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?

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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.

 

Covering conference costs

My travel for work often involves a four-word question with a one-word answer. As in, somebody asks me “Who’s sending you here?”, and I reply by saying “me.”

Self-employment usually means self-financing of travel. Except for when speaking somewhere gets my travel comped or a conference organizer offers a travel subsidy (or the very rare times that a client covers my travel costs), I have to pay my own way.

When I started freelancing in 2011, I didn’t worry too much about how. I was blessed with clients overpaying me, and I was so tired of having the Post deny my travel requests–like the three years in a row they wouldn’t send me to South By Southwest–that I chose to spend some money to see what I’d missed.

I’m more practical these days: If I go somewhere, I should sell enough work based on things I learn during that trip to cover my costs. As long as I can find a scarcity to exploit, that should be doable. Google I/O and Mobile World Congress, for example, either limit press access or take place in locations where tech-news sites don’t have anybody based full-time–leaving me less competition. So did the Falcon Heavy launch.

To be honest in my accounting, I also have to consider how much I would have written and sold on a normal week at home, when my expenses amount to Metro fare and part of the utilities bills. In other words, I didn’t write five Yahoo posts from CES just for my health.

Most of the time, I do sell enough from out of town to get my above-baseline income to meet travel costs that I already try to ratchet down with my Airbnb and public-transit habits. What I still need to address: not slacking off the week after a mega-gathering like CES or MWC, a pattern you’ve probably noticed in my weekly recaps of my work.

Some trips, however, are worth doing even at a loss, and I appreciate that self-employment lets me make that choice.

For example, the XOXO conference in Portland was so mind-expandingly great in 2013 and 2015 that I paid not just for airfare and lodging but even for the conference pass–and I only sold a single post from it each time. Friday, the organizers tweeted that after taking 2017 off, the conference would return this September… so, you know, my financial realism may have to take a break that week.

Okay, maybe this SXSW commercialism really has gotten out of hand

AUSTIN–SXSW is really two events. One is the long series of panels and keynotes that teach me new things and get wheels turning in my brain for weeks afterward–for instance, yesterday President Obama did a Q&A that was supposed to be a sales pitch for SXSW techies to lend their talents to making government work better but wound up being his most revealing discussion about device encryption ever.

Sixth Street during SXSW(Twitter was not pleased with Obama’s displeasure about “fetishizing our phones above every other value,” to judge from my own timeline.)

But there’s also the Marketing Spring Break that surrounds this conference, in which every other social media manager, PR rep, advertising executive, and brand ambassador in America takes their employer or client’s corporate credit card and goes on a spending spree with restaurants, bars and caterers here.

The result is a schedule crammed with happy hours, receptions and parties, this year even more so than in the four before that I’ve been privileged to attend this event. My own calendar this evening features five events, most overlapping each other’s time slot. I am not sure what I could say to a normal human being’s “I hate you” assessment:

2) “Don’t hate the player, hate the game!”
3) Actually, just go ahead and hate me.

It’s not just tech startups lighting their investors’ money on fire in the hope of repeating Twitter’s 2007 SXSW breakout. The social scene here also features a wide variety of big-name Establishment firms looking to capture “mind share” by giving away free beer, tacos and BBQ–anytime I am overcome with SXSW-scheduling angst over which panel I won’t be able to attend, I can chill at the Scotts Miracle-Gro Connected Yard, the McDonald’s Loft, the Budweiser Beer Garage, or the Comcast Social Media Lounge.

I don’t know how all of these companies can get an acceptable return on their investment. What I do know: I’m not getting out of this place any skinnier.

Weekly output: XOXO, iPhone Upgrade Program (x2), phone ownership, iOS 9 transit navigation

I owe a large chunk of this week’s work to Apple.

9/15/2015: Rob Pegoraro (USA Today & Yahoo, AppleCare for iPhone) 9.15.15, WRKO

The Boston news station’s Financial Exchange show quizzed me about the pluses and minuses of Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program.

Yahoo Tech XOXO post9/16/2015: Creatives Ask: What Kind of Web Do We Want, Anyway?, Yahoo Tech

I struggled to write this on the flight back from Portland, thought about scrapping the draft, then pounded the keys over most of Tuesday to yield this. I still don’t know if this post did justice to the conference. I do know it stoked some outrage from Gamergaters who don’t seem to have learned much about advancing a persuasive argument.

9/16/2015: Could the iPhone Upgrade Program save you money?, WTOP

D.C.’s news station had its own questions about Apple’s bid to push the wireless carriers into the background of the smartphone-procurement transaction.

9/18/2015: Who Really Owns Your iPhone? It May Not Be You, Yahoo Tech

An e-mail thread between a couple of my editors and me finally led to this post about changing notions of smartphone ownership. The argument over GM claiming ownership of a car’s embedded software influenced this.

9/20/2015: Why an old iPad can’t get iOS 9 transit directions, USA Today

I thought this weekend’s USAT column should cover an iOS 9 topic, and then Apple left a pitch right over the plate by failing to document that iOS 9’s transit navigation doesn’t work on older devices. It’s appalling how Apple keeps its users in the dark… a practice I will “punish” at some point by buying an iPad mini 4, because as a tech journalist, I can’t not have an iOS device.

Post-travel to-dos

Cards and card

I’m through the worst of what I’m not-so-fondly calling Conference Month, and all of this travel is reminding me of the tasks that await each time I come home and finish unpacking.

Let’s see:

  • Do laundry.
  • Catch up on other household chores: sweep the floors, do the dishes, bake bread, reaffirm my earlier decision that the late-summer lawn is a lost cause.
  • Go over my e-mail to see which messages I should have answered three to five days ago.
  • Tag and categorize business expenses in Mint, then verify that I didn’t forget to record any cash transactions in the Google Docs spreadsheet I use for that purpose.
  • Send LinkedIn invitations to people I met on the trip, assuming their profiles show signs of recent life. (Go ahead, call me a tool now.)
  • Throw the latest set of press-kit USB flash drives onto the pile.
  • Scan business cards into Evernote.
  • Download, edit, geotag and caption photos, then post them to Flickr (for public viewing) or Facebook (for friends).
  • Make sure I got the proper frequent-flyer credit for the last round of flights.
  • There’s probably some other chore that should be on this list but that I will only remember when I’m on my way to National or Dulles.

As I write this, there’s a stack of business cards on my desk and several dozen pictures in iPhoto that have not been edited, geotagged, captioned or shared. And I only have five days before my next work trip, the Online News Association’s conference in Los Angeles, so you can imagine how well this is going.

Conference organizers, maybe you could find other months to host your events?

 

Weekly output: UHD + HDR, Apple TV, Apple news, iPhone Upgrade Program, Nextbit Robin

PORTLAND–I’ve just spent two mind- and heart-expanding days at the XOXO festival here. I don’t know if it was quite as inspirational as two years ago, but I still think the things I’ve heard and seen from the speakers and other attendees will be leaving little ripples in my life for some time to come.

In other news, it’s going to be so great to come home tomorrow.

9/7/2015: Are 4K Televisions Finally Ready for Primetime?, Yahoo Tech

I wrote one last post from IFA Friday evening that didn’t get posted until Monday. My own answer to that headline is “not yet”–at least not until the wider color and brightness of “HDR” isn’t confined to expensive, reference-line UHD TVs. I also want to see a next-gen HD/UHD broadcast standard supported in affordable sets.

Yahoo Tech Apple TV post9/8/2015: Can Apple Save Apple TV?, Yahoo Tech

Since this ran, Apple has announced that the new Apple TV’s remote will feature volume buttons ( It’s weird when Apple does something I ask it to do!) and Plex has said it’s working to bring its app to the new model.

9/9/2015: Apple’s news, WTOP

I had a quick chat from the CTIA pressroom with WTOP’s anchors about the new iPhones, iPads and Apple TV.

9/12/2015: Can Apple’s iPhone upgrade deal work for you?, USA Today

My editors and I had originally thought of using this week’s column slot for a look at the fading fortunes of CTIA’s event, but they asked me to explain Apple’s new iPhone-upgrade program (so instead you read about this trade show’s travails here). Note the presence of a T-Mobile publicist in the comments; I invited him to leave that comment after he asked if we could revise the piece to note that that carrier’s trade-in option.

9/12/2015: Nextbit’s Android Phone Puts Its Faith—and Your Data—in the Cloud, Yahoo Tech

I had a demo of this upcoming Android phone Wednesday evening in Vegas and wrote it up over the course of Thursday. I doubt I’ll buy it myself–I’m going to need a new phone sooner than next year–but they’ve got an interesting concept and design.