2020 in review: persistence required

Back in August, when 2020’s nightmare status had become numbingly obvious even if we didn’t know how much worse the novel-coronavirus pandemic would get, I recounted here what I’d typed to a friend in a chat the day before: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

As I type this, 2020 only has hours left to go, so simply being able to write this recap feels like a minor victory. But as I type this, I also see that the Johns Hopkins University pandemic dashboard I have checked far too many times year now lists a total of 344,030 Americans dead from the pandemic–a staggering, heartbreaking toll made worse by President Trump’s careless stewardship and pointless politicization of things as basic as wearing a mask. Among the earliest of those casualties: my senior-year roommate’s father.

Screenshot of the Mac Calendar app's year view of my work calendar, showing many days with no appointments at all.

Spending most of this year in what often felt like a form of house arrest seems like such an inconsequential side effect compared to that loss, or the brief hospital stays two relatives endured. But beyond leading to such developments as my briefly growing a beard, my cooking and gardening like never before, and our adopting a cat, the pandemic took a hammer to my own business.

As the economy crumpled, some of my clients cut their freelance budgets drastically or to zero; one of my best clients closed at the end of May. With business travel shut down–see how empty that screengrab of my calendar looks?–my sideline of moderating panels at conferences became an exercise confined to my desk instead of a way to get free trips to fun places.

I somehow scraped together enough work to see my income drop by only about 14 percent compared to 2019–but that year was itself not great. I can’t lie to you or to myself: Freelancing isn’t working as well for me as it did five years ago. But the entire profession of journalism is in far worse shape than it was five years ago.

Inconveniently enough, I still love the work. And I loved writing the following stories more than most.

In a year that’s seen me so cut off from people, the chance to call out abuses of power that made things harder for everybody else cooped up at home helped me feel a little more connected to you all.

So did my four long days of work as an election officer, concluding with the tiny role I played Nov. 3 helping Americans vote in unprecedented numbers and end Trump’s reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. That service for a cause much bigger than myself was nowhere near my best-paying work this year. But it may have been the most satisfying.

Weekly output: WiFi help, SpaceX and NASA, cybersecurity issues and the coronavirus (x2), Trump’s social-media executive order (x3)

This weekend has shown some of the ugliest sides of the United States, from systemic racism to abuse of police power to wanton destructiveness. It would have been even worse without Saturday’s reminder from SpaceX and NASA that we can also do great things together.

5/25/2020: Think you are ready for a new router? First, try these free home Wi-Fi fixes, USA Today

I borrowed the expertise of my friends Tom Bridge and Glenn Fleishman for this column about no-cost tweaks to a home network that may improve your experience.

5/27/2020: SpaceX’s Dragon launch ushers in a new era for Americans in space, Fast Company

I’d meant to write this story from the Kennedy Space Center’s press site. Instead, I wrote it from my desk at home–below a picture I took of the last shuttle launch that STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson signed for me at a later NASA Tweetup.

5/27/2020: The Thought Leadership Summit, Webit Virtual

This conference was once going to take place in Spain next month and have me moderate some panels. Webit’s had to go virtual like every other large event, so my first spot involved a panel on cybersecurity issues in the novel-coronavirus pandemic that featured Webit executive chairman Plamen Russev, Siemens chief cybersecurity officer Natalia Oropeza, Inrupt security-architecture chief Bruce Schneier, and VMWare security vice president Tom Corn.

5/27/2020: Trump vs. Twitter, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on to talk about President Trump’s temper tantrum of executive order that makes a lot of noise about Twitter’s alleged unfairness but contains almost nothing in the way of a legally-valid signal.

5/28/2020: The Leading Media Forum, Webit Virtual

My second appearance for Webit featured an extended discussion about media coverage of cybersecurity issues with Webit’s Russev, Wired Italia’s Luca Zorloni, Forbes’ Monica Melton, and Euronews’ Salim Essaid. The video on this should look much better than the earlier panel, because I realized that my laptop’s camera had the white balance so hideously bad that my navy-blue shirt looked purple. With only a couple of minutes to go before showtime, I grabbed my iPad, braced it between my laptop keyboard and screen, and used that instead.

5/28/2020: Trump’s social-media executive order, Al Araby

My second TV hit about the Trump executive order came right after he signed that document, which meant my interpreter on this Arabic-language network and I had to wait for him to stop talking.

5/29/2020: Trump’s Twitter Tantrum; Hong Kong Crackdown, Bipodisan

My first tweets about the Trump order caught the eye of my friend Robert Schlesinger, who then invited me to join him and his co-host Jean Card on this political podcast. We had much more fun than you might expect from a chat about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The importance and difficulty of clocking out on time

I had a long chat the other night with a younger tech journalist about work/life balance. I suspect this person was hoping to learn that I had found this one weird trick to regain control of when the job can cede priority to the things that the job pays for, but I had to admit that I had not.

Clocking outThat’s because experience, at least in my case, has not changed this basic conflict in journalism: As long as praise (financial or otherwise) for good work outweighs compliments for filing early, you’re motivated to keep noodling away at a story until about 30 seconds before your editor sends an “are you filing?” message. And even if you don’t, filing ahead of schedule typically guarantees that your editor’s attention will immediately get hijacked by breaking news.

As a work-from-home freelancer, I should be in a better position to log off at a normal time because I’m immune to many of the usual newsroom distractions. My editing software is faster to boot up and less likely to crash than many newsroom CMSes, I don’t get dragged into random meetings, and I don’t have to worry about the time to commute home.

Plus, if a client wants an extra story, that will usually mean an extra payment instead of another revolution of the newsroom hamster wheel.

But I’m also disconnected from the usual boss-management mechanisms. I can’t look up from my desk to see if somebody else is occupying my editor’s attention and/or office, or if I should hurry up and file the damn thing already. I can’t tell just by listening to the collective din of keyboards how busy the news day has become. Writer-editor occupational banter in chat-room apps like HipChat amounts to an inexact substitute.

What I told my younger counterpart was that you have to remember that not every story requires the same intense attention to capturing the finer points of an issue–that it also feels pretty great to crank out solid copy, clear on the outlines of a topic, in half an hour and then be done with it. That’s also a skill you need to keep current, because you won’t always have the luxury of an entire afternoon to futz with the language of a post. Give yourself a fake deadline if you must, but try to make putting down your tools at a time certain a part of the exercise.

That’s why I set a timer on my phone to ensure I’d finish up this post and get started on cooking dinner. It went off… oh, about 15 minutes ago.