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Dec. 10, 2019, 8:22 a.m.
Reporting & Production

As it settles into Vox, Recode is starting a new project to help people feel power over algorithms

“It’s about cutting through the apathy that a lot of people have about tech because it feels mysterious, letting people know there are decisions and changes you can make to your behavior that will feel empowering to people.”

Yes, social media companies are irrevocably altering our way of life, our information streams are more tainted than ever, and you’re tracked everywhere you go (and that could affect your criminal record, your job prospects, and more) — so what are you going to do about it?

This is exactly the question that Recode’s new community-oriented project wants to get at. Now part of Vox, the tech vertical is writing for a broader audience seeking explanatory journalism behind Silicon Valley happenings. And Recode has funding from the Omidyar Network to do it for the next year, starting today. (Vox wouldn’t disclose the terms of the funding.)

“For me, success will be telling stories that reach people where they are and giving people a sense of empowerment,” Recode editor Samantha Oltman said. “It’s about cutting through the apathy that a lot of people have about tech because it feels mysterious, letting people know there are decisions and changes you can make to your behavior that will feel empowering to people.”

The project, Open Sourced, has is split with written journalism and video reporting; Rebecca Heilweil and Sara Morrison are joining Recode to focus on AI and algorithms and personal data and privacy, respectively, with Joss Fong and Cleo Abram making videos about personal data after working on Vox’s Netflix and YouTube shows. And as you might have guessed by the name, the project will involve crowdsourcing questions from Vox’s audience about what they’re seeing in their tech:

“A lot of these systems are experienced very differently. My Spotify does’t look like anyone else’s 2019 top playlist,” said Blair Hickman, director of audience at Vox. (Senior engagement manager Lauren Katz will be at the helm of this engagement.) “People’s experiences [with technology] are so personal that we felt like it was really important to be able to involve a high volume of people which will evolve over the course of the year.”

Recode had already been part of Vox Media since 2015, but like other brands it came fully under the Vox flagship in May 2019. Vox Media now includes New York Magazine, as well. At that point the Omidyar Network and the news outlet had already started discussing what more empowering, personal coverage of tech ethics could look like, Hickman said. (Oltman joined as Recode editor in May.)

Vox is not the only news organization deepening its coverage of the implications of technology, with The New York Times building out its stable of tech writers (bringing Recode’s own Kara Swisher in as opinion contributing writer, stacking up Charlie Warzel and Taylor Lorenz to dig into the user angles in new ways), the Craig Newmark Philanthropies-funded The Markup by Julia Angwin about to take flight with its investigations into the impact of tech on people and society, and more. This isn’t quite solutions journalism, but rather this project is primed to take most advantage of Vox’s existing, deep thinking audience on the site and YouTube — and their questions — while not burning them out on the news.

Katz will build out an email community based on a Google form to come, but one question to still be figured out is how representative that community will be of the tech users beyond Vox’s core audience, as different groups of people are impacted by technology differently across race, gender, and income levels, as Angwin’s investigations at ProPublica proved.

“We’ll start by seeing what we get,” Hickman said. “One thing that we have been exploring is targeted partnerships with other publications or online communities that have more diverse communities to make sure we are getting a wide range of voices.” Vox’s team will send three surveys over the course of the year to assess “how well we’re doing at providing the understanding [of the issues and impact] we’re covering,” she added.

“Some of the most compelling stories in tech are hiding in plain sight: We’ve signed up for a new app and didn’t read the terms of service, or we start using something and our behavior changes but because it’s set up to be so convenient we don’t realize something has changed,” Oltman said.

Open Sourced is an attempt to get more users to think — and reporters to listen — about what is happening with our technology today. “At the core of Vox is empowering people through information,” Hickman said.

Illustration of tech in use by Patswerk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 10, 2019, 8:22 a.m.
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