Weekly output: NSA surveillance, Tech Night Owl

It’s a short list of stories this week, because USA Today elected to run this weekend’s column on Monday instead of today (they figure it will get more readers then than today, which seems fair enough to me). Next week will be busier: I’ll be in San Francisco from Wednesday through Saturday for Google’s I/O conference.

Yahoo Tech NSA-surveillance post5/19/2015: The NSA’s Bulk Surveillance is Nearing its Expiration Date, Yahoo Tech

This column was a hairball to write–between recapping two years’ worth of breaking news about the National Security Agency’s bulk surveillance and then trying to summarize the key differences between possible reforms of that, I had a draft balloon to about 1.5 times my usual word count.

5/23/2015: May 23, 2015 — Josh Centers and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

My conversation with Gene Steinberg about Comcast’s customer-service initiatives, NSA reform, EMV credit-card security and more was repeatedly interrupted by my coughing fits. I feel bad about the extra editing work I inflicted on my host, and I wish I knew what could escalate a slight scratchiness in my throat so badly.

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My ongoing struggle to make comments suck less

One of the most common four-word phrases in journalism (after “the CMS from hell”) must be “don’t read the comments.” A lot of newsrooms treat reader comments as the equivalent of the town dump: They’re something you need to have, and you want to spend as little time as possible there.

Comments formI, however, am one of those weirdos who reads the comments–and not just when I see a bunch, but on almost every story I write. Part of that is because I enjoy seeing people make fools of themselves while attempting to argue. But most of it is because I don’t mind seeing what people think and usually enjoy answering a reader’s question–if not to their satisfaction, in a way that sane readers of the comments thread will regard as astute.

(That’s also why you can usually find me showing up in reddit comments about my stories, much as I used to watch Slashdot to see if any of my work was getting picked apart there.)

Last year, I heard some advice about comments that’s stayed with me: At the Online News Association conference in Chicago, the Texas Tribune’s Amanda `Krauss said that having a story’s author open the discussion by posting the first comment helped make the resulting conversation more civil. She had other advice that journalists can’t easily follow without major CMS tinkering (for instance, changing the “Like” button to a “Respect” one), but this first-comment thing is something any writer can do.

Question is, what should that first comment be? Here’s how I’ve handled that at recent Yahoo Tech columns:

• Sharing a how-to recipe that would have been too involved to cram into the story itself. Example: my review of the KnowRoaming SIM sticker, in which I used that first comment to explain how to stop a “SIM Toolkit” app from taking up full-time residence in your phone’s notifications.

• Using that space to revise and extend my remarks by describing the philosophical underpinnings of my outlook on the subject, as I did in Tuesday’s column about the impending expiration of some USA Patriot Act provisions that enable the NSA’s bulk surveillance. Reader replies to that: zero.

• The old standby of posing a question to readers about a key issue of the story, most recently seen in the column about Apple Watch app rules where I opened the comments by asking readers if they’re bothered at all by them or basically trust Apple to look out for them. Reader replies: three.

Explaining a story’s sourcing or just naming the people I talked to on the record who didn’t get a quote in the story seems like an obvious move, but I haven’t done that yet. Maybe next week?

I’m not sure I’m making a huge difference–I’m sure it won’t for readers who have already sworn off comments–but this practice only takes a few minutes and it helps ensure I won’t ignore the comments later on, or at least until a post gets featured on the Yahoo home page and promptly gets overrun with 2,000 comments. That seems a worthwhile use of my time.

Weekly output: 2016 tech-policy topics, tech journalism and PR, phone theft, Tech Night Owl, no-broadband house

This was my least-scheduled week in the entire month, allowing me to start catching up on some overdue chores. Like doing my taxes.

3/24/2015: 3 Tech Arguments that the Candidates for President Will Be Debating… Endlessly, Yahoo Tech

Monday’s announcement by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) of his entrance into the 2016 presidential race gave me a reason to outline three key tech-policy issues–and some key words and phrases that indicate a candidate is either thinking seriously about them or recycling discredited dogma.

BusinessWire panel photos via Twitter3/24/2015: Media Breakfast with DC Technology Media, BusinessWire

I talked about the state of the tech-news business and news-PR interactions with the Washington Business Journal’s Kasra Kangarloo, Potomac Tech Wire publisher Paul Sherman, Politico’s Joseph Marks and my old Post colleague Hayley Tsukayama. You may have seen some of our banter tweeted out by attendees under the #BWchat hashtag.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made an early-morning trek to Tysons for a BusinessWire breakfast panel (I did the same thing in 2013), but it was the first time I could take what I like to call the Tysons Corner El instead of driving. Round-trip fare on the Silver Line: $7.05. Being able to laugh at traffic on 66 and the Beltway while answering e-mail on my laptop: priceless.

3/24/2015: Armed robbers target victims along popular trail, Fox 5 DC

After a round of robberies on the Metropolitan Branch Trail in which thieves (since arresteddemanded not just smartphones but their numeric passcodes, Fox 5’s Jennifer Davis interviewed about that tactic. I told her that you should make sure your phone’s online-backup and remote-wipe features were active. And what should you do if a robber demands your phone and its unlock code? My only suggestion (which didn’t make the spot) was to try to reset the phone, on the assumption that the criminal only wants a phone in a sellable state.

3/28/2015: March 28, 2015 — Jeff Gamet and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

I talked to host Gene Steinberg about Sling TV and other new video services aimed at cord-cutters, how Apple might offer one of its own, and Google’s latest interactions with regulators on either side of the Atlantic.

3/29/2015: New home, no broadband? Prepare to negotiate, USA Today

This column started with a tweet to me during last month’s FCC vote to overturn North Carolina and Tennessee’s restrictions on municipal broadband. Untangling this Knoxville-area reader’s situation and assessing his options took weeks longer than I expected. Fortunately, he does have one broadband option at hand, with another to come should he agres to Comcast’s offer to connect his home if he commits upfront to two years of pricier-than-usual service.