Web Excursions 2021-07-25

How Ars Technica operates as a remote-first online publication; Snowden answered readers’ quesions.


The tools and tricks that let Ars Technica function without a physical office | Ars Technica

  • While we have mail stops at the Condé Nast mothership in New York, there is no physical Ars Technica editorial office.

    • Instead, Ars Technica's 30-ish editorial staff work from their homes in locations scattered across the country.

    • We’ve got folks in all US time zones and even a few contributors in far-flung locations across the Atlantic.

  • Ars has operated this way for more than twenty years.

    • The main way to make it work is to hire self-sufficient, knowledge-hungry people,

    • but another major part of our remote work philosophy is flexibility.

    • Also, tools matter.

  • As founder & Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher added writers to the staff, the model he followed was to treat Ars almost like an institution of academia,

    • with "professors" (the writers) functioning as dedicated subject-matter experts

      • who undertook their own research and story development. This is a model the site retains to this day;

    • while there is obviously central oversight,

      • writers generally are expected

        • to be the experts in their areas,

        • to find most of their stories, and

        • to manage their own output.

  • Much of the early Ars staff had academic backgrounds not in technology or even in journalism,

    • but in the humanities—and this influenced what has become the traditional "Ars style."

    • "It was not an MBA-driven place with ideas about 'productivity' and 'management,'

      • It was something that smart people loved doing,

      • and they went out and did it DIY-style, pursuing their own interests and finding places where those overlapped with reader interest.

      • this produced some of the 'humanity' present in Ars."

  • After operating independently for a decade, Ars Technica was acquired by Condé Nast in 2008.

    • Editorially, our culture and practices remain largely unchanged,

    • but sales, marketing, HR, and legal are now handled by Condé Nast teams.

    • For our sister publications, Condé manages the technology choices for its brands, including everything from the publishing system to the OS and browser versions sitting on someone's desk,

    • but Ars maintains our own publishing system, hardware, and communications.

  • For editorial staff, our technology choices cater to employee preference.

    • In days gone by: Thinkpads and Palm Treos (shudder),

    • these days the majority of the staff are on Macbooks of one flavor or another.

    • Ars has no official operating system—Senior Space Editor Eric Berger rocks out with his Chromebook

  • Daily drivers

    • For official communications Ars relies on good-old email.

      • Email absolutely has a place in the modern office,

      • and attempts to work without it are often based on bogglingly wrong-headed misunderstandings of what email is for and why one might use it

      • email has yet to be dethroned as the most accessible and extensible way to send on-record communications between folks in the same office.

      • It functions the same way as memos did in the old days

      • email is the one piece of messaging technology that you can reasonably expect to work pretty much anywhere and under pretty much any circumstances.

      • it's an asynchronous tool that you can deal with when you have time

    • We used a locally hosted Exchange SBS and then managed Office 365 email for a number of years,

      • but with so many staffers preferring Macs, and with Outlook for Mac being what it was, we eventually decided to save money and migrate to GSuite.

      • Condé Nast as a whole followed suit about a year later

      • GSuite provides a bunch of other collaborative tools that we use, too—most notably Sheets

    • For our primary “office” environment, we use Slack

      • where we discuss story ideas, workshop headlines, ask for help or a quick edit, and dodge work by sharing dumb gifs with each other.

    • Ars staffers also all have Polycom voice-over-IP phones that support 3-digit extension dialing via OnSIP.

      • We also have a couple of conference bridges that we can dial into and use

    • Since 2012, Ars has used WordPress as its CMS.

    • Ars mandates the use of 2FA on every system we use where it's available.

      • Our preferred 2FA solution is Duo

        • provides push notifications for 2FA prompts and also supports hardware tokens like Yubikeys

        • has a very good WordPress plugin

        • can also be used to provide 2FA for ssh logins and sudo on a variety of Linux distros.

        • priced per user account, and it's free if you need fewer than ten accounts.

  • How the tools fit together: a history of Ars

    • From its inception up until 2014 or 2015, the Ars virtual office was plain-jane IRC

    • Collaborative apps like Slack bundle together a whole bunch of functionality that we didn't get with IRC,

      • File sharing, quick voice conferencing, reminders, and easy integration with analytics tools

    • everyone knows how Slack works, and not having to train new employees on IRC commands has saved on-boarding time.

    • Privacy issues aside, our main complaint is that the Slack developers can be dismissive of requests for improvements or features that they aren’t already planning to implement.

  • The flow of work

    • Ars has a pretty loose operating structure.

      • Writers are expected to know their beats, to be aware of the goings-on in their fields, and to be proactive in hunting down stories.

      • This is one of the reasons we tend to hire only people with considerable experience;

        • we've never been a shop where all coverage is dictated from on high.

    • Staffers drop a note in a dedicated Slack channel called #dailyupdates to indicate what they’re working on.

      • This helps avoid duplication,

      • gives editors a sense of what's coming throughout the day, and c

      • an kick off other production-related issues

    • Actual publication of a piece to the front page is delegated to a group of editors collectively referred to as the “newsdesk.”

      • Staffers in that group rotate places

      • when a writer has a story that’s ready to run, the writer pass the story via the #readyforedits Slack channel to the newsdesk staffer on duty.

      • If it’s a regular news story,

        • the newsdesk staffer gives the story a full line edit,

        • then schedules the story for the front page and passes the story to a copyeditor.

        • The copyeditor applies the grammar hammer and fixes anything the main newsdesk line edit may have missed;

        • the story appears on the front page shortly thereafter.

        • Lengthy feature stories pass through a separate edit pipeline involving our Features Editor

      • For pieces that require some specialized knowledge to edit and check,

        • an editor with relevant domain knowledge may also be called on for a "sanity check."

      • Opinionated or highly analytical pieces also get a once-over from an available senior editor (like me).

  • Spreadsheets make the world go ‘round

    • Every staffer makes inputs several times a day on a big sheet called, simply, “The Dashboard.”

    • The Dashboard contains

      • the list of stories that have been published for the day,

      • along with some details about the story

        • (who wrote it, when it was published, what section it went up in, who took edit passes on it, etc.).

    • Before a writer passes their story to newsdesk for edit, they’re expected to create a row for the story in the Dashboard, in the “Ready for edits” area.

      • The newsdesker will then grab the row and move it up into the main list of stories for the day

      • Each morning, Managing Editor archives the previous day’s list of stories and we start fresh.

    • The Dashboard is our high-level overview of everything that goes on at Ars.

      • It contains links to pieces currently in the works, lists of upcoming freelancer stories, and the day's publication history.

      • a one-stop-shop for questions about what’s going on today and what went on yesterday.

      • an apparent bit of duplication between the Dashboard and the #readyforedits Slack channel, but

        • the Slack channel is for quick communication between writers and the newsdesker on duty.

        • The Dashboard is the canonical record.

  • Keeping track of who’s reading what

    • by far the most important to the staff is Parse.ly, which primarily provides live site analytics.

    • Most Ars staffers keep a Parse.ly tab open during the day

      • the easiest way to keep track of how popular your stories are and where visitors are coming from.

      • If there's a sudden spike in traffic to a story, Parse.ly's live data lets staffers check the visitor referral data and see where the story has been linked to.

      • aggregates data on social media performance of stories—great for seeing who's tweeting what about which stories.

    • API hooks to display live page view and unique visitor counter overlays on the Ars homepage for folks who are logged in with staff accounts.

    • the opportunity to adjust headlines that aren't working.

  • The CMS undergirds all

    • Ars is based around a self-hosted WordPress deployment for the homepage and stories,

      • we couple that with a phpBB forum to provide front page comments.

    • Regardless of where it's written, authors are responsible for

      • ultimately stuffing their work into the CMS;

      • creating or locating their own images for stories (and the captions to go with them).

  • How a headline is born

    • Staffers are expected to submit stories to newsdesk in a completed state—that is, with

      • two headline choices,

      • a sub-headline (called a “lower dek” in Ars-speak), and

      • the green bit of "flavor text” that accompanies every piece (called an “upper dek”).

    • #headlines Slack channel running for staffers to help workshop ideas.

    • The overall objective is to whittle the choices down to a pair of punchy but informative headlines that give readers a reason to click without being clickbait.

    • The two headlines then both run on the front page in an A/B test, which shows different headlines to different visitors.

      • The software uses statistical math to pick a headline "winner" based on which headline is selected more often by the visitors who see it in the first few minutes.

  • Ars staffers on the ups and downs of remote work

    • We do have a semi-yearly all-hands meeting nicknamed "Technicon," where all the staffers gather in New York City and spend a couple of days doing meetings and a couple of evenings singing karaoke.

    • it can be a challenge to not have co-workers physically nearby.

    • when you work at home, you really live in your office.

    • If you have the space and the means, creating a dedicated home office and doing work there (and only there) goes a long way. "

    • Having a dedicated routine helps, too.


Answering Readers' Questions - by Edward Snowden - Continuing Ed — with Edward Snowden

  • Q: What if

    • instead of Conspiracy enabling individuals to abdicate from the making of truth-value judgments,

    • Conspiracy Practice and Conspiracy Theory

      • emerge from an interwoven tapestry of narratives formed of the truth-value judgments of a multitude of individuals—

      • and only when examined holistically in the context of the knowns and unknowns of history

    • can we see who made good judgments based on true or false facts and who made bad ones?

  • How do we sort True conspiracies from False?

  • A: I’m not sure I have a decent answer.

  • Contemporary politics are similarly as much or more a test of faith than an examination of fact.

  • The core problem is

    • to identify a space where the definition of truth can be narrowed to some set of facts that

      • can be measured, tested—verified,

      • from the latin verificare: to make true.

  • Too often we forget that the unverified is, quite literally, not truly "true."

  • It can still be reasonable, and even probable,

    • but fact unverified is no fact at all,

    • a circumstance made all the more difficult in a moment when the truth has become emotionalized or psychologized,

    • and increasingly confused for what’s more accurately called “belief.”