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.

How I turn notes into quotes

Since the issue of how journalists take notes during interviews has come up this week–courtesy of former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s cringe-inducing declaration that “I’ve never recorded“–here’s how I capture quotes from an interview, a speech or a panel.

The usual answer involves a keyboard. For everyday note-taking, I type the most interesting sentences I hear into an Evernote file. That demands a certain amount of parallel processing, as one part of my brain decides if a sentence-like string of words is worth memorializing and another sends my fingers skittering across the keys, but it generally works for stories that don’t center on one person’s quotes.

I know that real-time transcription involves a risk of transposing a word here or there–it’s amazing how many places an adverb can land in a sentence–so I quote conservatively when writing.

If, however, I’m writing a story around an interview or a speech, I’ll record the whole thing while also taking notes in real-time. That’s a two-device proposition: While I type on my laptop, my phone is on the table or otherwise far enough away not to pick up my keystrokes.

(The one time I tried recording in Evernote on my laptop as I typed was a disaster, with the soundtrack of my keystrokes sounding like a herd of small animals running back and forth over the keyboard.)

If I’m covering a public speech or panel, I usually get the additional backup of streaming video of the event that I can replay afterwards.

I’ll also record instead of trying to jot down notes if I’m having a conversation with somebody while we both walk, as if we were in an Aaron Sorkin drama. Trying to take notes on my phone in that scenario invites typo-ridden notes at best, bumping into somebody at worst.

But while recording an interview ensures that I won’t miss a turn of phrase, it also at least doubles my writing time, since I need to play back the entire thing, usually more than once, to ensure I got the quotes correct. Automated transcription services–my friend Ron Miller is a huge fan of Otter, so I’ve now signed up for that–can speed the process, but I doubt I’d copy and paste from a machine-learning model’s transcript without a reality-check replay of the recording.

In all of these scenarios, the speaker in question can make the job easier or harder. Practiced orators who elocute in precisely-formed sentences are a pleasure to transcribe, while fast talkers and people who interleave their dependent and independent clauses escalate the difficulty level.

Or I can just do the interview via e-mail and not have to worry about any of this stuff.

Another brutal week for journalism in America

It looks like I made it through this workweek without learning of any friends in journalism getting sacked. That would be the weakest of wins after three days of mass layoffs across old and new media.

It started Wednesday, when Gannett–publisher of my client USA Today–began firing a few hundred people in newsrooms across the country. Later that day, Verizon Media Group–the parent organization of my client Yahoo Finance–said it would lay off 7 percent of its workers. And then BuzzFeed upped the ante by telling staffers that it would sack a full 15% of them.

Thursday and Friday, I watched the occupational bonfire burn across Twitter. While it hasn’t involved friends, it has taken out bylines I know and trust–and some entire sections.

The Huffington Post dumped its opinion staff, a grim echo of last March’s closure of the U.S. News & World Report opinion department that cost my friend Robert Schlesinger his job. BuzzFeed deleted its national and national-security desks–I can only read that as a declaration of unseriousness at covering the news in 2019–and, in some sadistic mix of incompetence and heartlessness, is stringing the layoffs into next week.

I ache for everybody involved, because I’ve seen this movie before. I’ve read the weasel-worded memo from managers trying to paper over things, I’ve eaten the sheet cake at the newsroom goodbyes, and I’ve watched decades of experience walk out the door–knowing that the exercise will repeat. It certainly will if Digital First Media, a civic cancer of a newspaper chain owned by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund, succeeds in its unsolicited bid to buy Gannett.

I just hope things stop sucking at some point and that some of the following things happen: The online-ad industry stops racing to the bottom; subscription or other ad-independent revenue frees us from hoping adtech gives us a pony; newsroom executives stop wasting time and resources by chasing after every shiny object Facebook touts each quarter before sunsetting two quarters later; hedge-fund plutocrats find another industry to strip-mine of value; or the media at large switches to a non-profit footing and we all accept lives of shabby gentility.

Meanwhile, after this week, I have to count myself as lucky in this business. When I lost my newspaper job, that came with a soft landing and a long runway, and I’m still learning things and writing about them–the only work I want to do. I could be making more money in another career (and I was in this one three years ago), but things could be worse. To any journalists reading this who just had things go much worse: I see you, and if you want to vent, please get in touch.

2018 in review: security-minded

I spent more time writing about information-security issues in 2018 than in any prior year, which is only fair when I think about the security angles I and many of other people missed in prior years.

Exploring these issues made me realize how fascinating infosec is as a field of study–interface design, business models, human psychology and human villainy all intersect in this area. Plus, there’s real market demand for writing on this topic.

2018 calendarI did much of this writing for Yahoo, but I also picked up a new client that let me get into the weeds on security issues. Well after two friends had separately suggested I start writing for The Parallax–and after an e-mail or two to founder Seth Rosenblatt had gone unanswered–I spotted Seth at the Google I/O press lounge, introduced myself, and came home with a couple of story assignments.

(Lesson re-learned: Sometimes, the biggest ROI from going to conference consists of the business-development conversations you have there.)

Having this extra outlet helped diversify my income, especially during a few months when too many story pitches elsewhere suffered from poor product-market fit. My top priority for 2019 is further diversification: The Parallax is funded by a single sponsor, the Avast security-software firm, which on one hand frees it from the frailty of conventional online advertising but on the other leaves it somewhat brittle.

I’d also like to speak more often at conferences. Despite being half-terrified of public speaking in high school, I’ve become pretty good at what think of as the performance art of journalism. This took me some fun places in 2018, including my overdue introduction to Toronto. (See after the jump for a map of my business travel.)

My focus on online security and privacy extended to my own affairs. In 2018, I made Firefox my default browser and set its default search to DuckDuckGo, cut back on Facebook’s access to my data, and disabled SMS two-step verification on my most important accounts in favor of app or U2F security-key authentication.

At Yahoo, it’s now been more than five years since my first byline there–and with David Pogue’s November departure to return to the New York Times, I’m the last original Yahoo Tech columnist still writing for Yahoo. My streak is even longer at USA Today, where I just hit my seventh anniversary of writing for the site (and sometimes the paper). Permanence of any sort is not a given in freelance journalism, and I appreciate that these two places have not gotten bored with me.

I also appreciate or at least hope that you reading this haven’t gotten bored with me. I’d like to think this short list of my favorite work of 2018 had something to do with that.

Thanks for reading; please keep doing so in 2019.

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Should I be on Patreon?

I’m not a millennial and I don’t have any tattoos or piercings, so I would appear to be wildly ineligible for Patreon.

Yet I’m still curious about using that crowdfunding site to give people a chance to underwrite my work if they feel so inspired. I can’t tell if that is me being entrepreneurial or vain, so I’m writing this post to try to untangle my thoughts.

I first encountered Patreon when founder Jack Conte gave an exuberant presentation on the site’s backstory at 2013’s XOXO conference. (His talk rambles a bit–which is fine if you enjoy dancing robots–but overall merits 24 minutes of your time.) I decided that letting fans pledge as little as a dollar or two a month to indie creatives was a smart response to declining ad rates and the overall horribleness of the content industry. And then I thought little more about that concept until I started seeing more people and sites I know pop up on Patreon.

You can sum up the Patreon proposition as “Kickstarter over time.” Instead of asking for support for a particular project, creators invite fans to kick in a defined sum each month to support their ongoing efforts–and can also offer extra rewards for contributions above a certain level.

For example, my friend Glenn Fleishman‘s typographic-centric pitch includes exclusive or early access to his articles, science-minded podcaster Rose Eveleth offers a patrons-only newsletter, and the Arlington news site ARLNow.com touts a private Facebook group for more-generous contributors.

After conversations with a few Patreon fans at XOXO this September, I e-mailed Glenn to ask how that was working for him.

His two bits of advice: Find something you can provide to Patreon contributors that they couldn’t get elsewhere, and show what their support lets you do that you couldn’t accomplish otherwise.

I think I have a good answer for that first item: my time. As most people who have e-mailed me can attest, getting my attention when I’m constantly changing channels between stories and clients is… problematic. If I could offer something like a private Slack group or some other closed forum, I’d like to think that would appeal to people who miss the Web chats I did at the Post. (I miss them too.)

The second thing, though, is harder to answer. I think I do a decent job of selling enough stories from each out-of-town event to cover my travel costs… although conferences like the Online News Association’s annual gathering routinely defy my attempts to monetize them. Would that be enough of a what-you-helped-me-do story?

My other concerns: I wouldn’t have enough time to tend a Patreon page (note that I’m typing this near 10 p.m. on a Saturday); nobody would support it; worst of all, nobody would support it, and outsiders would then point and laugh.

At the same time, I like the idea of generating another stream of income, even if it only underwrites one trip a year. Getting acquainted with the inside of a crowdfunding platform seems like an overdue to-do item for me. And the last few months have made me increasingly uneasy about relying on my Facebook page for occupational banter with readers.

Having spent this much time musing about crowdfunding, I might as well crowdsource part of this decision. Please take the poll below, and if you have suggestions for what you’d want me to do at Patreon or another crowdfunding platform, please share them in the comments.