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