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.

It’s not the most wonderful week of the year

It’s after 7 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas, and I wrapped up my workweek and  checked off the last major Christmas chores barely an hour ago. Unfortunately, this is not a departure from my holiday habits.

I’ve never been one of those people who can have all presents purchased and wrapped by a week before Christmas. Every year, the back half of December has me scrambling to find worthy presents for family members until I’m worrying more than I should about Amazon shipping deadlines–or finding that I’ve slipped past the wrong side of them. The joy of the holidays escapes me too easily.

At the same time, the advent of CES–Evil Advent, if you will–and the usual onslaught of PR pitches for exhibitors at that enormous electronics show steadily destroys my ability to focus on my day job. My inability to learn from prior gift-shopping experience seems to be matched by the tech-PR industry’s inability to learn that flooding journalists’ inboxes with repetitive or irrelevant pitches–often coupled with invitations to CES events scheduled in defiance of that show’s schedule and traffic, and often followed by cold calls that are never a good idea—-does not constitute effective outreach.

Being treated as if I have an infinite amount of time to evaluate and respond to CES pitches that themselves assume I’ll have an infinite amount of time in Las Vegas during the show is especially maddening when I’m already feeling strung out by the holidays and struggling to write and file the year’s last stories so I might have a few days around Christmas to do as much of nothing as possible before getting on a plane to Vegas.

It is easy to slip into both workload paralysis and errand paralysis, feeling too overwhelmed to do anything that isn’t due this hour and then feeling lousy for getting so little done. That’s a cruel little cocktail of stress and shame, and I imagine many of you have mixed it for yourselves this month.

The last workweek before Christmas is the worst for this, since at that point there’s almost no time left for the holiday chores and the CES planning and the year’s last crop of stories. Plus, most of the good holiday parties already happened.

All of this stress boiled over Thursday morning, when call from a 646 number I was sure I didn’t want to take set Google Voice ringing on my phone, tablet and desktop. As I cursed at my computer and reached for my phone to dismiss the call, I answered it instead. Oops. There’s a Toyota publicist who probably thinks I’m some unhinged nutcase… which might not be that far off from my frazzled state this time of year.

What to expect from me on Twitter

A few years ago, the sci-fi author John Scalzi decided to write an explanation of how he uses Twitter, then pinned a tweet linking to that post to his profile so anybody thinking of following him could easily find it. That’s a good idea, so I am stealing it.

Birds want to fly.

What I tweet about: I’ve often used the phrase “public notebook” to describe my tweets–in the sense that I share observations about the things I’m writing about as I learn them. Twitter remains highly useful for that, and for learning about various tech accomplishments and failures as other people report them.

I don’t just stick to tech, though. You will also find me rambling on about politics (writing freelance means I can ignore any stupid newsroom verdicts asking reporters to pretend they don’t think about the issues they cover), food, travel, gardening, space, sports (usually baseball), transportation, architecture, music, and parenting. Yes, there will be dad jokes.

Whom I follow: Most of the nearly 1,000 people I follow have some connection to the tech industry–they’re other tech journalists, analysts, policy advocates or industry executives. I also follow many politicians, in some cases because I think they have notable things to say about tech policy and other cases because I kind of have to (trust me, I’d rather not have Donald Trump’s rants in my timeline). Some companies are in my following list for customer-support purposes, and some friends are there because I like hearing from them. And in one case, I followed a reader by accident after fat-fingering the “follow” button, then decided to let that stand.

Why I might not follow you: While I’ve overcome my early snobbishness about cluttering my timeline with too many people, I’m still not going to follow somebody just because they ask. And “follow me back so I can DM you” is the worst kind of follow-me request. My e-mail address is in my bio for a reason, people!

I use the block button: I still don’t block people all that often, but if somebody is wasting my time with bad-faith arguments, I don’t owe them my attention. And tweeting nutcase conspiracy theories at me–about Seth Rich’s murder, to name the most common–will get you blocked almost immediately.

My DMs aren’t open: Direct messages can be useful as a replacement for text-message banter, but I don’t have my DMs open for everybody for the same reason I don’t invite the world to text me–I don’t need my life to be any more interrupt-driven. So if you were thinking of sending me a PR pitch via DM: My e-mail address is in my bio for a reason.

Retweets might be endorsements: Retweets always mean I want the original tweet to get a wider exposure, but that doesn’t mean I think highly of them. You can be sure that I hate a tweet if I share a screengrab of it to avoid accidentally popularizing that tweet or its author (and I wish more of you would do that instead of having Twitter’s algorithm think some idiot’s output deserves broader publicity). If, however, I retweet without adding any commentary, I probably do approve of that message.

Other notes: I’m frequently sarcastic, which can go over poorly in a medium that destroys context. I often live-tweet events like tech conferences, which can make my feed really busy. I have almost never done any live video on Twitter but probably should. And because I am a sci-fi nerd, my proudest moment on Twitter just might be getting retweeted by Mark Hamill.

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?

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.

Please stop asking for my “best number”

Too many of my interactions with public-relations types and the people they represent conclude with a pointless question: “What’s your best number?”

That query is a waste of time because my phone number, 202-683-7948, should be obvious: It’s in the signature that appears at the end of almost every e-mail I send as well as on my business cards.

Besides, as a self-employed individual in the 21st century, I don’t use any other number for work.

My absence of a desk line should be obvious: Why bother when I already have a smartphone on my person at almost all times? But the number on my wireless plan isn’t my work number either.

You might see me call from a 703-area-code number if both WiFi connectivity and mobile broadband are awful, but there’s no upside to returning my call at those digits. If I have any cellular signal, calls to my work number will ring through to my cell–and even if my phone is offline, they’ll still reach the rest of my devices.

Yes, I’m one of those people using a Google Voice number, even after years of Google’s intermittent neglect of that service. I’ve had this GV number–again, 202-683-7948, which may be easier to remember as 202-OVERWIT–since 2007, when a friend got me an invite to the closed beta test of GrandCentral, the company Google bought before relaunching its service as Google Voice.

And not only do I have those digits mapped to my regular gadgets, they also reach me in WhatsApp and Signal. I would have done the same with WeChat but couldn’t–which turned out not to matter, since my cell number is invisible in that app.

I trust that’s cleared up how to reach me telephonically. Now can you all also remember that if I don’t pick up when you call, you’re supposed to either leave a voicemail or send a follow-up e-mail?

The conference that got away: Viva Tech 2018

In an alternate universe, Sunday’s recap of my last week’s work would have included a round of panels at Viva Technology Paris, the growing tech gathering that’s now in its third year. In 2016 and 2017, I moderated a round of discussions and got my travel covered, which was an excellent way to go to one of my favorite cities.

That didn’t happen this year, and I’m the reason why. I didn’t think to e-mail anybody involved with the conference until a third of the way through April, which in retrospect was absurdly late for an event of this size. I got a reply a few days later, saying they were “quite advanced” in assigning panels but wanted to know if there were particular topics I could handle.

My response emphasized my flexibility, which may have been a mistake in that it didn’t say “give me everything open on this topic.” In any case, I didn’t get another e-mail back and then ensured I wouldn’t be going to Viva Tech by not sending any more myself.

(If you listen closely, you may now be able to pick out the sound of a rather small violin playing for me.)

The lesson here is nothing new: Sitting back and waiting for good things to happen is more likely to result in nothing happening. Which in this case not only foreclosed any chance of organizer-paid airfare and lodging but also meant I didn’t get to cover Viva Tech talks by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

I did, however, avoid having four weeks in a row of business travel, and being around this weekend meant I could catch up with an old friend from my college paper at a gathering on the roof of his apartment building. That wasn’t so bad.

I will try to be more assertive for next year’s Viva Tech… although its mid-May scheduling may overlap with Google I/O. In which case: le sigh.

SXSW scheduling: indecision is the key to flexibility

AUSTIN–Looking at the glut of invitations to South By Southwest events that have landed in my inbox in the past few days, two things seem clear: Many publicists think this event starts and ends on Saturday, and I shouldn’t have bothered scheduling anything until this week.

SXSW 2018 logoI know from prior experience that this conference attracts a silly amount of marketing money that gets lit on fire in various #brand-building exercises–most involving the distribution of free tacos, BBQ and beer.

But this year–much like at CES–some sort of happy-hour herd instinct has also led many companies to schedule their events on the same day, in this case Saturday. Looking over the possibilities, it appears I could spend that entire day–starting with a 7:30 a.m. mimosa breakfast–drinking on the dime of one corporate host or another.

(I won’t. I have panels to attend, people to interview, and probably one post to write. I may need a nap too.)

And, yes, a huge number of these invitations came in the last 72 hours. Far be it for me to criticize other people’s just-in-time conduct, but weren’t all of these bars, restaurants and other event spaces booked months ago? I have to assume that after not enough of the A, B and C-list guests responded affirmatively, the sponsor reluctantly decided to invite the D-list.

Considering that you can’t tell which events will be mobbed and how you might be waylaid by random meetings at them, your only safe response is to RSVP to everything and leave your calendar looking like a game of Tetris that you’re about to lose. Then decide where you’ll go based on where you’re standing and what looks interesting nearby–as shallow and impolite as that is.

And that’s how I came to a conclusive answer to this question: What’s a less reliable indication of somebody’s attendance than an Evite response?

Sharing stories from Apple News considered harmful

Last Tuesday, Google delivered some news that open-Web advocates have long awaited: Stories posted in the speedy, Google-developed Accelerated Mobile Pages format and served up via its even-faster caching service won’t zap onto the screens of mobile devices at google.com addresses, not the domain name of their publisher.

The avoidable but common facet of the AMP experience has bothered me since my early encounters with Google’s attempt to make the mobile Web less janky–it led the explainer I wrote for Yahoo two years ago. Google is now moving to fix the problem it helped create, which is welcome news in any publishing format.

(Specifically, Google will adopt a new page-packaging standard to preserve site domain names. In last Tuesday’s post, AMP project tech lead Malte Ubl says we should start seeing the results on our phones in the second half of this year.)

This, however, leaves another address-eating annoyance on the mobile Web: Apple News. This iOS app is a pleasant way to browse and read stories; like the open-source AMP, this proprietary format cuts out the cruft that can clog mobile reading.

But when you tap its “Share” button, Apple News serves up an apple.news address. And unlike even Googled-up AMP addresses, this one offers no hint after the domain name of where you’ll go.

The text Apple News pre-populates in a tweet or Facebook update–the story headline, an em-dash, and then the publication name–does. But on Twitter and Facebook, many people decide to replace that text with their own words, leaving users to guess what’s behind that apple.news address.

Apple appears to be doing this to ensure that other iOS users can read the story you shared in Apple News as well–its developer documentation even lists a story’s canonical address as a “not required” bit of metadata. But in the context of a button that can share a story on the public Web, that’s an absurd inversion of priorities.

Apple could fix this by coding Apple News to share a story’s original address when available, perhaps with an identifier to tell iOS devices to open it in Apple News. But knowing this company, I wouldn’t expect that any sooner than the arrival of a reborn Mac mini at my neighborhood’s Apple Store.

Instead, you’ll have to solve this problem yourself. If you’re sharing a story from Apple News, keep some reference to the publisher in your description. If that would cramp your social-media style, please take a moment to tap the share sheet’s “Open in Safari” button–then share the story from that browser, from whence it will have its real address.

How to get a CES PR pitch wrong

2018 is only six days old, and I have already received 725 e-mails mentioning “CES” somewhere–and that’s excluding those from colleagues at various clients.

Something about this gargantuan electronics show makes tech-PR types needier and thirstier than at any other time of the year–which, in turn, makes tech-journalism types crankier than at any other time of the year. It’s not a good look for any of us.

With that volume of pitches, any one CES PR e-mail faces dire odds. Those odds get a lot worse if the message gets some basic stuff wrong.

Undisclosed location: Proximity drives scheduling at CES, because the traffic is so awful, so I need to know where an event is at before I decide if it’s worth my time. If you don’t say where your event is at, am I supposed to think it’s at some venue miles from the Strip?

While I’m on the subject, a five-digit booth number is not that much of a help, since that could be anywhere in several square miles of convention-center space.

Unannounced time: More CES pitches than you’d think forget another Invitation 101 thing, telling me when an event is happening. Please remember to put that in the message–by which I mean in the message’s text, so mail clients can detect it and offer to add it to my calendar.

Micromanaged scheduling: The Pepcom and ShowStoppers receptions are an efficient way for smaller companies to get exposure to the press and for journalists to get dinner and a drink or three to numb the pain. I always attend them. (Disclosure: The ShowStoppers people put together my annual trip to the IFA trade show in Berlin.) I don’t mind PR pitches saying that a client will be at one of these events. I really hate requests to book an appointment at them; please don’t waste my time with them.

Breaking the laws of CES physics: Press-conference day and opening day of CES–this time around, Monday and Tuesday–are the two busiest days of the show. Coaxing journalists to some event that isn’t at the primary venue for each day (Mandalay Bay for press conferences, the Las Vegas Convention Center for opening day) is generally a doomed endeavor. PR folks reading this: I wish you good luck in convincing your clients to not try this next year.

Some of these event invitations come with an offer of a free ride to or from the LVCC. On opening day, that car will have to be of the flying variety.

Standard-issue mail #fail. CES is no better than any other time to forget about the BCC line in your e-mail and instead send a pitch to 258 people on the To: line. Somebody did that this time around, and it worked about as well as you’d expect. One recipient took the time to techsplain to the sender how he should check out the BCC option–“I heard it was rolled out at CES 1977”–and of course did so by hitting reply-all himself.