Chad Perrin: SOB

3 November 2009

Think Security

Filed under: Cognition,Geek,Metalog,Profession,Security,Writing — apotheon @ 04:18

A few days back, I quietly launched a new security Weblog I’ve decided to call Think Security, for lack of a better name. The inspiration for this new Weblog was actually a case of turning lemons into lemonade, so to speak, because it grew out of the desire to do something I was essentially being told I couldn’t do any longer in the venue where I have done so in the past.

That probably seemed pretty cryptic. I’ll try to be a little more direct:

I’m the primary IT Security writer for TechRepublic. Some things have been changing there in terms of how the site and its contributing writers (like me) are managed, and the way TR presents itself to the world. I suspect some of this has something to do with the fact that TR’s parent company, C|Net, was bought by CBS. That network of sites is now grouped under the heading of CBSi, or “CBS Interactive”, along with the rest of the CBS online presence.

One of the recent changes — a change that was announced just last week, in fact, and was apparently effective immediately — was a requirement for increasing the percentage of writing that constitutes “actionable content” to at least 75%. By my understanding of things, “actionable content” is basically corporate buzzword code for “howtos and checklists”. Apparently, the TR format is moving a little further away from things like news, opinion, and discussion of principles.

It’s that last part that really bothered me. I take a principles-based approach to security, because I believe (as I stated in the About the Site page at TS) that it is important for people to learn principles that will serve them well in a variety of circumstances rather than just memorize rote behaviors that are considered “industry best practices”, to be used once and thrown away without thinking about what you are actually doing in each step of the process or why you do it that way. The moment your focus on security has been reduced to knee-jerk reactions based on popular practices indoctrination, you have begun losing the battle for security.

I posted a new TS article today: Update Cautiously. If you are one of my readers at TR, I recommend you add TS to your reading list as well. In the future, material that is not appropriate for a given article of mine at TR because it is not specifically “actionable content” will get shunted into TS instead. In some cases, where I would previously have written an article for TR about principles first and, later, written one about specific implementation practice based on those principles, I will now write the former for TS and the latter for TR. The idea is to create a mutually complementary relationship between my articles at TS and TR, so that each will benefit from traffic directed to it from the other — and to actually better focus the direction taken with my articles in each venue.

This will mean a substantial increase in the amount of time and effort I have to put into writing security articles, of course. I expect it to double my article writing workload. It’s something I feel I need to do, though, because I am not content to merely let the principles of security I feel a need to share evaporate just because there isn’t enough room in TR amidst the actionable content any longer.

That’s not to say that TechRepublic is necessarily doing anything wrong. Every site needs its business model (if it’s a business) and its subject focus (unless it’s SOB, apparently). Without that focus, it becomes too scattered and vague in terms of the content it provides to really grab a strong, core readership, or to set itself goals for refining policy. It’s not like I haven’t written howtos and checklists for TR in the past, anyway. The increase in percentage of the total that needs to be actionable content, however, leaves a type of writing that is very important to me largely unaddressed. With the addition of Think Security to my lineup of writing outlets, this is ultimately more of an opportunity than a bandaid. The cure is, in this case, better than never having had the disease in the first place, to mangle a metaphor.

Of course, a little bit of real thinking will still sneak into my howtos and checklists at TR, I’m sure. In fact, it’s likely that my next article there will contain some hints of what I already said in Update Cautiously at TS.

Now that I think about it, though, it would be nice if this didn’t happen concurrently with National Novel Writing Month. My writing output already at least doubles in the month of November each year, even when I’m just using NaNoWriMo as campaign preparation for a roleplaying game, like I am this year. I’m not as serious about cranking out the word count this year, though, so if one of TR, TS, and NaNoWriMo has to get neglected this month, it’s not going to be either TR or TS.

In fact, so far I’m just kind of keeping pace with the daily necessities of being on track to complete 50,000 words in 30 days. Last year, I tended to stay quite a bit further ahead of the curve than that. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.

19 Comments

  1. I hadn’t thought about the fact that TS = TR + 1 in ASCII (or even Unicode). If your next blog is TT, I hope it doesn’t stand for TechRepublic Trouble.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 3 November 2009 @ 06:43

  2. Easy enough to fix, just write what you were going to write anyway and then plug it into this handy Instant Actionable Content Template.

    1.Read these principles

    what you were going to write

    2.Think about what you read

    Not only am I sure this will work for anything you were going to write anyway, it gets delicious-irony points for saving you the trouble of having to to think of creative ways to sneak thinking past the required format.

    Comment by Mina — 3 November 2009 @ 08:54

  3. I just subscribed to TS.

    Regarding the TR changes, these have been coming down the pipe for a very, very long time, but I think that they caught most folks off guard. I was only aware of it, because I proactively reach out to my assigned editor on a regular basis about the content mix (every few months), and it was around the beginning of the year that I got the vibe of what was formally announced a few weeks ago. Around the beginning of the year was when I stopped doing these kind of “hey, I talked to company XYZ, this is what they had to say” stuff, even though I thought it was definitely news. A few months ago, based on the feelings I was getting out of Louisville, I started really cutting back on stuff like, “gee, this isn’t right, we need to change it” and “what I really like about ABC” and started doing the “Code Concepts” and “Hands On Programming” series. The “weekly roundup” that I do is now every other week, even though I give them that content for free (I beleive it is useful to the community and it helps keep me in touch with companies).

    No one outright said anything to me about stuff changing, by the by, it was when I’d say, “I’m thinking about doing this ‘code concepts’ thing, what do you think?” and the reaction would be something like, “that’s really inline with the direction we’re trying to take things.” I think that there was a note sent earlier this year too, but it didn’t lay out the 3/4 ratio quite so explicitly. I think that you will probably be able to adapt fine, but there are some of the writers there that are incapable of producing anything other than “thought pieces” from what I can tell; I am very interested to see if those writers can actually adjust, and if not, what will happen. I find it sadly ironic that by the beginning of this year, I was the only P&D writer left, but all of the others were making “actionable content” while I tended to do primarily “thought pieces”.

    Am I upset about the changes? Not really, but that is mostly because I saw the train coming and changed my plans accordingly. If it was something that blindsided me like it did a lot of other folks, I’d probably feel differently. And to be honest, I can see their point to an extent. The ZDNet brand is where the “talking heads” live and the TR brand is the “voice from the trenches” stuff. When the ZDNet folks do it, at least most of them are high level manager types, and many of them have access to actual sources, like the vendors. When a lot of the TR people do it, it is basically uninformed ranting. From what I can tell (take your grain of salt here, I don’t read much on TR due to time constraints), I am the only one there who has really developed any kind of “journalistic network” in terms of PR people, executives, etc. who can give me any kind of access into a company. Not that “access” is worth that much most of the time… all it does it allow you to become a vehicle for their marketing department most of the time. I’ve been slowly learning how the game is played, and I am still experimenting with ways to allow a company to get their message out while providing actual, real value to the readers at the same time. It’s slow going, but in a few more years, I might actually have it down pat. That fits well with the general estimation that expertise takes 10 years; I’ve been doing this for about 4 years now, and there is still a lot for me to learn!

    I would not be surprised if this move is actually a way to slash the writing corp dramatically. Many of the writers have personal ties to TR as a company, and it can be really tought to just tell those folks, “we need to let you go, your stuff is not very good and the readers think that you are full of BS”. But if instead, there is this policy in place, those writers can be told, “you are consistently not meeting the requirements we laid out.”

    Part of the problem, is that there is a wide gap between “non-actionable content” and “someone who likes to rant and rave about things that they don’t know anything about”, but it is hard to put it down on paper. I beleive that the stuff you write is very “actionable”, because you describe best (and worst) practices. But for someone writing a policy, it would be very hard to seperate what you write from “why I think that OSX is the sux0rz”, because neither one can be boiled down to a bullet point list of imperative sentences.

    One of the more frustrating issues with the “actionable content” is the absolute lack of feedback. Most readers don’t do the “thumbs up” button or comment on that type of content, and I know that the page views from newsletters are going to be way down (on the flip side, search engine traffic should be up). But without the votes and the comments, it is very, very difficult to gauge what the readers find useful and what they do not find useful. :(

    J.Ja

    Comment by Justin James — 4 November 2009 @ 12:06

  4. I love Mina’s comment, but perhaps you can do something in between. Go ahead and write your piece on principles, and then at the end add a section that answers the question, “Now what should I do with this information?”

    @Justin: you might be right about the excuse thing. I don’t have numbers on page views, but it seems to me that the pieces that drive the most return traffic (gauged by discussion) are the opinion pieces. And truth be told, it’s the ones that have a shakier factual basis that drive the most comments. It’s not the blatantly unsupported, but the assertions that are supported only by questionable claims, that provide fuel for the flames that cook the numbers on Google Analytics.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 4 November 2009 @ 10:20

  5. @Chip: One thing that was made clear to me a few months ago when I discussed this with my editor, was that the page views are not our sole metric for performance, which makes me glad. But that being said, it is very, very unclear how our performance is being measured. In other words, “how do I know I am doing a good job?” We all know that reader emails are rare. I get one or two a month that isn’t “I have problem with school assignment, have you solution?” Maybe twice a year I’ll get a “great job, keep it up!” from a reader. So without the immediate feedback from readers on the “thought pieces”, I have no clue where things stand. I think that is one reason why the “thought pieces” are so prevalent too, is that people get immediate feedback, which is gratifying. It’s an ego boost to see 200 comments on something, or 30 “thumbs up” votes. Without that, it is easy to feel very, very lost. “I’m writing this and no one cares”.

    I don’t know about you guys, but the checks I get for my weekly blog really do not justify the time spent on them. With the move to more “actionable content”, this is even more true, because the articles now require much, much more work and effort. Instead of taking a long brewing thought and putting it on paper, I need to actually think of some code that people might want to write, write it, test it, write about it, etc. It’s a lot more work for me to do this. It’s things like knowing that I am helping others, the drive to be the best writer out there in my space, and the fringe benefits (industry contacts, the chance to learn about things that aren’t released yet, the career advantages, etc.) that really make it worth my while. The recent shift takes some of these away.

    It’s going to require an attitude shift on my part. I am definitely going to need to cut back on my non-payable writing for them (or find a paying outlet for it), because I spend way too many hours each night trolling through RSS feeds and email newsletters to stay up-to-date on stuff, mainly for TR, and it looks like a lot of that is no longer needed. If I can break myself of the “IT news junkie” habit, I can put 2+ hours a day back into my life, I suspect!

    J.Ja

    Comment by Justin James — 4 November 2009 @ 10:50

  6. Call me mercenary, but I don’t give TR anything for free, other than my participation in discussions on other TR blogs. I spend too much time on my weekly articles and following up with readers as it is for what they pay. I agree with you that we could use more feedback. I get one or two emails a week from readers, and they usually include a “keep up the good work”, but that’s just to butter up their request for advice most of the time. I like getting them, though, because they often provide ideas for articles. A “what would you advise?” question easily translates into “actionable content”.

    I’d like to know more about the details TR’s business model. How is IT Consultant performing relative to expectations? What drives revenue? I assume ads, but are they based on impressions, click-thrus, or both? What’s the percentage of page views from search engines versus regular readers or links from elsewhere, and where do they intend to take that? How many people subscribe to the feed? You’re right, we’re hand-crafting our product in the dark.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 4 November 2009 @ 11:12

  7. Mina:

    I like your formula for writing actionable content, at least in an amusing joke context. Within that same context, it could even be fleshed out to a complete “actionable content” article itself!

    I plan to take a more straightforward approach to meeting TR’s guidelines for writing in the future, though. I added an edit to the above SOB entry, in part in response to your comment and in part because I realized that I had not explicitly gotten across a point I wanted to make in the original, unedited version of this SOB entry. Specifically, I think that this whole thing may be something of a blessing in disguise, in that I will probably be happier with the results — and both TR and my readers will probably be better served overall — by having TR and TS as mutually complementary outlets for my writing.

    Justin James:

    In retrospect, I can see foreshadowing of the recent changes in what has gone before, and I think some part of me was expecting this to happen somehow (at least subconsciously). I wasn’t at all surprised when it happened, even though my initial reaction was one of dismay. The suddenness of the announcement, without a grace period between announcement and effective date, did throw my routine out of whack though. I’m having to scramble just a little bit to bank a slight cushion of mostly-completed work from which I can produce polished articles to submit.

    I think that you will probably be able to adapt fine, but there are some of the writers there that are incapable of producing anything other than “thought pieces” from what I can tell; I am very interested to see if those writers can actually adjust, and if not, what will happen.

    I’m sure I’ll adjust easily enough, too. As you note elsewhere in your comments here, there’s more work — more scut-work that pretty much any monkey can do, but work nonetheless — involved in writing howtos than in writing more thoughtful pieces, but in the short run at least it is a lot easier to come up with topics for that kind of thing that for the more thoughtful material. Whereas each new topic for a thoughtful piece has to inspire me to write it, to keep it genuinely thoughtful, the topics for howtos only need to exist. I could probably very easily write an actionable content article about how to write actionable content articles, in fact, and thereby formalize my approach to generating such articles in a simple, easy to follow, step by step procedure.

    Something that bothers me about this whole idea, though, is the knowledge base aspect of it, and the likely narrowing of subject matter. Howtos and checklists are most useful when written by someone who knows the topic in depth, and they are much easier to write under such circumstances as well. Nobody knows all topic areas in his general field in depth, though. A few different niches may have that depth, but the rest gets neglected, relatively speaking. As a result, while my recent article about scp was almost entirely straight out of my brain, something about Citrix security would require a lot more work.

    With even an article rate of four a month — half what I’m doing at TR, though I’m still not sure why I’m so special I’m expected to write eight a month — that’s a fever-pitch pace to try to keep up if you’re going to start writing anything that requires as much research and testing as it would take for me to tackle a Citrix howto. It’s the same problem as with the idea of writing reviews of security products: to do it right, I’d probably have to increase my working hours each week by more than 25%.

    Since that’s not going to happen, especially at the rates TR pays, the end result would have to be one of the following:

    • I write ever-more superficial articles, where I do something like install an antivirus suite, monitoring tool, or other at least nominally security focused piece of software on a test system, play with it for an hour or so, then write an article about how to install it and set it up so that it seems to be working at least for now, without actually being able to provide any useful information about how, or whether, it can be used to good effect to substantively improve security.

    • I focus more and more into niches of expertise, because that’s where the information needed to write articles with more meaning than how to navigate the point and click interface of the Panda Antivirus installer already exists in my brain without having to spend a heck of a lot of time learning it the hard way.

    • I fail to live up to TR’s expectations.

    This isn’t just a “me” thing, either. I think it applies to any topic area, for any writer worth his salt, at TechRepublic. The question is then how quickly the negative effects of this start coming home to roost, which will be in part a function of the topic area (software development, security, consulting, et cetera). Of course, it could be that I’ll find I learn new things that can be turned into howtos and checklists faster than these potential negative effects catch up with me, which would be nice. It’s also possible that TR policy may change again, to suit a changing market, before any of this becomes an issue for me. Only time will tell, I suppose, but I foresee at least some writers stumbling in the path of this new policy, as you also seem to expect to happen to some of them.

    Am I upset about the changes? Not really, but that is mostly because I saw the train coming and changed my plans accordingly.

    I’m not really upset about it, either. The way it got dropped at my doorstep was a bit disconcerting, but (as I mentioned in an edit to the above SOB entry) overall this strikes me as more of an opportunity than a problem in the long run. That’s relevant to me, specifically, of course. I shan’t speculate much on the effect this may have on other writers or the wisdom of this policy shift for TR in general. I will, however, say that I think this is likely to draw more search engine traffic while ultimately cutting into the strength of a loyal returning readership. In short, I expect new visitors to increase and subscriptions to decrease, based on an intuitive assessment of the likely effects.

    When the ZDNet folks do it, at least most of them are high level manager types, and many of them have access to actual sources, like the vendors. When a lot of the TR people do it, it is basically uninformed ranting.

    Maybe. I don’t know. I think there’s a lot to be learned from a thoughtful assessment of a more abstract topic when it comes from someone “in the trenches” who actually takes the time to consider how the various aspects of his professional life come together — a perspective that you’re not going to get from someone in a management role. The high-level view from the low-level technician is every bit as important a perspective as the high-level view from a high-level manager, but between ZDNet and TR, it kinda looks like they’re trying to phase that type of content out.

    I would not be surprised if this move is actually a way to slash the writing corp dramatically.

    I must not be cynical enough this week. Somehow, I didn’t glom onto your interpretation of how TR might be trying to cut some of the fat out of the contributing writers’ corps. Of course, once we start speculating along these lines, we need to start wondering who would be targeted by this kind of thing, and whether the intent will match up with the reality in the final analysis. It’s always possible that they might have wildly missed the mark on who would be most negatively affected by a policy change like this, and will not get the results they wanted, if reducing the body of writers is their intent.

    If they need to rearrange the budget because they want to give me a raise by getting some of the less adaptable writers to give up and go away, though, I guess I can’t complain too much. Ahem.

    I beleive that the stuff you write is very “actionable”, because you describe best (and worst) practices. But for someone writing a policy, it would be very hard to seperate what you write from “why I think that OSX is the sux0rz”, because neither one can be boiled down to a bullet point list of imperative sentences.

    Yeah, that’s definitely true. A lot of stuff I write that can inform the actions taken by my readers (and the same goes for TR’s other writers for whom I have real respect, including you and Sterling) will pretty much have to go away because, even if it’s “actionable”, it doesn’t look that way by any objective measure, and when an “actionable content” policy is put in place we simply have to throw away things that might look borderline in that regard (or, perhaps, do what I did — create something like TS).

    One of the more frustrating issues with the “actionable content” is the absolute lack of feedback.

    Yeah. I get more feedback from site metrics at SOB than from TR by orders of magnitude at least. I’m playing darts in the dark, and have to pretty much direct my writing based on my intuitions of what the TR editors want and what I would like to see if I was a reader.

    Other Stuff:

    I’m going to stop writing responses for now and get some other work done. I’ll pick up where I left off later.

    Comment by apotheon — 4 November 2009 @ 01:52

  8. I promised I’d come back to this, and here I am.

    Justin James:

    I don’t know about you guys, but the checks I get for my weekly blog really do not justify the time spent on them. With the move to more “actionable content”, this is even more true, because the articles now require much, much more work and effort.

    Same here. Last I checked, they basically told me they couldn’t pay me any more than they already were because I’m making the maximum they’re allowed to pay a contributing writer — but I’m apparently writing twice as often as most of the contributors. Even at half that pace, I’d still probably be making about minimum wage on this after factoring in high taxes for filing as an independent contractor and the time put into research, testing, throwing away dead-end articles, self-editing, and so on. This is definitely more a labor of love than a lucrative business model for me, though if they stopped paying me something to help defray the cost of taking time away from hunting down real work to do, I’d stop writing. There is a limit.

    On the plus side, writing 75% “actionable content” is going to reduce some of the research time needed to keep abreast of things, as you pointed out; on the minus side, it’s going to require a lot more time spent actually doing the things I’m talking about to ensure I don’t forget something, and making sure that any code I present in the article works exactly as written. It seems like every single time I take a shortcut on something like that, I end up with a typo. Then, of course, there’s the problem of doing something in a GUI, which means screenshots — which are a lot more work than copying and pasting code and shell commands. A nontrivial chunk of the reason I write more Unix howtos than MS Windows howtos is the extra time spent on screenshots.

    Chip Camden:

    Call me mercenary, but I don’t give TR anything for free, other than my participation in discussions on other TR blogs.

    I don’t recall whether you said you saw the “Webcast” of the TR event in Kentucky, but:

    1. One of the other writers (I’m actually drawing a blank at the moment on which one) stood at the front of the room at that podium and talked about how he writes for swag.

    2. When I was up there, I said that I don’t write for swag. I’m in it for the filthy lucre.

    That’s not 100% the case — as I said, writing these articles is a labor of love. It’s not worth it to write the stuff for TR for that reason alone, though. Without the money from TR, I would be writing it on some site of my own, where I get to keep the copyright for everything I write (and license the stuff under a copyfree license, of course).

    I get one or two emails a week from readers, and they usually include a “keep up the good work”, but that’s just to butter up their request for advice most of the time.

    That sounds familiar. Unfortunately, I get a dismaying percentage of email contacts that are actually in severely broken English from people who sound like they’re borderline spammers asking me questions in a thinly veiled attempt to rope me into writing about some product they’ve been paid to push on tech writers, too. Those don’t generally give me any inspiration for a new article, unless I want to tackle the subject of designing spam filters.

    What drives revenue? I assume ads, but are they based on impressions, click-thrus, or both?

    From previous interactions with the TR staff, I’ve come to the conclusion that page views are more important than clicks, which suggests to me that either TR gets paid by impressions or gets paid by ad placement and page views increase the perceived value of ad placement (kind of like the way magazines sell ads — by size and location, value enhanced by subscription numbers).

    What’s the percentage of page views from search engines versus regular readers or links from elsewhere, and where do they intend to take that?

    With the increasing emphasis on “actionable content”, I can only assume they want to focus more on search engine traffic.

    Comment by apotheon — 4 November 2009 @ 10:50

  9. One thing that struck me like a slap in the face today, about this change… it is effectively a pay CUT for me. Four years ago, when I started writing for TR, there were only “articles”, the “blogging” was something any member could do, for free. I had an editor assigned to me, I suggested articles, and if approved, I would write them and get paid per-item. There were set rates, based on word count. Here are some of the titles of those early articles:

    • How Do I… Create UNIX Backups to Disk?
    • Extracting images from MapPoint using VB.Net
    • MRTG Install
    • Image Watermarking with VB.Net
    • Using S3 Sleep State in Windows Vista

    You get the picture.

    After a little while, they started paying me to “blog”, which was free form, whatever I felt like stuff. Incidentally, I was getting paid to “blog” (good lord I hate applying the word “blog” to what I write) twice a week, like you. After a certain point, there was a shift… the free member blogs got dropped, and there were only formal TR contributors to the site. At the same time (I think), the “bloggers” lost their individual identities, and got shuffled into categories like “Programming and Development” and “Office Insider”. That was when I was asked to keep my “blog posts” related to the P&D subjects most of the time, and if they weren’t P&D related, they would go into a different section. No problems with me! At the time, there were 3 – 5 other people writing in P&D. Tony Patton, Peter M., Rex Baldazo, and a lady I can’t recall offhand. The last time the lady lady wrote, it ended when I was curious about what she wrote, went to MSDN to learn more, and discovered than 90% of her “article” was a copy/paste job from MSDN. Whoops. Not all of those writers were in P&D up front; Rex was added later, wrote for a bit of time, then disappeared. Along the way, my job had me working 60 – 70 hours, and I requested that I knock the writing down to once per week, with an associated halving of my pay.

    At the same time, around the summer of 2007 (I remember it well, I submitted an article which never got published, which was a first, and quite a shock), TR suddenly had little desire for “articles”. Reviews? No thanks. Sun was going to send me a box to review, TR didn’t want me writing the article, even though they OK’ed me reviewing the previous generation of those Sun machines. From that moment on, I stopped writing “articles”, other than stuff in “10 Things…”, and then, recently, I got into the “Product Spotlight” stuff.

    By the beginning of 2009, I was the only writer left in P&D. No idea what happened with Peter M. At the end of 2008, I blasted out a pile of content, to get me through Thanksgiving, my wedding/honeymoon, and the holiday season. At the time I felt I could return to twice-per-week writing, and floated the idea, which waas favorably received. A few weeks later, I discovered that Tony Patton was no longer writing for us, due to budget. He was writing “actionable content” every week, it was all he wrote. At the same time, when I raised the idea of going back to twice a week writing, that was shot down due to budget as well.

    All the while, you guys know the mix of content I was putting out. Very little actual code. You know why that was? I’ll tell you:

    • Lack of feedback from readers. The last time I did a lot of code was this really in-depth series on multithreading in .NET. Out of 7 or 8 articles, I got either 1 or 2 comments.
    • Too labor intensive. That series killed me to write, yet I got paid the same for it as a 3 paragraph “stupid things I see coders do” piece.
    • TR’s site design, combined with their editing tools, make posting code painful (to say the least) if you want it nicely formatted, and no matter what, it is difficult to read on the screen (not enough horizontal real estate).

    So for 2+ years, I had settled into a groove of discussing the programming business, increasingly from a factual (as opposed to opinion) basis. Lots of stuff that bordered on journalism, sometimes on one side of the line, sometimes on the other. But little “actionable content”. Writing it was just too much work for the pay.

    So, where am I now? Let’s look at some of the items I have written over the last few months for my “blog”, since I started proactively moving to “actionable content”:

    • Using Bing from .NET
    • What Windows 7 means to developers
    • Hands-on programming: Working with Windows Event Log in .NET
    • Code Concepts: Extension Methods

    Thinking about this progression this afternoon, it dawned on me that I am now writing things that used to be “articles” at the “blog” rate. Without details, I’ll say that if I break out what I get paid per “blog” and what I used to get paid for an “article” equivalent to “actionable content blog posts”, and I use the 3/4 ratio as a guideline, my “blog” check should be about 280% higher than what it is now. In other words, I am getting paid roughly 35% what I would be writing under the original set of rules. I may add, my blog rate was accepted on my end 4 years ago. A few things have changed since then:

    • I am now a valued voice in the IT industry; companies actually pay me to write things for them in no small part because they feel that I am a trusted voice.
    • I am a much, much, much better writer than I was 4 years ago.
    • I have actual contacts, people come to me with news, etc. I actually know about a lot of things before they are made public, and if it were not for the TR system, I could do some “breaking news” stuff.
    • I am a much better developer now.
    • I am much more knowledgable about the world of IT, the business of software development, and so on.

    Now, I will say this, somewhere along the way, they increased my “blog check” a good deal, to recognize that I was doing a good job. So I am definitely not going to complain that I am the unrecognized guy. Far from it. The TR team has always made me feel very appreciated, and they go out of their way to do nice things and help me maximize my earnings within their budgetary restraints. I’m just summarizing a bunch of history here. But yeah, if you compare the content that I am now writing to what used to be written, and how the payments were done, I’ve taken a nearly 2/3 pay cut, with this transition. Ouch.

    Regarding how they make their money, they definitely sell ad space based on the content, like a magazine would. I found this one out when I failed to do a picture gallery for a “Product Spotlight” piece once, and word came down that I definitely needed to do it. I was suprised, because the product didn’t have enough complexity to justify 5+ screenshots… I figured I was doing them a favor by saving them from needing to pay me for superflous content. I got the hint that ad space had been sold in advance, and that when it was sold, it was specifically for a photo gallery on a product spotlight. I also know that they are charging for impressions. I discovered this one, when late one night I saw an ad for a Britney Spears thing (perfume, maybe?). I sent it in as a joke to the team, and they told me that after their inventory runs out, the systems switch to a less targeted provider (probably a PPC deal).

    J.Ja

    Comment by Justin James — 4 November 2009 @ 11:53

  10. good lord I hate applying the word “blog” to what I write

    I call them “articles”. That’s what I’m writing, so that’s what I’ll call them. They have become a little more casual than they might otherwise be, due to an effort of will on my part, thanks to that mass-distribution email they sent out way back in the day telling everyone they should write with a familiar, less formal style.

    Without details, I’ll say that if I break out what I get paid per “blog” and what I used to get paid for an “article” equivalent to “actionable content blog posts”, and I use the 3/4 ratio as a guideline, my “blog” check should be about 280% higher than what it is now. In other words, I am getting paid roughly 35% what I would be writing under the original set of rules.

    Holy crap! That’s basically the same set of rough numbers I come up with for my own work, comparing what I’m paid now and what I was paid when writing discrete articles before the whole paid “blog” thing started!

    I may add, my blog rate was accepted on my end 4 years ago. A few things have changed since then:

    I got myself a raise once since this “blog” thing, at the one-year mark (after taking the effective pay cut coming down from discrete articles). Before that, I was making less than some others despite writing more often than some of them. I think I just got “promoted” to the maximum possible at that point, and have been bumping against that ceiling since.

    Regarding how they make their money, they definitely sell ad space based on the content, like a magazine would.

    Y’know, I think I got a hint of that a couple years ago when Mark Kaelin made an off-hand remark about placing ads. I was so shocked by the idea that they were “manually” placing ads via writing the markup to slot them into the articles themselves, rather than having something to automate the process a bit more, that the deeper implications of selecting ads to place in articles (regardless of the mechanism for inserting them) just passed me by at the time.

    I also know that they are charging for impressions.

    Good to know. I’ll have to ponder how I might expect that to affect their policy decisions.

    Comment by apotheon — 5 November 2009 @ 02:59

  11. Oh, something I meant to respond to earlier:

    Maybe. I don’t know. I think there’s a lot to be learned from a thoughtful assessment of a more abstract topic when it comes from someone “in the trenches” who actually takes the time to consider how the various aspects of his professional life come together — a perspective that you’re not going to get from someone in a management role. The high-level view from the low-level technician is every bit as important a perspective as the high-level view from a high-level manager, but between ZDNet and TR, it kinda looks like they’re trying to phase that type of content out.

    I agree 100% with this statement. My issue (which I didn’t fully state), is that there are a number of people at TR who do not have actual “in the trenches” experience. I had more written, but I figured it would be best to send it via email.

    J.Ja

    Comment by Justin James — 5 November 2009 @ 09:48

  12. This is definitely more a labor of love than a lucrative business model for me, though if they stopped paying me something to help defray the cost of taking time away from hunting down real work to do, I’d stop writing. There is a limit.

    That’s how I feel about it, too. There are a lot of non-monetary benefits to writing for TR, and even some indirect monetary benefits (new business through contacts acquired). I enjoy writing my pieces and interacting with the readers. The pay is just enough to make it a fiscally responsible use of my time, though. I spend a lot more time on every TR article than on most articles for [GAS] or one of my own blogs. Additional time-consuming constraints I don’t need. But I’m trying to turn this “actionable content” lemon into lemonade, and use it more as a guide and a question to help me refine each article. For each topic, I’ll ask myself, “So what do they do with it?”

    Comment by Chip Camden — 5 November 2009 @ 10:16

  13. Justin James:

    My issue (which I didn’t fully state), is that there are a number of people at TR who do not have actual “in the trenches” experience.

    Oh, yeah, that’s definitely true. By the same token, though, there are people at ZDNet (and Computer Week and MSDN Magazine and Linux Journal and so on) who don’t know crap about the topics they tackle, too. There are also people with in-the-trenches experience who somehow managed to learn any in-the-trenches skills, for that matter — and some of them get posh writing gigs to share their nonexistent skills.

    I had more written, but I figured it would be best to send it via email.

    I look forward to it.

    Chip Camden:

    I spend a lot more time on every TR article than on most articles for [GAS] or one of my own blogs.

    Oh, yes. I can spend two hours plus writing something for TR while a similar length piece here at SOB takes twenty minutes.

    In fact, I think this particular SOB entry took me all of about 15 minutes to write. That’s before an edit that added an extra 150+ words to it, so we’re talking about an average speed for the original version of 50+ words a minute (these numbers are very rough, mind you). That means I managed to crank this thing out at many touch-typists’ maximum typing speed (though it’s only about half my own top words per minute speed), and there wasn’t any extra time taken for research so that 15 minutes is essentially the whole deal.

    Meanwhile, a thought piece for TR, even when it seems the entire thing comes straight out of my head, takes a bare minimum of half an hour of research time to make sure I’m not missing anything important, and will see at least half an hour of thinking about how to structure it and half an hour of polishing after the fact.

    Comment by apotheon — 5 November 2009 @ 11:39

  14. That was a very clever spam bot move! Use Chip’s info to post spam. :)

    J.Ja

    Comment by Justin James — 22 November 2009 @ 08:43

  15. Yeah, that last one wasn’t from me. Chad, did it have my email addy included?

    Comment by Chip Camden — 22 November 2009 @ 11:40

  16. Yes, it did.

    Comment by apotheon — 22 November 2009 @ 12:40

  17. That’s a little scary then. Either they gleaned my address from somewhere else, or they figured out a way to crack WordPress’ comment system.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 22 November 2009 @ 02:26

  18. I vote for the latter. WordPress is Swiss cheese. Alternatively, they figured out how to get it from the “gravatar” system. Now I am curious to know if anyone has been posing as me. I also wonder if everyone I know is observant enough to know that if it isn’t signed “J.Ja”, I didn’t write it (at least not for the last 10 years). Somehow, I doubt anyone’s noticed my “watermark”…

    J.Ja

    Comment by Justin James — 22 November 2009 @ 02:45

  19. I’ve noticed your watermark.

    I’m going to start paying closer attention to my vanity search feeds now.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 22 November 2009 @ 04:00

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License