Black Hat pitches increasingly resemble CES pitches

When I’m spending a sunny Saturday in front of my computer, the usual reason is that it’s beastly hot outside. But today I have an additional, also seasonally-specific reason: I’m overdue to look over and make some decisions about all of the Black Hat meeting requests that have been piling up in my inbox.

A view of the Las Vegas Strip from the Foundation Room atop the Mandalay Bay hotel--a common event venue for both CES and Black Hat receptions.

Unlike last summer, I actually am going to this information-security conference in Las Vegas. And many more infosec companies seem to have made the same decision, leading to a flood of e-mails from their publicists asking if I’d like to set up a meeting while I’m in Vegas. How many? Over the last month, I’ve received 134 messages mentioning Black Hat, a number that makes me think of the annual deluge of CES PR pitches.

(Sorry, the total is now 135.)

Just like at CES, accepting even half of these invitations would leave me almost no time to do anything else at the conference. But where at CES I need to save time to gawk at gadgets on and off the show floor–and to get from venue to venue at that sprawling event–at Black Hat I want to save time to watch this conference’s briefings.

In the two prior years I’ve gone to Black Hat, I’ve found that the talks there have an exceptionally high signal-to-noise ratio. And since a coherent and entertaining explanation of a vulnerability in a widely used app, service or device is something that’s relatively easy to sell as a story, I also have an economic incentive to hold off on taking any meeting requests until the organizers post the briefings schedule–which this year only happened barely two weeks ago.

In other words, now I’m out of excuses to deal with these pitches. Which I could have done this afternoon had I not waited until this afternoon to write this post…

8/24/2022: Fixed the typo in the headline that nobody seems to have noticed until my wife asked about it today.

The bureaucratic burden of telling clients “pay me”

It’s the first day of a new month, and that can only mean one thing for my e-mail: more .pdf attachments than usual in my outgoing messages, in the form of invoices for one freelance client or another.

Close-up of the 4 / $ key on a Mac keyboard, without which I would struggle to invoice anybody.

Instructing these companies to pay me for work done over the previous month should be easy after 11-plus years of not having a real job, but there’s still some struggle attached to this chore during and after the invoicing process.

The easiest part of it involves longer-running clients, where I just need to open the invoice document from the previous month, change the invoice number and the date, update the work done and the sum due, and attach the new file to an email.

But with less-frequent clients, I need to remember if there’s some wonkiness with a P.O. number or payment instructions that I may or may not have remembered to save in a previous version of the invoice file.

Others require their own format, usually a Google document or form or an Excel spreadsheet. Not knowing what kind of file a company will want me to produce before it will send me money is one of the things that’s kept me from following advice to use a professional accounting app like QuickBooks… another thing being my own apathy.

This routine can get more complicated if I’m away from home, since all of these invoice templates live on my Mac and since my Windows laptop doesn’t have a PDF-editing app equivalent to Apple’s Preview (sorry, Drawboard PDF). But keeping these financial documents in one folder on one computer allows for a simple accounting system: Right before I e-mail an invoice, I save it to an “Invoices – owed” folder, and once it gets paid I move it to an “Invoices – paid” folder.

It’s not the most sophisticated system, but it still seems to work after 11 years and change. At least when I remember to prepare and send the invoice in the first place. Which reminds me that I still have one invoice to finish for one client and a second to create for another, and of course they’re not in the same format.

Twitter really isn’t the digital town square, but it might as well be the newsroom coffee counter

A blue pin handed out at the 2012 Online News Association conference, photographed on a piece of lined paper, reads "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12"

When Twitter’s management accepted Elon Musk’s offer to buy the company for about $44 billion–a sentence that still makes me pause and think “wait, really?”–the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire called his upcoming property “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

That two-word phrase comes up in a lot in discussions of this compressed-prose, collective-angst platform that a dozen years ago I had to define for readers as a “San Francisco-based microblogging service.”

Twitter’s own management has liked to call the service a town square of own sort or another. Obsessive coverage of the Twitter habits of certain boldface names (case in point: @elonmusk) suggests as much. And many complaints over Twitter exercising its right and business obligation to moderate content assumes that you have the same right to tweet something–meaning have Twitter spend its computing, network and human resources to “use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute” your output–as you would in a physical town square in the U.S.

But the Pew Research Center’s surveys of social-media habits have consistently revealed a more humble reality: Just 23 percent of American adults use Twitter, far below the 81 percent on YouTube, the 69 percent on Facebook or even the 31 percent on Pinterest and the 28 percent on LinkedIn. And Twitter’s share has essentially stayed flat in that Washington-based non-profit’s surveys, with the service’s high point being an almighty 24 percent in 2018.

It is entirely possible to live a rich, meaningful online social life without being on Twitter. It’s also possible to exercise considerable political power without being on Twitter–Donald Trump’s expulsion from that and every other mainstream social platform after his January 6, 2021 self-coup attempt has not stopped the Republican Party from wrapping itself around its own axle over the guy.

Journalists, however, may be another matter. Many of us flocked to the site early on because of its utility as a public notebook and for communication with readers and sources (it took longer for some us, meaning me, to realize how Twitter could also empower distributed abuse), its self-promotional possibilities (which can turn self-destructive when editors fall for bad-faith campaigns to attack journalists who fail to perform like story-sharing automatons on Twitter), and for the way its brevity allows us the chance to pretend we’re headline writers for New York tabloid newspapers. And, especially over the last two years, it’s become a valuable online substitute for the work chit-chat that once took place at a newsroom coffee counter–or, after work, at a nearby bar.

Twitter’s own outreach to journalists, as seen in that souvenir from the 2012 Online News Association conference and in such favors as the service verifying me in 2014 basically because I asked nicely enough times, has also played a role in that popularity.

I’d miss those things if Musk runs Twitter into the ground, as seems a real possibility given how often he’s suggested that Twitter’s real problem is not keeping up everything that’s not actually banned by U.S. law. A logical outcome of that would be making such First Amendment-protected trash like Holocaust denial and ISIS propaganda safe on Twitter, although I am keeping my mind open to more optimistic possibilities.

But I’ve also been online for almost three decades and I’ve seen much bigger allegedly essential online platforms fade into irrelevance. Should Twitter come to that, I imagine I and other journalists will do what we usually do when we meet some occupational obstacle: swear a lot and then figure out some other way to do the job.

RSS lives, but not equally well on all of my devices

Many of my daily digital habits have changed over the past decade and change, but one has not: I still check an RSS app to see what’s new at a couple of dozen sites. Even as the social-media and news landscapes have gone through multiple cycles of destruction and reinvention, the standard originally called Really Simple Syndication remains one of my preferred ways to know when a favorite site has published new posts.

The core advantages of RSS (which you may find easier to call “Web feeds” if you’re trying to cut back on tech abbrevations) remain unchanged from what I wrote here in 2015:

One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS.

That last angle allowed me to move on from Google’s capricious decision to kill its Google Reader RSS service–on a scale of that company’s faceplants, it’s up there with Google Glass–and switch to Feedly’s RSS platform.

The individual apps I use on my various devices, however, have changed a bit since then.

My favorite among them is the free and open-source NetNewsWire–the iPad version of Brent Simmons’ labor of love more so than the Mac edition. On my tablet, this app displays a simple count of unread articles (which, sadly but typically enough, is once again near triple digits as I write this) and lets me read each one in full without switching to Safari. On my desktop, NNW also displays that app-icon badge count but requires a switch to Safari to read a new post if the site, like most, doesn’t publish a full-text RSS feed–meaning I’m taken out of my reading workflow and then have yet another tab to remember to read and then close.

On my Pixel 5a phone, I use Feedly’s Android app. The free version stuffs some ads into feeds, which I don’t mind all that much since they’re so easy to skip, and it does let me read entire posts in its built-in browser instead of requiring a switch to Chrome. But Feedly’s app doesn’t even try to support Android’s notifications system (if only that OS feature supported not just adding a colored dot to an app icon to indicate new content but a count of unread items as iOS does), so it’s too easy to ignore its green icon on my home screen.

On Windows, I have a different problem: NextGen Reader, a fave of critics in the previous decade, still works fine–with the convenient feature of an unread-articles count on its taskbar button, but without in-app reading of original posts–but also appears completely abandoned. A decade after its debut in the Microsoft Store, it’s gone from that app market, its Twitter account has been silent since February of 2021, and the developers’ site now redirects to a generic parked-domain page.

And the other Windows RSS apps that I’d considered before settling on NextGen five years ago look equally moribund. So I don’t know what I’ll do if this apparently fossilized Windows app stops working–except, perhaps, reach for my iPad instead.

A long-distance tech-nerd reunion

WAIMEA, Hawaii–One major upside of flying almost 4,800 miles to attend a tech event here was finally catching up with a lot of tech-journalism friends I hadn’t seen in almost two years… many of whom live only 235 miles north of my home.

Two torches lit on a beach, with the ocean and a post-sunset sky in shades of coral beyond it.

But for whatever reason, New York has yet to host any high-profile tech events that would have given all of us an excuse to meet somewhere in NYC. Instead, Qualcomm staged its Snapdragon Tech Summit at a resort here and covered lodging and airfare for invited journalists and analysts (me included, something I discussed in more length in a post for Patreon readers). And so in between keynotes and demos, I’ve had versions of the following conversations:

  • remembering how much work it was to get vaccinated early in this year and the continued frustration of having friends or family members who still refuse to get vaxxed;
  • testimony about surviving COVID-19 infections; one friend recalled being barely able to breathe at the worst moments, something that sounds utterly horrifying;
  • shared sighs over the psychic damage a year of pandemic-enforced isolation has done to our kids (usually followed by me feeling guilty over leaving my wife alone to deal with that);
  • recaps of what it was like reunite with distant family members after months of living a coronavirus-cloistered existence;
  • comparing when we started traveling for work again, to where, and for what purposes;
  • discussions of who will be at CES and MWC, and if those events will happen at all given the rapid spread and unclear risk of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus..

That last question felt somewhat safe to contemplate on an island that requires either a negative test or proof of vaccination if visitors want to avoid a mandatory quarantine–see, who says a vaccination mandate for air travel is impossible here?–but now we’re going home to uncertain futures.

My next travel will be for Christmas, after which I’ve got flights and lodging booked for Las Vegas and Barcelona, all refundable. I would like to be able to proceed with those plans and see at least some of my tech-nerd friends in those cities, but it’s not up to me.

Reminder to journalists: If you don’t build your own index, nobody else will

Today marks 10 years since I finally got around to self-assigning myself a weekly writing task: sum up where I’d written, spoken or been quoted over the past week. As much as I’ve sometimes resented having to bang out a “Weekly output” post when I’ve been jet-lagged, sick or both, it’s been time well spent.

The immediate upside of that first weekly recap of my work–which I chose to write on a Saturday for reasons that no longer resonate, then shifted to Sundays after a few months–was forcing me to write here more regularly. I’d have to inventory what I’d done to make a living once a week… and then I’d need to find something else to write about each week to avoid having this corner of the Web become a cringe-inducing exercise in self-promotion.

(Whether I have succeeded in that aspiration is a separate question.)

But as weeks of these recaps turned to months and then years, I realized that maintaining my own index of my work was my best defense against search-unfriendly sites and link rot. I can’t stop management at a client from breaking links or shutting down the entire operation, but having the original page addresses here means I can always plug them into the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to see if that worthy San Francisco non-profit squirreled away its own copies of the pages.

In more recent years, various services have stepped up to streamline the task of providing an index of your published output. For example, friends of mine seem happy with Authory, which charges $96 a year for automatic backup of your posts, including marketing and analytics features. I remain content with my DIY approach, since it keeps this chronological index on the site Google (and other search engines) most closely associate with me.

But if you write for a living, which tool you pick up to preserve your online work matters much less than your committing to take charge of that. You can’t expect employers or clients to preserve your online work for more than the first several years after publication; you need to do something for yourself, and if you didn’t start that a decade ago, now is still a good time.

More pandemic-recovery milestones: Northeast Corridor travel, a journalism conference

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.

Photo shows the footings of the footings railroad bridge in the Susquehanna River as seen from the current bridge, with the sun obscured by fog and part of the overhead catenary visible.

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.

An update on my Forbes experiment

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?

If I am, and if I decide to call it a day for this experiment, I will have no regrets. I’ve been able to address important topics–for example, Apple’s retelling of app-distribution history, the self-owns of some senators trying to interrogate tech CEOs, Google’s abusive conduct of its display-advertising business, President Trump’s clumsy and illegal attempts to regulate social media–as I saw fit. (Thinking about that, it would have been nice to toss up a post Thursday about the lawsuit by 36 states and D.C. against Google over its control of the Play Store instead of limiting my commentary to a Twitter thread that made me no money at all.) And the effort I put into focusing on media-policy issues also made me a sharper, better-sourced reporter in that area.

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.

Ten years without a real job

I have now somehow clocked a decade of self-employment, and I won’t even pretend that was the plan when my status as a Washington Post employee officially expired on April 29, 2011. At the time, I assumed I would spend not too many weeks as a gentleman of leisure, then find a place where I could resume covering the things I cared about in the world of technology.

(By which I mean, not rewriting Apple rumors.)

Photo shows a 1 and a 0 from a toddler's alphabet set, as seen resting on graph paper.

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.

They also let me start seeing what I’d missed at the events that had never been in the cards for me at the Post–like SXSW, MWC and the Online News Association’s annual gathering–and begin to develop my own sideline as a conference speaker.

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.

Daily newsletters I delete every day–only after reading them

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.