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.

DVR debt, but for virtual-conference panels

For the past two months, I’ve been looking at the same five tabs left open in my Mac’s copy of Chrome. They’re all from Black Hat–as in, the security conference that happened online in early August, but which remains incomplete in my own viewing.

If this event had taken place in Las Vegas as usual, I would have watched almost all the talks I’d picked out from the schedule. That’s a core feature of traveling to spend a few days at a conference: All of the usual at-home distractions are gone, leaving you free to focus on the proceedings at hand.

Online-only events zero out my travel costs and offer the added benefit of vastly reducing the odds of my catching the novel coronavirus from a crowd of hundreds of strangers. But because they leave me in my everyday surroundings, they’re also hard to follow.

If I have a story to write off a panel–meaning a direct financial incentive–I can and will tune in for that. But for everything else at an online conference, it’s just too easy to switch my attention to whatever work or home task has to be done today and save the panel viewing for later, as if it were yet another recording on my TiVo. (Or to let my attention wander once again to Election Twitter.) It’s not as if other conference attendees will be able to note my absence!

So I still haven’t caught up with the talks at Black Hat. Or at the online-only DEF CON hacker conference that followed it. I haven’t even tried to follow the panels at this year’s online-only version of the Online News Association’s conference… mainly because I couldn’t justify spending $225 on a ticket when this conference’s usual networking benefits would be so attenuated. I feel a little bad about that, but on the other hand I also feel a little cranky about submitting a panel proposal for ONA 20 and never getting a response.

I would love to be able to return to physical-world events with schedules crowded by overlapping panel tracks that force me to choose between rooms. But there seems to be zero chance of them resuming in the next six months, even if a vaccine arrives before the end of the year in mass quantities. Web Summit, CES, SXSW: They’ll all be digital-only, happenings experienced only through a screen.

I should try harder to cultivate the habit of experiencing these virtual events in the moment, not weeks or months afterwards. Or at least I should try to catch up on the backlog of panels I’ve already accumulated. This last hour would have been great for that… except I spent it writing this post instead.

Update, 10/10/2020: It turns out none of those Black Hat panels were available for viewing anymore. Whoops! At least the tab bar in Chrome looks cleaner now, I guess.

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?

Weekly output: IFA oddities, Windows laptop trends

PORTLAND–I’m nearing the end of one work trip, after which I’ll get to spend a whole 40 or so hours at home before heading out for a second. No, I’m not heading to the Bay Area for Apple’s new-iPhone event Wednesday (I haven’t gotten an invitation to one of those occasions since 2010, which is fine); I will instead spend that afternoon flying to Austin for the Online News Association’s conference.

Like XOXO here, ONA is an event that has me paying for the conference badge. In a few days, I will try to write why I think it sometimes worthwhile to put this kind of dent in my business model.

Yahoo Finance IFA-oddities post9/4/2018: The weirdest, most interesting, and most unavailable gadgets from IFA 2018, Yahoo Finance

This illustrated recap of the oddest hardware I saw at IFA, including a robot dog and a “Solar Cow,” ran a couple of days after my return from that gadget show in Berlin. This sort of listicle has become a staple of my tech-trade-show coverage, because the gadget industry doesn’t seem to be getting any less weird. And after I’ve filed a few thousand words from a faraway city, stringing together a post from 200-word chunks feels exponentially easier.

9/7/2018: Laptops get thinner, lighter, more secure – and, in one case, audio-hostile, USA Today

This overview of laptop-design trends seen at IFA–most of which I like, one of which I absolutely hate–took a few more days to appear online. I can’t say that any of these changes made me feel bad about my almost-year-old laptop… which is fine! Most people should not buy a new computer every year.

 

The two kinds of Airbnbs I rent

No travel site has saved me as much money as Airbnb–the 10 rooms and the two apartments I’ve booked through the site represent thousands of extra dollars I didn’t have to spend on overpriced hotels at events like Mobile World Congress and Google I/O. But no other travel site has left me thinking so much about its effects on the places I visit.

The vision that Airbnb sells, and the reality I’ve seen in half of those 12 stays, is somebody renting out a room or (when they’re traveling) their entire residence to make extra money on the side. I always appreciate the effort these hosts put in–the labels on everything, the well-placed power strips that hotels often forget, the advice about places to eat and drink nearby–and I like the thought that I’m helping people stay in their homes or apartments.

(A friend in Brooklyn has rented out the extra room in his apartment for years; seeing him favorably review an Airbnb room in Denver put me at ease with staying there for last year’s Online News Association conference.)

But Airbnb also features many other hosts who list multiple properties and, in some cases, have purchased many or all of the apartments in a building to rent out to budget-minded travelers like me. In the latter case–like the room in San Francisco I rented this week that appeared to have once been a single-room-occupancy apartment–you can easily imagine that without an Airbnb, people who live near those places would have more housing options.

That concern, sometimes pushed by the hotel industry, has led many cities to try to restrict Airbnb. In Barcelona, that crackdown meant the apartment in the Gothic Quarter that I’d stayed at for three years in a row was off the market this February because the host couldn’t get the required tourist license (I found another apartment that did have it, or at least said it did). In San Francisco, it’s led the company to start collecting occupancy taxes (which is fine with me).

I don’t want to overstate Airbnb’s effect on a housing market–certainly not in the Bay Area, where development policies founded on delusional entitlement have done far more to jack up residential costs. But I do worry about this.

And then I continue to book on Airbnb when crashing with friends isn’t an option. When the alternative is eating $200 or $300 a night on a hotel room or staying in distant suburbs, what else do you expect me to do?

An unwanted weekend of Web-mail

I’ve written before how I’m not too fond of Web-mail versus desktop clients, but last weekend didn’t give me a choice in the matter.

Gmail offline UI detailAbout an hour after my flight took off, my MacBook Air coughed up an error message from the Mail program that its index had gotten scrambled (not the exact phrasing; I inexplicably forgot to take a screengrab) and needed to be rebuilt. Fine, I said, and clicked the appropriate button.

Less than an hour later, my aging laptop complained that it was out of space. After a couple of fruitless attempts to weed out larger files, I gave up on mail for the rest of the way to LAX, then resigned myself to using the Webmail interface to the Google Apps account I use for work.

In the two years since Apple’s Mail app last couldn’t connect me to my work account, Gmail hasn’t changed much but Apple’s Mail app has. It’s become a clumsy, clanky, sluggish part of my workflow that usually has me grumbling in complaint before I’m halfway through the first cup of coffee.

Sadly enough, I still missed Mail. Gmail’s regular view only shows 15 messages on my MacBook’s screen, and its in-browser offline mode–a non-negotiable item given the horrible state of the ONA conference WiFi–only showed eight at a time.

Mail unsuccessful setupMy usual method of policing my inbox, block-selecting non-essential messages and moving them to folders like “PR” or “Administrivia,” broke down when Gmail Offline showed that few messages and required me to select each one individually before any moves to sub-folders.

Gmail’s automatic classification of messages under tabs like “Promotions” and “Social” didn’t help aside from correctly shunting most of the PR correspondence to the former tab.

At no point over that weekend did I get WiFi fast enough to let me even think about re-syncing over a dozen gigabytes of mail back down to my laptop–at one point, Mail couldn’t even crawl through its first setup screen. So I limped along in Web-mail, steadily fell behind, and have since caught up slowly in my iMac’s copy of Mail.

As I type this, Apple’s OS X El Capitan just finished installing on that MacBook. Will Mail behave a little better in that new release? I can only hope…

Weekly output: ads and the consequences of blocking them, misplaced places on Facebook

I’m back from a few days in Los Angeles for the Online News Association’s conference. In addition to getting some wheels turning in my head about the state of my profession and doubling as a Post reunion, my first trip to L.A. for work since 2012 gave me my belated intro to the subway there. (The Red Line’s stops feature some magnificent architecture.)

9/22/2015: Will Ad Blockers Kill the Internet as We Know It?, Yahoo Tech

I’d had a version of this column in mind for a while; originally, it was going to stop at explaining why you see so many crummy ads, even on this very blog. Then Apple’s move to make it App Store-easy to block ads in iOS 9, followed by the quick withdrawal of the leading ad blocker from the store, provided a timely angle.

USAT Facebook places column9/27/2015: How Facebook places you where you’ve never been, USA Today

My weekly column took a food-centric turn this week when I got a question about Facebook magically placing a user at a restaurant she’d never visited and that wasn’t even open yet. The answer revealed some interesting wrinkles to Facebook’s rules for local businesses marketing themselves on the site.

Weekly output: vacation mode for phones, whither unlimited-data plans

The next few weeks will involve a lot of airplanes, starting tomorrow when I fly to Berlin for my fourth annual trip to the IFA electronics show there. I’m back on the 6th, then depart two days later for the CTIA wireless-industry gathering in Las Vegas. That will be a brief stay, as I move on to Portland on the 10th for the XOXO conference. A week and a half later, I’m off to L.A. for the Online News Association conference.

At least this travel schedule isn’t as insane as last September’s (when, for example, less than 24 hours separated the IFA and CTIA trips). But still: Conference organizers, maybe you could find other months to host your events?

Yahoo Tech vacation-mode post8/25/2015: The One Feature Every Smartphone Needs: Vacation Mode, Yahoo Tech

I wrote this essay, sadly enough, while on vacation. But I did leave time that day for a nap! Of course, half the comments were along the lines of “just turn off your phone.” Thanks, dude, that’s a really practical bit of advice.

8/30/2015: New math hurts case for old unlimited data plans, USA Today

Speaking of comments, something weird happened with them on this post tonight–the previous 16 comments, including some replies of my own, vanished, and now there’s just one. (It’s from a guy who says his phone is his only Internet device, and he therefore burns through 40 gigabytes of data. I am pained thinking of spending that much time online on any phone.) I’m not sure what happened. Never mind–I was reading a syndicated copy of the story on the site of the St. Louis TV station KSDK but completely ignored the different header atop the story. Duh.

Newspaper alumni need the occasional reunion too

CHICAGO–I’m here for the Online News Association’s annual conference, and it’s been pretty great so far. Not necessarily for all the panels and discussions (although they’ve been good too, especially Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile’s explaining how news sites and advertisers need to focus on time spent instead of page views, then Texas Tribune editor Amanda Krauss discussing how changing the “Like” button in their commenting system to a “Respect” button helped elevate the discussion), but for the people.

ONA 14 logo on tote bagThe right and honorable profession of journalism has many virtues, but occupational permanence or even long-term stability isn’t among them. Jobs change, news organizations grow or shrink, and your fellow cubicle farmers may not be there next year. The cubicle farm itself may vanish.

(That lesson is particularly obvious in this city: My walk to the ONA venue takes me past the Tribune Tower, where Sam Zell’s malicious mismanagement sent the newspaper into bankruptcy.)

You can still talk to the people you used to work with on Facebook, Twitter and mailing lists, but sometimes you want to see them in person. Tech events help–I don’t miss going to Apple product launches because of the chance to inspect a new iPhone under tightly-controlled conditions, but because they let me catch up with tech-journalism pals–but ONA is fantastic for reconnecting with old Post colleagues.

We run into each other, we ask what we’re up to now, we share our recollections of horrible CMSes, we trade tips about travel and technology, we talk about our families… and I love realizing that we’ve found happiness in our post-newspaper lives.

I’ve also run into some current Posties here, who seem much more content than many of us were when we left: The Jeff Bezos money has ended a long and seemingly unending cycle of staff cuts and started paying for hiring and travel on a scale unimaginable back then. That’s good to see too.

Report: Journalism not completely doomed

I spent four days in San Francisco with a crowd of journalists, and this meeting did not require the services of psychoanalysts or grief counselors.

This was my first trip to the Online News Association’s annual conference, and I’m glad I went. (I joined ONA in 2009, didn’t think to go to the 2009 event in San Francisco, blew off the 2010 conference even though it was right in D.C. and I should have been busy networking then, and wistfully read tweets from the 2011 gathering in Boston.) Three reasons stand out.

One was the chance to re-connect with old friends from the Post and newer acquaintances that, until then, I had known mainly as Twitter handles and e-mail addresses. As a full-time freelancer who works from the same desk at home almost every day, renewing those bonds means a lot. (And I won’t mind if some of these conversations yield future business.)

Another was why I’d go to any gathering of interesting people engaged in the same work: learning from those more informed, intelligent, experienced or connected than me. The lineup of panels and ONA’s awards ceremony reminded me of how much creativity goes into telling the truth to strangers, and how much of this we’re still figuring out.

ONA speakers shared such practical advice as the importance of a good business-card design if you freelance; different ways to clean up the mess when you tweet out an error; effective tools for mobile reporting; and reminders that story comments aren’t all bad (“my commenters were my mentors” said Twitter’s Mark Luckie of his early blogging). And some committed actual news: In an onstage interview, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said we’d be able to download all of our tweets “before the end of the year”–although he then walked that back slightly by noting his engineers’ reluctance to get so specific.

But the thing about ONA that sticks most in my mind is its absence of pessimism. This could have been a consequence of going to a deliberately post-print organization’s conference, but it was still heartening to see that much enthusiasm for the bold, persistent experimentation this industry needs, both on an individual and organizational level. To steal a line from Lauren Orsini‘s account of how she had wormed her way into writing about online communities through freelance work: “What do you when the job you really, really want does not exist? You make that job.”

Is that foolish optimism? Maybe, but not nearly as crazy as a 20-year-old guy thinking that a part-time newsroom job sorting mail and answering phones could ever lead to a front-page byline.