I can stop trying to keep up with Walt Mossberg

After 23 years or so of writing about consumer technology, it’s time to slack off a little: Walt Mossberg’s last column ran today, so I don’t have to keep up with him anymore.

That was never easy, starting the day the Post somehow gave me my own tech column. I can only recall two times when I beat or tied Walt to a story about Apple, then as now Topic A among tech writers. Once was a review of the first shipping version of Mac OS X, when a guy at a local user group handed me a copy of that release before Apple PR would. The other was a writeup of iDVD that benefited from my willingness to stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. a couple of nights in a row.

In the summer of 2000, the Post ran a front-page profile of Walt; being a guy in his late 20s with more ego than circumstances warranted, I took it poorly. But I always liked talking shop with my competitor at tech events around D.C., the Bay Area and elsewhere. (Does anybody have video of the 2006 panel featuring myself, Walt, the late Steve Wildstrom, Kevin Maney and Stephanie Stahl in which we shared an airing of grievances about tech-PR nonsense?) And when I announced my exit from the Post in 2011, the guy with one of the busier inboxes in all of tech journalism took a moment to e-mail his condolences and wish me good luck.

Since then, Walt has remained a must-read writer, provided the occasional column idea, and been one of the people I enjoy running into at conferences. He’s a mensch–or, to translate that from the Yiddish I know almost nothing of to my native Jersey-speak, a stand-up guy.

Enjoy your retirement, Walt. But please try not to taunt the rest of us too much when we’re off to yet another CES and you can finally spend that week in January as normal human beings do.

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Mike Musgrove

This hasn’t been a good month for the extended Washington Post family. Last week, we lost Bill Walsh, and Wednesday inflicted the news that my onetime henchman Mike Musgrove died Monday.

Mike and I both started at the Post as copy aides, which meant we both had to ask ourselves at some point “did I spend four years at college to sort mail and answer phones?” Not long after I stumbled into my escape from mailboxes and then somehow got anointed as an editor (it remains unclear what exactly possessed management to do that), I realized I’d need an assistant.

Mike had been kicking in reviews for months, and this St. John’s College graduate wrote a marvelously un-self-conscious cover letter that name-checked C.S. Lewis and “Baywatch” and ended with “Give me the job.” His references checked out and the other applicants couldn’t string words together like him, so I gave him the job.

Mike wrote with a sly wit, an awareness of the fundamental goofiness of much of the tech industry, and an interest in life outside of gadgets. He had the idea of reviewing the tech-support soundtracks of computer vendors, he had a sideline testing recipes for the Food section, and he reviewed concerts (including Vanilla Ice) for Style.

His insight on the e-book experience, the product of reading Monica Lewinsky’s 1990s testimony on a Rocket eBook, still resonates today:

If the eBook or a product like it ever gets cheap enough, this could definitely fill a niche: beach reading, airport books—books that you only read to kill time. Books that you would only ever read once and don’t particularly want taking up space in your bookcase—books like Monica’s Story, in other words.

He introduced Post readers to the Diamond Rio, the first mass-market MP3 player, and later gave them their first look at Gmail–a piece that I was delighted to see resurfaced on the tenth anniversary of Google’s e-mail service.

Along the way, Mike graduated from moving words to moving the freight, ensuring that reviews would still run when I was out of town. That led to him playing an unwanted role on the worst day of my life.

As in, Mike learned that my dad had died before I did. In that innocent time, I had flown to the Bay Area for a friend’s wedding without a cell phone (because 1999). My mom called my desk line and then Mike, and he left an urgent voicemail to me that I happened to phone in to hear (because 1999). I called Mike, and he suggested that I not get the news of the day from him. “Call your mom,” he said.

Mike’s last role at the Post was a coal-mine canary. He hit the ejection seat a year before me, burned out by too many demands for inconsequential stories and hit with a cruel review that led him to think his odds looked better away from 15th and L.

He had enjoyed some years as a full-time dad, interspersed with writing the occasional book review for the Post. Then he took some classes in Web development (so, unlike me, he could code his way out of a wet paper bag) and picked up work that way.

I knew he had split up with his wife, and I knew he was looking for work after a contract had run out. But I had no idea that Mike saw himself in such a bleak place that he felt compelled to shoot himself. My understanding is that he didn’t leave a note, so I may never know what led my friend to ensure that he would never again hug the daughter he loved.

Not for the first time, I’m left with a Springsteen lyric: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world “

Bill Walsh would have made this post better

The English language is in rougher shape and the world looks a little meaner and shallower today, because we lost Bill Walsh yesterday. The longtime Washington Post copy editor died of complications of cancer at only 55, which is way too goddamn early.

I got the news on the bus from Dulles to Metro late in the afternoon, and it reduced me to a sobbing lump, slumped against the window. I’d known this news might come since Bill’s Facebook post last summer announcing the news (in which he joked about a possible upside by commenting, “I’ll never be a doddering old man!”). But I didn’t think it would hurt that bad to learn that my friend and former colleague was gone.

Bill was literally a gentleman and a scholar. He wrote with zest and clarity–see, for instance, this 2015 story explaining why the Post would switch from “mike” to mic” and allow the singular “their.” He was unflappable in the newsroom even as buyout after buyout inflated his workload. And Bill influenced my own writing: I don’t use an exclamation point with “Yahoo” or write non-abbreviation corporate or brand names in all caps, because he called those out as tricks to steal a reader’s attention.

Bill was also a cyclist, a gourmet, a photographer and a gambler. He loved tennis and travel. He and his wife Jacqueline Dupree (if you’ve ever looked for details about buildings and food near Nationals Park, you’ve probably been enlightened by her neighborhood-news site JDLand.com) were my favorite Post couple. It is vile of cancer to deprive us and her of Bill’s company.

I can’t close this without saying two other things.

One is about the murderer in this case. Cancer took my friend Anthony’s dad, robbed  journalism of Steve Wildstrom and Steve Buttry, damn near killed my friend Kate’s husband Brad, and menaced my neighbors David and Christine’s son Jason (how do you tell a four-year-old to kick cancer’s ass?) before the doctors at Inova Fairfax beat it into complete remission. There is no disease I hate more than cancer. Fuck cancer.

The other is the last e-mail I got from Bill, which was also the first message I’d received from him in months. He asked if I’d learned of any systematic glitchiness in the Galaxy S7 Edge. A week later, I sent a perfunctory, tech-focused response while at Mobile World Congress when I should have taken another minute to taunt him over my access to delicious ham sandwiches or add some other personal note to convey this idea: “I’m thinking of you, friend.” The next time somebody you care about writes for the first time in a while, please don’t make my mistake.

Five-time MWC results: working harder and maybe faster, and a lot more obsessive about travel

Re-reading the coverage I filed from Mobile World Congress in 2013, I can only think of what a slacker I was back then: one post for Discovery News about the state of smartphones, an extra column for USA Today about much the same topic, and a post for my tech-policy hangout at the time, Disruptive Competition Project, on how weird the U.S. phone market seemed after my overdue introduction to the workings of wireless in the rest of the world.

mwc-17-camera(That last one holds up reasonably well, I think.)

During my fifth trip to MWC, I filed six posts from Barcelona and need to finish a seventh about the hype and reality of 5G wireless. Unlike four years ago, I wrote enough stories from the global phone show on top of my typical weekly output to cover my travel costs, even though the contracts I write on today aren’t as generous as 2013’s.

I’ll admit that I would have liked a little more free time to play tourist beyond the Saturday afternoon I spent traipsing around Park Güell, but I also hate feeling like 700 words must require a day’s work or that I’m somehow above cranking out copy from a tech event. So I wrote as fast as I could but not as fast as I’d like.

I’d like to think that motivation led me to take more notes from the show floor, and I hope the practice sticks in my head on weeks when I’m at home and have free time to tempt me to poke around with a post.

mwc-2017-floorThe more important upside of this exercise was a lesson in the virtues of showing a little entrepreneurial initiative, even when you’re running around like crazy.

For example, one of the stories I sold started with a pitch I made to an editor in between gobbling down lunch Friday and packing for my flight out that evening. That was totally worth setting aside my luggage for a few minutes.

After the jump, more about travel: The other part of my approach to MWC that’s changed since 2013 is how having an elevated elite status on one airline has left me even less capable of booking flights like a normal human being.

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New rule? If I can’t use your name as a company rep, I won’t use your exact quote either.

Stories usually call company publicists “spokespeople,” which seems increasingly funny given how many of them don’t want to be quoted speaking anything as a person.

Quotation/apostrophe key on a MacBook AirInstead, it can only be the company saying anything. Self-aware PR pros know to stipulate their not-for-attribution condition at the top of their reply, but others complain after the fact when I quote them by name in a story.

This widespread tech-industry practice has bothered me for a long time. What I write has my name attached, and it seems only fair that people I quote who are paid to speak for a company or client get the same treatment. And when I quote people without their name, fact-checking my reporting or holding those sources accountable for incorrect info gets a lot harder.

(People speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear losing their job or worse remain a separate issue. If you fall into that category, I will keep your name out of the story. See my contact-me page for details about how to get in touch, including two encrypted communications channels.)

The usual way to work around that is to run a quote from the publicist but attribute it only to a nameless and faceless “company spokesperson” or “company publicist.” But I’m now thinking that the more effective response is to paraphrase a company rep’s not-for-attribution response instead of quoting it verbatim.

I can’t force PR reps to go against company policy, but they can’t force me to run their exact, management-approved words. Withholding that privilege and characterizing their answers in the language of my choice seems to be the only card I can play in this situation. Should I put it on the table?

 

 

Why yes, I did get your CES pitch. Again.

As I started working on this post, my phone buzzed and its screen lit up with a predictable subject line: “Are you going to CES?”

Of course it did. And of course I am. This January will mark my 20th consecutive trip to CES, the gadget gathering formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show–which itself will mark its 50th anniversary. So this December features not just my usual late and disorganized attempts to shop for gifts, but the annual wave of requests to book meetings at CES.

And just like last year, I have yet to address more than a small fraction of that correspondence. To save tech-PR types some time, here are my answers to the most frequent questions about my schedule in the first week of January. To save myself time, I copied much of this from last year’s post.

GoPro clusterAre you still going to CES?

Since I’m apparently serving a life sentence at this show, that would be a yes. I’ll be there from Tuesday morning through Saturday night.

Will we see you at our press conference?

Your odds are actually better this year, since my flight should land at LAS before 11 a.m. on Tuesday. That leaves me a lot more time for the events before the show officially opens Thursday. But that doesn’t change the basic problem of big-ticket press conferences at CES: endless lines to get in. Not be all “do you know who I am?!,” but if you can put me on whatever list frees me from spending an hour queued up in a hallway, it will help your company’s cause.

Would you like to schedule a show-floor meeting with [giant electronics company]?

Yes, probably. When one company’s exhibit space is a large fraction of an acre, getting a guided tour of the premises can be a real time-saver. I should have answered all of these pitches by now; sorry for the delay.

Can we schedule a show-floor meeting with [small gadget firm]?

Most likely not. The point of vendors paying exorbitant amounts of money for show-floor exhibit space is to provide a fixed target for interested attendees. So as long as you’ll have somebody there who can answer questions, I’ll get to you when I can. Hint: Telling me where to find your client in your first e-mail helps make that happen.

This general outline of my CES schedule may also be of use:

  • Thursday, the first full day of the show, I probably won’t go further than the Central Hall of the LVCC.
  • Friday will find me in the South Hall of the LVCC (it’s become drone central) and then probably in the Sands, where it looks like I’ll be moderating a panel on cybersecurity… which will actually be the second panel on cybersecurity I’ll do that day, because CES.
  • Saturday’s my day to cover everything else before what I’m sure will be a delightful 3.5-hour red-eye flight to O’Hare and then home to National Airport.

Can we set up a meeting at [Pepcom/ShowStoppers]?

Those two evening events, in which an outside PR firm books a hotel ballroom (Pepcom is in the Mirage, ShowStoppers at the Wynn), rents tables to various gadget vendors and caters food and beverages so journalists can have dinner on their feet, constitute an efficient use of my time because I don’t have to find these companies and find time for them. Can we please not then get all OCD by booking a meeting inside an event at a spot inside a location?

Strip trafficCan you come to our reception/happy hour/dinner/party? 

Pepcom and ShowStoppers have me occupied most of Wednesday and Thursday night, but if you have an event before or after them in someplace nearby, I’m more likely to show up. If your event has a couch I can fall asleep on, that might help too. If it will be in a place with no convenient way to charge my devices, that will not help.

Okay, jerk, we get that you’re busy. Are there any times or places that won’t cause you to whine about your trying circumstances?

So glad you asked! Considering how annoying it is to get around Vegas during CES, giving journalists a lift in exchange for a quick product pitch can be pretty smart–I’m surprised I’ve only gotten one offer along those lines. Breakfast is also a good time to try to get a reporter’s attention at CES, because what they do to bagels in CES press rooms should be a crime. And remember that I’m around through Saturday–my schedule should open up after the insanity of Thursday.

Any interest in the e-mail I sent yesterday?

If there is, I promise I will write back… in the next week or so… probably.

Flash-drive disposal

I came back from a conference today (this time, the distinctly low-key CE Week), which means I also returned with a few USB flash drives adorned with some company’s logo.

Flash drives sortedThat, in turn, means I have to find some way to get rid of those pocket-sized storage devices, because I already have more flash drives than I will need. But I recognize that if you don’t have such a collection of these things that your kid starts to play with them, you might find just one of them valuable.

The answer for me is to give the flash drives away–ideally, after trashing their contents or at least renaming them by their size.

I’ve staged some reader giveaways on my Facebook page to unload particularly interesting-looking flash drives, but most of this hardware follows one of a handful of designs, differentiated only by the color and company logo on the outside. They’re not easy to give away in bulk.

Since it’s been a while since I’ve had a teacher say they could use a grab-bag of these things (and since I’ve already donated a few to the cause of undermining North Korea’s propaganda), that leaves only one obvious way to unload them by the dozens: Speak at some local gathering, and offer them–along with other PR swag I’ve accumulated–as rewards for the people who show up.

My talk tomorrow morning at the Mac user group Washington Apple Pi’s general meeting in Bethesda will feature that incentive. If you’re interested in some shop talk from me, or if you’re just in the market for some portable flash-memory storage, please stop by.

If, on the other hand, you’re a PR pro looking to get attention for a client, how about skipping the usual order of logoed flash drives in favor of putting the press-kit files on an obvious part of the company’s site? If the client insists on some kind of tchotchke, how about a Lightning or USB-C cable stamped with their logo instead?