Jay Cassano

Jay Cassano, Reporter at Sludge

“And, in the age of regurgitated/”aggregated” news, I’ve developed an allergy to writing anything that’s not fiercely original. If I’m not contributing anything new and worthwhile to the public discourse I really don’t see why I should write it (or you should read it!)”

Pronouns: He/Him

Meet Jay Cassano. Jay is a philosopher turned investigative journalist whose career has spanned working as a foreign correspondent; covering technology and inequality domestically; being a journalist-in-residence for Data & Society Research Institute; to currently investigating political influence for Sludge, David Moore‘s Civic Hall-based journalism startup. Jay has also toiled as a private investigator and a UX consultant. And, in his spare time, he enjoys transcending screens by playing board games and stanning Italian soccer. You can connect with him on Twitter.

What Does He Do?

Jay is a reporter at Sludge, an investigative journalism startup that is part of Civil’s “First Fleet” newsroom. Civil — co-founded by former Civic Hall member Matthew Illes — is a blockchain-based distributed newsroom.

Skeptical? You’re not alone, but folks in journalism have been kicking the tires. Said Emily Bell, director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism: “Blockchain technology can create both chains of authenticity and a level of security.” And, in so doing, it can create business models that don’t rely on ad revenue, while addressing a core crisis in journalism: lack of trust.

As Sludge prepares to launch later this spring – it will initially publish one to two stories a day – Jay is in the midst of reporting out pieces which probably wouldn’t otherwise see light of day: military arm sales and securities in the Pacific; as well the correlation between the opioid epidemic and Hepatitis C rates.

“We’re focusing on money-in-politics & political influence — basically all the ways the political process gets corrupted to not act in the public’s interest.”

How Did He Get Into This Work?

“I knew early in life that there were two things I didn’t want to do: Join the military, and become a doctor.”

You guessed it, Jay’s parents were Navy physicians and practitioners. Their son would go off to Hampshire College to study philosophy (Continental) with every hope of emerging an academic. His senior thesis focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, more broadly, what the experience of the oppressed becoming oppressors means for progress.

“My journalism school was Turkey. I got a job as a copy editor for an English language Turkish daily and after a while realized I could write some of those articles. I somehow convinced a couple of editors to give me a shot and got my first bylines at that paper (which has since been closed by the Turkish government). After that, I started freelancing and kind of fell in love with journalism and telling untold stories. I always liked Amy Goodman’s advice to “go to where the silence is.”’

“And, in the age of regurgitated/”aggregated” news, I’ve developed an allergy to writing anything that’s not fiercely original. If I’m not contributing anything new and worthwhile to the public discourse I really don’t see why I should write it (or you should read it!)”

Jay calls himself a “tech enthusiast” (he and Unix go way back) so it was only a matter of time until he began covering tech policy, but from the lens of civil rights, telling these stories by centering those who were actually affected. Back in the States, Jay began writing for publications like International Business Times/Newsweek, then Fast Company and Shareable — where he covered civic tech and became known to Civic Hall.

In 2015 Jay became a journalist-in-residence at Data & Society where he worked on Intelligence Autonomy, its AI research project. This culminated in an exhaustive feature for VICE’s MOTHERBOARD section on how Uber collects data from drivers, even during their unpaid time. (Uber drivers are only paid when they have fares.)

What Project Is He Working On?

Jay is part of the founding team of Sludge. Broadly speaking, Sludge’s focus is on funding: What’s the agenda of a funder? While they admit to not being able to know the mind of a CEO or a lobbyist, their mission will be to present facts and let readers decide. The publication is committed to deep dives:

“In most newsrooms, you tell your editor that you’d love to spend three days or a week on a story. Inevitably, the editor will ask for the version that will take a single day. At Sludge, I ask my editor to give me two months on a project. He or she will then ask what I can do in a week.”

Jay’s core focus will be on how the tech industry in pushing its agenda (sort of a looking glass to Dylan Byer’s Pacific newsletter); he’s also going to draw upon his family background as part of a beat looking into the defense industry. “Launching Sludge is a project unto itself, even though it’s really David and Donny’s baby. But right now I’m getting a bunch of articles ready for our launch, ranging from exposing shadowy think tanks and their influence to how lobbyists evade and skirt ethics regulations.”

Sludge is hoping to present its stories in a compelling fashion, leveraging mapping tools like LittleSis’s Oligrapher, which is designed to visualize the oft-tangled web of relationships which are axiomatic of corruption and graft. It’s also pursuing having a structured tip line, which they hope will be a way to plug in, as opposed to readers sending emails into a black void

Sludge’s business plan is based on building a sustainer member model — think public radio (particularly, WNYC Radio). With its launch “we would prefer that folks read everything and go deep with us. We believe that it’s more valuable to have 100 people who finish a piece, than 1,000 who read just the first paragraph. I recognize that this is not the usual advertising model. It’s a drastic difference from most pubs (except nonprofit newsrooms like ProPublica) — but with it, I hope to do something really unique and push some boundaries with the transparency aspect of Civil.”

How Did He Come to Civic Hall?

Jay’s been a part of the Civic Hall community for close to five years.

‘I first found out about Civic Hall because I used to cover civic tech extensively when I was on staff at Fast Company. And I covered several projects that (I’m pretty sure) were housed here at some point, so there was always an affinity. I’ve also attended PDF since 2013 or 2014.”

Sludge itself found a home at Civic Hall because of David Moore’s ongoing relationship with the community.

What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?

If anyone is doing work around money-in-politics, political influence, and lobbying, we’d love to connect and talk about ways to collaborate. And even if you’re just interested in learning more about how to do campaign finance, follow-the-money kind of research, I’m always happy to talk about that. I was not an expert in this a year ago, coming from other focuses in journalism, and had to teach myself how to do this work very quickly.

I’m really interested in learning more about what others in the community are doing, especially around the ways big data exacerbates inequality. And I’m happy to be a resource to talk about getting press coverage for something – even if it’s not something I might personally cover I’ll probably know someone who would.

And if there are any civic hackers who are interested in helping journalists scrape data from horrible inaccessible government databases, some of which are still accepting disclosure reports in un-OCR’d, non-standardized PDFs, we’d love to be in touch.”

Sludge will be doing a Lunch and Learn on May 22nd at Civic Hall. RSVP here.