A farewell to 15th and L

I had one last day at the Post back in April of 2011. I shared another one with other Post alumni Wednesday afternoon, when the paper marked its last official day of business at the address it had occupied for decades, 1150 15th St. NW.

The paper is moving to rented space a few blocks over on K Street; after everybody finishes packing up their stuff, the grim pile of bricks on 15th Street will have a date with a wrecking ball. But first, current and former employees got to share a goodbye ceremony modeled after newsroom farewells to departing employees.

1150 signThere were speeches, but more than I remember being customary. There was cake and also cupcakes. And there was a fake front page–headline, “So long, suckers”–on which every story was written by the building itself about its occupants.

(That story isn’t online as far as I know. Instead, you should read Marc Fisher’s history of the building, from its lead-type days to the present.)

I ran into more people than I expected to see–all the way back to Lucila Woodard, the copy aide supervisor who had hired me for a part-time job in late 1993. I stopped by my old desk and was amused to see that some of the pushpins I’d left on the cubicle wall hadn’t been moved by its subsequent occupants. I also had to chuckle at the sight of some old tube TVs still collecting dust atop filing cabinets.

(I’ve posted a Flickr album from that visit.)

The place changed immensely during my 17 years there. A series of editing-system upgrades made the screens and keyboards not look obviously obsolete; the presses stopped running downtown in 1999 and ended the tradition of late workers getting a still-warm copy of the first edition of tomorrow’s paper dropped off on their desks around 10 p.m.; the nearby blocks stopped featuring fast-food restaurants and hookers as high-end restaurants and bars moved in.

The newsroom has changed a lot since I’ve left too. The stunning sale of the paper to Jeff Bezos ended a painful cycle of buyouts and brought a crop of new journalists to the paper who don’t exhibit the same old feelings of occupational doom.  The site is no longer a sluggish embarrassment; last month, the Post had more online readers than the New York Times. I’m glad to see these things.

On my way out, I ran into a guy from IT who mentioned that one of his neighbors had stopped reading the paper after I left. I told him to tell this guy that he had my express permission to resume reading the Post.

Changes with my Yahoo and USA Today columns

Astute readers should have noticed that my Yahoo Tech column did not run as usual this Tuesday. At least, I assume they did, even if none actually e-mailed to ask about its absence.

Yahoo Tech columnistBut in case any such curiosity exists, what happened is that management there decided that having me write one long story a week on Tuesday had stopped being a good fit.

On the one hand, the frustrating failure of tech-policy news to break exclusively on Mondays often meant I had to wait most of a week to offer my input. On the other hand, we weren’t running any other weekly columns. The original concept, as David Pogue explained in his introductory video, was to have five columnists who each wrote on an assigned workday–but various forms of attrition left me the only one still on that newspaper-ish schedule.

So instead of seeing one long story from me each Tuesday and then maybe an extra item, you should expect to see more, shorter posts every week. Next week, for instance, should feature three posts from me, counting the one I filed Friday that hasn’t been posted yet.

Meanwhile, over at USA Today my column will be a little shorter starting this weekend: We’re going to drop the tip-of-the-week item that ran at the end of each Q&A segment. I liked coming up with those info-morsels, but they were too easy for readers to overlook, given that we had no easy way to advertise them in the headline.

That doesn’t mean I’m out of the weekly-tip business–but if I resume writing such a thing, it would probably be somewhere else online.

Back at USAT’s site, you’re also more likely to see me use my space to offer my perspective on a major tech event–see, for instance, my recent reports from the IFA tech trade show and the Web Summit conference.

Any other questions about how I’ve been making my living lately? Ask away in the comments.

 

Steve Wildstrom

About a month after I left the Post, I sent an e-mail with the subject line “Joining the club” to another tech columnist who had been sent packing by his longtime employer a year and a half earlier.

I set aside the fact that I hadn’t had the class to send this guy a sorry-about-the-news note after his departure and instead asked upfront: any lessons from your experience that I should know about?

Barely 12 hours later, 875 words landed in my inbox, full of details about how this writer had handled the departure, his current business models and who he’d been invoicing, and what options I might want to consider. This line about the benefits of working from home stayed with me: “I love the flexibility of being able to cut the lawn on a Tuesday morning if that’s when I feel like doing it.”

The writer was Steve Wildstrom. He wrote Business Week’s personal-tech column from 1994 until 2009 with a combination of experience-driven insight and amused annoyance at the industry’s foibles (see, for example, this review of the Windows 7 upgrade experience), then carved out a successful career on his own after his column didn’t survive Bloomberg’s purchase of the magazine. On Tuesday, cancer took him from us, which gives me another reason to hate it.

I don’t remember when I first met Steve, but whenever it was, I soon got used to getting short e-mails and then tweets from him suggesting other angles to a topic I’d just covered that I might want to pursue. I almost always learned something from him, and I never got any sense that he was trying to show off his knowledge; he just didn’t want a key part of the story to go neglected.

Steve was also one of my favorite people to be on a panel with or run into at a conference (for example, Tech Policy Summit in 2012 and then Privacy Identity Innovation in 2014). I looked forward to seeing him randomly on the other side of the country… and now I can’t.

I am thankful today that I’ve had the chance to learn from people of this caliber. Good work Steve; now you can rest.

Why I don’t and (probably) won’t use an ad blocker

It will cost me a few hundred dollars to try iOS 9’s new support for ad-blocking tools, courtesy of that feature not working on my vintage iPad mini. (Thanks for not documenting that and other incompatibilities, Apple.) But even after I upgrade to an iPad mini 4, I probably still won’t treat myself to an ad-reduced mobile Web by paying for such popular content blockers as Crystal or Purify.

IiOS 9 ad blockers mentioned the reasons why in a comment on my Yahoo Tech post Tuesday, but the answer deserves a little more space.

It’s not about a sense of professional loyalty, although I would feel more than a little dirty undercutting the advertising revenue that helps news sites pay me and my friends in the business.

(Ars Technica founder Ken Fisher made that argument well in this March 2010 post.)

This is more a case of me trying to keep a little of the common touch online. In general, I stick with default settings so I will experience the same issues as the average Web user (also, I’m lazy). I will depart from defaults to keep my devices secure–that’s why Flash isn’t on this laptop–but installing extra apps to get a cleaner Web experience gets me too far from that ideal.

In particular, relying on ad blocking invites me to recommend sites without realizing their annoyance factor. If a site’s going to throw a sign-up-for-our-newsletter dialog before you can read every story, I don’t want to learn about that behavior afterwards from grumpy readers.

(My occasional client PCMag.com often presents that kind of newsletter dialog. And yet I gladly refer people there, because their journalists do good work. See, it’s complicated!)

I also need to know if my regular clients are getting obnoxious with the ads–remember, I was at the Post when an overload of ads and social-media widgets began to bog down everybody’s reading–on the chance that my complaint to management improves matters. You’ll tell me about that kind of problem, right?

Did I do the whole vacation thing right?

I was on vacation from last Tuesday morning to Wednesday night. Could you tell?

Maybe not. Beyond my output at Yahoo Tech (two posts written in advance, one I did Monday), at USA Today (filed the night before we left). and here (neither of those two posts were done ahead of time), I hardly disappeared from social media. I tweeted 33 times, not counting verbatim retweets, and posted three things on my Facebook page, not counting WordPress.com’s automatic sharing.

Golden Gate and hillsAnd I skimmed through my RSS feed each day and read my work e-mail more or less as it came in, even if I didn’t answer as much as usual. Over those seven days, I sent 33 messages from that account. In the three days since, I’ve sent 32. But wait–I composed 10 or so of those on the plane home but left them in my outbox until Thursday morning. No, I did not even think of setting a witty out-of-office message. Who would believe it?

Finally, the destination of this trip–Sonoma County–meant we arrived at SFO late Tuesday morning. And when I’d be in San Francisco at lunch, how could I not meet my Yahoo editor for lunch? (I let Dan pick up the check.) I couldn’t entirely escape work in the North Bay either. After my wife and I met a friend for lunch in Petaluma, he suggested we walk around the corner to stop by the This Week in Tech studio.

I had my reasons for all of that work-like activity: I had to finish a couple of projects, I didn’t write the Yahoo column before the trip as I’d hoped, I didn’t want to miss an e-mail with a writing or speaking opportunity and actually did get one such invitation, the laptop was on the kitchen table, the phone was right in my pocket, blah blah blah. (My most successful act of unplugging was an overnight trip to Vegas for a friend’s wedding, when I liberated myself by taking only my phone.) But it all falls short of how much I was able to let work go two years ago.

And it’s nowhere near how my friend Alex Howard didn’t check his work e-mail for an entire six days of a vacation. Or how my wife could ignore hers for our entire trip. The key difference: Both of them have full-time jobs. Imagine that–somebody pays them not to work!

I don’t quite have that luxury unless I sell enough stories first. But the flip side of full-time freelancing is that without a boss looking out at my desk, I can take time during the day to do other, offline things–gardening, laundry, baking bread, maybe even bottling a batch of homebrew–instead of trying to look productive in front of a screen.

It’s not a bad trade-off.  But I really should check my work e-mail less often the next time I’m on vacation.

Dealing with your work disappearing

If you were going to look up any of the tech-guide stories I wrote for Gannett’s NowU last year, don’t. NowU has become more like NotForU: Gannett stopped updating the site in the spring and shut it down a few weeks ago.

NowU closing noticeThis wasn’t the first time I’ve had my work vanish from the Web. My blog posts for the Consumer Electronics Association evaporated after a CMS switch, and all of the short updates I wrote for Sulia disappeared when that site closed. This time around, however, was better in one important way: My editor e-mailed me in late April to give me a heads-up about the impending closure of the site.

That note gave me more than enough time to save my stories as PDFs. At CEA, I had to rely on Internet Archive copies when management there let me repost some of those pieces here. At Sulia, I had neither a backup elsewhere on the Web nor advance notice of its demise, not that I was going to try to reproduce a few hundred microblog entries.

(The Internet Archive couldn’t preserve my stories at Gannett’s would-be hub for 45-and-over empty-nesters because NowU’s site was apparently coded to block it. That’s not how I would have run things, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.)

What I’m left with, then, is the enjoyment I derived from researching and writing those stories, the new sources I discovered in the process, the (generous!) payments that arrived on time–and, not least, the chance to sell stories about those topics all over again. If you’ve got a freelance budget and could use a how-to about WiFi and travel, international smartphone roaming, TV technology, or cutting the cord, please get in touch.

Why do I keep seeing journalists take notes on paper?

I was at a lunch briefing today, and of about 10 people around the table–some Visa executives, some PR minders, most journalists–I was the only person taking notes in an app instead of on paper.

Paper notepadThat’s a typical situation. And I don’t get it.

I started jotting down notes on mobile devices in 1995–anybody else remember the Sony MagicLink?–and by the turn of the century I’d switched to pixels over paper as my primary medium for that task. Back then, the Palm OS memo-pad app left much to be desired but still had two features absent from any paper notepad: a “find” function and the ability to back everything up.

Those two abilities alone made it worth my while to learn Graffiti and a series of other onscreen text-input systems–then have to explain to people that no, I wasn’t texting somebody else while they were talking to me.

It’s now 2015, and Evernote not only does those two core tasks but syncs automatically over the air, lets me embed everything from audio recordings to lists and tables, and runs on about every desktop and mobile platform ever made. And its eminently-usable basic version is free, although I finally started paying for the premium version this year to get extra features like scanning business cards.

Don’t like Evernote for whatever reason? You could use Microsoft’s OneNote. Or Google Keep. Or Apple’s Notes apps for OS X and iOS. Or any of dozens of third-party apps. I realize that you need to be able to type reasonably fast on a phone’s screen–but hasn’t that skill pretty much become a job prerequisite anyway, between texts, e-mail and Twitter?

I’m not saying paper notepads are useless–I keep one in my bag, just in case. But I haven’t brought that out for any reporting in years. Its most recent use: I handed it to my daughter to play with, and she drew me a picture of a flower.