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…

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My Sulia experiment, three weeks in

If you follow me on Twitter or you’ve liked my Facebook page, you may have spent the last three weeks wondering “What is this Sulia site and what is Rob doing there?”

Sulia logo

Fair enough. Sulia bills itself as a “subject-based social network” that “connects you to the top social sources on subjects you care about,” both by curating links to postings elsewhere and inviting contributors to post their own short updates.

The New York firm also provides curated feeds to news organizations; I first encountered it as a source for the “Live Topics” section in the Washington Post’s iPad app. It’s gotten some coverage from places like AllThingsD and Mashable but otherwise hasn’t risen to an “oh, that” level of recognition.

Anyway, back in August I got a pitch from Sulia inviting me to become a technology contributor. Its mention of compensation intrigued me, but then I spent most of the next month and a half traveling and I forgot about it until Sulia showed up in this blog’s stats in December. I inquired further; after some negotiation and the realization that I might need an extra outlet for my CES coverage, I signed on for a one-month trial.

Sulia posts should fill a gap between tweets and blog posts: you can’t write anything longer than 2,500 characters, headline included, and you can’t format it beyond adding an  image or a YouTube embed.  The headline and a link to the rest of each update then go out automatically on my Twitter and public Facebook feeds. It’s not Twitter’s microblogging but more along the lines of Tumblr-style mini-blogging–except that unlike those sites, Sulia pays contributors.

It’s not a huge sum. As a per-word rate, this stipend represents the second-worst I’ve accepted after my paltry WordAds income here. (Another Sulia contributor described it as “a bit of extra bourbon money”; I’m doing a little better than that each week, unless we’re talking seriously high-end hooch.) But it’s also infinitely more than the $0.00/word Twitter pays me, and I don’t have to bother with invoicing either. Hence my motivation to post a thought on Sulia that might otherwise require serializing over three or four tweets.

For example, I have used Sulia posts to:

Few of those items would have merited a story of their own for my clients at the time. Some could have surfaced here, but that would have involved more work–I can’t resist the urge to tinker with prose and its presentation using the tools available here–and even less income.

So in that sense, it’s worked well and slotted neatly into my workflow.

I’ve been less happy to see glitches deprive some updates of images I’d uploaded (it seems I found a Safari compatibility issue) and, less often, strip out line breaks or even some of my words. With no editing after posting, my only recourse is to delete an update and rewrite it.

I also need to work on my own approach: I’ve often found myself fiddling over Sulia updates as if they were mini-articles instead of really long tweets, and that same inability to focus has also led me to miss chances to jump on breaking news.

Three weeks in, I can certainly attest that I’m still figuring this out.

What about you? Do you find this exercise in compressed prose worth a click over from Twitter or Facebook?

Weekly output: CES (x8), Java, Flash, browser crashes

CES week has usually been the single busiest workweek of the year, and this time around did not disappoint. It also featured perhaps my shortest and certainly my highest-profile TV appearance yet.

1/9/2013: Wild West Show: What’s Happening At CES?, The Motley Fool

About eight hours into what became a 14-hour workday, I chatted briefly with the Fool’s Rex Moore for a show-opening video segment about some of the trends I’d seen thus far.

1/9/2013: Live @ CES – Erik Fisher & Rob Pegoraro, Panasonic

As it did last year, Panasonic ran a series of interviews with tech-industry types, journalists,  athletes, politicians and various other guests from its CES exhibit. Here, I discussed the intersection of sports and digital media with the Sports Business Journal’s Eric Fisher and host Jordan Burchette. I trust nobody was surprised to see me rant yet again about the idiocy of regional blackouts for live game coverage.

1/10/2013: CES 2013, Part 1: Tech To Open Or Close Markets, Disruptive Competition Project

I evaluated some of the more talked-about CES appearances in terms of whether they might entrench incumbents in a market or offer an opening to their challengers.

PBS NewsHour CES recap1/10/2013: At Consumer Electronics Show, Sorting the Go-Go Gadgets from the No-Go, PBS NewsHour

This show assessment for the NewsHour’s Rundown blog got a shout-out on that night’s NewsHour broadcast, right after an interview of my old Post cubicle-mate Cecilia Kang. Which makes a certain amount of sense, since the piece’s length and tone made it the closest thing to the CES-recap columns I wrote for the Post for… wow, 14 years in a row.

Note that the first version of this posted had a stupid mistake in the description of 4K resolution; when I was trimming a paragraph on the technology, “million” wound up where “thousand” should have been, and it took a reader’s comment to bring that to my attention. (That’s only one of the reasons why I try to read every comment.)

1/11/2013: Tech Talk: 01/11, CBS News Tech Talk

Larry Magid, a longtime tech journalist I enjoy running into at events like this, saw fit to include a sound bite from me in that day’s one-minute tech update.

1/11/2013: CES 2013: Three Ups, Three Downs, Discovery News

My CES recap for Discovery–also, my first in the site’s new design–covered the same trends I tackled in the NewsHour piece but benefited from another day’s worth of soaking in the show.

1/11/2013: CES 2013, Part 2: The Gadgets That Weren’t There, Disruptive Competition Project

I did a post like this back in 2011 that critiqued the absence of non-TiVo video recorders (among other things), didn’t think to return to the theme last year, but realized it would fit in well with DisCo’s focus on the ways outside factors distort and limit what the tech business can do.

1/11/2013: Earnings Surprises, Motley Fool Money

The Fool’s Chris Hill interviewed me about the show for the Fool’s weekly podcast. He had me on as a guest pretty regularly when I was at the Post; it was good to be back.

NBC Nightly News spot1/12/2013: Feds: Your Internet browser could be at risk, NBC Nightly News

An editor at NBC noticed the column I wrote for USA Today about Java security last spring and e-mailed to ask if they could interview me for that evening’s show. They recorded something like 30 minutes’ worth of footage; they asked good questions, didn’t cut off my answers and finished by asking if there was anything else I wanted this piece to say. Maybe 10 seconds of that wound up on the air, with me identified as a “USA Today Technology Writer.”

(I was worried they wouldn’t use any of it. Between the heat from the studio lights in NBC’s Nebraska Avenue offices and my own don’t-screw-this-up anxiety, I started getting a little flustered and began fumbling some of my answers.)

Anyway, now I can cross “be interviewed as an expert on a national nightly-news show” off the bucket list. And in yet another weird coincidence, that night’s broadcast also featured my friend Daniel Greenberg, one of my best freelance contributors at the Post, talking about video-game violence.

1/13/2013: How long will Flash survive?, USA Today

This week’s column looks at the persistence of Adobe Flash on the desktop and recants some of my earlier optimism about a quick sunset for that format. (Though I have to note that Discovery’s new design finally does away with Flash for slide shows, even older ones; I no longer feel guilty about linking out to those.) It also shares a few tips about talking crash-prone browsers out of their sulk.

Update, 10:37 a.m. In the midst of looking up all those audio and video appearances, I forgot to note my too-long-for-Twitter updates on Sulia: a rant about Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ chaotic keynote, my experience trying “brainwave cat ears,” a note about the relative absence of 3-D TV from the show floor, a micro-essay about CES’s continued gender gap, and a report of a prototype screen that can raise and lower individual buttons, and many more.

(With 15 of these 500-to-1,000-character posts a week, I can’t see adding them all to the weekly roundup, any more than I’d inventory my tweets. But maybe calling out a few highlights will work.)