So long, Sulia: lessons from an experiment in compressed journalism

My time contributing short updates to the microblogging site Sulia wrapped up unceremoniously Monday morning when an e-mail–”ending our paid arrangement”–landed in my inbox. The site’s pivoting in another direction that doesn’t involve paying for my input or that of what seems to be most other contributors it had signed up (for example, my friend Rocky Agrawal); so it goes.

Sulia compose dialogThe departure of any one freelance client isn’t that big of a deal, but in this case it was a different sort of medium, and I learned some things along the way that seem worth sharing.

The basic idea here was to get paid a little for writing the equivalent of three tweets in a row–a minimum of 700 characters, a maximum of 2,500. On clicking the “Post” button at Sulia, those updates would appear automatically under my name on Twitter and at my public Facebook page–and that’s when I was met with confusion. Readers had no idea what the heck Sulia was or what I was doing there, leading me to post an explanation here after the first three weeks.

It took longer for me to pace myself so that I wouldn’t be rushing to finish my weekly quota of 10 posts in the last hours of Sunday–and to figure out what topics fit best into this pressurized container. In retrospect, holding off on live-tweeting interesting talks so I could post a longer recap on Sulia was a mistake, while it was smarter to use that greater character count to break some local wireless news in slightly more depthdo the cost-of-ownership math for a new smartphone, or recount my experience upgrading an operating system.

Overall, this site filled a useful void in my work by allowing me to share my notes in a medium slightly longer and less evanescent than Twitter while also getting paid (and without having to send an invoice first). I‘m not sure how I’ll replace that.

Among no-payment options, Twitter puts me back in a 140-character box, Facebook and Google+ have enough of my personal business already, LinkedIn seems too business-focused, and as for Medium–well, I already have a blog here. Alas, my WordAds revenue has been so minimal to date that it’s not worth thinking about the potential income from any one extra post.

Or perhaps the Sulia experiment was a mistake all along, and I should have put the time spent crafting those 40-some morsels a month into finding three or four good stories to sell elsewhere. Either way: on to the next thing…

About these ads

Storytelling about story selling

Earlier this week, I did a foolish thing: I wrote an article without even trying to get paid for it. The piece in question–a 313-word listicle relating ten thoughts about Facebook on the day of its tenth birthday–only took a few minutes to write, and in the moment my Facebook page seemed like an apt spot for it.

Tumblr post buttonMost of the time, however, I’m not in such a rush and I do want to make some kind of money for writing something longer than a few paragraphs. (For about a year, this blog generated no income, but since the spring of 2012 WordPress.com’s ads have been paying me an exceedingly low per-word rate.) But if I have an idea that’s not an obvious fit for one of my regular clients, where do I try to sell it?

For me, the answer is not always the obvious “whoever will pay the most money.” Assuming the options are all offering about the same range, other considerations come into play:

Audience: If I’m writing something that I hope will change people’s minds, then I’d rather a site be able to get my words before more people. If it’s more of a personal essay or some specialized topic that won’t get a large readership anyway, that’s not such a concern, and I’ll even write behind a paywall.

Old or new client? I don’t want to let my connections with editors go stale–when an editor knows you and your work well enough, you can pitch a story and get it assigned to you in a minute’s worth of Twitter direct messages. But if I’m not getting my byline to show up in different places, it feels like I’m not trying hard enough.

Contract: Most freelance contracts are written to reserve as much of the post-publication upside as possible for the client. Ones that instead let me keep copyright to my work and resell it later on (thanks, The Atlantic Cities and The Magazine) easily get my attention.

CMS: Being an outside contributor generally insulates me from whatever horrible content-management system a newsroom uses, but if a site uses a good CMS it gets a little extra credit. For example, it doesn’t hurt that Yahoo Tech uses Tumblr, and one big reason I want to write something for The Magazine’s venture on Medium is to spend some quality time in that CMS without writing for free.

Comments: Because I’m one of those weirdos who actually enjoys reading and responding to reader comments, I appreciate writing for sites that make it easy to do so–and have commenters who generally know what they’re talking about. (Yes, Yahoo Tech doesn’t have comments yet. A custom system that, per, David Pogue, will “attempt to eliminate awful anonymous drive-by potshots that add nothing meaningful to the discussion” is on the way; when it launches, you will see me on it.)

Ease of payment: I usually don’t think to ask about this until after I’ve filed, but if I don’t even have to invoice the client to get paid, that’s great. Having the payment deposited directly in my business account or sent via PayPal helps too, but my bank’s nearest branch is only a 10-minute walk away, and I could always use its app to scan in a check. Really, just don’t make me have to invoice twice and I’ll be happy enough.

My wavering definition of “weekend”

By the middle of this Saturday morning, I’d already written one thing for work, sent a couple of pitches to one editor and had begun working on this post.

iPad weekend calendarThis was not unusual. What may be odd is that I don’t mind doing work-like things on the weekend.

At one level, I have no choice about it. That part of work-life balance began eroding years ago; first not reading work e-mail became unwise, then not replying to at least some messages got to be too risky. The arrival of RSS and Twitter further escalated my occupational Internet use on weekends.

And as a work-from-home freelancer I’m rarely entirely off the clock but also have the liberty to shift my work hours around–which in practice often leaves tasks like, say, writing a post a week here that’s not completely self-promotional undone until Saturday. That should further blur the distinction between workdays and weekends.

But another level, Saturday and Sunday remain the days when work is something I do between other things, the alarm isn’t set unless there’s some special event, I feel zero guilt about throwing on an old pair of jeans and a t-shift, and it’s fine if I spend a few afternoon hours biking or gardening. Let’s try to keep those distinctions around, okay?

(There’s one other thing that can make weekends feel like workdays: parenthood. As much as we love spending time with our adorkable toddler, the advent of Monday morning doesn’t seem so bad when it means professional help with child care will once again resume.)

A look back at 2012′s blogging stats

Once again, a routine running on a server somewhere in a WordPress.com data center generated a 2012 annual report for this blog. You can view that presentation by clicking on the fancy fireworks graphic below; after, I’ll share a few highlights from last year’s stats, including some that didn’t make it into this automated annual report.

Total views: 89,639, up from 74,636 last year–and with a notable spike in November and December, largely thanks to my second-biggest traffic source.

Busiest day: Nov. 11, with 5,511 views, most for my discussion of whether I should keep or return a Surface and an iPad mini. (which broke the prior record of 5,416 I set when I announced my exit from the Post on April 7 of last year)

Most popular posts: that Surface and iPad mini post, at 11,300 views and change; my perennially popular guide to forwarding Lotus Notes e-mail to Gmail, at 6,600 or so; a quick note about search results getting redirected elsewhere, roughly 5,400. (These and following numbers are necessarily vague, because WordPress.com doesn’t break them down by the last year, only by the last 365 days.)

Top referrers: “Search engines” counted for almost 20,000 clickthroughs, of which about 19,000 came from various Google sites, maybe 300 from Bing and even fewer from other search options; Jim Dalrymple and Peter Cohen’s Loop Insight added up to about 8,800 and gets most of the credit for the popularity of the Surface/iPad mini and strange-search-results posts, among a few others; Twitter and USA Today followed up with about 2,000 each, and Facebook was just under that threshold.

Top search terms: Beyond the obvious one of my name (not to mention about 10 misspellings thereof), this list is topped by two computer-troubleshooting topics: forwarding Notes to Gmail, and OS X’s occasionally runaway CalendarAgent process.

Intangibles: I’m glad I was able to stick to writing at least a post almost every week outside my weekly-roundup self-promotion–and that some of these shorter posts that I might have held off writing in 2011 flowed into paid writing elsewhere. But I’m also happy that the writing feels like it’s been coming faster and easier here.

Springsteen, and the persistence of good art

I saw Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band play Nationals Park last night. Besides being at least the 10th time I’ve seen the poet laureate of New Jersey live (details after the jump), the show also got me to thinking about how long Springsteen’s work has been helping me make sense of my own life.

It started when I was maybe 12 or 13 and began developing my own musical tastes beyond disliking the easy-listening stations Mom and Dad felt compelled to listen to in the car. I can’t think of any other artist whose work has held up for me for so many years. (U2 comes close, but I didn’t get into them until later in high school). Back then, I didn’t know how well and how often Springsteen’s words and music would explain things around me. And that there would be times when I’d need the help.

I thought about quoting “Walk Like A Man” in my father’s eulogy, but I didn’t think I could hold it together while reading those words. “Lonesome Day” and “Empty Sky” still encapsulate what Sept. 12, 2001 felt like better than any story or photo. And I knew I had to marry my wife when I started tearing up listening to a  version of “If I Should Fall Behind.”

I hear many of these songs differently now than when I was an angsty teenager or an underemployed 20-something. I expect that to continue as they and I age in our own ways.

As a writer, I also find it fascinating how Springsteen’s lyrics have evolved from the baroque exuberance of the early ’70s to the sparser language of today (and, along the way, have lent the occasional turn of phrase to my own prose). I try to use fewer words than I once did too; that, and the both of us being born in the Garden State, are about the only parallels I can get away with here.

Continue reading

Large reviews for tiny gadgets

I’ve spent most of my career writing within a pretty narrow range of word counts. My Post tech column started out budgeted at 25 column inches, or 950 or so words, and then got whittled down to 22 inches, some 750 words. At Discovery News, I’m allotted 500-plus words per post; my CEA blogs have a 700-to-800-word limit; USA Today’s tech site expects 700, tops, per Q&A column.

(Writing a solid 2,000 words of reported feature for Ars Technica could have been some sort of remedial boot camp for journalists, except it was a hell of a lot more fun.)

But maybe I haven’t been writing nearly enough. A few days ago, I thought I’d compare the word counts (as measured with DEVONthink’s free WordService plug-in for Mac OS X) of four recent reviews of Sprint’s HTC Evo 4G LTE.

My post for Discovery News clocked in at 583 words. That’s about 200 fewer than I once would have considered a minimum, but after almost a year of blogging for Discovery it now seems like a natural length.

Over at PCMag.com, however, my friend Sascha Segan (in a prior millennium, he worked at the Washington Post’s online operation) devoted 1,388 words to reviewing the same device. The Verge’s David Pierce cranked out 2,458 words in his own assessment–which also included a photo gallery and a video review. And the staff of Engadget outdid both of those writers by producing a 2,841-word opus that included its own multimedia accompaniment.

I’m not going to say that 600 words is the right and proper length for a review. That limit forced me to leave out details like the Evo 4G LTE’s hidden microSD Card slot and its frustrating lack of international roaming. And in terms of strict market success, I’m quite sure that the page-view stats for the Engadget and Verge reviews utterly destroyed mine.

But I could do without many of the cliches of the extended-review genre: the throat-clearing intro “Does this measure up to [its promises/its competitors/our expectations]? Read on after the jump to find out!”; the digressions about the varying plastic and metal components of a gadget’s exterior; the table of detailed performance benchmarks without equally detailed battery metrics. Are that many people interested in this sort of long-form tech journalism?

Better question: If they are, what other sorts of long-form writing would those readers appreciate?

T+366 days

One year ago today, I was standing on a scruffy lawn in Florida, bleary-eyed from having slept an hour in the last 20–and feeling none of the fatigue accumulated from that sleep debt and compounded over an afternoon, evening and night of travel.

I don’t think there has been a day since May 16, 2011 when I haven’t thought about the mind-expanding experience of seeing a space shuttle launch for the first time.

First the waiting–welling up in the predawn hours from a kid’s Christmas Eve anticipation to the electricity in the stands at a baseball game before a walk-off home run for your team. The “oh my God, we’re really going to do this” moment at about T-15 seconds. Then the visceral jolt of seeing Endeavour’s rockets split the sky open with a sustained, brilliant flash of light, throwing that improbable machine into the clouds–and hearing and feeling the crackling avalanche of sound rush right up and over us.

The birth of our daughter was about as exciting–also experienced on near-zero sleep!–but I can’t think of much else that compares. Except for seeing the final shuttle launch with a press pass in July. (If you can get away with doing a once-in-a-lifetime thing twice without taking somebody else’s spot, do it; after taking the canonical launch photo on my first try, I could soak everything in the second time.)

Witnessing this controlled explosion didn’t last long, but I think if you ask any of the NASA Tweetup attendees who returned to the Kennedy Space Center for the launch after the scrub two weeks earlier, they’d all say it was one of the greatest moments of their lives. And that it taught something about endeavoring through adversity–or, at least, about the importance of avoiding short circuits in a Load Controller Assembly box.

I’ve retold this story dozens of times to friends and strangers, and I’m still trying to get the language right. Maybe I’m overthinking it. When I saw the Daily Show’s John Oliver do his comedy routine in March, he needed far fewer words than this post to convey his reaction to seeing the launch of Atlantis from the same KSC lawn: “Holy fucking shit!”

Anniversary

Last April 7, I was up against an issue I’d never dealt with in some 17 years as a professional journalist: What is it like to make news that almost nobody expects?

I knew my job was cooked a good month before I announced the news here–and after months of increasing uncertainty. Reading the Wikipedia entry for “ejection seat” because the metaphor suddenly appeals to you? Not a good sign about your contentment with your workplace.

But before I could go public, first I had to tell my wife, then my mother and brother, then old friends, then a few close colleagues and some tech journalists I’ve known for a long time.

It got progressively easier to surprise people with the news. But I still didn’t know what to expect when I clicked “Publish” on that post and quickly fired off links to it on Twitter, my Facebook profile and my public Facebook page: boom, boom, boom, there goes my job. I mean, the people on the other side of the cubicle wall didn’t even know the news. In retrospect, I’m amazed that nothing leaked… maybe I do know a thing or two about PR after all.

(Other people have taken longer to find out. It was somewhat awkward a few weeks ago when a neighbor asked how my writing at the Post was going.)

I shouldn’t have worried about the reaction. It felt immensely liberating to come out of the closet–to stop pretending that things were going great at work and, instead, finally hit that ejection seat.

But I should have taken a screen capture of my phone showing 200 or so notifications from Twitter, maybe 50 from Facebook, dozens of e-mails and a round of text messages.

It’s now one year later. As I began writing this post, my Q&A column for USA Today about the Flashback drive-by-download Mac malware had a prominent spot on that paper’s home page and was listed as its most-read story. I think I’m doing okay.

Programming note: WordAds

Aside

Starting earlier today, you might have noticed more and different advertisements on this blog. You can blame me for that: Back in November, WordPress.com introduced an option called WordAds, I quickly applied for it, and my invitation arrived this morning.

WordAds should appear more frequently than the minimal ad content you might have seen before. But those spots didn’t yield any income for me; the only way I could have profited from them was to hit 25,000 page views in a month, a mark I only came close to when I announced my departure from the Post. (Third-party ads remain forbidden here; see VentureBeat’s writeup of the WordAds news for more context.)

I’m not expecting a huge amount from WordAds; if it covers the $12/year domain-mapping fee, that’d be a sufficient start. But I also trust that the ads–provided by Federated Media, WordPress.com’s partner in this–will be tasteful and non-intrusive. Let me know if they aren’t. And thanks again for reading.

2011 blogging stats: you came, you saw, you clicked

One pleasant bonus feature at WordPress.com is the “annual report” the site automatically provides, complete with the celebratory artwork you see below. It provides a good overview of your blog’s overall traffic, what sites sent visitors to it and what posts got the most attention–along with a corny fireworks animation and a fillip of promotion for my host. (Note to WordPress.com management: I don’t mind that. In other news, please approve my WordAds application.)

But this highlights reel glosses over many interesting wrinkles, and in my case it’s also skewed by the flood of traffic I got for announcing my departure from the Post here. So some other noteworthy details follow.

Of the 75,000-odd views this blog got last year, almost 15,000 went to that “Departure” post–but more than twice as many went to its home page. The third-most popular post was my rant about stupid social-media policies in news organizations, at almost 2,500, followed closely by the about-me page. After that came my introduction of my NASA Tweetup trip (featured on the WordPress.com home page, it clocked almost 1,700 views) and a how-to about forwarding mail from Lotus Notes to Gmail (featured nowhere, but regular queries for help on that topic drove it to about 1,300 views).

Note that I’m not using exact figures because I forgot to write down these numbers on Dec. 31, and WordPress.com doesn’t include a “last year” reporting option.

My biggest source of traffic was Twitter, at almost 3,800 views, followed by Facebook (close to 2,500), the Post (near 1,800), and “search engines” (Google, with traffic from Bing, Yahoo, Ask.com and other sites amounting to kopeks on the dollar). The most notable outlier in the top 10 was the local media-news site DCRTV.com, which accounted for about 500 views.

Speaking of search engines, the search queries that led people here were topped by–duh–my name, accounting for close to 3,000 page views. Farther down the list, I counted at least 20 misspellings of my last name. It’s okay: That’s the tradeoff for having a moniker distinctive enough to guarantee that you can get the same first-name-last-name user ID at most sites.

Of all the links you clicked on, the most popular (almost 800 clicks) was a column by Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton about the paper’s redesigned-but-still-sluggish site, followed by the panoramic photo of my old cubicle and my Twitter account (each just over 300).

The annual report offers a few details I don’t see on my usual stats page, such as the percentages of visitors from other countries. Sadly, I am not big in Japan, but I do seem to have a few readers in the U.K. I’d love to get a complete breakdown (hint: Facebook provides those analytics for public pages), along with software trivia like the operating systems and browsers used by visitors. Maybe next year? Until then: Thanks for reading.