About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

An unpersuasive PR follow-up: “any interest?”

I’m terrible at answering e-mail on a timely basis, so I don’t complain when PR types follow up on their pitches. But I do wish they could be a little more creative in how they try to regain my attention.

Instead, the typical follow-up consists of the body of the first e-mail topped by a two-word query: “Any interest?”

That’s it. There’s no attempt to expand on the prior pitch, no hint of new developments with the PR firm’s client, no suggestion that anything the world has changed to make the subject more interesting. Maybe the service picked up another 80,000 users, maybe the app just got a round of bug fixes, maybe the CEO beat the charges–but “any interest?” tells me none of those things.

(Even worse: When the sender chooses to prefix the follow-up e-mail’s subject with the unfortunate abbreviation “F/U”.)

Meanwhile, freelancing has taught me that “any interest?” is the weakest possible follow-up with an editor. If my first e-mail didn’t get catch that person’s eye, I have to provide something more–a data point or two that suggests this story is moving and the editor would be well-served to have me chase it.

I’ve been making this point over and over when I talk to PR professionals, and yet I keep getting any-interest-ed in e-mail. There must be some outside factors to explain the persistence of this habit, and I should really try to sell a more in-depth story about it somewhere. Assignment editors reading this: Any interest?

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Weekly output: Trump’s Twitter blocking, Facebook ad transparency, Facebook’s $5 billion fine

If you’ve been meaning to ask me “say, when are you ever going to update the Wirecutter guide to smartphone wireless service?”–that is what took up a good share of this week. So if you want to spring an intensely involved question about wireless rate plans, I’m now much better positioned than usual to answer it.

7/9/2019: Court rules Trump can’t block Twitter followers, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on to explain a federal appeals court ruling that President Trump can’t block people from following his Twitter account. I think the court was right to rule that by using this Twitter account to announce government decisions, Trump turned it into a government outlet… but my bigger issue with Trump’s Twitter presence remains its ignorant, hateful and bigoted content.

7/13/2019: How you can see which companies found you on Facebook, USA Today

I wrote this post in about an hour Thursday at a privacy conference hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That event fortuitously featured an executive from one of the data brokers revealed to me by Facebook’s new ad-transparency feature (as seen in the screengrab at right), and this LiveRamp executive’s talk gave me a couple of good quotes with which to end the column.

7/13/2019: Facebook faces $5 billion fine, Al Jazeera

I returned to AJ to provide some context on the widely-reported move by the Federal Trade Commission to fine Facebook $5 billion for its failings in the Cambridge Analytica data heist. My main points: That’s a huge amount of money compared to past FTC actions, but it’s nothing to Facebook, so we’ll have to see what conditions and restrictions the FTC imposes with that penalty.

News sites, can you at least stop nagging distant readers to get your local-update newsletters?

With my industry becalmed in its current horrid economic state, you’d expect news sites to strive to make new readers welcome. Instead, they keep resorting to clingy, creepy behavior that must send a large fraction of those new readers lunging for the back button.

I’m speaking, of course, of the giant sign-up-for-our-newsletter dialog that pops up as you’ve read a third or half of a story, encouraging you to get that site’s latest updates in your inbox.

This is dumb on strict user-experience grounds–at a minimum, you shouldn’t see this until you’ve read to the end of the story. Would you like NPR affiliates to run their pledge drives by sounding an air horn in the middle of Morning Edition and then asking for your money? No, you would not.

But the newsletter nag looks especially dumb when a local newspaper greets a distant reader with this interruption. The odds that I’m going to want daily updates about developments in Richmond, Buffalo (as seen above), or some other place where I do not live are just about zero. And the fact that I’m reading hundreds or thousands of miles away should be obvious to every one of these sites via basic Internet Protocol address geolocation.

I’m willing to click or tap those dialogs closed and keep reading, because I don’t want to sandbag the journalism business any further. But it’s hard to blame readers who instead respond by switching to the stripped-down reader-view option of Safari or Firefox. Or by running an ad blocker.

Weekly output: sneaky Android apps

My extended July 4 weekend involved a possibly dangerous quantity of backyard fireworks, too much grilled food, three baseball games, and one World Cup victory for the United States. (U.S. Soccer, pay the women more.) I hope your holiday was comparable.

7/3/2019: These are the sneaky new ways that Android apps are tracking you, Fast Company

My first post for a publication that I’ve eyed for a while covers a presentation of a study on Android app privacy that I watched two weeks ago at a Federal Trade Commission event in Washington. On one hand, I was happy that this study and a second outlined at this FTC event found no evidence that Facebook’s apps were surreptitiously listening to people. On the other hand, I was angry to see so much deceit involved in apps trying to capture a phone’s location or identity. Who involved thought that kind of creeptacular sneaking around would be a sustainable business strategy?

My continued struggles with quarterly accounting

Four times a year, I partake in a ritual that reminds me of my limited cash-flow competence–and of how a certain large personal-finance firm just doesn’t care.

Adding up my income and expenses after each quarter instead of at the end of the year is Accounting 101, but because I stumbled into a freelance existence it took a few years of struggling through tardy bookkeeping to get myself in the habit.

Several years of this practice have now streamlined this to a manageable level of drudgery, but the first step remains as irritating as ever: downloading records from Intuit’s Mint.com personal-finance app.

I know, I know; Intuit runs this free Web app so poorly that it still seems to require Adobe Flash to display investment charts. (I can’t confirm that at the moment because Mint’s investment page won’t load.) But for my limited expense-tracking needs, it functions well enough most of the time.

And then there’s the other four times a year, when I need to edit a Mint Web address to work around its bizarre inability to search transactions by date. Yes, to see only transactions for the second quarter of 2019, I need to edit this page URL:

https://mint.intuit.com/transaction.event

This address will cause Mint to show just Q2 transactions:

https://wwws.mint.com/transaction.event?startDate=04/01/2019&endDate=06/30/2019

Then I can search for those tagged as “Freelance journalism,” download the results as a .csv file, and import that into the Google spreadsheet I use to track my expenses.

There, I still need to piece apart payments, reimbursements and different categories of expenses. But in general I’m only looking at half an hour of copying and pasting to know how I made my money and where I spent it–assuming I didn’t forget to tag a transaction in Mint, which has happened more than once.

Whether the results make me happy is another thing entirely. In this case, my problem is a June that fell between too many clients’ payment timetables and also suffered from a snakebit May for story pitches… well, let’s just say the resulting paltry income might suggest that I got a lot more done around the house than I actually did.

Fortunately, I had two large checks arrive in the mail July 1, so Q3 is off to a fine start. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now.

Weekly output: your cable company as your wireless service

I spent much of this week working on some longer-term projects, so there’s only one published story in the list below.

6/29/2019: Should you let your cable company sell you wireless service, too?, USA Today

If you get your residential Internet service from a cable operator, you may also be able to sign up for wireless service from that firm–“from” meaning “resold from one of the big four wireless carriers.” This column looks at the current wireless offers from Comcast and Spectrum as well as an upcoming service from Altice that will also run on infrastructure built out by the firm behind the Optimum cable brand.

Although the column hasn’t been tagged as corrected, we did have to correct it after I erred by relying on a Comcast tech-support page showing limited voice-over-LTE support to warn readers that Xfinity Mobile’s VoLTE was lacking. Comcast PR told me Sunday that this page had somehow stayed up despite being well out of date, but I can’t blame Comcast too much: The ages of the phones that page cited should have gotten me thinking that something was off there.

A small consumer victory: exercising a Chase credit card’s trip-delay coverage

I got a giant financial firm to treat me to a nice dinner and a reasonably comfortable hotel room, and I only had to ask once.

But that is what Chase promised with the trip-delay coverage on the credit card I use for business (and also offered on the Sapphire Reserve card carried by almost every avgeek I know). I’d just never cashed in this feature before, and I’d thought they’d make the process a little more difficult.

Should you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s how it worked.

Step one: Miss a flight. In my case, a line of afternoon thunderstorms shut down the airport in San Antonio as I was heading home from covering the Geoint Symposium conference there. That ensured I’d miss my evening flight from Houston back to National Airport and would instead have to fly home the next morning (my thanks to the helpful SAT United Club agents for getting me a spot on the first flight to DCA when only first-class seats were left).

Step two: Pay for what you need. First I got dinner–I treated myself a little at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in terminal E–and then I booked myself a hotel. Knowing I could get that covered, I didn’t stress over my choices and chose the closest decent option Marriott’s app listed, a SpringHill Suites just outside the airport with free shuttle service to and from IAH. Having all these on the same card as my flight simplified things, but that’s also basic business accounting.

Step three: Get documentation. Keeping receipts for dinner and lodging was obvious, but trip-delay coverage also demands verification that you got those bonus hours away from home. At United, this involved sending an e-mail to delayletter@united.com requesting confirmation of my missed connection; two days later, an airline rep e-mailed a PDF outlining what weather did to my itinerary.

Step four: File your claim. After I got home and read One Mile At A Time blogger Ben Schlappig’s recap of exercising his own trip-delay coverage, I opened a claim at the Eclaims site that Chase employs. There, I plugged in the basic details of my travel–original flights, replacement flight, total resulting expenses–and uploaded PDFs of my dinner receipts (I scanned in both the itemized check and signed total), original flight booking receipt, hotel bill and United delay letter.

Step five: Wait for compensation. Nine business days after I submitted the claim, I got an e-mail reporting approval of it. The money should be in my bank account in three to five business days, which means I’ll have it before I need to pay off the credit-card balance.

That made me a satisfied customer… and one wishing I could jump into a time machine to tell myself to exercise this protection right after 2015’s weather-induced IAH overnight instead of waiting until after Chase’s 60-day window to claim my coverage had closed.