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?

Election Day 2020, from 5:05 a.m. to 9:21 p.m.

I had my longest workday of the year (or so I can only hope) Tuesday when I served as an election officer for Arlington County, my fourth time this year. Here’s how things went, hour by hour.

  • 5:05 a.m. It’s near freezing out and Venus still sits fairly high in the sky as I arrive. I join 11 other poll workers in setting up the hardware, including two ballot scanners. We decide to keep the exit door open to ensure the space stays well ventilated.

  • 5:43 a.m. Ballots come in shrink-wrapped packs of 100 each, but I’ve hand-counted 200, 10 at a time, to ensure we know just how many we give to voters and can compare that total with how many went into the ballot scanner. (Voters can request a new ballot if they make a mistake, after which we mark the old one “spoiled,” record it on a sheet, and put the spoiled ballot into a large envelope.) Halfway through that, I decided I was too tired to try practicing my French and Spanish by counting to 10 in each language. 

  • 5:45 a.m. I look outside and see there’s already a line of voters waiting.

  • 6 a.m. Polls open, and voters stream in. Four minutes later, we have our first voter with a dog; the pup wears an American-flag bandanna. We don’t get a break until 35 minutes later, and 29 minutes after that, we see our first parent to bring a kid.

  • 6:59 a.m. Working the ballot table doesn’t leave me much to do, except when a voter makes a mistake and wants a new ballot. The first such spoiled one goes into the designated envelope. 

  • 7:39 a.m. For the first time in four elections I’ve worked, a ballot gets jammed in the scanner. Rebooting the device, as advised by tech support, doesn’t work, but unlocking it from the ballot receptacle and sliding it free revealed a ballot with a folded corner that had gotten hung up on its way out of the machine.

  • 8:07 a.m. A crew for the German television network ARD stops inside to film for a segment that airs without this interior footage. Two minutes later, we have our first voter requesting a provisional ballot after (if I heard this correctly from across the room) their requested absentee ballot did not arrive.

  • 8:53 a.m. Ugh, so tired. Coffee delivery not due to happen until 9:30 a.m., also known as four and a half hours after we got to work.

  • 9:38 a.m. Where is that coffee?

  • 9:42 a.m. COFFEE! ☕ I enjoy this with a second breakfast of homemade scones.

  • 11:12 a.m. A man arrives wearing a mask, sunglasses and a hat, as if to point out the questionable utility of Virginia’s now-repealed photo-ID requirement in a pandemic.

  • 12:40 p.m. Can’t lie, I just nodded off behind the ballot table.

  • 1:10 p.m. Things slow down enough for me to enjoy the lunch I’d packed eight-plus hours ago at a picnic table outside.

  • 1:37 p.m. Time to charge my phone, which I have been checking for news way too often despite the lack of useful insights on the election.

  • 2:30 p.m. After switching to the poll-book table, I discovered that KnowInk’s Poll Pad app may have issues with surnames longer than one word. First I couldn’t find a voter whose last name began with the Arabic prefix “al-” (I had to type it without the hyphen), and then it didn’t spot somebody with a “di ” Italian prefix until I entered that without a space.

  • 2:49 p.m. The poll worker who took over my spot at the ballot table gives us some excitement when she discovers one pack of ballots contain only 99, not the specified 100.

  • 3:43 p.m. Voter check-in involves us looking up the voter by name in the app, then asking them to say their address. If they recently moved but are in the same precinct, we can fix that on the spot. I see this with several voters, including one gentleman who forgot to update his home address while his wife, with him to vote, had.

  • 5:48 p.m. I hand off poll-book duty to take a spot by the scanner, where I tell voters the scanner will read their ballot whether they feed it in upside-down, right side up, forwards or backwards–then invite them to take a sticker, one of the best parts  of this job.

  • 7 p.m. The two scanners recorded a total of 358 votes, exactly matching the number of ballots handed out and not spoiled. That’s light turnout–we saw 1,046 voters for the March 3 Democratic presidential primary–except this precinct already had 1,585 voters cast ballots in advance.

  • 7:18 p.m. We print the results from the scanners, revealing both vote totals and images of everybody’s write-in votes. They range from Calvin Coolidge to Tony Bennett (unclear if the voter meant the singer or UVA’s basketball coach) to “EAT SHIT.”

  • 7:54 p.m. Having printed and signed the results and extracted the flash drives from each that contain images of every ballot, we can stow the scanners. We then collect the ballots and secure them in a sealed box.

  • 9:21 p.m. After an hour of collecting various pieces of paper, signing them, tucking them in designated envelopes and sealing those, then stowing the rest of the election hardware, we’re done. The precinct chief thanks us, and we give him a round of applause. A late dinner awaits.

Warning: Election work may be habit-forming

For the third time this year–and the second time in three weeks–I woke up at 4 a.m. to start a workday that wouldn’t end until after 8 p.m.

I had thought at the time that the almost 16 hours I spent March 3 staffing the Democratic presidential primary would be my one-and-done immersion in the field. I’d learned firsthand about voter identification rules, the importance of a simple paper-ballot user experience, and the intense care taken to verifying the process and the results, and a second round didn’t seem that it could teach me much more.

But then the novel-coronavirus pandemic led many older poll workers to opt out, while my freelance work has yet to fill up my schedule in the way it did a year ago. After reading enough stories about electoral debacles in other states, I had to re-up when my precinct chief e-mailed to ask if I could work the June 23 Republican primary and the July 7 special election to fill an Arlington County Board seat.

I also figured that I wouldn’t see much of a crowd on either day. That was especially true for the GOP primary, when only 41 voters showed up (all of whom I appreciated for doing so) for the election that determined Daniel Gade would run against Sen. Mark Warner. I was glad that I’d brought a book to read, and that my colleagues for the day proved to be good company.

Tuesday saw 114 voters cast ballots to help put Takis Karantonis on the County Board. It also featured better protective gear for poll workers, in the form of comfortable cloth face masks with nicely-official-looking “Election Officer” labels as well as acrylic shields for the poll-book workers checking in voters.

Tuesday was also the last election to feature the photo-ID requirements that the General Assembly repealed this spring. This time, with voters consistently wearing their own masks, looking at tiny black-and-white thumbnail portraits on driver’s licenses was even more of a formality compared to the older and simpler method of asking each voter to state their name and address and then matching that to their entry in the poll book.

One of the other people working this election made a point of saying “see you in November!” to each voter. The resulting enthusiastic responses ranged from “You bet!” to “hell yes” to “I’ll be here at 4 a.m.”

That’s going to be a big deal and a lot of work. Friday morning, the precinct chief e-mailed Tuesday’s crew to thank us for the work and express his hope that we’d be on to help with the general election in November… and, yes, I think I see where this is going for me.

Protests, vicariously

Donald Trump’s administration began with American cities packed with protesters, and today–150 days before Election Day–their streets are again overflowing with people exercising their First Amendment rights.

The situation in 2020 is more grave than in 2017. People aren’t marching to show their rejection of one new president and the prospect of his authoritarian misrule, but their anger about an entire system that tolerates the killing of black people by police and neighbors for little more than living in their American skin. These protests are happening while a global pandemic makes large gatherings dangerous, especially for those not wearing a mask.

And too many police have greeted these protesters–and sometimes journalists–with beatings, tear gas, bullets sold as non-lethal, and even bike theft. These alleged law-enforcement professionals could have picked no surer way to show that people denouncing police abuse of power have a point.

But as I did three and a half years ago, I stayed home today to perform the modern-parenting task of watching our kid while my wife marched.

My entire experience of what’s going on around the newly-fortified area formerly known as the White House grounds, just a few miles from my home, has been weirdly distant. About the only difference in my daily routine has been hearing what might be a few more sirens, which could reflect a response to protests or the occasional and disgraceful outbreak of looting or could have been first-responder business as usual.

The one protest I’ve seen firsthand happened Tuesday around the Clarendon Metro; it was peaceful, and the Arlington County police officers watching it did not wear riot gear. At another protest in Arlington last weekend, my spouse (a county government employee with no role in law enforcement) noted that ACPD officers cleared a lane of traffic and handed out water bottles.

Some of the same officers, however, responded Monday to a mutual-aid-agreement request by the U.S. Park Police and helped forcibly clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square so President Trump could have his picture taken fondling a Bible outside St. John’s Church.

Arlington’s police leadership has since shown itself willing to hear constructive criticism, and once again I feel insulated from the problems around me. 

All of which is to say, the past two weeks have provided the opportunity and the need for me to consider my own privilege in this society and how each of the few times I’ve been pulled over by a cop, it’s left me to fear little beyond getting points on my insurance.

Things I learned from working a primary election

After more than 15 years of writing about voting-machine security, I finally got some hands-on experience in the field–by waking up at 4 a.m. and working a 16-hour day.

I’d had the idea in my head for a while, thanks to frequent reminders from such election-security experts as Georgetown Law’s Matt Blaze that the best way to learn how elections work is to work one yourself. And I finally realized in January that I’d be in town for the March 3 Democratic primary and, as a self-employed type, could take the whole day off.

I applied at Arlington’s site by filling out a short form, and about two hours later got a confirmation of my appointment as an election officer. (My wife works for Arlington’s Department of Technology Services but has no role in election administration.) A training class Feb. 11 outlined the basics of the work and sent me home with a thick binder of documentation–yes, I actually read it–and on March 3, I woke up two minutes before my 4 a.m. alarm.

After packing myself a lunch and snacks, as if I were going to grade school, and powering through some cereal, I arrived at my assigned polling place just before the instructed start time of 5 a.m. I left a little before 9 p.m. Here are the big things I learned over those 16 hours:

  • Yes, having people fill out paper ballots and scan them in works. I saw 500-plus voters do that while I tended the scanner in the morning, and none had the machine reject their ballot. There was confusion over which way to insert that ballot, but the scanner accommodated that by reading them whether they were inserted upside down, right-side up, forwards or backwards. (I wish more machines were that tolerant of human variances in input.) And at the end of the day, we had a box full of ballots that will be kept for a year.
  • The technology overall appeared to be of higher quality than the grotesquely insecure, Windows-based Winvote touchscreen machines on which I voted for too many years. This scanner was an offline model running a build of Linux, while the poll-book apps ran on a set of iPads.
  • The “vote fraud” rationale for imposing photo ID requirements is not only fraudulent, but photo IDs themselves are overrated. The state allows a really broad selection of public- and private-sector IDs—unavoidable unless you want to make it obvious that you’re restricting the franchise to older and wealthier voters—and our instructions required us to be liberal in accepting those. I didn’t see or hear of anybody getting rejected for an ID mismatch. (The one surprise was how many people showed up with passports; I quickly grew to appreciate their larger color photos over the tiny black-and-white thumbnails on drivers’ licenses.)
  • Asking people to state their name and address, then matching that against voter-registration records, does work. That also happens to be how voter check-in used to work in Virginia before Republicans in the General Assembly shoved through the photo-ID requirement that’s now been reversed by the new Democratic majority in Richmond.
  • You know who really loves high turnout? Election officers who otherwise have some pretty dull hours in mid-morning and then mid-afternoon. At one point, the person in charge of the ballot scanner busied himself by arranging stickers into a bitmapped outline of Virginia, then added a layer of stickers on top of that to represent I-95 and I-66. Fortunately, precinct 44 blew away past primary-turnout records with a total of 1,046 in-person votes.
  • The attention to detail I saw was almost liturgical. Every hour, the precinct chief did a count of voters checked in and votes cast to ensure the numbers matched; every record was done in at least duplicate; every piece of paper was signed by at least two election officers, and the overall SOR (statement of results) bore the signatures of all eight of us. We closed out the night by putting documents and records in specified, numbered envelopes, each locked with a numbered zip-tie lock; each number was recorded on a piece of paper on the outside of each envelope that was itself signed by two election officers.
  • Serving as an election officer isn’t physically demanding work, but it does make for a long day. We did have coffee delivered, but it didn’t arrive until 9 a.m., and nobody had time for dinner during the rush to close out things after the polls closed.
  • It’s also not the most lucrative work ever. My paycheck arrived Friday: $175, amounting to an hourly wage of $10.94. The value of seeing the attention paid to make democracy work and then watching more than a thousand people show up to exercise their rights: priceless.

Updated 3/23/2020 to fix some formatting glitches.

This weak excuse for a winter

All this month, Facebook has been reminding me of the epic blizzards that hit D.C. a decade ago–as if I needed more reasons to feel cranky about Facebook.

Where February of 2010 saw D.C. get whomped with almost 30 inches of snow in a week, this miserable excuse for a winter has yet to grace my city with an inch of snow total.

I have yet to ski anywhere this season. And with the eroding accumulations at the local ski areas, it looks like I’m either going to have to fly somewhere or hope for a March blizzard to avoid breaking a streak of skiing somewhere and somehow every winter–downhill or cross-country–that dates to 1997.

And what if next year’s winter is just as warm as this one’s? And for every year after? Global warming sucks… and being deprived of local snow sports is one of the least painful elements of this problem we continue to cook up.

Yes, having a Washington winter act more like what passes for that season in the Bay Area has offered some advantages. I’ve biked a lot more than I would expect, including a great ride through Rock Creek Park last Sunday (as seen in the photo above). Our yard is already waking up to spring, with the first lilies already popping out of the ground and arugula and parsley still growing since last fall.

But I’d trade all that for a freeze followed by low clouds dumping six inches of snow all around. Or even four: My cross-country skis are already trashed, so all I really want is an excuse to air them out instead of them collecting more dust in the basement.

A better time of year to bikeshare

The arrival of fall around here means three things to me: pears replacing peaches at farmers’ markets, a chance to grow a second crop of arugula, and a notable increase in my Capital Bikeshare mileage.

Between the temperature dropping into the 50s and summer’s stagnant humidity finally lifting, I no longer have to worry about rolling up to my destination glistening dripping with sweat. Meanwhile, the fall colors on the trees has the city looking pretty great, even if the leaves don’t get as vibrant as in New England. So why not bike instead of taking Metro?

Over the last few years, the growing network of bike lanes and the continued expansion of Capital Bikeshare’s network has made this an easier proposition. And when I can dock a bike to end a rental and then take the same bike out–“dock surfing“–I can reach just about anyplace downtown or on Capitol Hill without paying any extra charges. You can’t say that for those increasingly expensive e-scooters.

(My usual stations to daisy-chain free rentals: 24th and Pennsylvania NW if I’m riding to downtown, Lincoln Memorial if I’m headed to the Hill.)

So I’m seeing more of Washington than usual, I’m getting some moderate exercise, and I’m saving money–I’ve already recouped almost all of the $85 annual fee in saved Metro fares. What’s not to like?

Well, the chance that some inattentive driver will hit me. I got a reminder of that risk two weeks ago when one driver merged abruptly into a bike lane ahead of my wife, leading to her stopping abruptly, crashing, and breaking her collarbone. Yes, again. Could you all please try harder to share the road?

A World Series title comes home to Washington

World Series celebrations were things for other cities.

That’s what I knew for a fact during the long twilight years when the city I chose didn’t have a baseball team. The next 14 years–first salted with 100-loss futility, then scarred with first-round postseason exits–didn’t shake my fear that I’d live my entire life while watching other places’ players jump on each other on an infield in October.

But that just happened. For my city. In my lifetime.

The Washington Nationals beat the Houston Astros 6-2 in a game 7 that wasn’t supposed to happen after… the team started the season with a 19-31 record… our bullpen was revealed to be built partially out of balsa wood… we had to claw our way into the postseason via a come-from-behind wild-card win against the Brewers… we needed five games to beat Los Angeles in the division series and crush our own postseason curse… we swept St. Louis and jumped to a two-game lead over Houston that we then refunded to find ourselves down 3-2, needing to win two games on the road.

(By then, it looked like the primary accomplishment of our ill-spent World Series homestand would be providing an appropriate and deserved greeting to President Trump. Readers: It’s your right to boo a politician making a public appearance at a baseball game–and if that politician otherwise hides from all unfriendly audiences, booing might be your obligation as a citizen.)

We grabbed game 6 from the Astros, but game 7 saw us staring down eight outs from a second-place finish that I would have accepted. Can’t lie: I thought we were smoked then.

Wrong. We did it. We flipped the script. The Nats are world champions. They can replace the blank white flag that’s flown over the Nationals Park scoreboard since the venue’s 2008 opening with a pennant bearing four digits: 2019.

Your Sunday chore: Cheer on Marine Corps Marathon runners

There’s a huge athletic event taking place in our nation’s capital this weekend that you don’t want to miss.

No, not the World Series (but how freaking amazing is that?!). The Marine Corps Marathon takes place Sunday in D.C. and Arlington, and watching that is a vastly cheaper than a ticket to Nationals Park. Plus, the runners could use your support.

If you live in Rosslyn, Georgetown or Crystal City, all neighborhoods through which the course runs, you’ll have little choice but to spectate. But between Metro and bikeshare, you should have plenty of chances to find a less-mobbed part of the course (read: not on the National Mall or in Rosslyn) to cheer on runners. My advice would be to find a spot later on in the course, when they’re more likely to appreciate the encouragement.

My longtime favorite spot has been the Virginia end of the 14th Street Bridge, a cruel stretch of concrete near the 20-mile mark that is one of the most brutal parts of the run. But two years ago, police turned away spectators there, so I had to bike over to Crystal City.

What if you don’t know anybody running? Just look at what they’re wearing. Lots of runners write their names on their shirts, so you can cheer them on directly instead of shouting variations of “Go runners!” and “You got this!” Many others will wear shirts with their college or other affiliations on them, which is your chance to give an on-brand shout-out.

That’s also your chance to set aside all your usual sports rivalries. As a Georgetown grad, I’m prepared to yell “Go Orange!” if I see somebody running in a Syracuse shirt or give a “Blue Devil!” shout to a runner in Duke attire… okay, the latter gesture might still make me feel a little dirty inside.

There is, however, one risk to this. Speaking from experience, seeing the determination etched into people’s faces may make you want to run the Marine Corps Marathon yourself.

The Nats aren’t done playing baseball this year

A postseason series involving the Washington Nationals ended last night, and I did not wake up this morning feeling like I got hit by a truck.

That’s a novel experience. Every prior postseason appearance by the Nats–2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, which followed seven years of playoff-deprived baseball, which themselves followed 33 0-0 seasons in D.C.–left me not just staggering-around tired but emotionally crushed.

It wasn’t enough for us to lose the division series. Each time, we had to lose after giving ourselves a serious chance to win–in 2012, getting an out away from the National League Championship Series.

It looked like game five in Los Angeles would follow that dismal pattern. Previously unhittable Stephen Strasburg gave up a home run in each of the first two innings to put us in a 3-0 hole against the 106-win Dodgers that we still had not escaped by the start of the eighth inning.

The only consolation it seemed we could claim would be reaching the NLDS at all–via a thrilling come-from-behind win over the Brewers in the wild-card game–after nobody expected the Nats to play anything but golf in October after a wretched 19-31 start.

But then history did not repeat itself. Solo home runs by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto tied the game and sent it to extra innings, Howie Kendrick’s grand slam sent the Nats bustin’ loose, and bedlam erupted in front of TVs.

And now the Washington Nationals are going to St. Louis to see if they can’t pay back the Cardinals for 2012 and win a pennant for D.C. for the first time since 1933 (the first Nationals) and 1948 (the Homestead Grays).

In the meantime, we know we’ll never again have to hear people carp that the Nats have never won a playoff series–the same way the Capitals blew up their Death Star by finally beating Pittsburgh in a postseason series last summer. The Caps weren’t content to kill off just one sports curse, and I trust the Nats aren’t either.

If only I weren’t going to be out of town for every NLCS home game next week…