This week brought me back to two things I’ve missed badly since February of 2020: hanging out with other journalists at a conference in another city, and taking the train to and from that destination.
The Online News Assocation’s decision to host its first IRL gathering since 2019 in Philadelphia made those things possible. And by scheduling Insights as a two-day event, it also made it surprisingly affordable compared to this journalism group’s other events–aside from the 2017 conference in D.C., at which even my badge was free courtesy of my panel proposal getting accepted.
There was no question I was going to take Amtrak to Philly and back, only one of which trains to book. I decided to head up Thursday morning, at the cost of having to wake up early and miss any day-before networking but with the advantage of only needing to take my messenger bag, with a change of clothes stuffed into it alongside my laptop. That then led me to realize that the fees tacked on to every Airbnb reservation nearby would make my usual money-saving business-travel tactic more expensive than just staying at the conference hotel.
That worked out even better than I expected after my productive ride on the 7:05 a.m. Northeast Regional out of Union Station–in the Quiet Car, of course, with the only distraction being looking at scenery I hadn’t glimpsed in 18 months. I got to the hotel before 9:30 a.m., and it had a room ready when I checked in. So not only could I unpack immediately, the 11 a.m. video podcast that I hadn’t been able to schedule for another day could take place in a quiet spot with good lighting.
The conference itself was great. I learned a bunch of things about my job and how to do it better, and being in the room (even if some speakers were not) allowed me to focus on the talks instead of having every other browser tab and app on my screen ready to divert my attention. I took copious notes–which I wrote up for my Patreon readers, since their contributions covered my conference costs–and live-tweeted panels like in the Before Times. And Insights had enough breaks for me to file two stories, one that I’d mostly finished on the train up and another I banged out in an hour.
And yes, it was lovely if at times weird to commune with fellow journalists. The organizers had color-coded wristbands at the registration table that we could wear to signal our openness to face-to-face interaction: the green one I picked meant I was okay with handshakes and hugs, red would signal no touching, and yellow would mean no more than elbow bumps, if I remember correctly.
Insights required everybody to submit proof of vaccination and wear masks anyway… except that the reception Friday evening took place indoors, and quite a few attendees visited one bar or another Thursday night. I think my risk was about as low as imaginable for any gathering–certainly lower than at other events I’ve attended over the last few months–but it does exist.
The conference ended with enough free time for me to wander around Center City for a bit before boarding the 7:10 p.m. Acela back to D.C. I had to look up how long it had been since I’d last taken the Amtrak train that’s become a label for a certain Northeast Corridor demographic, and the answer was 616 days.
It’s now been a year and change I started writing about the intersection of media, policy, and technology at Forbes. It’s also been two months and change since I last published anything there.
That might look like a conclusive verdict against the experiment I started last June, but the reality is a little more nuanced. On one hand, I’ve very much enjoyed the ability to “write and publish as I see fit instead of waiting for an editor to okay a pitch and then edit my copy” (as I wrote last summer). On the other hand, I’ve yet to clock enough page views in a month to earn above the minimum rate.
So when I had a bunch of new work come my way starting in April, I had to decide at the start of May if I would commit to writing my monthly minimum of five posts–my arrangement doesn’t provide partial pay for posting less than that–or take a break to focus on this new business. And since I had gone months without seeing any Forbes post crack a five-digit number of page views, that was an unavoidable call for me.
My most-read story at Forbes, a post I wrote at the end of November about the strange lifeline AT&T and, to a lesser extent, Verizon provide to the hoax-soaked One America News Network, has drawn a total of 35,747 views as of today. But most have done much worse than that unspectacular total, with many failing to crack a thousand views. That’s frustrated me to no end–not least since I’ve seen pieces at other outlets do great in the same time–but at a certain point, I had to stop banging my head against that wall and direct my attention to work that didn’t have Web-traffic stats between me and my payment.
It’s possible that the subscription paywall Forbes put in place late last year (you should see the dialog above after reading five stories at the site in a month) has made it much harder for a post to go viral there. But I’ve seen at least one friend who writes at Forbes continue to hit numbers that should earn a decent bonus. Maybe I’m just page-view Kryptonite at this client in particular?
Meanwhile, management at Forbes has made some smart moves–in particular, bringing on the Houston Chronicle’s former tech columnist Dwight Silverman to cover the computing industry was a great call on their part. And nobody there has told me that time’s up on my contributor gig. But I do know that July already looks shot in terms of writing bandwidth that would let me return to it.
Instead, multiple places found me, offering freelance rates that were good enough to convince me to try self-employment. It seems that my sudden and surprising appearance on the market represented unintentional, effective positioning on my part; my least-useful advice to new freelancers is “have a column at a major American newspaper, then have the paper kick you to the curb when nobody expects it.”
I also didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to start freelancing by having two different clients commit to pay for a set amount of work each month at an above-market rate. My gigs at Discovery News and the Consumer Electronics Association eventually went away–there’s no such thing as a permanent freelance client–but they allowed me to figure out the basics of indie existence without stressing over each month’s income.
I have learned an enormous amount about the self-employed existence since then–battering my way to marginal competence at accounting, struggling with parallel editor-relationship management, booking travel on my own criteria and then optimizing it, time-slicing workdays to get chores like a Costco run done faster than salaried folks can manage, and bringing a certain equanimity to fluctuating cash flow. (My actually-useful advice to new freelancers is “have a spouse with a real job.”) Some years have been much better than others, while last year was much worse than the rest. Marching on as a freelance writer through a global pandemic even as friends have fled the business is one of the harder things I’ve had to do in my career–but the important thing is that I persisted, and now business is picking up and I can even look forward to once again traveling for work.
Ten years and 87 1099 tax forms later (I may be missing a few in that count), I still think I’ve been pretty lucky in this ongoing chapter of my professional life. I’ve never had a client fail to pay me; while I have had to nag a few for several months for a payment, my single longest wait happened because I forgot to invoice the client. I have covered stories and gone to parts of the world that probably would have remained daydream material had I somehow stayed on my old path. And since April of 2011, no one company has ever been in a position to put me out of business. That means a lot.
If you don’t want your inbox to start filling up with newsletters, you probably shouldn’t become a journalist. Even if you decide not to sign up for daily updates from one organization or another, the PR people at that organization will probably make that decision for you.
But newsletters exist for a reason, that being that they can make it easy to catch up on developments you missed over the last day, week or month. So whether or not I opted in to get somebody’s daily update, I usually don’t click the “unsubscribe” link if the newsletter covers my own occupational interests–and skimming and deleting takes very little out of my time.
Really good newsletters, however, earn not just a quick glance at a subject header and the first headline or two, but start-to-finish reading. I want to talk about two in particular that help keep me current about my fellow scribes.
Morning Consult Tech: Morning Consult, a data-intelligence firm with offices in D.C., New York and San Francisco, puts out this recap of tech-policy headlines before 9 a.m. weekday mornings. It’s an impressively comprehensive summary of recent work that covers publications beyond the usual boldface news names–the left-wing magazine Mother Jones and Vice’s tech-news site Motherboard have each gotten shout-outs. In addition to those two- or three-sentence story blurbs, each message features an events calendar that in the Before Times was a good way to ensure my work social calendar didn’t stay empty as well as a modest amount of self-promotion for the parent firm’s work. My only real complaint is predictably vain: I wish this newsletter would spotlight my own work more often.
Muck Rack Daily: This GIF-laden, moderately gossipy message arrives weekday afternoons from New York-based Muck Rack, which provides tools for PR types, lets journalists post their own portfolios (writing this post reminded me of how overdue I was to update my own), and used to and hopefully once again will host get-togethers for reporters at such events as CES and SXSW. As you can see from Friday’s e-mail, each one revisits the day’s top stories as interpreted through journalists’ tweets–a not-dumb move by the senders to play off of our own vanity–and illustrated by pop-culture GIFs that I occasionally recognize. Here I should note that my father-in-law receives this newsletter, which every now and then leads to him sending me a nice look-who-they-featured e-mail.
If you work on either one of these newsletters, feel free to take a bow. And please don’t be offended when I add that I delete each newsletter after reading, because my inbox is crowded enough already without my squirreling away copies of these and other daily dispatches.
The one thing you can say about any tech-policy dispute involving Facebook is that the ensuing discussion will take a while. Witness this week’s blowup in Australia, where the imminent passage of a bill (“News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code”) mandating a scheme of payments from the largest digital platforms to government-registered news publishers led Facebook to respond Wednesday with a news blackout. Now Australians can’t read or share news links on Facebook, Australian publishers can’t share their stories there, and Facebook users in every other country can’t share Australian news links either.
After writing about that fracas at Forbes on Wednesday, I spent too much time over the next day and a half in what may be my longest-ever tech-policy Twitter discussion. That left me feeling worn out–but also wishing I had taken a little more time to make my views clear. So for future reference, here are several things I think about this entire debate over what, if anything, tech platforms owe news sites.
Link taxes don’t make moral or economic sense. Not only does nobody need permission to link on the Web, a pointer to a news site–whether it’s a Google search result, a Facebook post or the blue text here–does not take from that site in any meaningful way. Well, not unless the nut of the story comes across in the headline and lead image, in which case the same story would likely go unread if seen on a newspaper’s home page. I’ve said this in various ways over more than a decade: the Washington Post in 2009, the Disruptive Competition Project in 2012, at Yahoo Finance in 2018, and at Glitch’s blog Glimmer last spring. (DisCo is a project of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group that counts Google as a member; as you can see, my judgment didn’t change before or after my one year contributing to its policy blog.)
The vast reach of Facebook and Google is a legitimate cause for nervousness. I think both companies exercise more influence over our online lives than is healthy and have written multiple how-to stories (see, for instance, these stories from 2017, 2018, and 2020) to get people to spend less time at each. And I’ve practiced what I preach, including the defaults in my own browsers and the setup of this blog. Yet people keep sticking with Google, even though it’s trivial to change your search site. My WordPress stats show that of the 291,315 search-engine referrals to this blog since its April 2011 launch, 277,850 came from Google. Y’all couldn’t try making DuckDuckGo or Bing the default in even one browser on one device?
Online advertising is a big part of the news industry’s problem. The more I look at the machinery behind the online ads that supposedly prop up news sites–meaning the display ads programmatically inserted to match a reader’s perceived interests–the more I hate it. We’ve built a system that requires extensive tracking of people across the Web, somehow involves the work of a large set of intermediaries yet still winds up dominated at multiple levels by Google, struggles to keep out bad actors, and winds up delivering too little money to publishers. You know what doesn’t even touch this problem? Demands for link taxes.
If digital platforms can build new businesses with publishers, that’s not wrong even if it happens under political duress. Google has responded to demands like those in Australia and in Europe with something called the News Showcase, an enhanced news-search site that takes readers direct to stories and pays publishers. It’s ugly and sad that Google is doing this to pay off publishers who would otherwise try to break the open Web, but if it gets money to newsrooms more reliably than digital ads, I’ll take it.
Updated 2/21/2021 to note that the Australian bill would have the government determine which publishers qualified for these payments, a deeply problematic provision in its own right, clean up some tangled syntax, and to add a paragraph about antitrust that should have been in this post yesterday.
Throughout this week I’ve spent covering CES in its all-digital incarnation, the Google Photos app on my phone has kept reminding me of how far this virtual experience is from the trade show that had me flying to Las Vegas every January from 1998 through 2020.
On one hand, the app’s Memories feature has been spotlighting the things I saw at CES years ago. On the other hand, Google Photos reveals that almost all of the pictures I’ve taken this week feature my cat–and none involve any new gadgets.
The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show isn’t like other conferences that have had to adopt all-digital formats. (The same goes for the two other gadget shows on my calendar over the last several years, IFA and MWC.) Companies do their best to hype up their upcoming hardware, but you also get to inspect it firsthand and try to find the flaws the presenters didn’t think to mention.
That’s not an option at CES 2021, where the product presentations are even more like long-form ads than the CES press conferences of prior years. And while an online format can still allow for a live Q&A afterwards, that hasn’t been the case with the CES press events I’ve attended watched. I’ve had to e-mail PR types and wait for a response to a question I probably could have gotten answered in a few minutes were we all in the same physical space.
I don’t write that to take away anything from the people at the Consumer Technology Association who work incredibly hard to make CES happen in a normal year and then had to tear up the script in late July and write a new one from scratch. Some real-world interactions are just difficult or impossible to replicate online.
That also goes for all the unexpected connections you make at CES and the conversations you enjoy over bad food in a press room and better food at a reception or a dinner. As much as I hate tearing myself away from my family at the start of every January, the chance to catch up with old tech-nerd friends and maybe make a few new ones helps compensate for that.
Like most of the social interactions I’ve surrendered since last March, they now await at the far end of a long tether. I hope it’s not too many more months before I can pull myself back.
These 147 politicians–including all four of Virginia’s Republican representatives–deserve expulsion from public life for this stunt, but instead we are stuck with them until they lose an election. Which, considering some of their districts, may never happen.
The next time those two or any of their 145 Trump-cult colleagues denounce tech companies as dangerous for democracy, do I skip past their own willingness to abandon it to keep an autocratic president in power over the will of voters? No. It would be obscene to do that.
The post I wrote for Forbes Wednesday about a major unsolved problem in the news business–the way sites that restrict access to paying subscribers don’t try too hard to accommodate occasional and out-of-town readers–did not suggest a solution itself.
But I have two ideas that I want to outline here, both of which seem doable without requiring a new micropayments infrastructure (please spare me the “Bitcoin will save journalism” takes) or the intervention of a benevolent third party. They just require tweaks to existing paywall models that are already seeing a healthy amount of reinvention.
A regional subscription bundle. This would invert the model of the now-shelved Washington Post digital partner program: The big paper in a region invites its subscribers to pay a small premium for an above-paywall allotment of stories at other, smaller news sites based farther out.
For example, I would be happy to pay another $5 towards my Washington Post subscription if I could read a story or two a week at such Virginia papers as the Richmond Times-Dispatch about issues that affect my end of the state. The regional papers would have to accept giving up the chance to sell me on a subscription (yes, I saw the RTD’s $1/month deal and also noticed that it’s $12/month after that promotional period ends), but they should know from my IP address alone that I’m not a local reader and therefore an unlikely sale.
Access through aggregators. A site that aggregates news coverage in a particular area, and which presumably already pays for subscriptions to sites covering that topic in depth, would invite readers to pay a small fee that covers access to every story to which it links, with the proceeds going to those sites and the aggregator taking its own cut.
Imagine, for instance, that a donation to the Greater Greater Washington blog got you a special feed that included access to every story cited in its Morning Links posts, which often point to paywalled stories at publications like the Washington Business Journal and the Washington Post. This could be a tougher sell–for instance, I doubt the Post would want to cut a deal–but it would offer some upside to both smaller sites like GGW, a non-profit that has had to struggle for funding, and smaller publications like the WBJ.
I would like to think these ideas are nowhere out of whack–publishers certainly seem willing to take less money for the sake of gaining new readers when it’s Apple asking. And yet none of them appears to have implemented these concepts. So am I missing some less-obvious flaws, or is this another case of my industry not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity?
When you’ve always typed a word one way, changing it absent new evidence can feel forced. I remember my college paper’s editorial board discussing whether to capitalize the “b” in “black” and then voting against it, and I’m sure I was among the no votes.
I’m also sure about who wasn’t among any of the votes: actual Black people.
How to describe fellow human beings of an enormous variety of cultures and religions with one easily-observable characteristic that others without that complexion often fixate on so they can put all these people into one racial basket?
“African-American” isn’t bad, but it implies an other-ness to Americans whose ancestors may have been in the United States for centuries longer than the ancestors of White people whom almost nobody labels “European-American.” (You can call me that if you want, but only because of my Irish passport.) And for many Black Americans, the genealogical trail stops on this side of the Atlantic, courtesy of the Middle Passage not yielding the documentation that came with the vessels on which my grandparents and great-grandparents came to Ellis Island from the 1910s onward.
As a catch-all term, African-American also fits poorly for more recent immigrants with family trees rooted on this side of the Atlantic. See, for example, presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D.-Calif.), whose half-Jamaican, half-Indian ancestry led a relative to ask on Facebook how she could be African-American. A much less polite debate has boiled over on the Wikipedia entry for Harris.
Lower-case-b “black” fails in a similar manner if you write it next to an equally broad demographic description like “Asian” or “Latin.” It doesn’t seem weird to capitalize other ethnicities, but not the one we seem to talk about most often?
So Black it is, however belatedly. What about us paler folks? Do we write “white” in lowercase as one might lowercase “brown” when describing most people without European heritage?
I now say no. One reason, as the Washington Post observed in a note announcing its style change, is that “White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” But hold the mayo jokes, please: What that item left for a later Post podcast to observe is that whiteness has often amounted to the powerful absence of race.
As in, race is something for other people. If you don’t note somebody’s race when describing them, they must be White, and White people in the conversation may breathe a little easier knowing that they’re not about to slide into some uncomfortable conversation about race. Being White is the default setting that you don’t have to adjust or even acknowledge. That is a real thing that we should stop pretending doesn’t exist.
And as that Post podcast’s nuanced discussion reminded me, this issue of how we label these differences that exist far more in our minds than in actual human biology is fascinating. I wish my old Post colleague Bill Walsh were still around to join this conversation; I’m sure the most erudite copy editor I’ve known would have something smart to say.
Writing about tech policy is nothing new for me, but this freelance client brings a different model of compensation, plus some self-inflicted dents to its reputation.
The publication I once knew as a glossy magazine that branded itself a “Capitalist Tool” did not cover itself with glory as it transitioned to the Web. It leaned way too far into the outside-contributor model under former editor Lewis D’Vorkin, flooding its pages with content churned out by writers who were often unvetted and unpaid and sometimes flat-out unqualified.
So when my friend Wayne Rash started writing there last year and encouraged me to come along, I had to quiz him at length about his experience. Then I talked to another recent addition to the site, analyst Carolina Milanesi, as well as one of its more senior contributors, tech journalist Larry Magid. They all pronounced Forbes a worthwhile outlet that was no longer a churnalism warehouse.
So I got on the phone with Dawn Chmielewski, the media editor there. I’ve known Dawn since she was covering tech at the Los Angeles Times when I was doing the same at the Washington Post, and seeing Forbes hire her last January had already raised my estimation of the place. She explained the steps they’d taken to professionalize their contributor system, including booting a bunch of the old contributors, as well as the pay structure.
That aspect, of particular importance to me, involves a minimum payment for five posts a month that would represent… a per-word rate I wouldn’t want to talk about. But traffic above a certain level brings a steady increase in income, and the page views that come from repeat visitors count for considerably more.
Aside from the short-lived micro-blogging platform Sulia, no other clients have paid me along these lines. But I can tell you that at almost every place I’ve written, including the Post, I’ve had editors cite my page views as a key metric in my value as a journalist and send me spreadsheets showing just how my stuff had done in recent months. And I’ve had editors turn down pitches explicitly because previous posts on the same topics did not get enough clicks.
Remember that every time you see journalists huff that they don’t get paid by the click. Stories get assigned on the basis of traffic all the time, and journalists can lose their jobs for the same reason. Making this a direct component of compensation is at least more transparent–as is the fact that each story at Forbes shows its page views above the headline.
As I write this, my debut only has 408 views. In the context of a Saturday-morning post that didn’t break news, I’d rate that as not great, not terrible. And I have time to figure this out, given that business at other clients has slowed or, in the case of Yahoo Finance, ground to a halt.
In six months, I may decide that this experiment–and its key benefit of letting me write and publish as I see fit instead of waiting for an editor to okay a pitch and then edit my copy–was worth it. Or I may put this down as another case of my successfully finding something that didn’t work. Either way, I suspect I’ll know a lot more about the dynamics of online readership after seeing my metrics move in real time on a site with an exponentially larger audience than this blog.