revenue will sustain the business.

We’ve made a bet on a new medium, a new way to tell stories,” [Guy Crevier, president and publisher of La Presse] said. “We’ve taken so much time over the last two and a half years to test so many dimensions of the storytelling…that it would be a surprise to us if this doesn’t succeed. – La Presse believes it has winning formula with launch of digital paper, April 2010.

The move went against the grain. As newspaper in the U.S. were contemplating layoffs, La Presse beefed up their newsroom by hiring 100 staff, including journalists and page designers. Digital ads have always been less profitable than print ads, but Guy Crevier, president and publisher of La Presse, said in interviews that since traditional paywall models haven’t been successful at attracting younger readers, La Presse had to try something new. (The paper had already dropped its Sunday print edition in 2009.)

[Toronto] Star publisher John Cruickshank said on a conference call that he was impressed with La Presse’s “real success in establishing deep engagement with a younger audience” through the tablet edition. – Toronto Star to scrap paywall, launch free tablet edition. November, 2014.

The app also goes one step further than The Times in designing an immersive app experience. While the Times has done an excellent job reformatting its content for tablet devices, La Presse+ has given a glossy magazine feel to its design.

La Presse+ has been largely successful: the app has 450,000 installs and more than 58 per cent of its readers are in the 25-to-54 age range.

There is no evidence that The Times has plans to make their tablet edition free beyond the 10 free articles a month. Part of this is the paper’s reluctance to move too quickly: the NYT’s long and distinguished history breeds a certain hesitance about gambling the brand the way La Presse did. For now, the Times strategy calls for converting casual users to digital subscribers and growing revenue through native advertising, while maintaining print revenues as long as it can.

Competitors

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Washington Post iPad App

How Do You Like Your News in the Morning?

The iPad news category in the App Store can be stratified in a couple of different ways: some people are very loyal to brands, and only read major news on CNN or Fox. Others prefer photo- or video-heavy news over text-based apps.

Others prefer not to be tied to a single brand or institution. For them, aggregation apps like Flipboard and Google News are perfect, allowing them to read content from several different news sources. Flipboard bills itself as “your personal magazine.” Users tell Flipboard about their interests; the app then pulls articles from around the web on chosen topics. The upside: many more sources and more personalization. The down: the upper limit of 10 free articles from The Times still stands.

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Flipboard Interest Selector

Fundamentally, The Times wants to be a reader’s primary news source, and the paper is becoming increasingly agnostic as to the platform that competition plays out on. They want to be #1 with mobile-first customers and they want to be your iPad news app of choice. In this respect, their competitors in the app arena are the same as in their news arena: their close substitutes include the iPad versions of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and other iPad news apps such as MSNBC and CNN.

Compared with some other news apps for the iPad, The Times follows the same strategy as their print edition: remaining text-heavy. Other apps, such as The Washington Post, use images more heavily.

  • The Wall Street Journal’s app brings the paper to the tablet and adds content from their European and Asian editions.
  • The Washington Post brings their content to the iPad, with an emphasis on full-screen image galleries.
  • BBC’s news app is image heavy in the browsing sections, and includes articles in Spanish and Arabic.
  • Guardian’s app is a simple enough repackaging of their existing content.
  • USA Today allows for customization depending on how image-heavy you want your browsing experience to be.
  • NPR’s app brings more audio and video content than most of the other outlets, with an integrated media player at the foot of some articles.

The Washington Post, owned by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, also has an app exclusive to the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s flagship tablet. This sort of hardware-journalism symbiosis is also competition The Times is up against.

The iPad also competes against the NYT Now app, and the mobile browser experience. The in-app reading experience is much more solid than the browser, and how much readers use the smartphone apps versus the larger tablet apps depends on use cases. NYT Now is a stellar app to have on the subway each morning, reading the morning briefing.

What It Does Right

  • Brings comprehensive Times coverage to your iPad.
  • Rich, immersive reading experience.
  • Excellent platform for the elderly, disabled.
  • Interacts well with existing iPad accessibility features.

What It Does Wrong

  • Video feels underutilized.
  • Photos and graphics can be slow to load on weak Internet connections.
  • iPad is a reading device, not one for enhancing productivity.
  • Selecting a sentence or segment to share isn’t easy. If a reader wants to tweet or email a specific quote and link to the article, they have to manually copy and paste it. Other sites, such as Medium, allow this.

Key Links

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Same Sex Marriage Isn’t Everything, But It’s Not Worthless

I felt especially proud to be Irish over the last few months as I watched my friends at home in Ireland successfully campaign for same-sex marriage. They just became the first country to legalize it by popular vote, and I’m delighted.

That said, I’ve watched a lot of people argue on social media that it’s not what we should be campaigning for: that marriage equality is largely symbolic and of secondary importance to the problems of LGBTQ homelessness, mental illness, and racism. These problems are all very real, but marriage is far from symbolic: there are tax exemptions, more opportunities for health-care, and immigrant visas are far easier to get for federally-recognized marriages.

But even the debate over marriage ignores another fundamental point: that advocating for one thing does not mean we’re implicitly ignoring other things. These sort of advocacy in-fighting is toxic and leads to less achieved all round. Same-sex marriage isn’t the end of the road as far as equality goes, but it cannot be ignored.

(And this isn’t the first time I’ve brought this up.)

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A Critique of Western Media Coverage During a 5-Day Period Of The 2011 Arab Spring

This was a final paper I did for a class at NYU. The brief was to write a critique of media coverage of an important political or historical development in the region.

On December 17, 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of Sidi Bouzid regional council. A young fruit seller, Bouazizi was reportedly repeatedly the subject of harassment and humiliation as he sold produce out of a cart. In time, his self-immolation is said to have catalyzed the Tunisian uprising and the wider Arab Spring, which took place across northern Africa in early 2011. One of the central aspects of this youth-led revolution were the massive protests in Tahrir Square as Egyptians expressed their disillusionment with the sitting Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. Protests organized by opposition groups such as the 6 April Youth Movement and the National Association for Change were held on the “National Day of Anger” on January 25, a Tuesday. The following Friday, January 28, saw thousands fill the streets of Cairo. Hours into what was alternatively called “Friday of Anger” or “Day of Rage,” the government of Egypt shut down Internet services for between 5 and 6 days, until February 2.

This paper will examine coverage of this event in several major Western news sources, centering on the difference between daily newspaper coverage and long-form journalism written afterwards. I will use this comparison to draw general conclusions on how best to report both Middle Eastern stories and stories with a technical aspect. There are three important questions to be answered about the 2011 Egyptian Internet shutdown. The first is exactly what happened — how well both daily newspapers and ex post facto long-form journalism reported the day-to-day occurrences of those 5 days. Put another way, it is how well both groups achieved the goal of “5 Ws” reporting. The second question is how well both types of sources convey why this happened. This involves conveying the context of the time, shedding some light on why the Mubarak government chose this course of action. The third question involves the technical aspects of how it happened — what (if any) technical details the news sources chose to include, and trying to discern why editors chose to act as they did.

The first New York Times piece that talks about the Internet being cut off is an article on January 28, prosaically titled “Egypt Cuts Off Most Internet and Cell Service.” It begins with a delayed lead:

“Autocratic governments often limit phone and Internet access in tense times. But the Internet has never faced anything like what happened in Egypt on Friday, when the government of a country with 80 million people and a modernizing economy cut off nearly all access to the network and shut down cellphone service.

The lead is one long sentence but hits the most important point. There is no hiding behind the passive voice, no “the internet was shut down.” The second paragraph does like all good follow-ups and amplifies the lead, including the stat that the shutdown caused a 90 percent drop in Internet traffic originating in Egypt, and that the net was an important tool used by antigovernment protestors. They include a quote from Vodafone, one of Egypt’s five main Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which stated that Egyptian ISPs had “been instructed to suspend services in selected

The article continues to contextualize the Internet shutdown in the context of the unrest that Egypt had been experiencing in days prior. In one section, about halfway down the article, The Times expands upon its original assertion that only 90 percent of traffic was offline:

Some Internet traffic remained flowing on Friday, allowing access to and from the country’s stock exchange and some government agencies, according to researchers.

This struck me as an odd way of amplifying the original assertion because it feels incomplete. As a reader, I found myself wanting to know what “some Internet traffic remained flowing” means. Evidently, not all ISPs were taken offline. The Guardian, in an article published the same day as this article from The Times, writes:

Only one internet service provider appears to still have a working connection to the outside world: the Noor Group, for which all 83 routes are working, and inbound traffic from its connection provider, Telecom Italia.
“Egypt cuts off Internet access,” The Guardian, Jan. 28, 2011.

This is an excellent piece of reporting because it expands on their claim earlier in the article that “Egypt appears to have cut off almost all access to the Internet” (emphasis mine) in a much more fulfilling way than The Times clarified the same claim in their article. In the Guardian, there is the explanation that at least ISP remained active after the Mubarak government flipped the switch.

The Guardian article was published the same day as the New York Times piece, but the two diverged sharply as to what they made the focus of the article, which is why the Times article has a comparative paucity of definite facts. The Guardian article includes analysis from Renesys (since bought by Dyn Research), a real-time analytics company, above interviews with activists and protestors. This means the Guardian was able to list four of the main Egyptian ISPs, which The Times does not do at any stage in its coverage — all it can manage is to qualify its lead with the fact that not all, but only “nearly all access” to the Internet was shut down. Given the importance they later put on net access for antigovernment protestors, I was let down by how long it took them to qualify and expand on what “nearly” entailed. While The Guardian is quick to explain this, The Times immediately contextualizes the news of the Internet shutdown in terms of how protestors are reacting, and quotes several Westerners on the importance of the Internet as a tool for free speech. Consider the following two quote set-ups, from The Times’s article on Jan. 28:

1. At least 40 countries filter specific Internet sites or services, as China does by prohibiting access to some foreign news sources, said Prof. Ronald Deibert, a political scientist and director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which tracks the intersection of technology and politics.
[…]
2. A Facebook spokesman, Andrew Noyes, said the company had seen a drop in traffic from Egypt on Thursday and only minimal traffic on Friday.

It’s hard to say exactly why The New York Times went with these two sources before quoting anyone actually in North Africa (with the exception of quoting the Vodafone statement). If any newsroom has the money and the prestige to get stringers on the ground in Cairo, it should be this one. That said, The Guardian does not do much better — the two sources quoted in their Jan. 28 article are the analytics firm Renesys and a tweet from a Google engineer, Tim Bray.

It is interesting here to note that while The New York Times was looking at the Internet shutdown from the very overt question of free speech, WIRED —a well-respected New York-based technology publication— wrote a piece on January 27 titled “What’s Fueling Mideast Protests? It’s More Than Twitter,” in which it criticized the penchant of other news outlets to characterize the revolutions as solely existing on or being catalyzed by social media:

But don’t confuse tools with root causes, or means with ends. The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are against dictators who’ve held power — and clamped down on their people — for decades. That’s the fuel for the engine of dissent. The dozen or more protesters that self-immolated in Egypt didn’t do it for the tweets.

Instead, the article argues, social media should be seen as a spark or an accelerant for the revolution — a means for a disillusioned youthful population to organize and vent their frustration. WIRED actually outclasses The New York Times as far as contextualization goes in this respect, reminding readers how important audiocassettes were for the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and positing that social media may be working in a similar way.

A possible explanation for the lack of quotes from Egyptians on the ground would be timing — The Times’s newsroom, separated by 6 hours’ time difference and 5,600 miles from Tahrir Square, did not manage to find or organize a stringer to get quotes in time for the article on January 28. This would be a reasonable explanation, but the fact remains that the article posted the following day, “Mubarak Orders Crackdown, With Revolt Sweeping Egypt,” also does not feature quotes from Egyptians on the street, despite the fact that this article has a lot of color:

Friday’s protests were the largest and most diverse yet, including young and old, women with Louis Vuitton bags and men in galabeyas, factory workers and film stars. All came surging out of mosques after midday prayers headed for Tahrir Square, and their clashes with the police left clouds of tear gas wafting through empty streets.

It is not until The New York Times features live-blogs from Cairo, or January 30’s opinion piece from Mansoura Ez-Eldin, or follow-up pieces such as February 20’s “Egyptians Were Unplugged, and Uncowed,” that readers hear directly from people on the ground. This was a shortcoming of Western coverage generally, especially given the prevalence of direct quotes in Egyptian media:

“There was no official figure from the authorities. Some of the demonstrations turned violent, with protesters clashing with police and shouting: “Down, down Mubarak.”
[…]
“The people want the end of the regime,” people chanted in protests around the country, as well as “Leave, leave, Mubarak, Mubarak, the plane awaits you.”
[…]
The body of one protester was carried through Suez after clashes with police who withdrew from central areas of the eastern city leaving some main streets to demonstrators, a Reuters witness said.

“They have killed my brother,” shouted one of the demonstrators.
—“Thousands protest across Egypt on Friday of Anger, one killed as govt. imposes curfew.” January 28, 2011. Daily News Egypt.

Both articles from Daily News Egypt provide a sense of what the protests were actually like: they were angry — someone had been killed, and the crowd seemed at least somewhat united behind their calls for Mubarak to leave. It is one thing for The New York Times to report that the protestors were disillusioned. It is quite another for us to read that the protestors chanted, “The plane awaits you.”

In examining the coverage of this 5-day period, I laid out three questions that I argued were criteria with which to judge the quality of the coverage. The first question, what happened, is reported fairly solidly across the coverage I have examined. In the evening, Egyptian time, on January 28, the Mubarak government shut down the Internet. Certain news sources were better at giving detailed explanations, that some government organizations still had access, or that not all ISPs had gone down, but all news sources I examined got the broad strokes of the coverage correct. The second question, how the news sources showed what they knew, is where I fault Western outlets. There were, simply put, no good on-the-ground accounts of the protests in Western outlets. The closest things readers have are the live-blogs written by the New York Times. These were written by Robert Mackey and featured a tone that was much less removed than the rest of The Times’s coverage. I found myself wondering if this separation was intentional, but irrespective of whether it was or not, it was ineffective since the live-blog coverage was some of The Times’s best.

In the case of the first question, reporting the news, compare these two quotes from The Times. One is from the first article they wrote about the shutdown, which I have already discussed above. The other is from the live-blog from the same day.

[The] government of a country with 80 million people and a modernizing economy cut off nearly all access to the network and shut down cellphone service.”
—“Egypt Cuts Off Most Internet and Cell Service”

In an apparent attempt to keep protesters from organizing their demonstrations, Internet and mobile phone connections were disrupted or restricted in Cairo, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities.
—“Updates on Friday’s Protests in Egypt.” NYT Live-Blog.

The two pieces are startlingly different. The informality of the live-blog allows Mackey to go into more detail for readers, naming some major Egyptian cities and report what he’s hearing — he can’t say it with certainty yet, but he can go with the half-formed claim and report that the government has turned off the internet in an “apparent attempt” to cut off protestors. However, thanks to the medium of the live-blog and the style of writing it affords, Mackey can put that claim where it belongs: at the top of the section. In the fully-fledged article, it appears in the second paragraph and in a different form. Here, the Internet shutdown cripples “an important communications tool used by antigovernment protesters,” but the same explicit causation is unstated.

General reporting of the protests aside, news sources did well at framing the Internet shutdown in the larger context of Egyptian malaise toward Mubarak. The New York Times, despite not having quoted many sources on the ground, still had the best overall coverage. Matt Richtel, who wrote the first piece on the shutdown, is a previous Pulitzer Prize winner. In the two-month period of January and February 2011, The New York Times featured 550 pieces mentioning Hosni Mubarak, and has written over 7,000 in total. In addition to their hard news coverage, The New York Times also included more informal live-blogs and —eventually— pieces written by Egyptians on the ground. I fault them for not including it at the same time, but can understand the difficulties in getting these pieces ready and published.

In looking at this topic, I examined coverage from the NYT, Slate, Wired, The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Telegraph Egypt, CNN, Read Write Web, the InterPress Service, CNET, and the Huffington Post. The coverage was different across the board — for instance, the Huffington Post article is little more than a series of links to other news sources. The digital publications that managed to get online on the 27th, within minutes or hours of the Internet shutdown beginning, but while these were first off the mark in terms of time, no single online publication matched daily newspapers such as The New York Times in being able to contextualize the news that Mubarak had shut down the Internet. Another standout U.S. daily publication which did well in contextualizing the Internet shutdown was The Washington Post, despite leaning heavily on anonymous U.S. officials.

I do not think I can say whether the Middle East, an incredibly complex ongoing topic, is better reported by daily newspapers or in retrospective coverage in weekly or monthly publications. As I have discussed above, both publishing styles have different benefits and drawbacks: online publications could get out ahead of The New York Times on January 27, while none of the online-only publications have the budget, prestige, or reach as the Grey Lady. Certainly during the Arab Spring, as we’re beginning to see with U.S.-based protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, there is undeniable benefit to on-the-ground reporting and instantaneous updates during protests and periods of civil unrest. That said, there is always a place for detailed, well-researched daily coverage, just as there is a place for end-of-week contextual coverage — the longer pieces that aren’t as time-sensitive. “Her Majesty’s Jihadists,” the piece by Mary Anne Weaver, which appeared in the April 19 Sunday edition of The New York Times, is a prime example of this.

Let me begin to answer the third question by pointing out what I feel is a gaping hole in the coverage: only two of the 17 pieces I analyzed managed to hit the low bar of listing the four major ISPs operating in Egypt: Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, and Etisalat Misr, plus a handful of subsidiaries and spin-offs. Even fewer were able to account for why some but not all of Egyptian Internet traffic was taken offline.

Allow me to briefly outline the main technical aspects of this story, as I see them. The reason the Internet can be shut down in Egypt but remain functioning for users worldwide is because the Internet, despite being wireless, is still connected via servers and hubs around the world. Even though Egypt is one of the most connected countries in Africa, all of their wired connections come through cables that were controlled by a small number of ISPs. When someone types in a web address, such as nyu.edu, the web browser looks up which IP address is associated with this address (in this case, 128.122.119.209) and contacts the server at that address, which gives the web browser the data needed to display the webpage in your browser. When news outlets report that “Egypt turned off the Internet,” they mean government force the ISPs to block browsers from being able to look up the IP address associated with Egyptian domains. This stopped Internet traffic flowing in and out of the country, but the Internet in the crest of the world was left untouched. In the space of some 15 minutes on that Friday night, the Mubarak government ordered all but one major Egyptian ISP to go offline, sealing off the country from the outside world. This was not a case of severing physical cables, but rather ordering the ISPs to turn access off. Evidently, this was designed to gain control over the conversation rather than limit Internet access generally. One ISP, Noor Group, stayed online, which allowed Egyptian government websites and the stock exchange to stay up and running, according to Internet analysis firm Renesys.

It’s debatable how much technical coverage warranted inclusion in news pieces about the shutdown, but it’s a shortcoming of the coverage as a whole that so little of this detail was included. The New York Times did not mention the Noor Group at any stage in their coverage, but The Guardian did in the fifth paragraph of their story on January 28:

Only one internet service provider appears to still have a working connection to the outside world: the Noor Group, for which all 83 routes are working, and inbound traffic from its connection provider, Telecom Italia.

The Guardian’s language is somewhat guarded — Noor Group “appears” to still be working, but here again readers are subjected a certain tentativeness allowing for fuller coverage without losing authoritativeness. If I was to make just one suggestion for this coverage, it would be for The New York Times to allow their writers to feature just a small bit more conjecture in their stories.

One of the earliest myths regarding the Internet was that it was going to be a tool beyond the reach of national governments. A few years after the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the first digital human rights groups, was founded in 1990, its founder John Perry Barlow wrote “The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” in which he addressed brick-and-mortar national governments and said they “have no sovereignty where we gather.” The document, which goes on to claim that “we are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race [or] economic power,” is libertarian idealism typical of California in the 90’s.

The reality is somewhat different. In 2010, the U.S. Senate introduced a bill titled “The Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act.” The bill shows why delineations between physical aspects of the Internet and heady ideals of “cyberspace” are impossible to draw. Far from the ideas of bodiless cyborgs, the bill set out provisions to prevent attacks on the physical telecommunications infrastructure that powers much of today’s U.S. economy. The decision of repressive governments to limit access to the Internet, as well as the very concrete stipulations of cyber-security bills, reminds us that for all the virtual aspects of the World Wide Web, it logistically consists of a series of connected wires and routers and other real-world pieces of technology.

  1. Richtel, Matt. “Egypt Cuts Off Most Internet and Cell Service.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Jan. 2011. Web. 25 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/29/technology/internet/29cutoff.html?_r=0&gt;.
  2. Arthur, Charles. “Egypt Cuts off Internet Access.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 28 Jan. 2011. Web. 2 May 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/jan/28/egypt-cuts-off-internet-access&gt;.
  3. Kirkpatrick, David D. “Mubarak Orders Crackdown, With Revolt Sweeping Egypt.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Jan. 2011. Web. 13 May 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/29/world/middleeast/29unrest.html?pagewanted=all.
  4. Cohen, Noam. “Egyptians Were Unplugged, and Uncowed.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Feb. 2011. Web. 2 May 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/business/media/21link.html?_r=0&gt;.
  5. Staff Writer. “Thousands protest across Egypt on Friday of Anger, one killed as govt. imposes curfew.” Daily News Egypt (Cairo, Egypt). Jan. 28 2011. Web, Access World News database. 2 May 2015. http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2135/resources/doc/nb/news/1350C873DE4177D8?p=AWNB
  6. Zacharia, Janine. “Egypt moves to cut access to Internet.” The Washington Post. Jan. 28, 2011. LexisNexis Database. Web. May 10, 2015. < http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2056/lnacui2api/frame.do?tokenKey=rsh-20.3…y=20_T21989479628&parent=docview&rand=1431297781406&reloadEntirePage=true&gt;.
  7. Kravets, David. “What’s Fueling Mideast Protests? It’s More Than Twitter.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 27 Jan. 2011. Web. 2 May 2015. <http://www.wired.com/2011/01/social-media-oppression/&gt;.
  8. Bright, Peter. “Amidst Chaos and Riots, Egypt Turns off the Internet.” Ars Technica. Condé Nast Digital, 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 05 May 2015. <http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2011/01/amidst-chaos-and-riots-egypt-turns-off-the-internet/&gt;.
  9. Cowie, Jim. “Egypt Leaves the Internet.” Renesys. Dyn Research, 27 Jan. 2011. Web. 05 May 2015. <http://research.dyn.com/2011/01/egypt-leaves-the-internet/&gt;.
  10. Mackey, Robert. “Updates on Friday’s Protests in Egypt.” The Lede: Updates on Fridays Protests in Egypt. The New York Times, 28 Jan. 2011. Web. 05 May 2015. <http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/latest-updates-on-protests-in-egypt&gt;.
  11. Ez-eldin, Mansoura. “Date With a Revolution.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 05 May 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/opinion/31eldin.html&gt;.
  12. Perry Barlow, John. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, 8 Feb. 1996. Web. 25 Apr. 2015. <https://projects.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html&gt;.
  13. Kanalley, Craig. “Egypt’s Internet Shut Down, According To Reports.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 27 Jan. 2011. Web. 05 May 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/27/egypt-internet-goes-down-_n_815156.html?ref=tw&gt;.
  14. Weaver, Mary Anne. “Her Majesty’s Jihadists.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Apr. 2015. Web. 10 May 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/magazine/her-majestys-jihadists.html&gt;.

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Steps To Protect Yourself From Online Creeps

In journalism classes, we don’t tend to have exams at the end of the semester. Instead, we do reported finals, doing interviews and research as we would as journalists in the field. Here’s mine — an interview piece crossed with a service piece based on the pro-privacy activism I’ve been involved in for the last 18 months.

Diane’s date story starts off like any other: a cute boy, numbers exchanged, and a dinner reservation.

Then it started to go downhill.

“I was talking to this guy on Tinder,” she says. “He seemed really normal at first, you know?”

With a demanding internship, Diane, 20, uses dating apps because it’s easier to swipe through strangers in an app than interact with them in person in her limited free time.

But when she gave the guy her number, things started to go downhill. His previously pleasant demeanor evaporated.

“He would say overtly sexual things, like ‘can’t wait to rip your clothes off when I see you,’ or, since he was a TA, he asked ‘ever fantasize about your teachers? I hope I can fulfill those fantasies.’”

“I started feeling uncomfortable,” she continues. “Just because I am willing to go on a date doesn’t make him entitled to think that I’ll just have sex with him. I ended up telling him that I wasn’t interested in meeting up with him anymore and he flipped out.”

In a somewhat unorthodox response to the rejection, the man told Diane, a George Washington sophomore, that he had reported her as “an infected sex worker who is actively soliciting,” and reportedly posted her photo and cell phone number on several escort websites in the area.

The incident has not had any long-term consequences for Diane, but online harassment is experienced by 40 percent of women using dating apps. Potential partners can use the information shared in dating apps to stalk and harass.

This behavior is in part due to the fact that, on dating apps, people are reduced to pictures on a screen. The relative anonymity of these apps enables abusive behavior with few repercussions.

Helen Nissenbaum, an NYU media professor who specializes in online privacy, warns that dating apps may pose more risks than using traditional social networks such as Facebook.

“They are potentially more revealing because, in the natural course of getting to know people, one shares more personal and intimate information,” she said.

Dating apps often require users to link dating profiles to a Facebook account. Even though dating apps like Hinge, Tinder, and OkCupid don’t directly link back to a user’s Facebook, a stalker can take a user’s pictures and do a reverse image search. The process requires little technical know-how and takes less than two minutes.

These apps have always been privy to more private information than most others, with little regulation on how those details are collected or used. The examples in this article are on the extreme end of what can happen when women are stalked online, but they’re far from impossible, and they do happen time and again.

Despite the dangers, Diane was quick to point out that online dating can be useful. “I think dating online has a lot of benefits, especially in today’s culture where everyone is constantly on their phones,” she said.

However, she warns against moving too quickly.

“Don’t put yourself in unnecessary danger, and never ever feel pressured to do something that you are uncomfortable with, even a kiss.”


If Diane’s story hasn’t scared you off from maintaining a profile on a dating app, here are some steps to make the experience as safe as possible:

  1. Buy a webcam cover to prevent peeping-tom snooping software. It’s removable, so you can still use the camera when you want it.
  2. Lock down your Facebook profile. The site’s privacy policy is infamously hard to navigate, but given how easy it is to find someone on the world’s largest social network, this step is crucial. (Here’s how.)
  3. Use Google’s free voice service to get a second phone number and use it exclusively on dating apps until you trust your date. Not only does the new number redirect to your existing cellphone, but also Google allows you to delete your number and create a new one if something bad happens.
  4. Use different profile pictures on Facebook to ones you put on dating apps to stop creeps finding out your last name and location. To do this, put your dating app snaps in a Facebook album visible only to you. (Don’t know how? Click here.)
  5. Consider creating a second Facebook account that doesn’t include your last name and location, which you only use with dating apps. (It’s a one-time set up, so you won’t have to juggle multiple accounts.)
  6. Download Circle of 6, an app that alerts your friends when you feel unsafe and aims to prevent violence before it happens.

Diane’s name changed to protect anonymity.

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Change is Hard: 20 reasons why The New York Times is struggling to adapt to the future of journalism.

This week, I’m wrapping up a class called “The Future of The New York Times,” with media critic Jay Rosen. Here are some edited-for-clarity notes I took.

The journalism ecosystem has become a lot more crowded in recent decades, but the NYT is still a key player in journalism. There’s been a lot of interest in the class from reporters at other news institutions because even people who compete with the NYT care about what happens to the institution.

The New York Times was incredibly influential 20 years ago. As one of our speakers told us, the difference between The Times in 1990 and The Times today is that the Grey Lady used to like a hydrant in the middle of the desert. Now, it’s like a hydrant in the middle of a river: it’s still a good news source, but there’s a torrent of water cascading around it now.

As our speakers told us, the question facing the NYT right now is how to create a digital publication that aligns with two things:

  1. The current state of digital, how people are consuming news.
  2. The NYT legacy. Whether or not Buzzfeed is the future of news, the NYT has a reputation going back decades, which new media does not. As we’ll see below, this newness is both a blessing and a curse.

This is, broadly speaking, what they’re having trouble with. The struggles fit under three broad categories: why transforming the business is hard, why transforming journalism is hard, and why culture change is hard.

Why Transforming The Business Is Hard

 

The business model for newspapers has been the same for 150 years. It has, up until recently, been a stable business.

Bezos and The Washington Post have a financial runway. They can afford short-term losses. NYT doesn’t have that luxury.

It’s less risky to gamble your reputation when you’re new. Reputations breed conservatism. You’re going to want preserve the credibility of your institution. Buzzfeed can move fast and break things, but when you have an asset that’s accumulating value, it’s hard to risk and innovate.

Thinning and firing is fundamentally hard to do. These are people’s livelihoods we’re talking about. Plus, good staff is always going to be a fixed cost.

Subscription models. NYT has to get more money from readers. Majority of readers read online and online ads pay less. 100 or 200x less than print.

More efficient ad brokers bring buyers and sellers together. Classified ads are no longer a lucrative business. Data brokers = people formally known as the advertisers.

There’s the newsroom, and then there’s Department of Everything Else. Previously, you had the printing press and the folks who worked there didn’t care about the content, they were printers. Similarly, the advertisers are separated from the news-gathering. Except now there are apps and dozens of Twitter feeds. The folks who make the Cooking App need to liase with audience development, business, news, and lots of other sections. The Times wants and needs to do this sort of cross-polination. The NYT has to be global. Reach is more important than % because 0.01% of a large enough number works for you.

Age of readership is old. Print: 42 Digital: 37.

Why Transforming Journalism Is Hard

 

Tension between popular and hard news.

Cost of story production — it’s always going to be expensive. As a speaker told us, no ad buyer wants to be anywhere near Iraq War coverage, so that sort of hard news is paid for by the Gardening section, or the Tech section. Good journalism are always going to be expensive to produce. (See also: good staff is a fixed cost.)

Attempting to integrate analytics without becoming subservient to them is hard. This is the holy firewall between the editorial and business sides. After taking this class, I feel I have a much more nuanced opinion of how this divide should work.

You shouldn’t be a slave to metrics, but journalists do have to understand the business model and you should know some things about your readers. Half of NYT readers say they read the paper mostly on a computer or on mobile, a stat that’s going to grow, not shrink.

The NYT can’t stick their fingers in their ears and focus solely on the print edition. Pay attention to some analytics but don’t let them be the sole driving force in decision-making.

Standards of readers. When the NYT covers the Middle East, they’re (rightly) held to really high standards. This is because of the NYT’s reputation. Probably an elegant problem to have. If you’re a reporter on a contentious beat (like the ME), you know that basically every choice you make is going to be blasted. Hard to experiment.

Maybe the NYT commits some cardinal sin and a reader quits. But if they’re the sort of person who reads the NYT, it’s doubtful they’re going to migrate to Buzzfeed. So the NYT shouldn’t try to ape Buzzfeed too much.

Compartmentalization. NYT style is longform text with some pictures. Thinking beyond the format is liberating and maybe more successful.

NYT language choices work for some but alienates others:

  • The Times has a voice. Teenagers think of the NYT as a dinosaur, but there’s something essential to that identity.
  • Fire on the 57: the questions of pronouns. There’s something stately about “The New York Times doesn’t do x, y, or z” even if it does alienate readers
  • Thousands of words have been witten about the NYT’s use of anonymous sources, but, briefly: it allows the NYT to get quotes they wouldn’t otherwise get. That’s a simple pro/con matrix, and you have to decide where you stand on it. It’s been suggested that every major newspaper should just communally agree to stop using anonymous sources, but then you have this intense prisoner’s dilemma scenario where every actor has an incentive to deviate.

Why Transforming The Culture Is Hard

 

Hiring practices. Attitude shifts among older people are hard to break.

Loyalty online is hard. Core readers vs. fly-by Google results.

NYT is an historic institution. Change is slow, especially because they’re a destination employer. (When you’re the company people dream of working at since the age of 12, they’re actually going to be conservative workers. They want to sit down and not rock the boat.)

Basically nobody wants to be the radical disrupter. Not desperate enough for a Hail Mary Pass yet/any more. People thought it was impossible for the NYT to disappear because it was a historic institution, but they were proven wrong during the paper’s financial troubles in 2009.

There’s a bureaucracy in the Times that forces change to be incremental. Procedural channels, a bureaucratic ecology.

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NYU News: Users Must Be Wary of Webcam Snooping

If a column’s success is measured by how much it freaks out other people at Washington Square News, my column did ok this week.

With improving technology comes many benefits, but also more ways to do harm. One evening this semester, I was in a cafe when the woman at the next table asked if I would watch her belongings while she went to the bathroom. I agreed and glanced over, noticing that her MacBook’s green webcam light was on. When she came back, I asked if she was on Skype. “No, it’s been on all the time for the last few weeks. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I hope nobody’s watching,” she said with a nervous laugh. In reality, it is almost certain that someone was watching that woman through her webcam, and chances are, it was the last person to service her laptop. It might sound paranoid, but there is definitely a precedent — a California-based computer technician was  arrested in 2011 for installing peeping-tom software on the laptops women asked him to repair. According to the Huffington Post, one of the bogus error messages that would reportedly show on-screen encouraged users to “fix their internal sensor” by “putting your laptop near hot steam for several minutes,” prompting some female users to bring their open laptop into the bathroom with them when they showered.

It is incredibly easy to remotely activate someone’s webcam. The fear that someone is watching you through your laptop camera is sometimes dismissed as paranoia, but stories of remote spying are becoming more common each year. While paranoia is by definition irrational, healthy concern is not, and taking small steps to thwart a jealous ex or creepy IT guy is something everyone should do. A cheap, low-tech solution is to cover the webcam with a small sticker when not in use, which can be temporarily removed for
video chatting.

Wired Magazine reported that the FBI had opened an investigation into Lower Merion School District in Philadelphia, which had remotely activated the webcams on school-issued laptops, snapping pictures of students as they slept or were, according to a civil action, “partially undressed.” That the software could track students’ web habits and emails is worrying enough — the idea that these laptops were AV surveillance devices is doubly chilling. The laptops came with software allowing them to be remotely controlled, ostensibly to help in the recovery effort if they were stolen. Depending on the exact nature of the data collection and the pictures in question, the school district could have run afoul of child pornography laws. 

The case ended with a $610,000 settlement, but the capabilities of stalkers and other hackers to surreptitiously access other computers have only improved since then. It is a low-tech solution, but given that this problem has occurred at least a half-dozen times in the last few years, covering your computer’s webcam is a simple precaution to take.

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Feature Request: Google Maps, Let Me Tell You About Me

Coming home this morning from Brooklyn made me think of how we design our travel apps. I live a few minutes from Union Square and my original plan was to take the G to the Q, until a friend suggested I catch the G and then the A. I’d save $2.75 and a 5-minute walk because the G to the A is a direct transfer (as opposed to leaving one subway station and entering a different one down the block). The only downside is that the A lets off on 14th street at 8th ave, which is a 20-25 minute walk for me.

Not prohibitive, but a pain in the ass. As far as being physically disabled goes, walking is the most tiring thing I do on a daily basis. I don’t subscribe to the spoon theory (why not is the topic for another post), but regardless most choices I make are based around the amount of walking involved. Since moving from Ireland to NYC my distance ability or tolerance or whatever has gotten a lot better, but I still don’t enjoy being more tired than I need to be. In general, this demand’s pretty inelastic, so I’m willing to spend longer on the subway or even pay another $2.75 if it means cutting my walking distance significantly. 

So I’m on the A train, half listening to the announcements and half listening to The Killers’ Jenny Was A Friend of Mine, when I realize one of the A stops, Jay Street, crosses the N, which goes to 14th Street – Union Square. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I’d have missed this entirely. Except when I opened Google Maps this morning, it didn’t present the old G>A>N route because it probably took 20 minutes longer than the G>A>walking suggestion. Except if I’m sitting down reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, not only do I not mind sitting for a little longer, I actually enjoy a few extra minutes of quiet in my day. My decision matrix is rarely “get me here ASAP” because I don’t plan my day that way (or I take a cab if it’s urgent), but I can’t tell Google Maps this — there’s no input method.

Feature requests fall into four quadrants, illustrated excellently by me, in Skitch:

Obviously, B is the “best” feature request category in that it’s very beneficial to a large number of people. “Google Maps should give me subway directions.” My feature request, “let me tell you I’m disabled and am trying to minimize my walking distance, and I’m okay spending longer on the subway as a result,” falls into A, in that it’d only benefit a small number of people (well, maybe — apparently we’re the U.S.’s largest minority) but it’d benefit that group a lot. So, um, yeah, have at it, Google Maps, kthx.

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Brain Dump

It’s that weird part of the semester where it feels like the semester has flown and also has been dragging on for forever. I think this was undoubtably my toughest college semester so far. I learned a lot, worked my ass off, and while it would have been nice to have more opportunities to relieve some of the pressure, I feel pretty accomplished having mostly gotten through it. I’m in that calm period before the final storm of finals: one 10-page essay, one final piece for journalism (with rewrites. I might pitch it somewhere too — if my sources come through and I do it right, it should be a solid piece), and two short papers are all that’s between me and the summer. 

I took 16 credits towards my journalism major this semester, which was a lot of fun most of the time but also a very tough workload. Only one of the classes was a straight up reporting class but it was very pressuring sometimes. Generally, I like producing content, but the deadline of a story a week really drained me, especially when due dates for that class would coincide with other deadlines. (As far as college work goes, when it rains, it’s a motherfucking downpour.) One class on the Middle East was probably my favorite class I took all semester. The readings, with names like “Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran,” were interesting enough to make me scrap my four year plan and swap Politics for Middle East & Islamic Studies as my second major. The major’s 10 classes long, 6 content and 4 language, which will give me a chance to learn Arabic. It’ll mean another tough semester (languages are hard, Arabic is harder) but I’ll be able to free up time in other spots, so I’m confident it’ll be manageable.

I also worked 10 hours a week with NYU’s LGBTQ Center. It was an emotionally draining place to be at times, and it felt hard to disconnect from, which is, as I write it, an interesting complaint. Talking to other people who work in social justice circles, they alternatively laud and curse working somewhere where their identity is so bound up in their work — being queer and working at an LGBTQ center, for instance. I didn’t find that part to be too bad (HTML code doesn’t care if you’re queer) but a lot happened this semester. The center I work at now isn’t the center I joined, which isn’t definitionally a bad thing. College offices have a pretty high turnover, and that’s okay, but while it was rewarding and getting to work with awesome people was great, it was definitely a slog sometimes, especially when I’d be preoccupied with center stuff during class or at the Washington Square News, NYU’s student daily, where I started work as a deputy opinion editor.

Speaking of, work at the WSN gave me some of my favorite and most rewarding memories from this semester. With one week off, I produced an edited, 450-word ops piece each week, on topics mostly about technology and LGBTQ issues. I love the newsroom environment, especially as I get to know folks there better. It’s separate enough from the LGBTQ Center that I felt happy working there (I think I do better with buffer space between various aspects of my life, although I did write about being queer for another section of the paper) but I was definitely working on something that I feel very positively towards. 

Avoiding burnout was really, really hard. I feel sort of conflicted about myself this semester because on the one hand I know, objectively, that I got a lot done and I achieved things. On the other hand, I lived in a near-constant state of tiredness and could only budget mental space for the next 48 to 72 hours, which is neither desirable nor healthy. Last semester, after I was offered the job with the center, I sat down with a spreadsheet and budgeted time for sleep, swimming, class, homework, chilling with friends, and everything else I could think of. That was how I decided I’d have enough time to do everything I wanted to do. I learned this semester that sort of logical time budgeting isn’t quite the whole story, and that’s probably my biggest takeaway from the semester. 

I’m moving into an apartment over the summer, which I’m really fucking excited for. More to come on that soon. Also, more to come on classes for next semester after I register next week. 

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Stuxnet: Critically Examining International Coverage of a Targeted Cyber Attack

This was a midterm paper I did for a class at NYU. The brief was to write a critique of media coverage of an important political or historical development in the region.

In the summer of 2010, software experts began to analyze a new computer worm that had appeared around the world. The virus targeted a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows and was aimed at Iran, in the hopes of delaying the country’s nuclear proliferation. The virus was named ‘Stuxnet’ by researchers who analyzed how it worked.

This paper will examine coverage of the Stuxnet virus as it first appeared in several newspapers around the world. Centering on a number of articles published between September 1 and October 31, 2010, it will look at how coverage differed between the New York Times and two Iranian newspapers: Iran News and the Tehran Times. The differences in coverage include the number of articles and their length, word choice, type of source used and how the reporters chose to express what they know. The fact that the Iranian newspapers published so many more short news pieces is reflective of their over-reliance on official sources and the fact that they talked to fewer third-party sources, relying instead on quoting other pieces published online, such as blogposts posted by security firms. The New York Times lived up to its journalistic reputation on this subject, providing readers with deeper coverage despite publishing fewer articles. Having said that, the coverage from both countries fell short of consistent, in-depth reporting on the technical aspects of the virus. In addition, I found that Iranian papers covered computer viruses very differently when the accused perpetrator was Iran, such as in 2012 when Saudi Arabian computers were struck by a virus thought to have originated from Iran itself. Despite Iranian coverage not being as technically detailed as The New York Times articles, I found that they were the only opportunity I had to hear what Iranian officials were saying. It is a mistake to rely too heavily on officials, but their relative absence is a fault in The New York Times’s coverage. Overall, the Iranian newspapers produced more articles on Stuxnet, but these articles fell short of the comprehensiveness and depth of The New York Times’s coverage. The paper of repute did a good job of informing its readers of the matter at hand, even if the finer points of the technical reporting was lacking from both Iranian and New York Times coverage.

During the 2-month period between September 1 and October 31, the three Iranian newspapers ran 18 articles. In comparison, The New York Times ran eight articles: six in print and two online. The Iranian newspapers focused on official reaction, often reporting an official statement or leading with the warnings of anonymous computer experts. The New York Times made more of an effort to contextualize the news, publishing news analyses and pieces in the Week In Review section. This depth is reflected in the fact that The New York Times published 6,200 words in 8 articles compared to 4,800 words across 18 articles from Iran.

Stuxnet targeted programmable-logic controllers (P.L.C.s) — small computers that control machinery, used in power plants and other infrastructural buildings. Once it infected a machine, the virus would check to see if a specific piece of machinery was connected. If the virus found a specific type of computer operating under certain specific conditions, it would inject malicious code and change how the related machinery would function. If the virus didn’t find the conditions it was looking for, it would do nothing, which is how it was able to infect so many computers without notice. (The virus was thought to have infected some 50,000 computers around the world, from Canada to Cambodia.) The virus was discovered to be operating at Natanz, Iran’s central enrichment facility, where it was reportedly slowing the uranium centrifuges. The ostensible aim of such an attack was to delay Iran’s nuclear program — a goal that was apparently successful, as former president Ahmadinejad admitted in November 2010 that Iran’s nuclear program had been delayed. It is thought that the virus entered the Natanz plant when someone plugged an infected USB drive into the network. The virus was discovered in the summer of 2010, but according to a 2011 Vanity Fair article, media outlets such as The New York Times were unwilling to cover Stuxnet without concrete information about the source or purpose of the attack, and so it does not appear in The New York Times until the end of September.

Stuxnet’s debut in The New York Times came on September 24, 2010, in an online article titled “Malware Hits Computerized Industrial Equipment” on the New York Times BITS (Business of Technology) blog. It describes how the tech industry was being “rattled” by a software program that was infiltrating factory computers. Iran is not mentioned until the fourth paragraph down; the article focuses instead on the potential effects of the virus, including its alleged ability to steal documents. (Given that the Afghan and Iraq War Logs were both released by Wikileaks in 2010, this emphasis is perhaps unsurprising). The first news stories that appear in Iranian coverage are cross-posted from Reuters and the Daily Telegraph. This is the first core difference in the coverage: no Iranian newspaper wrote an original news story about Stuxnet until September 26 — as far as the nuclear story goes, The New York Times scooped them by almost two full days. The Tehran Times did run an article in July 2010, two months before the worm’s first mention in The New York Times However, this article does not mention Iran’s nuclear program specifically. Instead, it reports Stuxnet in the context of it being a vulnerability in Windows Microsoft. Given The New York Times’s reluctance to report on the virus before reporters knew what it did, this is particularly interesting.

The first Iranian newspaper article, which appeared in Iran News on September 26, is much more explicit about the purpose of the attack, reporting that Stuxnet was a virus “created to target the controlling systems in Iran, mainly nuclear industry.” The New York Times, on the other hand, describes Stuxnet as a “sophisticated computer worm.” Viruses and worms differ on a technical level (and Stuxnet is, correctly, a worm) but non-technical writing uses the terms interchangeably. While The New York Times is more specific as to Stuxnet’s classification, it hedges its language when describing what the worm does: Iran News reports that it “targets” Iranian controlling systems, “mainly nuclear industry.” The New York Times lede is much softer:

The Iranian government agency that runs the country’s nuclear facilities, including those the West suspects are part of a weapons program, has reported that its engineers are trying to protect their facilities from a sophisticated computer worm that has infected industrial plants across Iran.
— “Iran Fights Malware Attacking Computers.”

The lede focuses on the engineers who are trying to mitigate the effects of a worm which has “infected” (not attacked) industrial plants. It hedges the link between the plants and Iran’s nuclear program in ill-defined and unsubstantiated Western suspicions.

Despite the reluctance of The New York Times to label Stuxnet as an attack early on, the reports show a somewhat typical Times-ian comprehensiveness. In all, the articles published by Iranian news sources in that ten-day period total 921 words. In comparison, The New York Times article on September 25, 2010, where Stuxnet is first mentioned in print, is 899 words long.

The first New York Times article to appear in print is also the first article to mention cyber war. “Iran Fights Malware Attacking Computers” appeared on page A4 on September 25. It immediately creates an oppositional mentality by noting in the first paragraph that the affected nuclear facilities are those “the West suspects are part of a weapons program.” While it does report that Natanz has been the subject of covert operations, the article does not ascribe a value judgment to this statement, continuing the practice of declining to label U.S. cyber offense tactics as terrorism. On the contrary, an Iran News article obliquely refers to Stuxnet as “cyber terrorism” in the very first line.

The New York Times article makes frequent reference to the opinion of experts, especially when talking about the possibility that Stuxnet could have been the work of a state government. On the one hand, this makes The New York Times article read as being far more authoritative than the Iran News article (for which the main sources are Iran’s I.T. and Communications Ministry and a statement from a European security firm). On the other hand, the repeated use of experts gives the impression of kite flying, that the reporter wants to make certain claims but keep the ability to personally distance himself from them if necessary: Anonymous computer experts say that Stuxnet is “a far cry from common computer malware,” in that it is far more targeted and sophisticated than cyber attacks we are already familiar with, such as distributed denial-of-service (D.D.O.S.) attacks.

Similarly, when The New York Times wants to mention the theory that the U.S. may be behind the attack, it allows “one of the leading experts on cyber war intelligence” to do so, and only mentions it over 600 words into an article that runs almost 900 words. On the contrary, the Iran News article quotes a European security firm’s hypothesis that “a state may have been involved in its creation” less than halfway into the 600 word article, quoting an earlier Reuters report. It is clear that, at least in the preliminary stages, both news organizations are unwilling to boldly hypothesize about the origin of the attack, even though neither shies away from referring to it as such.

Despite both publications being slow to blame governments for the attack, the heavy use of other experts on The New York Times’s part allow one theory to be raised in the relative safety of the source’s quotation marks: It is The New York Times, and not the Iran News, who first raises the possibility in readers’ minds that the U.S. could be behind the attack. Not only does The New York Times note that Natanz has been the subject of covert operations already, it goes several steps further:

Based on what he knows of Stuxnet, Mr. Lewis said, the United States is “one of four or five places that could have done it — the Israelis, the British and the Americans are the prime suspects, then the French and Germans, and you can’t rule out the Russians and the Chinese.”

Insofar as the technical aspects of the coverage were involved, I could not find any errors in the Iranian coverage, but a N.Y.T. piece contained two curious errors. On Sept. 26, a news analysis piece appeared on A6, titled “A Silent Attack, but Not a Subtle One”:

The program was splattered on thousands of computer systems around the world, and much of its impact has been on those systems, rather than on what appears to have been its intended target, Iranian equipment.

As far as I can tell, the statement that Stuxnet impacts computer systems that do not fit its designed criteria is simply untrue. According to a 2011 Vanity Fair piece, the virus becomes a non-functioning, dormant part of a computer’s infrastructure unless very definite conditions (the right type of PLC, the right peripherals) are met. The BBC, in an article published Sept. 23, corroborates this, saying that the virus remains “benign” if it doesn’t find the specific configuration. On a slightly more technical point, The New York Times article also erroneously claims that Stuxnet travels via the Internet, something which is disputed by the security researchers who studied Stuxnet in the early days. In a technical analysis published in November 2010, Ralph Langner reported that the virus propagated via “USB stick carrying an infected configuration file for Siemens controllers.” However, given that the Iranian newspapers did not approach this level of detail in their reporting — and these mistakes are quite minor — it is hard to fault The New York Times too strongly.

Another area of comparison is how The Tehran Times and The New York Times reporting differed when reporting a specific development in the Stuxnet story. In early October 2010, Iranian officials arrested an unknown number of nuclear spies in connection to the Stuxnet attack. The Tehran Times gives 162 words to Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi’s comments, repeating almost verbatim his assurance to Iranian citizens that officials are in control after Stuxnet. The New York Times, on the other hand, gives 371 words and gives a recap of the situation, even going as far as to repeat the fact that the U.S. and Israel have cyber-warfare programs, even though both governments did not comment on the allegations.

Moving beyond this two-month period, it is also interesting to compare coverage of cyberattacks that aren’t directly related to Stuxnet. In 2012, The New York Times reported that hackers had attacked the computer system of Saudi Aramco in Saudi Arabia, “[erasing] data on three-quarters of Aramco’s corporate PCs — documents, spreadsheets, e-mails, files — replacing all of it with an image of a burning American flag.” The coverage of this cyber-attack differed somewhat from their coverage of Stuxnet in that the language is more incendiary, using the word “hacker” and the phrase “inflicting damage” in the lede. In the two-month period of Stuxnet coverage in 2010, hackers are not mentioned when The New York Times discusses Stuxnet’s perpetrators, only in the comment that the attack seemed more likely to be the work of a state government rather than “independent hackers.” Despite this slight sensationalism, The New York Times’s coverage of the Aramco is largely consistent with the rest of their coverage: the reporting is thorough, experts are quoted and the article is balanced: despite the implication in the headline “In Cyberattack on Saudi Firm, U.S. Sees Iran Firing Back,” the reporter provides balance by noting that the hackers refer to the “Arabian Gulf” while “Iranians refer to that body of water as the Persian Gulf and are very protective of the name.”

The Tehran Times, conversely, leads with an official’s denial rather than a description of the attack, saying that Iran’s National Center of Cyberspace “dismissed” claims that Iran was behind the attack. The article does not give a description of the attack, but instead spends several paragraphs refuting U.S. officials.

Speaking about the possibility of cyber-attacks against the U.S., military chief Leon Panetta warned that the country was facing the possibility of “a cyber-Pearl Harbor.” Indeed, cyber-attacks are the 21st-century version of the atom bomb, in that conflict and war is irreversibly changed because of its existence. Never before has one teenager with a laptop had the ability to derail entire companies by hacking into their systems. If Stuxnet had not been discovered due to a programming error, we may never have known the perpetrator. Anonymous, decentralized warfare that stretches across space and time is now possible and cheap, an avenue open to anyone willing to invest in the technical expertise. In June 2012, The New York Times reported that the cyber-warfare campaign President Bush started — codenamed Olympic Games — has been continued by President Obama. The article mentions Stuxnet by name, describing it unequivocally as “the American and Israeli effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear program.”

Countries around the world are ramping up their cyber-warfare programs. In December 2014, North Korea was implicated in a cyberattack — unique in that it did not target a state company. The fact that these tactics are not just being used in international conflicts, but also as a means of economically damaging private companies or “sending a message” makes technical reporting all the more important. While it is obviously impossible to go into too much detail in a general newspaper, one of my main conclusions from examining this coverage is that neither the Iranian news sources nor The New York Times provided reporting that was technically detailed enough to properly encapsulate the Stuxnet virus or its immediate implications.

Both The New York Times and the Iranian newspapers discussed above relied heavily on quoting experts for their technical coverage, but journalists must go further than this. In the same vein that newspapers employ reporters on the economy or metro beat, they must actively seek to employ journalists with a deep knowledge of computer systems — more than simply working “the technology beat,” which often focusses on areas such as consumer electronics, papers should employ journalists who can understand something like Stuxnet well enough such that they do not have to rely so heavily on quotes from security researchers. After the Sony hack and the Snowden leaks, the minimum amount of technical literacy a journalist should possess has risen dramatically. If this happens, the Stuxnet coverage would not — at least in the case of the Iranian newspapers — have resembled a series of expert opinions stitched together with some rudimentary contextualization.


Tommy Collison is a journalism and Middle East & Islamic Studies student at New York University. He’s also writer interested in privacy and the future of journalism in a post-Snowden world. His columns focus on technology, security, and student life. Originally from rural Ireland, he grew up among cows, computers, and not much else. When not writing, he teaches journalists, activists, and others how to use privacy software. He’s @tommycollison on Twitter.


1. Gross, Michael Joseph. “A Declaration of Cyber-War.” Vanity Fair. Condé Nast, 01 Apr. 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2011/04/stuxnet-201104>.

2. Madrigal, Alexis C. “Ahmadinejad Publicly Acknowledges Stuxnet Disrupted Iranian Centrifuges.” The Atlantic. Published Nov. 2010. Accessed March 15, 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/11/ahmadinejad-publicly-acknowledges-stuxnet-disrupted-iranian-centrifuges/67155/>.

3. “How Stuxnet Is Rewriting the Cyberterrorism Playbook.” Podcast transcript interview with Ralph Langner. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Spectrum. Published Oct. 13, 2010. Accessed March 14, 2015. <http://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/telecom/security/how-stuxnet-is-rewriting-the-cyberterrorism-playbook>.

4. Richmond, Riva. “Malware Hits Computerized Industrial Equipment.”. The New York Times, 24 Sept. 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/24/malware-hits-computerized-industrial-equipment/>.

5. Sanger, David E. “Iran Fights Malware Attacking Computers.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/world/middleeast/26iran.html>.

6. Markoff, John. “A Silent Attack, but Not a Subtle One.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/27/technology/27virus.html>.

7. Yong, William. “Iran Says It Arrested Computer Worm Suspects.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Oct. 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/world/middleeast/03iran.html?_r=0&gt;.

8. “Iran to Combat “Stuxnet.”” Iran News. Published Sept. 26, 2010. Accessed via Access World News database. March 15, 2015. <http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2410/resources/doc/nb/news/1327D624EB3A0658?p=AWNB>.

9. Perlroth, Nicole. “In Cyberattack on Saudi Firm, U.S. Sees Iran Firing Back.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/24/business/global/cyberattack-on-saudi-oil-firm-disquiets-us.html?_r=0>.

10. “Iran arrests nuclear spies: intelligence minister.” The Tehran Times. Published Oct. 3, 2012. Accessed via Access World News database. Mar. 21, 2015. <http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2135/resources/doc/nb/news/132A1C1AB78180D0?p=AWNB>.

11. “U.S. Alarmed by Cyber Pearl Harbor.” Iran News. Published Oct. 13, 2012. Accessed via Access World News database. Mar. 21, 2015. <http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2135/resources/doc/nb/news/141E6DF66FCBF640?p=AWNB>.

12. Sanger, David E. “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 May 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/01/world/middleeast/obama-ordered-wave-of-cyberattacks-against-iran.html>.

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NYU News: Privacy loss, price discounts do not mix

My column this week for the Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper. 

U.S. insurance companies are starting to give discounts to people willing to share their private data with insurers, according to an April 8 New York Times article. When Andrew Thomas, featured in the article, allowed his insurance company to access his location, he received discounts for “healthful behavior” such as using the gym regularly. Several insurance companies around the world are capitalizing on this concept, which is an example of the economic savings possible when data is accessed on a huge scale — it has long been common knowledge that healthy people cost health insurance companies less. These discounts, however, come at the cost of a reduction in personal privacy. Companies need to be more sensitive to consumer privacy, especially considering how hard it is to control what happens to the data once it is collected. Until there are hard and fast rules about how data can and cannot be used, it is reckless of the companies to gather it.

We live in a world where prospective employers Google our names and malicious exes can remotely turn on our webcams. We produce data about ourselves and others at historic rates: 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years.  Americans still have not had an informed public debate on government surveillance. Experts keep saying that privacy is dead and that millennials overshare, but there is a lot of evidence pointing toward the fact that millennials still care very much about their privacy. Snapchat’s meteoric rise is telling, given that 71 percent of its users are under 25 and that photos can only be accessed for a few seconds. This is the state of technology today: we are creating data about ourselves — who we are dating, where we are, what websites we visit — and instead of being sensitive to potential privacy violations, insurance companies are asking for more and more information about us so they can monetize it. 

Benjamin Franklin reportedly once said “three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” When there is so much data about us online, it becomes exponentially harder to keep our personal information to ourselves and out of the clutches of advertisers and telemarketers. We are living in a time when our laws and social norms have not quite caught up with the impressive stalking applications of Facebook and Instagram. It makes business sense for insurance companies to harvest as much data as they can about us, which is why they offer price discounts. We are starting to see informal taxes on private information crop up too, when a grocery store gives us membership discounts in return for our email address. The implication is clear: you can be a private individual, but it will cost you. It does not have to be this way — as consumers, we must demand that companies be more responsible with user data.

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