A distanced, disconnected CES

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 my flying to Las Vegas every January from 1998 through 2020.

Photo of a 2020 CES badge held in front of a screen showing a schedule of on-demand videos from CES 2021

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.

Journalistic accountability for seditious legislators

Wednesday’s attempted coup in Washington, as clumsy and stupid as it often looked, gave my city its most frightening day since 9/11 and left our country with sights we should never unsee so we can never forget: a mob of rioters addled by Donald Trump’s lies breaking into the Capitol, attacking police officers (one of whom died Thursday), flaunting fascist and neo-Nazi imagery, prancing around with the Confederate battle flag, looting offices, and posing for sedition selfies.

Photo of the front page of the Jan. 7, 2021 Washington Post with the headline "Trump mob storms Capitol"

It’s also left us with the so-called lawmakers who, hours afterward, continued to support Trump’s attempt to stage a self-coup by somehow persuading both the House and the Senate to reject the electoral-college votes of enough states to punt the election into a state-by-state vote in the House. Eight Republican senators and 139 Republican representatives joined this doomed effort to ignore the decision of American voters as expressed in what federal officials judged the “most secure election in American history” and which dozens of state and federal court rulings upheld as properly run.

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.

Some of these people are also likely stuck in my coverage of tech policy. In particular, Sens. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R.-Mo.), the duo that led Trump’s attack on democracy in the Senate, regularly figure in it for their uninformed rants about alleged social-media mistreatment of right-wing voices and dubious proposals to regulate tech companies. Hawley, who saluted pro-Trump protesters with a raised fist before they became pro-Trump rioters, also has a habit of misstating basic facts about tech policy–my introduction to him was seeing this Yale-educated lawyer lie about the plain language of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

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.

Two ideas to reduce the paywall pain for out-of-town and occasional readers

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?

Race with a capital B and a capital W

The Shift key is now getting more work on journalists’ keyboards, thanks to this summer’s sweeping adoption by news organizations of the custom of capitalizing Black and, often, White, when describing a person’s race.

Yeah, it looked weird to me too at first.

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.

I’m finally getting paid by the click, more or less

My byline showed up at a new place this morning: Forbes, where I’m going to be covering the intersections of media, policy and technology. My first post unpacks AT&T’s probably-doomed attempt to boost its HBO Max streaming video service by exempting it from its data caps.

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.

My request of my state legislators: a strong anti-SLAPP statute

This week’s wins by Democrats in Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate will relegate Republicans to minority status in Richmond and open up progressive possibilities that have been stalled for decades.

But while I look forward to seeing my state pass overdue gun-control legislation, allow localities to scrap Confederate memorials, ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and promote renewable energy instead of coddling the coal industry, I won’t be writing my state delegate and senator about those issues.

Instead, I will ask them to enact a strong anti-SLAPP statute.

SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” which is a concise way of saying “jerks filing defamation lawsuits to make their critics shut up or go bankrupt.” My friend Mike Masnick got hit with one in 2017 for writing at length and with gusto on his Techdirt blog that Cambridge, Mass.-based computer scientist Shiva Ayyadurai did not invent e-mail as he’d claimed.

Ayyadurai–whom independent reports have confirmed did not invent e-mail–responded to Masnick’s exercise of his First Amendment rights by having Gawker-killing lawyer Charles Harder file a $15 million defamation lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Boston.

Judge Dennis Saylor dismissed Ayyadurai’s defamation claims, but the suit didn’t get settled for another 18 expensive months–and while Masnick didn’t have to pay a cent to Ayyadurai, he did have to pay his lawyers. He’s described the experience as “harrowing,” and the risk of the same thing happening to me constitutes a low-level source of existential dread.

Strong anti-SLAPP statutes such as those in California and Washington, D.C., let defendants short-circuit this attack by filing a motion to dismiss that stops the potentially expensive process of discovery and requires action within weeks. Virginia’s anti-SLAPP law starts with the right principles but does not include those protections.

Amending it to allow journalists, activists and other citizens voicing opinions to quash attempts to litigate them into bankruptcy would defend free speech in one of the places where it started. And it shouldn’t have to be a partisan issue: The last attempt to pass a federal anti-SLAPP statute, the SPEAK FREE Act, came from a Texas Republican, then-Rep. Blake Farenthold, in 2015.

That bill drew support from liberals and conservative groups before dying in a subcommittee, much like too many good ideas have in Richmond over the past 25 years. We ought to be able to do better now.

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?

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.

Okay, so I am on Patreon now

I launched a Patreon page Monday night, and as I write this, it’s attracted zero supporters. Which means it’s performing as expected—this post is my first attempt to publicize my experiment at this crowdfunding site.

I’ve been thinking of experimenting there since having more than a few people at the XOXO conference in Portland last October suggest I try it myself. Spending too much time checking out how creative types I trust use Patreon and some conversations with two of them (thanks, Glenn Fleishman and Mike Masnick) advanced those thoughts further.

But it took an expiration date to get me to proceed—11:59 a.m. Monday was my last shot at launching a page under more favorable terms than those now on offer under Patreon’s tiered membership structure.

I am cautiously optimistic about how my page could work. I think the value proposition I offer—depending on what tier you pay for, you get content not available elsewhere and, more important, increasing access to my time—is both a fair trade and a reasonable way for me to monetize the scarcest thing in my daily routine, my attention. I also like the idea of having a bit of a sandbox to play in; while I’ve committed to write some patron-only posts and set up a Slack channel, maybe I’ll try doing short podcasts there? There’s nobody to stop me.

But it’s also possible that nobody will support me, and that other people will then point and laugh. That might be chickenshit of them. But it would certainly be chickenshit of me not to try this, not when there are so many things going wrong with the business of journalism.

My own business seems fundamentally sound—at least compared to the cratering existence Jacob Silverman describes in a soul-crushing article at the New Republic. But there’s no such thing as a permanent freelance client, and I would very much like to be less beholden to the tastes, schedules and budgets of my various editors.

So if what I have on offer to patrons strikes you as a good deal, I would very much appreciate your support. And maybe if everything goes well, this new venture will at least make enough to recoup the cost of the XOXO trip that lodged this foolish idea in my head.

Why has Google News gotten so useless?

The one thing you should be able to count on Google doing–with robotic if not remorseless consistency–is finding things on the Web. But the Google News site it launched in 2006 keeps going from useless to more useless as successive redesigns purport to improve it, and I’m giving up on asking why.

First, sometime in the second half of 2017, the desktop version quietly dropped the “Search Tools” menu that lets you search by date. That right there is a dealbreaker in any newsroom: If you want to know which publication got to a story first, you must be able to limit your query to articles posted before a day, month and year.

Then Google’s mobile and desktop searches started not matching–at all.

Later, the mobile version of Google News went on the same feature-starvation diet as the desktop edition, leaving it just as woeful in everyday use.

More recently, Google News has stopped showing snippets of stories, as you can see in the first screengrab here. It only offers headlines–which, now that search-engine optimization has boiled much of the creativity out of that exercise in compressed prose, may not even be that fun to read.

The crazy thing is that you start a Google search at the company’s home page, then click or tap the “News” tab atop your first results for ad-free, news-only results, you will get the old version of Google News. That still lets you focus a query by date, still provides a preview of a story’s text, and still doesn’t make me long for the metadata that I’d get in an analog, paper-based library.

So why does Google foist this impostor news-search site on us and insist that we click to a second page to access a functional version of it? I have no idea. I’ve tweeted about this too often, including tagging Google’s news v.p. Richard Gingras, and I’ve personally lobbied Googlers (most recently at last year’s Online News Association conference) to fix the damn site, but nothing has changed.

I’m left to think that Google just doesn’t care to make a news-search site that journalists–or any involved citizen–would want to use. So I’ve been increasingly leaning on Microsoft’s Bing News, which does offer the minimum-viable-product functions of a date-limited search and story-snippet previews. I suggest you go and do likewise.