How a Longtime Tech Editor Keeps His Tech Use Simple

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Jim Kerstetter, deputy technology editor in San Francisco, discussed the tech he’s using.

What tech tools do you rely on the most for your job, and what could be better about them?

This will probably surprise no one, but you don’t need that many technology tools to be a good editor. If you have a computer, a not-too-painful-to-use publishing system, decent internet access and a phone, you’re pretty much all set.

But my internet access at home could be more reliable. Yes, Comcast, you cause angst.

So you keep tech use to a minimum. What’s your philosophy for how people should use tech for work?

Steve Jobs was right: Simplicity is harder than complexity. The best products are almost always the easiest to use. I don’t even use an external keyboard or monitor. Why bother?

Reporters are relying on me to help them do their work, so the last thing I should be doing is monkeying with unreliable technology. That means avoiding tech’s bleeding edge.

The exception to my less-is-more rule is outside of work: I am addicted to my Garmin Forerunner 235 watch for running. The GPS for tracking distance, time and elevation is rock solid, and the iPhone app you use with it is beautiful. It allows you to slice and dice data from runs in all sorts of ways.

It doesn’t make me any faster, but it makes running more entertaining.

You’ve been involved in tech journalism for more than two decades at different publications, including PC Week. How have the tools that reporters use changed over time?

It’s easy to forget how much technology has made this job easier. I can edit a story from my living room because I have high-speed internet access (usually) and a MacBook Air that doesn’t break my back when I take it home. I can do research on an article in minutes thanks to Google. I can learn that major news is breaking anywhere in the world thanks to Twitter.

I can reach reporters anywhere in seconds because we’re all carrying smartphones (I use an iPhone). And I can make sure those conversations are not surveilled thanks to privacy apps like Signal.

All of that would have been significantly more difficult 20 years ago.

When I started at PC Week, I was lugging around a monster Dell “laptop.” I didn’t even have a cellphone (remember pay phones?), and we used Lotus Notes for email. Watching Notes download email on a dial-up connection while sitting on a convention center floor in Las Vegas was painful.

How has tech reporting as a whole changed over the years?

At the beginning of the dot-com boom in the 1990s, the industry was so much smaller. The executives weren’t well known. People were familiar with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but that was about it. There was more access. Now some tech execs are more famous than movie stars, and they have the armies of publicists that go with that.

The tech press was all about product scoops — new processors, new software, things that were working well and things that weren’t. I suppose that part hasn’t changed all that much.

One big change came and went: I was shocked by how many tech reporters took sides and championed the social media companies in their early days. It has been entertaining watching some of the writers who fawned over them position themselves as industry watchdogs in the last year or two.

Today, some tech companies are as influential in the lives of people around the world as governments. They should be scrutinized as closely as governments.

You refuse to ride Uber and other ride-hailing services. Why?

That’s not entirely true. I occasionally use ride-hailing services when I have no other choice, like when I’m going to the airport. It’s almost impossible to get a traditional taxi in my neighborhood in San Francisco.

But I try to avoid ride-hailing services for the same reason I don’t like using food delivery apps and keep my online shopping to a minimum: They extract wealth from local economies and put it in the hands of a small group of people. It is the Walmartization of everything.

I did all of my Christmas shopping at local stores last year. Seriously.

How have you seen the tech industry change San Francisco?

The skyline has a whole lot of new and really big buildings. The cost of living has gone from forbidding when I got here in 1999 to Manhattan-level crazy. We’ve learned the term “hypergentrification.” The population has gotten younger, more childless and more bland.

And people have inexplicably started calling San Francisco the heart of Silicon Valley. (It’s not. In truth, Silicon Valley is a stretch of communities along Highway 101 south of San Francisco.)

But despite its many, seemingly intractable problems, I don’t buy the notion being played out in the national press (including The New York Times) that the city has turned into an unlivable, dystopian hellscape. What drew me here 20 years ago — the physical beauty, the diversity, the excitement of a place that’s constantly changing and accepts being different — hasn’t gone away.

That said, the San Francisco many of today’s newcomers experience saddens me. They pile into the same neighborhood, take the same buses to work, and go to the same bars and restaurants and park (yes, one park in a city full of them) and complain that San Francisco is a monoculture. It’s not. Their lifestyle is the monoculture.

I often joke that the worst part of living in San Francisco these days is people whining about living in San Francisco.

What tech product is your daughter currently obsessed with? Do you approve?

The usual for a teenager: YouTube, Snapchat, her iPhone and a near-constant state of Google Hangout with friends. And I’m pretty sure she has “Gilmore Girls,” the television show, running on a nonstop loop on Netflix.

She’s at an age that if I didn’t approve of her tech choices, she’d be even more determined to make them. But I’ve been blunt with her about the risks, and I hope I taught her to make good decisions. Or at least to learn from Rory Gilmore’s mistakes.

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