Alice's unique page views were up. As tired as she was of writing about new Apple announcements, those stories attracted an audience that couldn't get enough. The iPad Pro story was no exception. Of all the hundreds of stories that had written about this particular device, hers was the most popular. It wasn't as much about high-quality writing as being early to publish, having a solid social media presence, and having the right distribution partners, but high numbers were high numbers. And because Apple fans had a relatively high income, the display ad dollars from the piece itself were in turn pretty high.
I guess I should be grateful, she thought. But nobody's going to be basking on any laurels in this coffee shop. Time to find another story.
She opened Twitter and quickly checked her timeline for news. Once upon a time, it had been the best way to find new tech developments - stories tended to find their way onto Twitter far before any publication covered them. But these days, it was a seething pit of political anger. Liberals complained about conservatives; conservatives complained about liberals. Everyone shouted at each other over 280-character text messages and nobody just geeked out about what they loved anymore.
Instead, although she might not have admitted it to her colleagues, she had started to find bloggers far more useful. It felt like a very eighteen-years-ago thing to do, but opening her feed reader and checking out what people she was interested in were writing on their own sites turned out to be very informative. People tended to be more introspective, rather than filled with righteous anger, and bloggers wrote about new things they were personally interested in, rather than following the trending topics of the day. In particular, venture capitalists, led by the Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson, often blogged every day - a perfect way to gauge the temperature of the tech industry.
Indeed, there was a story about Apple's earnings that was mundane but probably worth reporting on: they were going to miss their estimates in the fourth quarter. That was important because Christmas sales were usually their strongest time of the year. It turned out to just be because Apple fans had bought their devices earlier in the year - an arbitrary trick of math and calendars that meant their sales were fine, but looked unpleasant to analysts. Apple's stock had dipped but would probably be up again. Just meaningless wonkery, but someone somewhere could probably make a profit from it, so it was worth writing up as a story.
Even in the low-tempo comfort of her feed reader, most of the posts were about the upcoming mid-term election, urging anyone who could to vote. It was an anxious time: a time to bury inconvenient stories, not celebrate successes.
So, nothing here.
Alice took a sip from her coffee and opened her email inbox: her last resort. Everyone hated email, but particularly tech journalists, who got hundreds of desperate pitches a day from people who were hoping to get coverage. More often than not, cold emails weren't story-worthy - but every so often there was a buried tip that was worth digging further into.
Unfortunately, today it looked like she was swamped in mediocre pitches. Hundreds and hundreds of emails describing tech products that wouldn't have been out of place on a home shopping channel in another era. Subscription boxes of toiletries; some kind of non-stick pan that didn't seem like it belonged in the technology beat at all; drone toys; wearable, connected jewelry that didn't seem to actually do anything; an internet-connected sous vide cooking tool. Delete, delete, delete.
And then, hundreds of emails in, there was one more thing.
"Facebook knowingly allowing election ads to continue," read the subject line.
And in the body, a whole lot more.
"Drop the Facebook story. Can't you find something more uplifting to report?"
Alice sighed at the editorial Slack channel. She had attempted to navigate this dance before: try and report a story at the intersection of technology and democracy, get slapped down, go do a story on some new tech startup instead. Her contract meant that she couldn't write for another outlet; even if her publication didn't want to run an article she had proposed, she couldn't bring it somewhere else. If it was dead here, it was dead everywhere.
"I know the headlines in the news media talk about Facebook as if it's some big bad," her editor continued, "but there's a lot that you won't read there. I think it's important that our readers get the full story from a Silicon Valley perspective. Can you do a story on their projects to help news publications make more money?"
"Those projects aren't meaningful," Alice replied. "They're PR spin at best. Facebook isn't the ally of the news or publications. And this story is in the interest of our readers. It's a big story, and nobody else is covering it."
She was right. In the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections, Facebook had publicly announced that they were going to start flagging political advertising from third parties. Users would see who placed an ad, and you wouldn't be able to buy political advertising in the US if you were from a foreign entity.
At least, that's what they had said. In reality, their algorithm had both false positives and false negatives, and most egregiously, someone had been able to pose as a set of Senatorial candidates and fraudulently buy ads on their behalf. Their protections didn't really work at all, and nobody knew it. Worse still, someone had been buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advertising to seed the idea that the elections had been compromised and that it wasn't worth voting. It looked like Facebook knew all this, and had tried to suppress the story.
It was big. But it didn't matter, because she wasn't going to be able to report on it.
"🤷♂️ Find something positive." And with that, her editor was offline.
Alice looked up from her laptop and scanned the coffee shop. It was quiet; the laptop warriors were typing, and everyone else was either sipping their coffee in silence or reading a book. She wanted to break the silence with a scream, maybe flip over a table or two, but she held her composure.
The scoop had come from a group she had met while she was reporting a startup accelerator in SoMa; a group of open source activists who had decided to make a go of turning their internet freedom project into a business. She wasn't sure if they were doing that well, but it was nice to see people who weren't as financially motivated in the ecosystem. And most importantly, from time to time, they fed her important stories like this.
She fired up Riot, the chat app they had insisted she used to contact them. It was like Slack, but it was end-to-end encrypted, which meant that nobody could snoop on their group conversations, and it was open source, which meant the security of the code could be audited by third parties. It was safe, secure, and free, and pretty much as usable as Slack.
"👋 Alice," wrote JT. He had been the nominal leader of the activist group, and was now the CEO of the startup. He wasn't the slickest or the least awkward CEO she had ever countered, but at least he wasn't awkward in that sociopathic nerd genius way. He was much warmer; he just spent most of his time around open source nerds, and wasn't as used to the small talk and pleasantries of mainstream conversation.
"Hey. I've got a question."
"Go for it," JT said.
"That story you sent me. It's good stuff. I want to write it. But my editor's being an asshole and doesn't want to run it."
"What a dickbag."
"Quite. So I need to pass it to someone else or publish it anonymously."
"Okay. Makes sense. Those are two different things though. Which one do you think you want to do?"
It was a good question. If she published it anonymously, she could potentially take credit for it later on - but it probably wouldn't reach the audience it needed to. On the other hand, if she passed it to someone else, she wouldn't get credit, but the right person might be able to find a larger audience. The story was important enough that it could lead to serious repercussions - but only if enough people saw it. If she just passed it directly to a Senate committee, she didn't think they would probably act on it at all. It needed some outside pressure from the public.
Of course, there was a third option, and JT was quick to point it out: "why don't you quit?"
"It would need to be more than me quitting," Alice wrote. "I would need to also be hired by another publisher - not just so I can publish the piece, but because I also kind of need to pay my rent."
"I might know someone," JT wrote. "Give me 10 minutes."