In the latest installment of #HerStory, we hear from Kara Swisher, editor at large of New York, podcast host, and New York Times contributor. In this interview she reflects on the importance of risk, how tech companies can better support journalists, and what Twitter feature she’d like more than any other.
You’ve used multiple different mediums and reported for a swath of different outlets throughout your career — how did you get your start?
I got a job at The Washington Post in my junior year, being a stringer for Georgetown University, and it was all uphill from there. But I delivered mail at The Washington Post — I was a news aide, I did all kinds of jobs — so I really worked my way up. Then I moved on to lots of other different jobs, including The Wall Street Journal, started my own thing with Walt Mossberg, and then kept doing that, and now we're here at Vox Media.
What is it that drew you to journalism?
I wanted to actually go into government service — I wanted to be in the military — but many said you couldn't if you were gay. If you said [you were] you couldn't be in it, and if you didn't say so that was a lie. I wanted to be in military intelligence, and I wanted to be in the CIA and things like that. It was a really difficult time for a gay person to live an honest life and serve. I wanted to be an analyst at the CIA, and I think it's not an unsimilar job, getting information and making sense of it. So I started doing report writing and reporting in college, and then kept doing it ever since and moved my way up the ladder.
Do you have any advice for other female journalists?
You have to maintain a curiosity about life and curiosity about things, and be willing to shift. Sometimes the biggest fault that most journalists have is that [they are] very risk averse, and they tend not to take a risk with their careers. I have constantly changed — when I don't like something I leave, I'm willing to try new things and take risks. I think one of the things that journalists have to do these days, especially because the landscape is changing so quickly, is to be nimble and able to shift, just the way lots of other jobs require it. The other thing is not to be cynical. Even though I'm known as being really tough, I don't think I'm cynical. It's a really hard thing not to be snarky, but be firm in your viewpoints.
We developed the #HerStory series to shine a light on female journalists, who are such an essential part of Twitter. What do you think needs to be done in the news industry so that female storytellers are front and center?
I think Twitter should have more safety rules in place. Anonymity is a real problem for most people, even though it's good in some cases, especially with people who are under siege in certain countries. Most tech companies — a lot of these sites — are unsafe for a lot of people, because the people who designed them have never been unsafe a day in their lives. They don't understand the experience of most women and people of color and marginalized communities.
So I think there should be more around safety — the ability to stop certain attacks, the ability to monitor these sites more — and not constantly hiding behind wrapping yourself in the free expression movement. There is a difference between free expression and attacking people, and there has to be some responsibility by tech companies to do that.
When it comes to reporting the news, how do you use Twitter?
I love Twitter. I insult it all the time because I call it a cesspool, and the fact is it is in many places, but I enjoy running around the cesspool a lot of the time. I find it to be a really fun and creative place to be, I constantly comment, I think I have a lot of fun, and I seldom get into really ugly fights with people anymore.
I love it as a news vehicle, and I use it as a news delivery system for sure. I don't smoke or drink — I don't have any addictions except for Twitter. It can be a great place for people to communicate. I do think it contributes to the twitchiness of our culture, and that's not a good thing — I can look at it [and see] bad and good. I'd like to see it evolve in lots of different ways that make it more of a nationwide conversation rather than just a scream fest at each other.
In terms of using Twitter for conversation, what have been some of the most illuminating conversations you’ve had on the platform?
It was communicating with The Rock. I’d wanted to interview him forever, and you know, he was replying to me and I was talking to him ... that was fantastic in a weird way.
It's not just celebrities, but all kinds of interesting academics. I saw that this academic Tweeted about a piece he wrote for Scientific American, about Elon Musk Tweeting about living on Mars. Turns out he is the head of astrobiology at Columbia and I ended up talking to him on Twitter, and then he came on my podcast. So I often discover people on Twitter, especially when they start propagating similar ideas that lead to either columns at the Times, or podcasts on Vox, or different things like that.
If you had to pick, who are your favorite female journalists to follow on Twitter?
Oh, so many. Carol Cadwalladr from The Guardian is one of them. I love Ashley Feinberg, she's very funny. I think Maggie Haberman is great, Jenna Wortham, Alexandria Petri, and Margaret Sullivan are amazing.
I love Taylor Lorenz, I think she's very funny on Twitter. Kashmir Hill I like — I tend to like the really funny, snarky [people]. Soledad O'Brien is cracking me up, she has a whole new life on Twitter. She is vicious and funny, and I just love she doesn't take shit on Twitter.
Final question: If you had a wish list of features that you’d like to see on Twitter, what would be on it?
Oh my god, I've said this so many times: editing your Tweets! You can do it in a way where you can see the past, so it doesn't disappear — so people can't rewrite history. Like misspellings, for fuck’s sake. Why can't we change misspellings on Twitter? That is ridiculous, Jack.