An update on my Forbes experiment

It’s now been a year and change I started writing about the intersection of media, policy, and technology at Forbes. It’s also been two months and change since I last published anything there.

That might look like a conclusive verdict against the experiment I started last June, but the reality is a little more nuanced. On one hand, I’ve very much enjoyed the ability to “write and publish as I see fit instead of waiting for an editor to okay a pitch and then edit my copy” (as I wrote last summer). On the other hand, I’ve yet to clock enough page views in a month to earn above the minimum rate.

So when I had a bunch of new work come my way starting in April, I had to decide at the start of May if I would commit to writing my monthly minimum of five posts–my arrangement doesn’t provide partial pay for posting less than that–or take a break to focus on this new business. And since I had gone months without seeing any Forbes post crack a five-digit number of page views, that was an unavoidable call for me.

My most-read story at Forbes, a post I wrote at the end of November about the strange lifeline AT&T and, to a lesser extent, Verizon provide to the hoax-soaked One America News Network, has drawn a total of 35,747 views as of today. But most have done much worse than that unspectacular total, with many failing to crack a thousand views. That’s frustrated me to no end–not least since I’ve seen pieces at other outlets do great in the same time–but at a certain point, I had to stop banging my head against that wall and direct my attention to work that didn’t have Web-traffic stats between me and my payment. 

It’s possible that the subscription paywall Forbes put in place late last year (you should see the dialog above after reading five stories at the site in a month) has made it much harder for a post to go viral there. But I’ve seen at least one friend who writes at Forbes continue to hit numbers that should earn a decent bonus. Maybe I’m just page-view Kryptonite at this client in particular?

If I am, and if I decide to call it a day for this experiment, I will have no regrets. I’ve been able to address important topics–for example, Apple’s retelling of app-distribution history, the self-owns of some senators trying to interrogate tech CEOs, Google’s abusive conduct of its display-advertising business, President Trump’s clumsy and illegal attempts to regulate social media–as I saw fit. (Thinking about that, it would have been nice to toss up a post Thursday about the lawsuit by 36 states and D.C. against Google over its control of the Play Store instead of limiting my commentary to a Twitter thread that made me no money at all.) And the effort I put into focusing on media-policy issues also made me a sharper, better-sourced reporter in that area.

Meanwhile, management at Forbes has made some smart moves–in particular, bringing on the Houston Chronicle’s former tech columnist Dwight Silverman to cover the computing industry was a great call on their part. And nobody there has told me that time’s up on my contributor gig. But I do know that July already looks shot in terms of writing bandwidth that would let me return to it.

Weekly output: Discovery hire, vaccine disinfo on social media, Moody’s pay-TV forecast,

This week saw the quiet demise of Uber’s flying-taxi ambitions, in the form of the company  selling that operation to Joby Aviation. I feel relieved that my earlier coverage of Uber Elevate included skeptical notes from aviation-security analyst Robert Mann.

12/7/2020: Discovery hires Hulu’s Jim Keller to helm digital ads, FierceVideo

I spent Monday filling in at my trade-pub client to write breaking news. This post covered a Discovery hire in advance of its new Discovery+ streaming-video service.

12/7/2020: Vaccine disinformation on social media, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me to discuss what social networks should do about anti-vax lies now that coronavirus vaccines are finally in distribution.

12/7/2020: Moody’s forecast shows no end to pay TV’s problems, FierceVideo

My other piece at Fierce Monday covered a new report from Moody’s Investors Service that predicts an acceleration of cord cutting.

12/9/2020: Google Will Pay For Some Paywalled News Stories—Just Not Here, Forbes

Google paying for the first click at a paywalled site in a few other countries represents a major turnaround from it demanding that paywalled sites give that first click for free. But with this initiative confined to the News Showcase Google is launching outside the U.S., it offers no help to American publishers that, in turn, continue to neglect revenue possibilities for occasional readers. (In a post here yesterday, I suggested two ideas of my own for that scenario.)

12/10/2020: Meet The Web’s New Second-Place Tracker: Not Facebook, It’s Amazon, New Report Finds, Forbes

A study from the online-privacy firm Ghostery found that Amazon’s trackers now show up on more U.S. sites than Facebook’s–although not all of these trackers serve its retail business. Meanwhile, Google continues to do the most tracking by an enormous margin.

Two ideas to reduce the paywall pain for out-of-town and occasional readers

The post I wrote for Forbes Wednesday about a major unsolved problem in the news business–the way sites that restrict access to paying subscribers don’t try too hard to accommodate occasional and out-of-town readers–did not suggest a solution itself.

But I have two ideas that I want to outline here, both of which seem doable without requiring a new micropayments infrastructure (please spare me the “Bitcoin will save journalism” takes) or the intervention of a benevolent third party. They just require tweaks to existing paywall models that are already seeing a healthy amount of reinvention.

A regional subscription bundle. This would invert the model of the now-shelved Washington Post digital partner program: The big paper in a region invites its subscribers to pay a small premium for an above-paywall allotment of stories at other, smaller news sites based farther out.

For example, I would be happy to pay another $5 towards my Washington Post subscription if I could read a story or two a week at such Virginia papers as the Richmond Times-Dispatch about issues that affect my end of the state. The regional papers would have to accept giving up the chance to sell me on a subscription (yes, I saw the RTD’s $1/month deal and also noticed that it’s $12/month after that promotional period ends), but they should know from my IP address alone that I’m not a local reader and therefore an unlikely sale.

Access through aggregators. A site that aggregates news coverage in a particular area, and which presumably already pays for subscriptions to sites covering that topic in depth, would invite readers to pay a small fee that covers access to every story to which it links, with the proceeds going to those sites and the aggregator taking its own cut.

Imagine, for instance, that a donation to the Greater Greater Washington blog got you a special feed that included access to every story cited in its Morning Links posts, which often point to paywalled stories at publications like the Washington Business Journal and the Washington Post. This could be a tougher sell–for instance, I doubt the Post would want to cut a deal–but it would offer some upside to both smaller sites like GGW, a non-profit that has had to struggle for funding, and smaller publications like the WBJ.

I would like to think these ideas are nowhere out of whack–publishers certainly seem willing to take less money for the sake of gaining new readers when it’s Apple asking. And yet none of them appears to have implemented these concepts. So am I missing some less-obvious flaws, or is this another case of my industry not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

Weekly output: Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (x3), news paywalls

I had ambitions of catching up on various side projects this week, and then the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica story blew up.

3/19/2018: Facebook apps may see more of your personal info than you want. Here’s how to turn them off, USA Today

My first stab at covering the Cambridge Analytica debacle was this how-to for USA Today about pruning Facebook apps. Six days later, the piece already looks a little obsolete: It doesn’t note how Facebook could have gathered your call and SMS logs if you’d enabled its contacts-sync option in earlier versions of Android. (I can’t remember allowing that, and my Facebook data download shows no evidence of any such collection.)

3/20/2018: Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, Al Jazeera

The news channel had me on once again to discuss this news, in particular how Cambridge’s data plunder compared to the Obama campaign’s Facebook efforts in 2012. This time, though, I couldn’t find a link back to my overdubbed-in-Arabic appearance.

3/21/2018: Big Tech’s accountability-avoidance problem is getting worse, Yahoo Finance

I revisited this topic yet again for Yahoo, this time putting Facebook’s early non-response in the context of the “we’re just a platform” line that social networks keep throwing out every time we learn of horrible user behavior happening on their watch.

3/23/2018: News sites have embraced paywalls that alienate readers, Yahoo Finance

I revisited my August 2016 endorsement of the news-micropayment site Blendle in a less-forgiving mood. Blendle’s gone two years without exiting its closed beta in the U.S., news sites here have accelerated an understandable pivot to paywalls, and a Steve Jobs quote now comes to mind: “real artists ship.” Sadly, too much of the rest of the industry seems in no hurry to offer an alternative to readers who want to inform themselves on a breaking-news topic but aren’t ready for an auto-renewing commitment to a news site.