The Rush To Publish

“academics: yes, let’s meet in 7 months and 6 days, at 2:08 PM ¶ journalists: hi can you comment for this article, it’s due in 47 seconds. also i’ve left you seven voicemails” – @eveewing, a sociologist of education and a writer from Chicago.

  • I know Dr. Ewing is not referring to startup media in particular, but the last-minute nature of most press interactions is especially pronounced in the end of the media pool I currently occupy.
  • The prisoners’ dilemma between startup/venture PR and the press results in stressed-out reporters and dissatisfied founders, who wish that writers would do more than just crib quotes from press releases.
  • This last-minute rush to coverage would be entirely ameliorated by just seeding embargoed information with decent, ethical reporters ahead of time. The problem is, there’s so much incentive to break embargo and publish first, so PR reaches out on short notice. This is a huge, huge problem in startup finance reporting. I wouldn’t reach out at the last second, requesting comment, if information wasn’t disbursed at the last minute.
  • In this context, I totally understand why founders and their PR representatives would want to focus their attention on more asynchronous forms of media, like podcasts or long-form profile-type coverage. I wouldn’t reach out to news reporters either.
  • Also, when I have my journalism hat on, founders either want to exploit me for access to an audience, or fear me because I have insider information. (I don’t disclose sources or methods.) It’s not a healthy relationship for anyone involved. For the record, this is one of the primary reasons I don’t really like journalism as a profession.
  • It’s, like, the better I get at my day job the less relatable I become to the folks I feel most comfortable around. I suppose venture investors with prior founding experience have similar feelings about the founders they interact with. But y’all are already accredited, just sayin’.
  • This doesn’t even get me to the problems with breaking news using open data sources like SEC filings. At the point a filing drops into the public domain, we’re in a Hobbesian state of nature. But that’s probably a note for a later day.

Indie Software I Pay For

“What’s tech/software/app that is (a) run by indie devs/small co and (b) that you feel great paying for? ¶ two of mine: ¶ @BearNotesApp @OvercastFM” – @hunterwalk

I guarantee I’m forgetting some stuff. This might be updated in the future.

Web & iOS

  • Innologica: Inoreader. RSS for power-users. This is how I consume everything from email newsletters and blogs to giant feeds of SEC filings.

iOS

  • Overcast: Podcasts.
  • GoodNotes: Digital notebook that pairs well with Apple Pencil.
  • CARROT: Weather, mostly for the sassy bot as a shell for DarkSky

MacOS

  • Omnigroup: OmniOutliner
  • Smile Software: TextExpander
  • Devon Technologies: DEVONagent (web browser with very deep search and topic network visualization I use for research), DEVONthink (Like locally-hosted Evernote, but terrifyingly more flexible. I use this for researching big projects and managing different knowledge bases.)

Apple: Cross-platform

  • Information Architects: iA Writer, IMO the best minimalist Markdown editor experience (with lots of great keyboard shortcuts), but it has some bugs with syncs and versioning
  • Agile Turtle: Drafts 5, the MacOS beta of which was so compelling that I upgraded to Mojave from Sierra just to try it.
  • Omnigroup: OmniFocus Pro (yes, OmniOutliner is also available on iOS but I don’t use it there)
  • Tapbots: Tweetbot, for twitter list tracking

In Regards To Sweatpants

“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” – Karl Lagerfeld, RIP

Nods while wearing a recently-purchased pair of grey sweatpants. I bought a black pair too. They were cut and sewn in Canada and I spent $95 apiece.

  • In before everyone says it’s my privilege, as a remote knowledge worker, to wear egregiously pricey sweatpants basically any time I choose. I know.
  • An earlier version of me posted the Karl Lagerfeld quote on Facebook or similar back in the day. I was only partially wrong then.
  • But here’s the deal: as with denim, every incremental $25 spent on sweatpants delivers a product with materially better, er, material and fit-and-finish.
  • Unlike denim, the quality of sweatpants levels off at a lower price point.
    Before veering off into pure fashion and status signaling, the best-quality sweatpants money can buy are probably at or around the $100-125 price range, whereas the best denim I’ve ever bought was somewhere in the $275 range, which in all practical terms is the upper limit on denim when quality and construction are the only parameters.
  • I’m of the “spend all of the money once or twice” school of consumerism, and I believe in repairing high-quality clothes. So, my bet is that the $200 I spent on two pairs of sweatpants once is gonna deliver a better value, over time, than the dozen (or more) pairs of cheaper sweats people might buy over the same period of use.

Note: Wednesday Was Brutal For The Media Business

Contained here are notes and musings, not a formal statement of my position on any matter in particular.

On January 23, 2019, the following headlines crossed the wire:

(Note: I don’t think the publications listed above broke their respective stories; I just selected their headlines off the top of a search query.)

It’s weird for me. Although I nominally perform the role of someone “in media” (as a reporter and data analyst for our news team and other news organizations on-demand) I identify first as an employee “in tech.”

After all, I’m employed by a technology company, and prior to becoming a professional writer I co-founded a tech startup that didn’t really go anywhere. These days, separate and apart from my day job, as a volunteer I help organize startup pitch events for a large open source software foundation.

Apart from my colleagues on my small team, I don’t spend a lot of time interacting with other folks in the news business. My closest friends are in finance and/or software engineering, or started their own businesses.

In other words, there are a lot of countervailing forces against me self-identifying as someone “in media,” even though, in practice, that’s the functional and ecological niche I occupy.

I don’t know how this reflects on me, but apart from feeling bad that people from the publications mentioned above are losing their jobs, I don’t know what to say about the broader narrative of media’s decline.

The tech-aligned entrepreneur in me sees an opportunity for smaller newsrooms and something resembling old-school blogs and newsletters run by one or two folks. I don’t know if more dyed-in-the-wool media folks feel the same way.

How To Send A Haunted VC/Startup Newsletter

As you may or may not know, I have a newsletter I’ve been sending out since May 2016 on a roughly weekly basis. If you want to keep up with what I write at the day job and the most interesting links I find while procrastinating at my day job, consider subscribing: Rowley.Report.

Considering it’s Halloween and all, I figured I should share some of the tips and tricks I use to produce that content.

You have to understand that to produce something like that every week, an elaborate conjuring ritual is involved. Trick or treat?

  1. Start by arraying five beeswax candles in the shape of an upside down star on the floor. Light the candles.
  2. Fashion a miniature boat out of cocktail bar coasters and glue, and use one of the heavy metal pens they give you to sign your bill at the Rosewood as a mast.
  3. Print out the most recent leaked term sheet and fashion it into a sail, affixing it to the makeshift boat.
  4. Anoint the small boat with samples of billionaire founders’ blood, sweat, and tears.
  5. Place the boat in the middle of the inverted star on the floor.
  6. Burn and scatter the ashes of one of the last remaining hard copies of Georges Doriot’s Manufacturing class notes into and about the small boat.
  7. For safety, blow out the candles in your house and take your boat to the nearest body of water, ideally while riding a Bird or Lime scooter.
  8. Short-circuit one JUUL e-cigarette battery such that it begins to heat up, and place it in the boat.
  9. Also place a USB stick containing the weekly output of charts and all items, read and unread, from my RSS feedreader.
  10. Push the boat into the open water. If timed correctly, the short-circuiting JUUL battery will light the whole thing on fire, resulting in a kind of viking funeral effect. Like this: 🔥⛵
  11. Summon the Owl by hooting vigorously toward the blackness of the woods. Speak of phenomenal risk-adjusted returns with it, in tongues, until sunrise.
  12. Go home, and sleep.
  13. Kind of all in one fell swoop: Merge accumulated notes in iA Writer & Drafts 5 into a new document; edit markdown in iA Writer; in iA Writer, left-swipe with two fingers to reveal well-rendered and semantic HTML; copy; paste into new Mailchimp email campaign.
  14. Press send.
  15. Wait.

My Grandfather’s Ghost In The Watch

Earlier today, Apple announced a raft of new phones, which no doubt will excite a lot of people. Apple also announced a new version of its Apple Watch today—Series 4.

One of the watch’s new features is very near and dear to me: the conductive pads on the back which help the watch capture electrical activity and display it as an electrocardiograph.

Image credit: Apple

Back in the late 1950s, my grandfather, Donald Rowley, co-invented the gel electrode alongside fellow pathologist Seymour Glagov. From his 2013 obituary published by the University of Chicago’s news office:

At the time, there were no tools to monitor heartbeats over long periods; so they invented one. They worked with an undergraduate student at UChicago and a watch repairman to convert a spring-wound pocket watch into a portable pulse counter and built tiny electrical sensors that could be glued reliably to the chest—the first gel electrodes. The gadget later would be scaled up with help from the Elgin National Watch Co. and Illinois Bell Telephone.

This simple device, no bigger than a deck of cards, accurately could record the electrical activity of the heart for more than 24 hours. It heralded the birth of ambulatory cardiology. Rowley and colleagues described their counter in a report to Science in 1959. They performed additional studies on 100 volunteers, showing enormous variation in daily heart rates.

They didn’t patent their invention because, as my grandfather put it, it was “simply not part of the academic culture.”

No longer a wind-up device made of watch parts, a descendent of my grandfather’s ticker-tracker lives on in watch form, which I think is pretty wild.

Links: September 5, 2018

Links: September 4, 2018

News’s Future Formats Favor Fortunate Incumbents

As a somewhat accidental member of the industry, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about media.

It’s for this reason I was so happy to come upon a two-part series from Tristan Ferne of the BBC’s research and development group.

Part 1 of the “Beyond 800 words” series, published back in September 2017, opens with the following:

The 800-word article is still the dominant form of online news from most publishers. This largely seems to be a legacy from printed newspapers and to a lesser extent this is true for online news video online too, with much of it still produced in traditional made-for-TV formats albeit shorter.

And in Part 1 Ferne identifies and briefly discusses a number of new formats like listicles, live blogs, and structured news.

Part 2, published last week, covers recent research work at the BBC around how Gen Z (18-26 year olds) wants to consume the news. The article discusses some of their methodology and research findings, and it presents examples of prototype news formats and interaction models that appealed to Gen Z audiences.

The thing about those formats – which include scrollable video, swipe to view reactions/polls, a section-by-section “choose your own format” model, and others – is that they are really nice, but also incredibly resource-intensive to produce at scale. For that modular format one, imagine having to:

  • Write a long version of the article
  • Write a short version of the article
  • Break each version into modular sections
  • Produce video for each section
  • Edit, view, and test the multiple formats to ensure they form a cohesive narrative
  • Ship the damned thing

That’s difficult for a small or medium-sized newsroom to do more than once a month. A dedicated team – bare minimum: a researcher, a writer, a video and sound editor, and an editor/production lead – could probably push something out once a week.

It’s all to say that if there’s a format race, it’s likely to be between bigger, well-resourced newsrooms. There’s definitely room for small newsrooms which are built around a novel format. Ferne references Circa as an example. But that’s a high stakes bet, because you’re wagering on both your ability to find and report on important and interesting stories and, moreover, that the fancy new format stays relevant among a fickle and increasingly fast-moving audience.

That’s going to be a tall order.

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