Large reviews for tiny gadgets

I’ve spent most of my career writing within a pretty narrow range of word counts. My Post tech column started out budgeted at 25 column inches, or 950 or so words, and then got whittled down to 22 inches, some 750 words. At Discovery News, I’m allotted 500-plus words per post; my CEA blogs have a 700-to-800-word limit; USA Today’s tech site expects 700, tops, per Q&A column.

(Writing a solid 2,000 words of reported feature for Ars Technica could have been some sort of remedial boot camp for journalists, except it was a hell of a lot more fun.)

But maybe I haven’t been writing nearly enough. A few days ago, I thought I’d compare the word counts (as measured with DEVONthink’s free WordService plug-in for Mac OS X) of four recent reviews of Sprint’s HTC Evo 4G LTE.

My post for Discovery News clocked in at 583 words. That’s about 200 fewer than I once would have considered a minimum, but after almost a year of blogging for Discovery it now seems like a natural length.

Over at PCMag.com, however, my friend Sascha Segan (in a prior millennium, he worked at the Washington Post’s online operation) devoted 1,388 words to reviewing the same device. The Verge’s David Pierce cranked out 2,458 words in his own assessment–which also included a photo gallery and a video review. And the staff of Engadget outdid both of those writers by producing a 2,841-word opus that included its own multimedia accompaniment.

I’m not going to say that 600 words is the right and proper length for a review. That limit forced me to leave out details like the Evo 4G LTE’s hidden microSD Card slot and its frustrating lack of international roaming. And in terms of strict market success, I’m quite sure that the page-view stats for the Engadget and Verge reviews utterly destroyed mine.

But I could do without many of the cliches of the extended-review genre: the throat-clearing intro “Does this measure up to [its promises/its competitors/our expectations]? Read on after the jump to find out!”; the digressions about the varying plastic and metal components of a gadget’s exterior; the table of detailed performance benchmarks without equally detailed battery metrics. Are that many people interested in this sort of long-form tech journalism?

Better question: If they are, what other sorts of long-form writing would those readers appreciate?

T+366 days

One year ago today, I was standing on a scruffy lawn in Florida, bleary-eyed from having slept an hour in the last 20–and feeling none of the fatigue accumulated from that sleep debt and compounded over an afternoon, evening and night of travel.

I don’t think there has been a day since May 16, 2011 when I haven’t thought about the mind-expanding experience of seeing a space shuttle launch for the first time.

First the waiting–welling up in the predawn hours from a kid’s Christmas Eve anticipation to the electricity in the stands at a baseball game before a walk-off home run for your team. The “oh my God, we’re really going to do this” moment at about T-15 seconds. Then the visceral jolt of seeing Endeavour’s rockets split the sky open with a sustained, brilliant flash of light, throwing that improbable machine into the clouds–and hearing and feeling the crackling avalanche of sound rush right up and over us.

The birth of our daughter was about as exciting–also experienced on near-zero sleep!–but I can’t think of much else that compares. Except for seeing the final shuttle launch with a press pass in July. (If you can get away with doing a once-in-a-lifetime thing twice without taking somebody else’s spot, do it; after taking the canonical launch photo on my first try, I could soak everything in the second time.)

Witnessing this controlled explosion didn’t last long, but I think if you ask any of the NASA Tweetup attendees who returned to the Kennedy Space Center for the launch after the scrub two weeks earlier, they’d all say it was one of the greatest moments of their lives. And that it taught something about endeavoring through adversity–or, at least, about the importance of avoiding short circuits in a Load Controller Assembly box.

I’ve retold this story dozens of times to friends and strangers, and I’m still trying to get the language right. Maybe I’m overthinking it. When I saw the Daily Show’s John Oliver do his comedy routine in March, he needed far fewer words than this post to convey his reaction to seeing the launch of Atlantis from the same KSC lawn: “Holy fucking shit!”

Anniversary

Last April 7, I was up against an issue I’d never dealt with in some 17 years as a professional journalist: What is it like to make news that almost nobody expects?

I knew my job was cooked a good month before I announced the news here–and after months of increasing uncertainty. Reading the Wikipedia entry for “ejection seat” because the metaphor suddenly appeals to you? Not a good sign about your contentment with your workplace.

But before I could go public, first I had to tell my wife, then my mother and brother, then old friends, then a few close colleagues and some tech journalists I’ve known for a long time.

It got progressively easier to surprise people with the news. But I still didn’t know what to expect when I clicked “Publish” on that post and quickly fired off links to it on Twitter, my Facebook profile and my public Facebook page: boom, boom, boom, there goes my job. I mean, the people on the other side of the cubicle wall didn’t even know the news. In retrospect, I’m amazed that nothing leaked… maybe I do know a thing or two about PR after all.

(Other people have taken longer to find out. It was somewhat awkward a few weeks ago when a neighbor asked how my writing at the Post was going.)

I shouldn’t have worried about the reaction. It felt immensely liberating to come out of the closet–to stop pretending that things were going great at work and, instead, finally hit that ejection seat.

But I should have taken a screen capture of my phone showing 200 or so notifications from Twitter, maybe 50 from Facebook, dozens of e-mails and a round of text messages.

It’s now one year later. As I began writing this post, my Q&A column for USA Today about the Flashback drive-by-download Mac malware had a prominent spot on that paper’s home page and was listed as its most-read story. I think I’m doing okay.

Programming note: WordAds

Aside

Starting earlier today, you might have noticed more and different advertisements on this blog. You can blame me for that: Back in November, WordPress.com introduced an option called WordAds, I quickly applied for it, and my invitation arrived this morning.

WordAds should appear more frequently than the minimal ad content you might have seen before. But those spots didn’t yield any income for me; the only way I could have profited from them was to hit 25,000 page views in a month, a mark I only came close to when I announced my departure from the Post. (Third-party ads remain forbidden here; see VentureBeat’s writeup of the WordAds news for more context.)

I’m not expecting a huge amount from WordAds; if it covers the $12/year domain-mapping fee, that’d be a sufficient start. But I also trust that the ads–provided by Federated Media, WordPress.com’s partner in this–will be tasteful and non-intrusive. Let me know if they aren’t. And thanks again for reading.

2011 blogging stats: you came, you saw, you clicked

One pleasant bonus feature at WordPress.com is the “annual report” the site automatically provides, complete with the celebratory artwork you see below. It provides a good overview of your blog’s overall traffic, what sites sent visitors to it and what posts got the most attention–along with a corny fireworks animation and a fillip of promotion for my host. (Note to WordPress.com management: I don’t mind that. In other news, please approve my WordAds application.)

But this highlights reel glosses over many interesting wrinkles, and in my case it’s also skewed by the flood of traffic I got for announcing my departure from the Post here. So some other noteworthy details follow.

Of the 75,000-odd views this blog got last year, almost 15,000 went to that “Departure” post–but more than twice as many went to its home page. The third-most popular post was my rant about stupid social-media policies in news organizations, at almost 2,500, followed closely by the about-me page. After that came my introduction of my NASA Tweetup trip (featured on the WordPress.com home page, it clocked almost 1,700 views) and a how-to about forwarding mail from Lotus Notes to Gmail (featured nowhere, but regular queries for help on that topic drove it to about 1,300 views).

Note that I’m not using exact figures because I forgot to write down these numbers on Dec. 31, and WordPress.com doesn’t include a “last year” reporting option.

My biggest source of traffic was Twitter, at almost 3,800 views, followed by Facebook (close to 2,500), the Post (near 1,800), and “search engines” (Google, with traffic from Bing, Yahoo, Ask.com and other sites amounting to kopeks on the dollar). The most notable outlier in the top 10 was the local media-news site DCRTV.com, which accounted for about 500 views.

Speaking of search engines, the search queries that led people here were topped by–duh–my name, accounting for close to 3,000 page views. Farther down the list, I counted at least 20 misspellings of my last name. It’s okay: That’s the tradeoff for having a moniker distinctive enough to guarantee that you can get the same first-name-last-name user ID at most sites.

Of all the links you clicked on, the most popular (almost 800 clicks) was a column by Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton about the paper’s redesigned-but-still-sluggish site, followed by the panoramic photo of my old cubicle and my Twitter account (each just over 300).

The annual report offers a few details I don’t see on my usual stats page, such as the percentages of visitors from other countries. Sadly, I am not big in Japan, but I do seem to have a few readers in the U.K. I’d love to get a complete breakdown (hint: Facebook provides those analytics for public pages), along with software trivia like the operating systems and browsers used by visitors. Maybe next year? Until then: Thanks for reading.

Ten thousand tweets

I knew I was spending a lot of time on Twitter, but my 10,000th tweet came up so fast that I didn’t realize I’d posted it until I noticed the five-digit number near the top of the page.

So while I thought I’d employ that 10,000 tweet to say thanks, I had already used it to comment on an interesting site called Transit Near Me that attempts to improve the interface of public transportation around D.C. That meant I had to save my planned rhetoric for my 10,001st tweet:

That last tweet was my 10,000th. Thanks to everyone who read it or any of the 9,999 before it – and then RTed, favorited or replied.

Then I did a little math. At a maximum length of 140 characters each, 10,000 tweets equals a theoretical upper limit of 1.4 million characters. At the usual average of six characters per word, that yields 233,333 words and change–good for either a pair of slightly prolix novels or almost 467 500-word blog posts.

Do we need to calculate the potential income that would represent at various per-word rates? No. This has been a fantastic resource for me to share my reporting in in real time, learn from the example of others, banter with readers and sources, break my own news, market myself and in general have fun with the English language.

I just wish I could see more of the things I’ve tweeted before. But although the addresses of individual tweets don’t expire, Twitter’s own search doesn’t seem to peer further back than several weeks ago. Third-party search tools may reach deeper into the past, and you can also keep scrolling down Twitter’s site (I got all the way back to April 6 as I paged through my earlier tweets, a slow and immensely distracting process). But you can’t just get a simple download of your history along the lines of what Facebook and Google offer.

My friend Alex Howard, a writer for O’Reilly Media, asked Twitter CEO Dick Costolo about that in October; he would only say that the company was working on it. I can only trust they’ll have that work done before I get to my 100,000th tweet.

The stages of columnizing and blogging

Two weeks ago, local tech investor Glenn Hellman wrote a good post on TechCocktail about the stages a startup’s founder experiences.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence –  don’t know what they don’t know
  2. Conscious Incompetence – knows what they don’t know and realizes they better find a way to know
  3. Conscious Competence – understands what needs to be done, the process to get it done and consciously deliberately follows the process
  4. Unconscious Competence – has become so proficient in the process that it is performed by instinct

And then there is stage 5, the problem stage that I call the Unconsciously Losing Competence stage.

Hellman had tech CEOs in mind, but as I was reading his post I had to admit that he’d described the process of settling into a new column or blog fairly well. In both cases, there’s a learning cycle involved that can eventually lead to arrogance or carelessness if you’re not careful.

I’ve been thinking about that cycle a lot over the past few months. The last time I’d had to start up any new weekly feature at the Post was back in 2007, when I started doing a tip-of-the-week e-mail for PostPoints members, but since May I’ve launched weekly commitments at Discovery News and the Consumer Electronics Association’s Tech Enthusiast site and am about to start a third–more on that later.

(You could count this blog as a fourth startup, but I don’t have an editor to scold me into writing… which may explain the slow pace of posts here.)

At Discovery, CEA–and, 12 years ago, at the Post–writing the first article in a series didn’t seem that hard. I had time to prepare for it, and when the column or blog debuted people were excited by its possibilities. But getting ready to do the second such piece, that was more like the moment in a Road Runner cartoon where Wile E. Coyote runs off the cliff and realizes that gravity still applies: What, you mean I have to do this again?!

But I got through that second piece, and then the third and the fourth and so on.

At the Post, it took me a few months before I felt like I knew what I was doing–in retrospect, I could only wonder how my editors accepted some of the thumbsuckers I filed as I flailed away during my Unconscious Incompetence period. Did I progress to Unconsciously Losing Competence towards the end? Maybe. I know I had less time for each individual post, even as I had gotten a lot more efficient at writing them.

And today? I’d like to think that I’m a quicker study than I was at 28, and that I have at least advanced to the Conscious Incompetence stage at Discovery and CEA. But if not, I do have this advantage over corporate founders: Readers seem to have fewer hangups than stressed-out startup employees over telling the person responsible that they screwed up.

Steve Jobs storytelling and Apple history

I knew I would have to write an obituary for Steve Jobs someday. I didn’t think it would happen this soon–or that the subject would draw so much interest.

But it did, and it has.

I haven’t seen such a rush by people to document What They Felt since… okay, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 last month. But I understand where that comes from: When certain big things happen, if you don’t instinctively clutch for a keyboard or a notepad, you’re not much of a journalist.

So after learning the news–through a voicemail from a local TV producer who wanted to know if I could come on the Thursday morning show to talk about Jobs’ passing–I spent about two hours writing an appreciation of Jobs. Then I spent another two hours rewriting it. Something about an obituary does not tolerate factual errors or even merely inelegant writing.

Every other tech journalist seems to have done the same thing. A few shared stories of getting repeated phone calls from Jobs, sometimes even at their homes–or of visiting Jobs at his home–while others only connected with Jobs in brief interviews.

What’s surprised me since has been the expressions from individual users: the posts on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (some from users who changed their avatars to Apple icons or pictures of Jobs); the “what Apple products I’ve owned” inventories (mine appears after the jump); the testimonials that have been piling up in front of Apple Stores. The photo at right shows the Clarendon location, where passerby have been leaving messages on Post-It notes (provided by the store, I think). One of my favorites reads “Thanks for ignoring the focus groups”; another simply has the word “Sleep” inside a rounded rectangle, as if it were a button in an OS X dialog box.

It’s all a reminder: These things with screens and buttons aren’t just tools we use and then set aside. They change us. They are part of our culture.

Today’s commemorations of Steve Jobs remind me of another, less pleasant reality: The price of being around at a time when you can meet the inventors of the technologies that changed your world is eventually having to say goodbye to them. There will be other farewells like this, I hope not too soon.

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Live-tweeting, then Storifying Amazon’s Kindle event

NEW YORK–I did a day trip here yesterday to cover Amazon’s introduction of its new Kindle Fire and Kindle Touch tablets (if you were curious, getting up for the 6 a.m. Acela was as unpleasant as I expected). Since Discovery didn’t ask me to liveblog the event itself, I decided to use Twitter to post my real-time recap instead–something I haven’t had the luxury of doing at a tech event in a while.

That worked well–it’s a lot easier to share a photo with Twitter’s smartphone apps, for one thing–but live-tweeting also suffers from vanishing down Twitter’s timeline in the days afterward, not to mention requiring any later readers to read them in reverse.

So I used Storify to embed all of my tweets from Amazon’s event in conventional chronological order–minus a few replies to people asking about non-Kindle topics, plus a few photos I would have shared had I taken them with a phone instead of a regular camera. I had, perhaps, foolishly, thought I could simply embed the results after the jump here–but no, that doesn’t appear to be a supported feature, and my attempts to post the archive here through one of Storify’s publishing options didn’t work either. So you’ll have to read that archive at Storify.

(Dear Storify and WordPress.com management: Please figure out how to get your sites to play nicely with each other. It would also help if I could block-select tweets in Storify instead of tediously dragging them over into a story, one at a time. Until both those things happen, I think I’ll give Storify a rest. Readers: Am I missing some easier way to do things? I know WordPress embeds tweets quite well, but it doesn’t do the same with pictures shared through Twitter.)

Anyway. Note that there’s an error most of the way down; I wrote that the Kindle Fire has a microphone when it does not. Note also that this adds up to a lot of text—1,014 words, by my count.

Too much to read? My recap at Discovery News only runs about 500 words. Don’t want to read at all? You can watch my appearance on the local Fox station Thursday morning to discuss Amazon’s news. That clip’s too short? Amazon posted a 51-minute video of the entire event on YouTube.

9/11 recollections on Twitter: sad, short, sharp storytelling

I figured Sunday would be a day to read stories on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a lump in my throat, then hug my daughter and my wife. (That beautiful September Tuesday remains the second-worst day of my life, surpassed only by the Friday in 1999 when my dad keeled over from a heart attack.) Instead, I spent much of the morning glued to Twitter.

I blame one person for that. Journalism professor and media critic Jeff Jarvis got up early to post a long series of tweets, synced to his timeline that morning–getting on the PATH train in New Jersey, exiting the World Trade Center just after the first plane struck, everything that happened after–that brought back the day with a grim urgency. A few examples:

Jarvis continued, recounting the second plane’s impact, being unable to see anything after the collapse of the South Tower and his subsequent wandering throughout Manhattan. But then he hit Twitter’s “rate limit,” silencing his account. He briefly resumed posting on Google+ until friends with connections at Twitter got his account freed up, allowing him to resume his story to its end–a reunion with his family at home.

Afterwards, Storify user Mary Bjorneby used that site to archive all of Jarvis’s tweets, start to finish–without most of his replies to people who offered thanks or inexplicable insults over his wasting their time. (He was right to curse them out. If somebody bores you on Twitter, unfollowing them will suffice.)

Other people had the same idea. Somebody else thought to set up a Twitter account, @UAFlt93, to relate the story of how the passengers on that flight fought back. A few news organizations provided live reenactments of their own–although the Guardian brought its own exercise to a halt after readers complained.

It is all compelling, upsetting reading. It makes one wonder what Twitter and Facebook would be like on a day like 9/11. May we never find out.

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