More pandemic-recovery milestones: Northeast Corridor travel, a journalism conference

This week brought me back to two things I’ve missed badly since February of 2020: hanging out with other journalists at a conference in another city, and taking the train to and from that destination.

The Online News Assocation’s decision to host its first IRL gathering since 2019 in Philadelphia made those things possible. And by scheduling Insights as a two-day event, it also made it surprisingly affordable compared to this journalism group’s other events–aside from the 2017 conference in D.C., at which even my badge was free courtesy of my panel proposal getting accepted.

Photo shows the footings of the footings railroad bridge in the Susquehanna River as seen from the current bridge, with the sun obscured by fog and part of the overhead catenary visible.

There was no question I was going to take Amtrak to Philly and back, only one of which trains to book. I decided to head up Thursday morning, at the cost of having to wake up early and miss any day-before networking but with the advantage of only needing to take my messenger bag, with a change of clothes stuffed into it alongside my laptop. That then led me to realize that the fees tacked on to every Airbnb reservation nearby would make my usual money-saving business-travel tactic more expensive than just staying at the conference hotel.

That worked out even better than I expected after my productive ride on the 7:05 a.m. Northeast Regional out of Union Station–in the Quiet Car, of course, with the only distraction being looking at scenery I hadn’t glimpsed in 18 months. I got to the hotel before 9:30 a.m., and it had a room ready when I checked in. So not only could I unpack immediately, the 11 a.m. video podcast that I hadn’t been able to schedule for another day could take place in a quiet spot with good lighting.

The conference itself was great. I learned a bunch of things about my job and how to do it better, and being in the room (even if some speakers were not) allowed me to focus on the talks instead of having every other browser tab and app on my screen ready to divert my attention. I took copious notes–which I wrote up for my Patreon readers, since their contributions covered my conference costs–and live-tweeted panels like in the Before Times. And Insights had enough breaks for me to file two stories, one that I’d mostly finished on the train up and another I banged out in an hour.

And yes, it was lovely if at times weird to commune with fellow journalists. The organizers had color-coded wristbands at the registration table that we could wear to signal our openness to face-to-face interaction: the green one I picked meant I was okay with handshakes and hugs, red would signal no touching, and yellow would mean no more than elbow bumps, if I remember correctly.

Insights required everybody to submit proof of vaccination and wear masks anyway… except that the reception Friday evening took place indoors, and quite a few attendees visited one bar or another Thursday night. I think my risk was about as low as imaginable for any gathering–certainly lower than at other events I’ve attended over the last few months–but it does exist.

The conference ended with enough free time for me to wander around Center City for a bit before boarding the 7:10 p.m. Acela back to D.C. I had to look up how long it had been since I’d last taken the Amtrak train that’s become a label for a certain Northeast Corridor demographic, and the answer was 616 days.

At last, a little taste of Conference Life

This week featured a number of items that last all figured in my routine in early February of 2020: a hotel key, a conference badge, a wireless microphone, a stage, and other people’s business cards.

My brief stay in Miami Beach to moderate two panels at the Seatrade Cruise Global conference–one on the shipboard potential of connected gadgets, the other on risks of ransomware–was one of my shorter business trips ever. But as the first work travel I’d done to speak at a conference since an equally short visit to New York two winters ago, it was still a big deal.

After more than a year of speaking only through my webcam and seeing fellow panelists only as moving pixels on a screen, I loved having a live audience to read. I loved being able to interact like a normal human being with another person on the same stage–even if both panels also featured at least one remote panelist who was only visible as moving pixels on the monitors placed in front of us.

(I had not done a hybrid panel before at all, and I quickly realized that in a discussion with two remote participants, they could not tell which one I had in mind when I gestured to one of their feeds on that screen below me.)

And after each panel, having my fellow in-person speaker shake my hand and offer their congratulations on my job as moderator felt so much better than hearing congrats via Zoom or seeing them in a conference’s Slack channel. Likewise, networking IRL was so much more engaging than the stilted experience you get in well-meaning apps like Remo.

That said, as much as I appreciated getting this speaking invitation and having it include the conference covering my travel costs, I did not accept the offer lightly. I watched the pandemic numbers in Miami-Dade County intently and was relieved to see them drop dramatically in recent weeks. I was much more more relieved to see Seatrade require participants to upload either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours prior to arrival–not that I’d expect to find many vaccine skeptics among travel-industry professionals.

And then I saw that almost everybody on the lightly-populated trade-show floor wore a mask–except at the various receptions there Wednesday afternoon. All of the other social events I enjoyed took place outdoors at one venue or another, such as the rooftop bar at which I took the photo above. Having that option be as pleasant as it was in the evenings (as opposed to what outdoor gatherings would have been like at Black Hat in the blast-furnace heat of August in Las Vegas) represented a big point in Miami Beach’s favor.

(If you were going to ask: Although I came home Thursday exceptionally tired from sleeping so badly in a strange bed, I never felt any symptoms. And I just self-administered the BinaxNow antigen test left over from the pair I bought after coming home from Estonia in August; the result was once again negative.)

So I think I found a good excuse to get out of town for a couple of days. One with a small extra bit of personal significance: My American Airlines DCA-MIA flight Tuesday finally introduced me to Miami International Airport exactly 20 years after that was supposed to happen on a Sept. 28, 2001 DCA-MIA flight on American that got cancelled within days after 9/11. Thanks for not minding my late arrival, Miami.

Why I attended two monetization-resistant conferences

I spent the past two weeks betraying a basic rule of self-employment: Don’t go someplace without having enough work lined up to pay for the trip. Worse yet, I paid for a conference badge–twice.

I had my reasons. The XOXO festival in Portland promised a repeat of the mind-expanding, heartening talks I watched with rapt attention in 2013 and 2015, plus the side reward of getting to spend a few days in a city I like but hadn’t visited since 2015. The Online News Association conference in Austin, meanwhile, would bring its usual mix of professional development and catching up with old friends.

XOXO stageI had hopes of selling a post or two from each, but I’d still lose money from each trip (and then I wound up not selling anything at all). So what did I get for my $500 XOXO pass and $439 ONA registration, plus airfare and lodging for each?

This year’s XOXO was not the same independent-creativity pep talk as before, because most of the speakers didn’t address that theme. But there were some seriously compelling talks anyway:

  • Jonny Sun and then Demi Adejuyigbe talked with candor and hilarity about battling impostor syndrome;
  • Jennifer 8. Lee explained how she worked the emoji-governance system (yes, there is one) to get a dumpling emoji added;
  • Claire L. Evans retold some forgotten stories about female computing pioneers;
  • Helen Rosner spoke about being defined by an out-of-context tweet and having to defend her expertise, then led the audience in a recitation of this pithy, profane self-affirmation: “I am really smart, and I am really good at what I do, and you should fucking listen to me.”

Trust me, you will want to watch these whenever the organizers post the video to their YouTube page.

XOXO also had a day of meetups across Portland and endless conversations with fellow attendees. Somehow, this conference manages to attract some of the kindest, nicest people on the Internet; it’s a wonderful contrast to the acid bath that is Twitter on a bad day.

XOXO postcardThe people at ONA may not have been as uniformly pleasant–look, if we journalists had a full set of social skills, we’d all have real jobs–but that event had the advantage of being much more tightly focused on my professional reality. It’s not by accident that I’ve gone to every ONA conference since 2014.

There, too, the talks were terrific:

ONA was as great as ever for networking, I had more than my fill of delicious tacos, and I got to hear Dan Rather give a brief talk at an evening event and then shake his hand afterwards.

In retrospect, XOXO is an expense I wouldn’t repeat–although I’ve yet to go to that festival in consecutive years anyway. My takeaway from this year’s version is that instead of flying across the country to get these different perspectives, I should try harder to find them around D.C.

ONA, however, is pretty much guaranteed to be on my schedule next year–the 2019 conference will be in New Orleans. How can I not do that?

Ban the panel prep call

Tuesday morning had me moderating a panel discussion, which made the workweek nothing out of the ordinary: I’ve done 20 or so panels so far this year.

I enjoy the exercise–when you only have to ask interesting questions, call out any departures from the truth, throw in the occasional joke and try to end things on time, you’ve got the easiest job of anybody on the stage. But there’s one part I resent: the inevitable request by the event organizers that everybody get on a conference call first to discuss the panel.

If it’s just going to be me interviewing another person and we’re in the same time zone, this need not be too bad. But more often, you have four or five people with widely varying schedules.

That leads to a flurry of e-mails in which the panelists or their PR reps try to pick out a mutually agreeable time–instead of, you know, using the e-mail thread to discuss the panel itself.

The con call itself is likely to run on some 1990s phone-based system, not any sort of online app that would make it easy to tell who’s talking (pro tip: when on a con call, play up whatever regional accent you have). Using a text-based collaboration tool like Slack that would let people on planes or an Amtrak Quiet Car get in on the conversation never seems to come up.

Last month, the only time the organizers offered for the prep call was 5 p.m. on a Friday when I had to get to Dulles Airport for a flight later that night. I replied that this wouldn’t work and suggested we “use e-mail the way God intended,” then wrote up an outline of the talk as I would have needed to do even if I’d hacked out time for a con call. The panel went just fine.

So if you ask me to dial into a con-call service to talk about what we’ll talk about on a panel and I suddenly get cranky, please understand that I’m just trying to act as if we’re doing business in the 21st century.

Panel clock management

I spent part of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday sneaking a peek at clocks counting down.  Sadly, no rocket launches were involved: Instead, I had the less exciting but also important task of making sure that my Web Summit panels ended on time or close to it.

Web Summit panel clockGetting one, two, three or four other people to wrap up a conversation as a clock hits 0:00, as this week in Lisbon reminded me, is one of those skills where I still have things to learn.

Of the five I did at the summit, two required me to improvise some questions after I exhausted all the ones I’d written down–which, since these discussions only involved one other person, is something I should have known to be a risk.

Also predictable: The one panel with four other people went a couple of minutes over when I let one of the subject-matter experts have the last word, by which I mean words.

An on-time finish matters at a talkfest like Web Summit, where the stages have panels stacked up throughout the morning and afternoon and schedule overruns will result in people not being able to eat lunch or the audience fleeing for the reception that started five minutes ago. I continue to be in awe of the people who make that happen, considering both the overall chaos level of a 60,000-person conference and the high odds of a VIP deciding to be a windbag on stage.

As a moderator, I just need to allow roughly equal airtime in my role as verbal air-traffic controller–while also asking intelligent questions, not stepping on other people’s responses, throwing in a line or two that gets a laugh out of the audience, and trying not to close out the panel with something lame like “well, it looks like we’re out of time.”

At events that invite audience questions, you have the extra challenge of people asking questions that are more comments–the dreaded, time-wasting “quomment.” I can see why the schedule-focused Web Summit organizers usually tell panelists not to bother with audience Q&A.

It’s maybe one panel in three that leaves me feeling like I checked off all the boxes. I hope I can get that average up to one in two at some point. And maybe later on I can have the prospect of being the only person behind the mic for 30 minutes or more not make me quite so antsy.

Travel hack gone awry: the conference that got canceled

AUSTIN–South By Southwest starts today, but I’ve been here since Wednesday. That seemed like a smart way to arrange my travel until last Thursday–when the PR Summit conference here vanished from my schedule.

You can’t tell this from the generic “under construction” page at that address, but I was going to participate in a discussion about communications strategies “in the age of Trump and Twitter.” That’s a fascinating topic I hope to address someday. But last Thursday’s e-mail announcing the conference’s postponement after a sponsor’s withdrawal ensures that time won’t be this week.

I have spoken at a lot of conferences over the past 10 years, and this is the first time one has gotten scrubbed like this. My great experience speaking at 2013’s PR Summit in San Francisco led me to expect this one to go just as smoothly–and since I was heading to Austin anyway, moving up my departure by two days and getting a better deal on airfare in the bargain made sense.

Thing is–not that I’d know this first-hand–putting on a conference requires difficult and prolonged work and demands the support of many third parties with their own interests. I should probably be surprised I haven’t had one implode on me before.

The immediate downsides of having the event cancel were realizing I’d spend two more days away from my family without any business rationale, and that I’d need to find someplace else to stay now that the conference-paid hotel room was gone as well.

But the local PR shop TrendKite put together its own small event Wednesday afternoon, at which it was comforting to realize anew that PR pros can find social media just as much of a game of chance as journalists. I stayed the last two nights with a friend from high school and his wife (cooking dinner for them Wednesday allowed an overdue introduction to the kitchen-newbie-friendly UX of a Blue Apron kit). And having last night free let me catch up over dinner with a college-newspaper friend whom I’d last seen in 2003. I can’t complain about those outcomes.

Dear Android gesture typing: Enough ashtray with this one autocomplete error

About 95 percent of the time, the “gesture typing” built into Android’s keyboard is one of my favorite parts of Google’s mobile operating system. I trace a fingertip over the letters of the word I have in mind, that item appears in an overlay before I’m halfway through inputting it, I lift my fingertip, and a Scrabble winner like “deoxyribonucleic” pops into a tweet, e-mail or note.

Ashtray forbiddenBut then I have to try to gesture-type the $10 word “already,” and Android will have other ideas. Specifically, cancerous ones: It keeps subbing in “ashtray.”

I could take some comfort in the privacy-preserving thought that Google’s sense of my interests is so off that it thinks I write about cigarettes all the time. (This post probably won’t help!) But, really, I only want to write a common adverb without having to tap keys one letter at a time, like some kind of an animal.

And because I’m in the same abusive relationship with autocorrect as everybody else, I keep hoping that this time, Android will finally realize I have no interest in tobacco products. That’s when it will humor me by inserting “airway” instead of “ashtray.”

I just don’t know what could lead Google to misread me so consistently. The path you trace to gesture-type “already” requires going significantly farther east on the keyboard than the route for “ashtray,” and Google’s own search results suggest the former word is used about 143 times more often than the latter. Who would see any upside from this pattern of error?

As I said, this is annoying because it’s so unusual. The only other common word that Android gesture typing botches halfway as often is “conference.” And there, it’s at least more creative: The software will sometimes choose to read my attempt to enter this noun for an occupational hazard of my job as me gesture-typing “cicatrice.” Yes, real word: It’s a Middle English-derived noun for tissue that forms over a wound and then becomes a scar.

One thing I do know about this mystery: If there’s a tech conference with “already” in its name, I may have to decline all of its invitations to preserve my own sanity.

Captions are good for panels, not just photos

LAS VEGAS–I am here once again for yet another conference, this time Tech Cocktail’s Celebrate. Some of the discussions here ranged a bit afield of my own consumer-tech focus, but It’s been a pretty good event overall–including my turn in the spotlight this morning, when I interviewed SmartThings founder Jeff Hagins about the future of smart homes and the “Internet of Things.”

Tech Cocktail Celebrate panelIn one respect, however, Celebrate has clearly outdone other conferences I’ve spoken at or attended. During every session here, the screen behind the stage has displayed these data points:

  1. each panelist’s name;
  2. each panelist’s photo;
  3. each panelist’s Twitter handle;
  4. the above presented in the order in which they’re seated onstage.

Conference organizers, won’t you please go and do likewise?

I hate having to hit Google to confirm who said which quotable quip, especially in the too-frequent cases when the panel is all or mostly white dudes. (Note: In those situations, the organizers should address their diversity issues first, then tackle their presentation.) Having to lean on Twitter’s clumsy search to look up people’s handles–it’s basic etiquette to mention somebody in a tweet about them, their company, or their product–amuses me even less.

Make it clear who’s talking and how to identify them when I tweet about the panel, and I can focus on taking notes and sharing them. And when I happen to be on the panel and check my phone for Twitter mentions (don’t judge…), I can be more confident that I’m not missing any backchannel banter about my performance.

While you’re doing that, event planners, don’t forget to consult my advice about conference-badge design.

(Disclosure: I’ve known Tech Cocktail founders Frank Gruber and Jen Consalvo since at least 2009, long enough for them to move from “people I deal with for work” to “people I enjoy talking to outside of work.”)