Tax-time thoughts, 2019 edition

It looks like we didn’t get crushed by taxes this year, even if we did owe money to the IRS. That’s nice, since we skipped the one step we were supposed to take to avoid an April 15 financial hit.

2018 Form 1040I knew going into filing season that last year’s tax changes (I prefer not to call them “reform,” as that suggests progress unsupported by the evidence) would slash our deductions. In the bargain, I’d get a 20 percent break on my self-employment income, what the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 calls the Qualified Business Income Deduction; our rates would drop somewhat; and we’d lose personal exemptions but gain a child tax credit.

Which ones would outweigh the others? It appears that the rate cuts and the self-employment break made the bigger difference, leaving us paying just over 20 percent on our taxable income compared to the 24 percent we paid on a lower taxable income last year. And that’s even though my spouse did not adjust her tax withholding as recommended.

But without the self-employment deduction–be advised that tax accounting is not exactly one of my core competencies–it looks like we would have paid a higher rate.

(No, I won’t provide raw totals. I also use verbs like “appears” because once again, I filed for an extension: I caught some dumb oversights in last year’s return that should slightly lower our bill, but I won’t finish filing until that amended return clears.)

After spending seven years dealing with a tax code that treats self-employment as something to be fined, it’s nice to get a break for it instead. But I also know that the tax code continues to favor investment income over money made from actual work, I continue to resent how it’s gamed by people with the really good accountants and tax lawyers, and I can’t ignore that the tax savings delivered by this rushed bill are paid for by running up the national debt and having the lower rates expire after 2025.

Sorry, politicians: You’re not going to be able to bribe me this way. You know what sort of new tax regime would get my interest? One that didn’t keep me wondering how much we’d owe until I’d pounded through hours of punching numbers into a tax-prep program.

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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.

The old financial records that I do keep

It’s now two months until tax day, which means that it’s time for some financial paperwork. By that I don’t mean starting my 2018 return–I haven’t even gotten all my 1099s yet–but discarding records from prior years that no longer retain any legal relevance.

This tidying up has sent a raft of old statements and forms into the recycling (with every instance of a Social Security Number torn out for subsequent shredding), and now the file cabinet is no longer packed so tight.

But there are some tax and financial records that I’m keeping even though I no longer have to: the 1040s, W-2s, and checkbooks of my college and post-college years.

Those documents tell a story of a simpler and more painful financial time–an annual income in the low twenties, paychecks with only three figures to the left of the decimal point, ATM withdrawals that rarely exceeded $30, and a checking-account balance that I struggled to keep above $2,000.

(Fortunately, rents around D.C. were a lot cheaper then.)

Being reminded of the cramped state of my finances back then helps me feel better about them today, even after all the lousy things that have happened to the journalism business lately.

But the more important part of this exercise is not cultivating nostalgia but renewing empathy–for anybody who’s living paycheck to paycheck, or who’s just a slow month or a government shutdown away from having their bank balance erode enough to show only three digits to the left of the decimal point.

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.

Here’s the Google spreadsheet I use to track my expenses

A friend of mine started freelancing at the end of last year, so I decided to give him a boring but useful present: a blank copy of the Google Docs spreadsheet I use to track my expenses.

old calculatorA systematic, easily smartphone-accessible way to record the costs of doing business–organized so you can copy the year-end totals into your Schedule C tax form–is exactly the thing I needed when I started freelancing almost eight years ago. Instead, I had to survive some excruciatingly stupid accounting practices and eventually thumb-wrestle my way to marginal competence.

I was glad to give my friend a boost past that phase, and now I want to do the same for any self-employed types reading this. Here you go: Make a copy of this template (go to the File menu and select “Make a copy…”) to your Google account and get to work.

This template is organized by types of expense, with the biggest categories in my case–travel and meals and entertainment–getting their own sheets. When possible, I’ve aligned types of costs with TurboTax’s vocabulary to reduce springtime tax-prep confusion. In addition, you’ll see a box in which you can plug in the relevant numbers for a home-office deduction, but I recognize that not every 1099-income type will claim that.

I’ve also left comments throughout the spreadsheet (look for the orange triangle at the upper-right corner of a cell) explaining what goes where. If you see ways to simplify this or if you think the spreadsheet is missing an important angle, please let me know in an e-mail or a comment below this post.

I hope this help. Good luck with your business!

CES 2019 travel-tech report: overcoming oversights

I’ve survived another CES, this time after committing two of the dumber unforced errors possible at an enormous tech trade show.

One was not arranging an update to the Wirecutter LTE-hotspots guide to coincide with CES, such that I’d have to bring a couple of new hotspots to the show. Instead, I was left to cope with intermittently available press-room and press-conference WiFi.

It confounds me that in 2019, anybody would think it okay to host a press event and not provide bandwidth to the press. But that’s CES for you, when either PR professionals or their clients seem to shove common sense into the shredder.

Fortunately, the show press rooms offered wired Internet, so I could fish out my USB-to-Ethernet adapter and get online as I would have 20 years ago. A couple of other times, I tethered off my phone.

On its second CES, my HP Spectre x360 laptop worked fine except for the one morning it blue-screened, then rebooted without a working touchpad. I had to open Device Manager and delete that driver to get it working once again. I also couldn’t help think this doesn’t charge as fast as my old MacBook Air, but I’m still happier with a touchscreen laptop that I can fold up to use as a tablet–and which didn’t gouge me on storage.

My other big CES error was leaving the laptop’s charger in the press room at the Sands. I looked up and realized I had only 30 minutes to get to an appointment at the Las Vegas Convention Center, hurriedly unplugged what I thought was everything, and only realized my oversight an hour later. Fortunately, a call to the Sands press room led to the people there spotting the charger and safeguarding it until I retrieved it the next morning.

Meanwhile, my first-gen Google Pixel declined to act its age. It never froze up or crashed on me, took good pictures and recharged quickly over both its own power adapter and the laptop’s. I am never again buying a phone and laptop that don’t share a charging-cable standard.

I also carried around a brick of an external charger, an 8,000 milliamp-hours battery included in the swag at a security conference in D.C. I covered in October. This helped when I was walking around but didn’t charge the Pixel as quickly, and leaving the charger and phone in my bag usually led to the cable getting jostled out of the Pixel.

The other new tech accessory I brought on this trip made no difference on the show floor but greatly improved my travel to Vegas: a pair of Bose QC25 noise-cancelling headphones that I bought at a steep discount during Amazon’s Prime Day promotion. These things are great, and now I totally get why so many frequent flyers swear by them.