2016 in review: a year of travel

This has been a trash bag of a year in so many ways, but on a personal level it could have been worse. As in, for a few weeks in the late winter I thought the overwhelming source of my income would vanish along with most of the Yahoo Tech operation.

Instead, Yahoo Finance picked me up before I’d gotten too far in exploring other possibilities. But the publicity over Yahoo’s content cutbacks wound up helping an overdue diversification of my income anyway–an editor at Consumer Reports e-mailed to ask if the news meant I’d be interested in writing for them. That led to a good series of stories, one not yet published.

2016-calendarI got another lucky break when a press-room meeting at the cable industry’s sparsely-attended INTX show yielded a string of assignments for the FierceTelecom group of sites.

These and other new clients still leave most of my income coming from a single company, but the totals aren’t as skewed as they were last year.

2016 did, however, see me do much better at finagling opportunities to speak on panels that got my travel expenses covered in the bargain. My mileage totals kept climbing as conferences and other tech events took me to places I’d hadn’t seen in 18 years (Hong Kong), 25 years (Paris), 43 years (Lisbon), or ever before (Israel), as well as my now-regular trips to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress and Berlin for IFA.

Domestically, New York was once again my most frequent travel destination, followed by Boston (now that both my brother and my mom live around there, I’m kind of obliged to find interesting tech events around the Hub). I also made my way to Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and the Bay Area. Having SFO appear as a work destination only once seems like a grave dereliction of duty; I’ll try to do better.

(Read on after the jump to see all of my air travel plotted on a map of the world.)

My single favorite trip of the year: Viva Technology Paris, which brought me back to France for a second time this summer and showed that I could moderate four panels in a day. The trip also allowed enough downtime for me to take a train to the suburb of Louveciennes, knock on the door of the house my family rented a quarter-century ago, and discover that the family we’d rented the place from still lived there and was happy to let me look around.

The most challenging trip of 2016 would have to be Web Summit. Doing three panels on four hours of nightmare-level sleep is not an experience I need to repeat.

On that note, I can only hope that 2017 will bring less bad news than 2016. But I don’t know how it will turn out, only that I have work to do and good fortune to repay somehow.

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Year-end cash considerations

Yesterday, I forgot to invoice Yahoo for the last month’s worth of stories, and my stupid oversight may save me a little money next year.

That’s because the odds of payment for November’s work at Yahoo Finance arriving by Dec. 31 just got two days’ worse. And if I don’t get paid by then, I don’t owe taxes on the money until 2017.

2016-in-changeThe downside of this scenario is that my 2016 income, already assured to fall below 2015’s because I wrote less than usual in early summer, will drop even more. That potential embarrassment bugs me, but apparently not enough that I remembered to get the payment machinery in gear by Friday.

Deferring income isn’t exactly an advanced financial hack, but it is something I couldn’t do when I worked on a salary.

Tax calculations should also drive me to go on a moderate hardware-spending binge this month. My laptop and my desktop are both ancient, and replacing either now would put a nice big expense on my Schedule C.

Alas, Apple seems uninterested in shipping a new laptop in my price range, or a new desktop at any price. The Windows universe offers a few enticing options, but on closer inspection I realize that the laptops I like all omit at least one feature I’d appreciate.

More important, CES is now only a month away. And I can’t possibly make any big electronics purchases before using that event to see what the gadget industry has in store for this year–its no accident that electronics rarely land on my Christmas list.

That leaves me another way to lower my tax burden: a late-December spree of charitable donations. You may have read a lot on Twitter about #GivingTuesday this week, but for me that day comes on the last Tuesday of this month–when I know the donation will count for my 2016 taxes but won’t come due on on my credit-card bill until sometime in February. Please do the same if you’re financially able.

Once again, I’m writing for the business section

As I trust you all have noticed, I’m still writing for a Yahoo news site. That was not what I could have guaranteed in mid-February, when Yahoo announced plans to “simplify” and “focus” its content strategy–which resulted in the folding of several digital magazines and the exit of my friend Dan Tynan as Yahoo Tech’s editor in chief.

Yahoo sign at W. 43rdI knew then that my Tech colleagues David Pogue and Daniel Howley would move over to Yahoo Finance, but the people at Finance had to make their own decisions on whether to bring over freelance contributors. Fortunately, Tech kept on running with a smaller staff, and about six weeks later, I got the answer from the Financial folks I was hoping for.

(When I wrote about my five years of full-time freelancing, I should have added that this occupational strategy can subject you to moments of fear that a large fraction of your future income is about to vanish–that, in fewer words, you’ve just become Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff. You need a core of self-confidence or at least stubbornness to get through times like that.)

A month into writing for Yahoo Finance, I’m covering most of the same topics and at about the same frequency–with my word count slightly padded by the stock-quote links that are part of the house style at Finance. But a few things have changed at the margins.

With my editors based in New York instead of San Francisco, I can no longer kid myself that at 5 p.m. I’ve got another two hours to finish a story. (Weirdly but appropriately for somebody with my newsprint-stained career, both the NYC and S.F. offices are in buildings once occupied by newspapers.) For the same reason, I’m more likely to see my editors in person–Yahoo’s space in the New York Times’ magnificent old building is only a 15-minute walk from Penn Station.

Finance has also been doing a lot of work with live video, so you may see me in one of those streams the next time I’m in Manhattan–for instance, when I head up for CE Week at the end of the month.

The distributed-workplace banter has moved from HipChat to Slack, which rates as an upgrade overall. Slack doesn’t clutter my inbox with notification e-mails, and it’s also the Wirecutter’s chat system of choice. It looks like my phone will lose an app, while my MacBook has already gained one–it’s easier to switch between different teams in Slack’s OS X app.

If you have any other questions about my latest affiliation, please see me in the comments.

Things I have learned from writing 500 posts here

With Thursday night’s post here, I joined the 500-post club. That club is nowhere near exclusive, should not confer any special benefits and hopefully has no existence outside the 500-post badge WordPress.com popped up on my phone. But writing 500 posts still seems like a notable milestone, even if it took me close to five years to reach that mark.

500Here’s what I’ve learned from it–or, if you prefer, how little I’ve learned from it:

Write regularly: Apathy is the death of all blogs, and after the first few months I found myself letting two weeks or more go by without a post. I seized on the idea of writing a weekly recap of where I’d written, spoken or been quoted, and that in turn meant I’d have to write something–anything–else each week to avoid having this become a completely self-promotional exercise. That’s mostly worked since, except that I often wait most of the week to write that extra post.

Write quickly: This is the one outlet I have online where whatever I write gets published instantly, with no further delays because an editor wants to look it over again or schedule it for a better time for reader traffic. I have no minimum or maximum word count. And yet I still overthink a lot of posts here, as if it’s still 3 p.m. on a weekday in 1998 and I have another two hours before my editor will want to see the top of the story.

(As my editors in this century can attest, this happens often with my paid assignments too.)

Popularity can be a total mystery: It’s been wonderfully instructive to see my how site’s stats change (most of my paying clients provide no such insight), then to realize how little those ups and downs match my own efforts to promote my posts on social media or by adding a link to a story elsewhere. Instead, my most-read post this year was an item about setting the time on my wife’s sports watch that I wrote on my iPad in a fit of nerd rage (note what I said above about writing quickly), and which I don’t think I’ve ever bothered to promote since.

WordPress 500-post badgeOther booms in popularity have come about when other sites have pointed readers my way (thanks again, Loop Insight!) or when enough other people on Twitter have shared a link to something here.

Try not to anchor yourself to one site’s algorithm: The emphasis is on “try”–Google’s search drives an overwhelming amount of the traffic here. But at least this site exists outside Google’s orbit and those of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other first-tier tech giants. That’s what I wanted when I set up shop here: to have a home base, as Dan Gillmor has been saying for years, that isn’t the property of a company vying to create its own online empire. (WordPress.com is still big, but it’s not trying to become everybody’s social network, messaging system, or shopping mall.)

Ads can be annoying for publishers too: I don’t like seeing schlocky or noisy ads anywhere on the Web, but I really don’t like seeing them here. But I have no more and maybe less control than many other small publishers–my only options are to hide ads from logged-in WordPress.com users or to show “additional ad units,” with no option to decline auto-playing video or those “around the Web” remnant ads you’ve seen at 50 other sites this week.

And yet I keep the ads on, because they make me a little extra money–and they continue to educate me about a part of the business I have little to no visibility into at my regular outlets.

 

Changes with my Yahoo and USA Today columns

Astute readers should have noticed that my Yahoo Tech column did not run as usual this Tuesday. At least, I assume they did, even if none actually e-mailed to ask about its absence.

Yahoo Tech columnistBut in case any such curiosity exists, what happened is that management there decided that having me write one long story a week on Tuesday had stopped being a good fit.

On the one hand, the frustrating failure of tech-policy news to break exclusively on Mondays often meant I had to wait most of a week to offer my input. On the other hand, we weren’t running any other weekly columns. The original concept, as David Pogue explained in his introductory video, was to have five columnists who each wrote on an assigned workday–but various forms of attrition left me the only one still on that newspaper-ish schedule.

So instead of seeing one long story from me each Tuesday and then maybe an extra item, you should expect to see more, shorter posts every week. Next week, for instance, should feature three posts from me, counting the one I filed Friday that hasn’t been posted yet.

Meanwhile, over at USA Today my column will be a little shorter starting this weekend: We’re going to drop the tip-of-the-week item that ran at the end of each Q&A segment. I liked coming up with those info-morsels, but they were too easy for readers to overlook, given that we had no easy way to advertise them in the headline.

That doesn’t mean I’m out of the weekly-tip business–but if I resume writing such a thing, it would probably be somewhere else online.

Back at USAT’s site, you’re also more likely to see me use my space to offer my perspective on a major tech event–see, for instance, my recent reports from the IFA tech trade show and the Web Summit conference.

Any other questions about how I’ve been making my living lately? Ask away in the comments.

 

CTIA ROI: Did I need to go Vegas for this?

LAS VEGAS–My stay here only ran about 38 hours, but even if my itinerary hadn’t gotten upended by flight delays Tuesday I would have only spent 42 hours here. That was by design: I didn’t choose to go to CTIA’s Super Mobility Week until I’d already committed to going to Portland for the XOXO conference.

CTIA logoThat way, I didn’t risk much on the news value of an event that hasn’t exactly padded out Vegas taxi lines the last two years–selling one story should cover my additional travel costs.

But even by those low standards, the show organized by this D.C. trade group underperformed. The floor was a vast expanse of peripheral players hawking cables, cases, chargers or the industrial hardware that keep our phones online, from cell towers to backup generators to drones to inspect cell towers.

Among companies most wireless customers might know well, only Verizon, Samsung, AT&T and Tracfone had a notable presence on the floor. None committed any real news. (A Tracfone staffer said that prepaid carrier didn’t have any publicists around when I stopped by. PR tip: Not helpful!)

The opening keynote Wednesday featured appearances by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, but neither yielded enough material for a story for my usual outlets. If you missed my tweeting Wednesday morning: Wales is helping to launch the U.S. branch of a U.K. wireless reseller called The People’s Operator that lets you direct some of your spend to charity, and Wheeler said he’s confident that next March’s auction of some broadcast-TV spectrum to wireless carriers will succeed and that the FCC’s net-neutrality rules won’t stop wireless carriers from investing in their networks.

And then I spent the next two hours watching Apple’s event. This is the second year in a row that Apple has elected to introduce a round of new products on the opening day of what’s supposedly the wireless industry’s leading domestic event. The people at CTIA must be so pleased by that.

Many tech journalists were in San Francisco for Apple’s event. Others sat out CTIA because they’d gone to IFA the week before and didn’t want to deal with that much travel.

I’m not writing this to trash-talk CTIA’s efforts, although their decision to stage this show right after the electronics extravaganza in Berlin now looks a huge unforced error. Wireless is one of the most interesting and important parts of the tech business today, and you’d think it needs and could easily support an annual gathering like any other industry’s.

But one that’s marked by an absence of news and exhibitors, which happens only a day or two after a larger event that involves 9,000 miles of travel, and which takes place in a city that’s not quite my favorite place to go, is not something I need on my travel budget again. Sorry, CTIA.

Did I do the whole vacation thing right?

I was on vacation from last Tuesday morning to Wednesday night. Could you tell?

Maybe not. Beyond my output at Yahoo Tech (two posts written in advance, one I did Monday), at USA Today (filed the night before we left). and here (neither of those two posts were done ahead of time), I hardly disappeared from social media. I tweeted 33 times, not counting verbatim retweets, and posted three things on my Facebook page, not counting WordPress.com’s automatic sharing.

Golden Gate and hillsAnd I skimmed through my RSS feed each day and read my work e-mail more or less as it came in, even if I didn’t answer as much as usual. Over those seven days, I sent 33 messages from that account. In the three days since, I’ve sent 32. But wait–I composed 10 or so of those on the plane home but left them in my outbox until Thursday morning. No, I did not even think of setting a witty out-of-office message. Who would believe it?

Finally, the destination of this trip–Sonoma County–meant we arrived at SFO late Tuesday morning. And when I’d be in San Francisco at lunch, how could I not meet my Yahoo editor for lunch? (I let Dan pick up the check.) I couldn’t entirely escape work in the North Bay either. After my wife and I met a friend for lunch in Petaluma, he suggested we walk around the corner to stop by the This Week in Tech studio.

I had my reasons for all of that work-like activity: I had to finish a couple of projects, I didn’t write the Yahoo column before the trip as I’d hoped, I didn’t want to miss an e-mail with a writing or speaking opportunity and actually did get one such invitation, the laptop was on the kitchen table, the phone was right in my pocket, blah blah blah. (My most successful act of unplugging was an overnight trip to Vegas for a friend’s wedding, when I liberated myself by taking only my phone.) But it all falls short of how much I was able to let work go two years ago.

And it’s nowhere near how my friend Alex Howard didn’t check his work e-mail for an entire six days of a vacation. Or how my wife could ignore hers for our entire trip. The key difference: Both of them have full-time jobs. Imagine that–somebody pays them not to work!

I don’t quite have that luxury unless I sell enough stories first. But the flip side of full-time freelancing is that without a boss looking out at my desk, I can take time during the day to do other, offline things–gardening, laundry, baking bread, maybe even bottling a batch of homebrew–instead of trying to look productive in front of a screen.

It’s not a bad trade-off.  But I really should check my work e-mail less often the next time I’m on vacation.