Netzpolitik

I’ve been following the Netzpolitik stuff for a few days, where a German news website was (until Germany suspended the investigation and forced the federal prosecutor into early retirement) being investigated for treason after publishing stories that the German domestic security agency was seeking extra funding to fund online surveillance.

The right of the press to report on matters of government is a non-negotiable requirement to any functioning democracy, and I’m heartened to see such a loud, sustained outcry to the Netzpolitik investigation. Serving as a watchdog to those in power is an essential function of good journalism, and its importance is codified in the German and U.S. constitutions. Charging individual reporters with treason has an undeniable chilling effect on reporters everywhere.

As opinion editor of the Washington Square News, I signed Marie Gutbub and Jacob Appelbaum’s open letter, which is due to be published in the next day or two. As more journalism moves online and technology enables new forms of reporting (and leaking!), it’s becoming increasingly important that we have sane policies toward journalists who have to be allowed to do their job.

DEFComms

I’m not taking my primary laptop to DEFCON, on advice of the folks I work with at Freedom of the Press Foundation. After Vegas, I’ll be spending some time in San Francisco at the FPF office finishing out my summer of volunteering with them.

This is a quick note to say that I won’t be carrying my GPG private keys with me to the conference, which means that I won’t be able to read or respond to encrypted email sent to tommy@collison.ie or tommy@freedom.press. My OTR also won’t work, so encrypted IM conversations (AOL: tommycollison, XMPP: tommyc@jabber.calyxinstitute.org) are out too.

I don’t envision anything being so urgent as to cause a problem with this setup, especially since I’ll be reunited with my keys in two weeks.

This whole experience has given me an insight into A) how much I use encrypted comms channels and B) what apps I consider crucial to my workflow. So far, I’ve only installed three apps on my backup travel machine, which is a 2012 11″ MacBook Air — git, TextWrangler, and Thunderbird (I hate browser mail). I’ve never had a problem with using Safari for my main web browsing, and I’ll use my iPhone for all music and audiobook activities.

See y’all on the west coast!

Struggling To Write This Column

Struggling to Disconnect From Our Digital Lives, a DealBook article in the New York Times from 7/31, beats a fairly familiar path: the more time we spend on the Internet, the shorter our attention span. This is bad, he claims, and likens us to frogs in boiling water, with the temperature rising all around us as we passively sit there, consuming everything.

At the risk of losing all credibility, I believe our attention crisis has reached a new Defcon level. […] I saw it in my own resistance to reading a book, which has been one of the deepest sources of pleasure and comfort throughout my life. And I also recognized it this week in the difficulty I had sitting down with enough absorbed focus for a few hours to collect into a coherent column the very words you are now reading.

I like columns, and I like opinion writing. One thing I forget to mention in my mega-post about opinion writing at the Washington Square News last week was that I started at WSN writing news. I spent two semesters as a news stringer for them, covering news stories that were about to slip through the cracks the weeks they were short-staffed. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I decided to try persuasive writing.

The author has a point, even though I think a good column on the subject would have tipped its hat to Steven Johnson’s argument that more information is making us smarter, not dumber — that we’re becoming more discerning and better information multi-taskers. (He has a book about this, “Everything Bad is Good for You,” but I haven’t read it.)

But what annoys me about a lot of opinion writing is how lazy it can feel — going over the same ground, stretching anecdotal evidence too thin to try and make a larger point, and above all using the column space to agonize over personal drama. When someone says they can’t read a book because of the Internet, I can’t help feeling like that says more about the writer than it does about our state of technology. I get skeptical when people talk about being captivated by the “seductions” of the Internet. If you’re unable to muster up the focus to write a 1,200 word column, maybe this profession’s not for you. At that stage, the problem feels personal —how many students write 20,000 dissertations?– and blaming the Internet feels lazy.

Law 4 Black Lives

Spent some of yesterday and today helping a friend with #Law4BlackLives, a two-day conference at Columbia University for lawyers, law students, and other folks connected to the U.S. justice system. One of the concurrent sessions is “Encrypt By Any Means Necessary,” a talk and hands-on workshop on encrypting your cellphone calls and texts using Signal, RedPhone, and TextSecure. I’ll be helping @geminiimatt and helping on-board any iOS users who need a hand.

I’m especially happy to be helping out at this conference given that it’s the law community. I’m excited to go to Defcon next week but I’m definitely much more at home talking and teaching to people who aren’t already computer nerds. Lawyers and computer geeks are two groups that have almost no interaction, and it’s great that we’re finally starting to bridge those gaps. The great work begins.

P.S. I can’t officially say this as an NYU student, but Columbia’s grounds [where I sat outside under a tree and wrote this post] are pretty spectacular. It reminds me a lot of Trinity College in Dublin, actually.

IMG_0139-1

Opinion Writing @ WSN

This semester, I’m the opinion editor of the Washington Square News, NYU’s official student newspaper. I thought it’d be a good idea to write the blogpost I wish I’d written when I started writing op-eds and editorials. As such, this post is primarily intended for folks who show up to open houses or pitch meetings but, hey, if you found it useful, I’m glad.

Contact Info Nuts and Bolts
Writer Commitment Editorials and Op-Eds
Op-Ed Tips Why Writing For Your College Newspaper Rocks 
Your blue-haired opinion editor. I’m a junior studying journalism and Middle East & Islamic Studies. When not studying or at WSN, I work with non-profits to promote privacy software.

Contact Info

Firstly, feel free to email me if you have questions, either about Ops or the rest of the newspaper. The paper’s been one of the most gratifying and fun experiences of my undergrad life to date, and I’m happy to answer questions or provide advice if I can. Email tcollison@nyunews.com; I generally respond within a day or so. If you want to get in touch with Richard, the deputy editor, he’s rshu@nyunews.com.

Nuts and Bolts

WSN publishes once a week in print, on Mondays. The Ops section publishes 1-2 editorials and 4-5 op-eds in print, and at least 2 pieces online a day, Tuesday through Friday. Articles are due at 1pm the day before they go into print. If it’s not in by 4pm, we run a backup piece and the writer looks bad.

Print pieces generally run 450 words, but in reality can vary by 10 or 20 words one way or the other. (The longest I published was 484.)

We also publish two pieces online each week day. Despite not having space constraints as in print, we try to keep online pieces around 450 words so as not to unduly stress out copy editors and other people involved in the production process. That said, we’ll evaluate longer pieces on a case-by-case basis.

The Ops desk (by which I mean the editor, deputy editors, and interested writers) officially meets once a week for a pitch meeting at Sundays at 5pm. This is our chance to tell writers what’s coming up in terms of special issues and Op-Ed Live ( a short video series where two students will debate issues such as Greek life on campus) and also to take pitches for op-eds for the next few weeks.

Pitching an Op-Ed is fairly straightforward, with just two steps:

  1. You give us the article’s thesis statement (e.g. “GMOs aren’t all bad!“) and some info on your sources — news stories, etc. — and why it’s topical.
  2. We give feedback. Oftentimes, someone around the table will have read something else that you can use to back up your argument, or add some new point you hadn’t thought of.

Anecdotally, half of pitches I heard were accepted on the spot and half were accepted with “Sounds good, make sure you mention X.” You get the hang of pitching op-eds and what works pretty quickly, and so outright rejection of pitches is rare. (Of those, most times it was a case of “we’ve done that too recently and shouldn’t do two pieces on the same thing so close together.”)

Pitch meeting attendance isn’t mandatory — nobody’s checking names and you can email me a pitch if you’re exceptionally busy or traveling, but by and large I’d like regular writers to show up. It fosters a community and makes scheduling easier. Occasionally, I’ll bring donuts.

Pitch meetings are also when we decide if we’re going to do point-counterpoint, where two writers debate the same issue from opposing sides, such as the benefits and drawbacks of a $15 minimum wage. I enjoy these, and will try to do one every week or two.

A handful of times each year, WSN publishes special issues, focussing on influential students, fashion, mental health, or study-abroad sites. Ops sometimes features in these and sometimes doesn’t. For example, I wrote a piece on the benefits of studying abroad for that issue. We’ll talk about these at pitch meetings.

Writer Commitment

The bylines are as follows:

  • Contributing Writer are the lowest rung of the ladder — these are people who write now and again, on no fixed schedule.
  • Staff Writer. Once you write three or more pieces, you can apply to be a staff columnist. Applications for the position go out at the beginning of October (or March, during the Spring semester). These are people who commit to writing once a week and contributing to House (see below) at least once a week. We don’t force people to advance to staff writer, though — you can stay a contributor for the whole semester. (Although if you meet the three-article threshold, I would encourage you to — see the Why Writing For Your College Newspaper Rocks section below.)
  • Deputy Opinion Editors are a step above staff writers. As well as writing once a week, they edit one or two nights a week, overseeing the production process and staying with the stories until they go into print.
  • Opinion Editor is chief bottle-washer of the Ops desk — they hold pitch meetings (more on this in a sec), keep track of writers, edit, and are generally responsible for the two Opinion pages in the paper. They also oversee Op-Ed Live.

The positions are steps on a ladder — you have to be contributing writer before you can be staff, and you have to be a staff writer before applying to a deputy editor position.

An example of an online op-ed. Click through to read the whole thing.

Editorials and Op-Eds

While you’ll be discouraged from expressing opinions or taking sides if you write for News, this is exactly what opinion sections are for. There are two types of opinion piece, an editorial and an op-ed. (I use “Ops pieces” to refer collectively to both.)

WSN’s opinion page, with two op-eds and an editorial.

An editorial (known around the office as “House” or “the House piece”) is the paper officially taking a stand on something. In general, we try to keep these New York- or NYU-focussed. The byline is “WSN Editorial Board,” and they’re written by the opinion editor and deputies, with the help of staff writers and anyone else who wants to join in.

Editorial pieces are a cowriting experience, with everyone sitting round a table and deciding what the piece should say. Generally speaking, 3-4 people write the piece, each researching and writing their own paragraph. This happens at 7pm the evening before the editorial’s published. The record for writing an entire 450-word editorial stands at 32 minutes — I’m hoping to break it.

For an example, check out “Decriminalizing minor offenses a positive step“, where the WSN Editorial Board praised a city council proposal to reclassify relatively minor misdeeds such as public consumption of alcohol, being in a park after dark and public urination as civil rather than criminal offenses.

An op-ed is an individual writing a piece expressing their own opinion. One of the last op-eds we published in the Spring semester was “Jenner interview should be model for future,” in which Annie Cohen lauded Diane Sawyer’s sensitivity in Caitlyn Jenner’s first interview. The paper doesn’t have to agree with the opinion once it’s well-substantiated and in good taste.

Op-Ed Tips

Some tips from two semesters writing weekly op-ed pieces.

  • Good ops pieces are three things: timely, relevant to students, and NYC-focused. Great articles have all three of these things, but you can get by with two. How timely are we talking here? A piece on something more than two weeks old doesn’t get published. (Although there was that time I wrote an op-ed which hinged on a 5-year-old news story. I changed the focus about 30 minutes before submitting it. Every rule gets bent occasionally.)
  • The very best op-eds and editorials are about something the entire NYU community’s talking about. Something the entire student body is talking about is probably something the newspaper should be featuring, so write about blizzards, campus rape or city-wide protests where relevant.
  • Ops pieces are 3-4 paragraphs — use the first to state your argument, one or two to back it up, and then the last paragraph to reiterate your thesis statement and tie it to some larger point.
  • Specialize, but break out sometimes. When people ask what I write about, “technology, privacy and student life,” is my short answer. But there was that time I wrote about 50 Shades of Grey. Having a niche is good for story ideas (there’s always something happening in tech), but writing about a wide variety of topics offers the opportunity to grow.
  • Use anecdotes sparingly. They’re good for teeing up an argument but ultimately your job as an op-ed writer is to convince me, the reader, that your point-of-view on a topic is right.
  • Source your facts. If it’s not common knowledge (Obama = POTUS), source it, especially statistics etc.

Some weeks, an op-ed would be dropped in my lap. This was the nice part of being known as the guy who writes about tech. Other times, I’d be totally at a loss. How to come up with stories when you can’t think of anything.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask around — senior staff (the editor-in-chief, the managing editor, and folks who work on news desks) will generally have a good idea of what’s going on around campus. Feel free to use them as your springboard. If they look annoyed, tell them Tommy sent you.
  • I like writing about tech, politics, and NYC, so I follow a good few tech blogs, some political reporters, and some local news outlets like DNA Info.
  • Follow the news. Almost all our editorials are in response to something the NYU administration did, or something big in the news.

Why Writing For Your College Newspaper Rocks

I joined the WSN in fall of my freshman year, writing a handful of news stories before switching over to the opinion section in fall of my sophomore year, after spending some time around non-profits, advocacy and digital security literacy. Write to convince people, an activist friend at EFF told me, and so I gave it a try.

The Washington Square News office around 10pm one night in November. We all stayed late after protests erupted in New York City in response to the decision of a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict the police officer who used a deadly choke-hold on Eric Garner. Click here for the op-ed I wrote with Omar Etman that night.

I can point to conversations with working journalists who tell me they wouldn’t dream of hiring someone who didn’t write for a news outlet in college. I can point to my resumé or the stack of newspapers and say I now have a body of work to draw from. I can point to the fact that writing well is like a muscle that improves with continued use and which, conversely, atrophies with neglect. I can point to the fact that it wasn’t until I started writing weekly columns —some on privacy, others on social justice, some on free speech, and a couple on housing— that I figured out what I wanted to do with my life or my major.

Two years of press clippings, interview notes and research docs.

And while all of that’s true, it misses a more fundamental point.

I get to spend a few hours every week with a bunch of other people my age who also love writing. I feel part of a team, I learn, I try new things.

I joke that I’ll get my journalism degree from 838 Broadway, the paper’s address, rather than 20 Cooper Square, the journalism department’s address. But people I met in the WSN newsroom are people I call my best friends, and that rocks too.

The Case For Gawker’s Existence

The Los Angeles Times yesterday published an op-ed in defense of Gawker. I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s well-written and makes a good argument.

With journalism increasingly controlled by corporate entities that want to avoid offending advertisers and their readers’ sensibilities, we need Gawker most desperately. Maybe the escort story was worth publishing, and maybe not, but it’s a positive thing for our society that Gawker cuts it close. Recent history shows that shameless gossip is good.

On July 6, the Associated Press persuaded a judge to unseal court records in which Bill Cosby admitted to drugging multiple women and having sex with them. The grotesque callousness with which Cosby describes these “relationships” has forever shattered the actor’s genial, gentle, tough-but-fair father-figure image.

Who set Cosby’s downfall in motion? Gawker did.

This is the state of journalism today, according to the article —

I talked about Gawker outing a Condé Nast official a few days ago — about how there’s little justification for splashing details of a person’s private life on the Internet. If they’re a public figure the equation is a little different, such as when a married U.S. Senator resigned after Gawker published details of his soliciting a woman on Craigslist. The two stories are fundamentally different, as one concerns a public figure.

The LA Times claims that Gawker’s frequent missteps are blunders which should be excused, because sometimes they get it right. But while it’s true that journalism has problems (with churnalism and reporters mindlessly repeating those in power), it’s a leap to say that Gawker’s the solution to this problem.

Why?

Gawker’s success rate just isn’t that good.

For every sleazy story involving a politician, I can point you to stories of them sliming random columnists, or posting celebrity sex-tapes, or mounting a campaign on a public official that crosses the line between scoop and sexual harassment.

Compared to other news outlets, Gawker’s success rate just isn’t that stellar, so it’s weird to me to read that solid investigative reporting is under threat from corporate interests and that Gawker is the knight in shining armor willing to kick ass and take names when nobody else will. Do they do good work? Sure. Sometimes. On occasion.

But mostly I’m just skeptical of the elephant in the room here: the fact that Gawker’s only interested in gossip so long as it gets them page-views. There was literally no justification for publishing the gay escort service except that they saw an upward blip in traffic. By and large, Gawker exists to be the nosy and prurient and generally the worst side of journalism. They do this under the guise of “we care if people are fucking around on their wives” (as per a deleted tweet from editor-in-chief Max Read) but fail to acknowledge that doing so reaps financial gains for them. Being a knight in shining armor just sounds better.

The New York Times has the weight of its 164-year history behind it — Gawker has no such legacy. It needs to punch above its weight because journalism today is essentially a competition for eyeballs. It has chosen the shocking, the scandalous (did you know the man hired a gay escort?) and that approach is coming back to bite it in the ass — and I can’t say I have too much sympathy.

I’ve written before on the importance of media which is adversarial to those in power, and media which isn’t beholden to corporate interests or advertisers — my feelings there are hardly secret. But being a media organization comes with responsibility, and online-only publications (the term “new media” seems daft to me) need to respect that.

Further reading: “Gawker had become the type of story Gawker reports on.”

Middle East & Islamic Studies

I have a TinyLetter, an informal purportedly-once-a-week-but-I-slip newsletter of personal updates and photos for friends and family. As I mentioned in my last update, one my last acts as college sophomore was to formally declare my major at NYU. When I start classes in the fall, I’ll be finishing out my journalism major and starting a 10-class major in Middle East and Islamic Studies (MEIS). I’m confident that this major is the one I’ll stick with and the one that’ll be written on my degree in two years (knock on wood). I came to it via a rather protracted process: half a dozen electives, and —at last count— 7 other majors I strongly considered. This is my space to write long-form about what I’m thinking, so I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about this, um, major change.

The time between the idea first occurring to me and deciding that this was what I wanted to do with the latter half of my college career was astonishingly short. I was in a class called Reporting The Middle East with Mohamad Bazzi (future students: he is excellent and you should absolutely take a class with him) and one of our speakers was Mary Anne Weaver, a long-form journalist who’s been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and about a dozen other publications. She had a dogged interest in all things Middle Eastern and an amazing sense of humor. She came and spoke in class and as I listened to her answer questions afterwards, I realized I’d always harbored a desire to learn Arabic. I made an appointment with my advisor and stated my case. I was a declared Journalism and Politics double-major. I had one elective slot left, and I wanted to take Arabic. Without missing a beat, he told me to check out the university’s MEIS major. Four of the 10 classes had to be a Middle Eastern language and the other 6 had to be content, split like this:

  • Two courses from the MEIS history list
  • One course from the MEIS literature list
  • One course from the MEIS religion list
  • Two elective courses from the MEIS course list of the student’s choice.

While taking those two classes, I have to take two “core” classes out of five possibilities:

  • MEIS-UA 690: The Emergence of the Modern Middle East (History)
  • MEIS-UA 697: Palestine, Zionism, and Israel (History)
  • MEIS-UA 711: Literature and Society in the Middle East (Literature)
  • MEIS-UA 728: Women and Gender in Islam (Religion)
  • MEIS-UA 750: Middle East Politics (Elective)

I’ll talk more about those categories in a second, but I want to zero in and figure out why MEIS felt like such a good fit for me. I’m still not entirely certain, but my best guess —after a few days of mentally picking up the major and looking at it from all sides, like a kid with a new piece of LEGO— is a combination of these factors, in rough order from most to least important:

  • As a region, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is fascinating. It’s unusual in that it’s got this long sprawling history (think: cradle of civilization) in addition to being front and center in the news most days (think: Arab Springs, U.S. foreign policy post-9/11). I’m a journalist — fundamentally, I love looking at a thing and explaining it. The Middle East is a part of the world where big political things are happening, and will continue to happen for my entire life. I like explanatory journalism, and we’re not going to be short of things needing explaining and contextualization any time soon.
  • I’m already interested in the topics of censorship, surveillance, a free press, equality, the judicial system, and activism — all of which are current & controversial topics in the Middle East. (My advisor recognized my name as the one who’s “working in technological support of activists,” so I’ve got that going for me.)
  • I like languages, and journalists who speak them tend to have a competitive advantage. Arabic will be a solid addition to my Spanish, which I’m currently working to keep up by reading the first Harry Potter book in Spanish. Also, college is a solid time to learn new languages.
  • I think it’s a good idea to specialize, broadly speaking. James Fallows is the best Western journalist writing today about the PRC, and that authority and experience is to his steep advantage. (Incidentally, China would be my #2 choice if I had to choose a different area of specialization.)
  • I want to study abroad while at NYU, and Abu Dhabi or Tel Aviv would be fun spots to spend a few months.
  • Many friends have lived, traveled, and worked in MENA and spoken highly of their experiences there.

I’ve been reading through the syllabuses for each of the classes I’m taking next semester, gearing up and reading their textbook’s Amazon.com descriptions. I picked my classes (Politics of the Middle East, Iran: Past and Present, and Israeli Politics & Society) based on what course descriptions looked particularly interesting, but I have time both in NY and Tel Aviv next semester to fulfill other requirements over the next two years. I’ll report back on how classes are going once the semester starts, but overall I’m bullish on how things are looking.