Back in August, when 2020’s nightmare status had become numbingly obvious even if we didn’t know how much worse the novel-coronavirus pandemic would get, I recounted here what I’d typed to a friend in a chat the day before: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”
As I type this, 2020 only has hours left to go, so simply being able to write this recap feels like a minor victory. But as I type this, I also see that the Johns Hopkins University pandemic dashboard I have checked far too many times year now lists a total of 344,030 Americans dead from the pandemic–a staggering, heartbreaking toll made worse by President Trump’s careless stewardship and pointless politicization of things as basic as wearing a mask. Among the earliest of those casualties: my senior-year roommate’s father.
Spending most of this year in what often felt like a form of house arrest seems like such an inconsequential side effect compared to that loss, or the brief hospital stays two relatives endured. But beyond leading to such developments as my briefly growing a beard, my cooking and gardening like never before, and our adopting a cat, the pandemic took a hammer to my own business.
As the economy crumpled, some of my clients cut their freelance budgets drastically or to zero; one of my best clients closed at the end of May. With business travel shut down–see how empty that screengrab of my calendar looks?–my sideline of moderating panels at conferences became an exercise confined to my desk instead of a way to get free trips to fun places.
I somehow scraped together enough work to see my income drop by only about 14 percent compared to 2019–but that year was itself not great. I can’t lie to you or to myself: Freelancing isn’t working as well for me as it did five years ago. But the entire profession of journalism is in far worse shape than it was five years ago.
Inconveniently enough, I still love the work. And I loved writing the following stories more than most.
- In January, I finally got around to documenting Intuit’s neglect of the Mint personal-finance app in a post that resonated wildly with readers.
- Speaking of Intuit, I exposed how badly Virginia got conned by its “Free File” pitch in a story for the Washington Post’s Local Opinions section (please read it as if it still contained the paragraph breaks that somehow vanished in the last third of the piece).
- In May, I wrote a long feature for Glitch’s now-defunct Glimmer about how Google dominates the display-ad business. Reporting this set me up well to cover later developments in that industry–including the multiple antitrust lawsuits now targeting Google.
- A June post for Fast Company about making yourself less valuable to Facebook led me to cut back on my use of the social network, which probably did my mental health some good.
- I used my new gig at Forbes to denounce the Trump administration’s bizarre proposal to have the Federal Communications Commission rewrite Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that holds online forums not liable for most content their users post while encouraging them to moderate it as they see fit.
- A 19-page report for O’Reilly Media about optimizing pandemic contact-tracing apps for privacy was my first assignment since college to be budgeted in pages instead of words or column inches.
- An August post for Fast Company about election security–informed by my own work as an election officer–looks especially prescient now that Trump has melted down into conspiracy-theory rants denying his loss to President-elect Joe Biden.
- A November post for Forbes unpacked the curious carriage deal that keeps the lie-filled One America News on AT&T; that telecom giant should be ashamed of this on business grounds alone.
- A December post for Fast Company describing the unfairness of Comcast’s data cap and a USA Today column on the same topic both captured the cruelty of imposing this artificial limit in the middle of a pandemic. The latter post closed with one of the most memorable quotes I’ve ever gotten from an industry analyst.
In a year that’s seen me so cut off from people, the chance to call out abuses of power that made things harder for everybody else cooped up at home helped me feel a little more connected to you all.
So did my four long days of work as an election officer, concluding with the tiny role I played Nov. 3 helping Americans vote in unprecedented numbers and end Trump’s reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. That service for a cause much bigger than myself was nowhere near my best-paying work this year. But it may have been the most satisfying.