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Of digital challenges, and successes

Damien Cave, INYT, Oct 30 2017, 0:22 IST

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives?

Damien Cave, the Australia bureau chief for The Times, who is based in Sydney, discussed the tech he's using.

Q: You opened the Australia bureau for The Times this year. What was it like getting the bureau set up tech-wise, and what did you have to think about to make it work for the Times journalists who would be working there?

The biggest challenge has been getting reliable internet service. Australia, despite its wealth, is a bit of a digital disaster. The country's average connection speeds rank it below Kenya, Thailand and many other developing countries, and complaints about a government-sponsored rollout of broadband service are still skyrocketing.

Even now, in an office we just moved into after a few months in a temporary space, we have access to the new national broadband network, but we need a cellular backup for when service drops or slows to a crawl. Another thing I'm weighing at the moment is whether we need phones - not cellphones but desk phones. Does anyone really need those anymore, especially in journalism?

Q: What tech equipment additions did you bring into the bureau?

We're still finishing up and figuring out what we need, but I bought a Sonos speaker - partly to offset the music we can hear from the hip sneaker store below us; partly because I find that music can be a useful team builder and a tool for inspiration.

I'll never forget when David Gonzalez, a longtime Times reporter I've always greatly admired, came into a class I was in at Columbia Journalism School and started playing Miles Davis. The song was "So What," and his point was that journalism required a sense of adventure, improvisation and humility. We also went analog with our brainstorming equipment. Instead of white boards, we bought two studio rollers with craft paper.

Q: What stands out to you in the Australian tech landscape? Is there a flourishing scene of Australian tech brands, apps and websites?

There is definitely a flourishing startup scene. I went and looked at a bunch of co-working spaces when I first got to Sydney, and they were all packed with people trying to start something and network their way to success. But most people still rely on the main American brands and apps, at least as far as I can see.

Atlassian, the software company, is Australian and quite celebrated here. And Gumtree, which is Australia's Craigslist for secondhand sales, is really quite good and useful. No offense to Craig Newmark (whom I know from covering tech ages ago) and his Craigslist, but there's a lot to be learned from how Gumtree works on mobile and integrates messaging across platforms.

Q: Amazon is coming to Australia and bringing its e-commerce services soon. Are Australians excited?

Reaction is pretty mixed. Americans living in Australia seem to be thrilled, especially those (like me) who got very used to relying on Amazon for almost everything in the United States. Some Australians, including small-business owners who will sell through Amazon, are also excited. But mostly, I would say, Australians are curious, and a bit anxious about Amazon.

I just wrote a big story about Amazon and the book and bookstore industry here, which is strong and protected, and heavily resistant to outsiders. And the indie bookstore crowd isn't alone in that. After all, this is a country that pushed Borders into bankruptcy, and where Starbucks has really struggled.

Malls and small-town Main Streets are still crowded all over Australia, which feels like a throwback to me as an American, and online shopping is not as common as it is in the United States. Just the other day, I interviewed a young woman in a bookstore - she was in her 20s - who told me she was not willing to pay for something online with a credit card. I was stunned.

Q: Beyond your job, what tech product do you love using in your daily life right now?

I recently bought (via Amazon, which shipped them here from the United States) a set of Bluetooth Jabra headphones, which were recommended by Wirecutter. And I love them. I can't believe how liberating it feels to not have a cord flopping around.

Q: What do you and your family do with it, and what could be better about it?

I use the headphones for music (of course) and for phone calls, but last night I called my wife walking back from dinner in Melbourne and I discovered that the microphone really doesn't work well with a bit of wind. I don't know how that could be fixed, but finding a way to ensure good audio for conversation would be one obvious improvement. And as long as we're talking audio: Hey, Sonos, how about adding some Bluetooth connectivity for those of us with unreliable Wi-Fi?

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