The explainer about the Matter smart-home standard that USA Today ran last week was my 451st column for the paper’s site, if my count is correct. It was also my last: Management at USAT’s corporate parent Gannett ordered up yet another round of cuts, and this time some freelance contributors wound up inside the blast radius.
I’ve long said that there’s no such thing as a permanent freelance client, but USA Today was about as close as they come. My first column–about Facebook privacy, an anxiety source that had already earned evergreen status–ran right before Christmas of 2011, less than nine months after my exit from the Washington Post had ended my previous tenure as a tech-help columnist. That’s long enough ago in publishing terms for CMS changes to have broken the original link and forced me to the Internet Archive to surface a copy here.
The subsequent 11-plus years have seen me revisit social-media privacy many times–along with such other perennial topics as data caps, out-of-reach broadband, the apparently-unlimited interpretations of “unlimited data” on wireless plans, different options to buy new iPhones, and the stupid pricing games that Internet providers play.
Some favorites among those hundreds of columns:
- A 2013 piece that unpacked how regional-sports-network fees were inflating the cost of pay-TV packages–a problem that’s only grown worse, as I reminded readers in December.
- A 2018 how-to about secure disposal of a hard drive that included my recap of taking a crowbar to a drive in my driveway, leaving the pavement “flecked with small bits of drive platter mixed with finer particles of destroyed circuitry — a sort of cybernetic sand that I had to sweep up.”
- A 2019 piece on location privacy that reminded readers of one thing Apple and Google don’t like to talk about: Their biggest and least-fixable risk in that category is their wireless carrier.
- A 2021 column about the utter inadequacy of Gmail’s mail storage-management tools, a plain-sight problem that hasn’t gotten enough attention.
- A 2022 report from the Black Hat security conference that shared some advice from infosec professionals centered, for once, on harm-reduction principles.
A few of those stories wound up in USAT’s print edition, such as the July 2020 column on data caps in the photo above. And for a while, this relationship also afforded me the possibility of extra business–some of which was fun, like the tech explainers I wrote for Gannett’s short-lived NowU senior-lifestyle site. But then I also once ditched SXSW to spend an afternoon knocking on doors around Austin to try to interview witnesses to the 2018 package bombings.
The budget axe first swung in my direction in 2015, when my column got trimmed by about a third with a corresponding reduction in pay; in 2019, management reduced the column frequency from four times a month to twice. Seeing two friends and longtime fixtures of USAT’s tech coverage exit the place over the next two years–Ed Baig in 2020, Jefferson Graham a year later–did leave me grateful to have my column as a constant through the gruesome year of 2020. But it did not leave me with too many illusions about the long-term stability of my gig.
Those previous trims to my role at USAT mean I’m now losing only a small fraction of my income, one that shouldn’t be too hard to replace. (I don’t know how much Gannett is saving in total with this latest budget cut, but it has to be vastly less than the $7.7 million in salary, stock awards and bonuses that chairman and CEO Michael Reed collected in 2021.) I will, however, miss having the USA Today name to throw out when registering for an event.
I will also miss knowing that a request for tech support from a friend, family member or reader could be the start of my next column. But please don’t let that stop you from e-mailing me with a tech query–and rest assured that if your problem is interesting enough, I will find a reasonably well-paying place to write about it.