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Now He Pulls Data Off the Web. In 1979, It Was Clips From the ‘Morgue.’


The most territorial reporters took a squatter’s rights approach — get on a terminal and camp out, no matter how distant their deadline. Rather than fight, I managed to get a password for signing onto any terminal in the building. So I’d just find an open terminal in some other part of the newsroom. But that meant you were away from your phone. No cellphones then.

In 1980, there was a crash in the silver market that shook Wall Street. I was writing the front-page story for the next day. After filing my story from a terminal in the culture department, I got back to my desk and had three telephone messages from G. William Miller, the Treasury secretary at the time. I missed the calls.

When I went to Tokyo, it was back to a typewriter and a small Underwood portable, which was the laptop of its day. We wrote stories, 200 words on a page, and hand-delivered them to the Reuters office across town, to be cabled to New York. Later, we moved to small word-processing computers — Tandy 100s and then Tandy 200s, with phone couplers for the modem connections. In some places, the phone service wasn’t good enough to transmit by modem. Then, you’d just call in your story and dictate it to the Times phone room.

Then came the internet era. How did that change how you report?

The internet, put simply, is a low-cost communications network. Everything else, like the web, builds on top of that. And having so much information online can be a gold mine for reporting. In my case, I report on technology and economics these days.

Silicon Valley is a caldron of innovation. But all the big issues surrounding technology’s impact on the world — like automation, economic opportunity and income disparity — are playing out outside the tech hubs, across the $20 trillion American economy. Tons of research is being done on those subjects, and it’s all online — working papers from the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Social Science Research Network, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and scientific studies.

What it means is you can test your assumptions for any trend or explanatory story. Is the lively anecdote you just came across an outlier, or representative of a broader phenomenon? Early in reporting a subject, you can get an answer to the question: What story do the numbers tell you? That is a powerful tool that applies to most fields today, including journalism.


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