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European human rights court says no to weakened encryption

"The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that laws requiring crippled encryption and extensive data retention violate the European Convention on Human Rights."

This renders some of the EU's own proposed legislation illegal. More importantly, client-side scanning and backdoors become illegal in themselves, making it harder for vendors from anywhere to include those features, lest they fall foul of the law with EU users.

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US newspaper circulation 2023: Top 25 titles fall 14%

Print newspaper subscriptions of the top 25 titles continue to steeply fall. But digital subscriptions are up. Newspaper is just a technology; the journalism it carries continues to be valuable.

One concern is how to maintain accessibility: a print newspaper can be read by anyone with access to the physical object once it's been bought, while a digital subscription can generally only be accessed by its owner. How can we best ensure that the most possible people get access to in-depth journalism that's relevant to them?

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New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger: “Our industry needs to think bigger”

I'm pretty critical of the NYT's coverage these days - I wish they'd do much better on trans issues and on being more critical on America's involvement in global conflicts - but this is a fascinating, illuminating interview.

It's honestly very refreshing to see news organizations pull back and think carefully about forging their own future, in a way that partners with tech platforms but isn't beholden to them.

Two pull quotes:

"I’d say that our industry is still thinking too small, and I think that’s fair: we've been absolutely battered for 20 years. But I think our industry needs to think bigger. [...] I don’t think that our industry can or should accept that we are going to collectively be smaller than an eighth-grade streamer."

"We are going to meet our readers first off-platform. But we now know [tech companies] are powerful companies. They dominate the flow of traffic and engagement in the digital world. You need to be on them, and to find ways to partner with them, but your interests are not aligned. You should be clear-eyed on that, treat this as a professional partnership and make sure it meets clearly articulated standards."

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Updating GOV.UK’s crown

A glimpse into a surprising design problem created by constitutional monarchy: the need to update the crown in your logo when a new King has taken the throne.

"On each accession, the monarch will choose a Royal Cypher, or symbol to represent their personal authority. You can see the Royal Cypher in many places, for example post boxes, on police and military uniforms or on the side of official buildings."

The longer I've been away from the UK, the more surreal this kind of thing has become. I will say, though, that the new crown looks a little less like a loaf of bread that's collapsed in the oven, so there's something a bit pleasing about that.

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Stop what you're doing and watch Breaking the News

Stills from the documentary, Breaking the News

Breaking the News, the documentary about The 19th, aired on PBS last night and is available to watch for free on YouTube for the next 90 days.

It’s both a film about the news industry and about startups: a team’s journey to show that journalism can and should be published with a more representative lens. It’s also not a puff piece: real, genuine struggles are covered here, which speak to larger conversations about race and gender that everyone needs to be having.

I worked with The 19th for a period that mostly sits directly after this film. My chin — yes, just my chin — shows up for a fraction of a second, but otherwise I’m not in it. My association with it is not why I’m recommending that you watch it.

The 19th is not a perfect workplace, in part because no such workplace exists. It has struggles like any other organization. But there was a thoughtfulness about culture and how work gets done that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. Some of those policies were developed in direct response to workplace cultures that are prevalent in newsrooms, including narrow leadership demographics, hierarchical communication, a focus on work product rather than work process, and lack of goal-setting.

My experience was privileged, in part because of my position in the senior leadership team, but for me it was a breath of fresh air. There aren’t many places where I’ve felt calmer at work. Some of that is because of the early conversations and hard work that were captured on film here.

From the synopsis:

Who decides which stories get told? A scrappy group of women and LGBTQ+ journalists buck the white male-dominated status quo, banding together to launch The 19th*, a digital news startup aiming to combat misinformation. A story of an America in flux, and the voices often left out of the narrative, the documentary Breaking the News shows change doesn’t come easy.

You can watch the whole documentary for free here. And if you haven’t yet, go subscribe to The 19th over on its website.

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Social, I love you, but you’re bringing me down

A big thumbs-down made of people

This weekend I realized that I’m kind of burned out: agitated, stressed about nothing in particular, and peculiarly sleepless. It took a little introspection to figure out what was really going on.

Here’s what I finally decided: I really need to pull back from using social media in particular as much as I do.

A few things brought me here:

  1. The sheer volume of social media sites is intense
  2. Our relationship with social media has been redefined
  3. I want to re-focus on my actual goals

I’d like to talk about them in turn. Some of you might be feeling something similar.

The sheer volume of social media sites is intense

It used to be that I posted and read on Twitter. That’s where my community was; that’s where I kept up to date with what was happening.

Well, we all know what happened there.

In its place, I find myself spending more time on:

  1. Mastodon
  2. Threads
  3. Bluesky
  4. LinkedIn (really!)
  5. Facebook (I know)
  6. Instagram

The backchannel that Twitter offered has become rather more diffuse. Mastodon, Threads, and Bluesky offer pretty much the same thing as each other, with a different set of people. LinkedIn is more professional; I’m unlikely to post anything political there, and I’m a bit more mindful of polluting the feed. My Facebook community is mostly people I miss hanging out with, so I’ll usually post sillier or less professionally relevant stuff there. And Instagram, until recently, was mostly photos of our toddler.

I haven’t been spending a ton of time interacting on any of them; it’s common for almost a full day to go between posts. Regardless, there’s something about moving from app to app to app that feels exhausting. I realized I was experiencing a kind of FOMO — am I missing something important?! — that became an addiction.

Each dopamine hit, each context switch, each draw on my attention pushes me further to the right on the stress curve. Everyone’s different, but this kind of intense data-flood — of the information equivalent of empty calories, no less — makes me feel awful.

Ugh. First step: remove every app from my phone. Second step: drastically restrict how I can access them on the web.

Our relationship with social media has been redefined

At this point we’re all familiar with the adage that if you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold.

It never quite captured the true dynamic, but it was a pithy way to emphasize that we were being profiled in order to optimize ad sales in our direction. Of course, there was never anything to say that we weren’t being profiled or that our data wasn’t being traded even if we were the ostensible customer, but it seemed obvious that data mining for ad sales was more likely to happen on an ad-supported site.

With the advent of generative AI, or more precisely the generative AI bubble, this dynamic can be drawn more starkly. Everything we post can be ingested by a social media platform as training data for its AI engines. Prediction engines are trained on our words, our actions, our images, our audio, and then re-sold. We really are the product now.

I can accept that for posts where I share links to other resources, or a rapid-fire, off-the-cuff remark. Where I absolutely draw the line is allowing an engine to be trained on my child. Just as I’m not inclined to allow him to be fingerprinted or added to a DNA database, I’m not interested in having him be tracked or modeled. I know that this is likely an inevitability, but if it happens, it will happen despite me. I will not be the person who willingly uploads him as training data.

So, when I’m uploading images, you might see a picture of a snowy day, or a funny sign somewhere. You won’t see anything important, or anything representative of what life actually looks like. It’s time to establish an arms-length distance.

There’s something else here, too: while the platforms are certainly profiling and learning from us, they’re still giving us more of what we pause and spend our attention on. In an election year, with two major, ongoing wars, I’m finding that to be particularly stressful.

It’s not that I don’t want to know what’s going on. I read the news; I follow in-depth journalism; I read blogs and opinion pieces on these subjects. Those things aren’t harmful. What is harmful is the endless push for us to align into propaganda broadcasters ourselves, and to accept broad strokes over nuanced discussion and real reflection. This was a problem with Twitter, and it’s a problem with all of today’s platforms.

The short form of microblogging encourages us to be reductive about impossibly important topics that real people are losing their lives over right now. It’s like sports fans yelling about who their preferred team is. In contrast, long-form content — blogging, newsletters, platforms like Medium — leaves space to explore and truly debate. Whereas short-form is too low-resolution to capture the fidelity of the truth, long-form at least has the potential to be more representative of reality.

It’s great for jokes. Less so for war.

I want to re-focus on my actual goals

What do I actually want to achieve?

Well, I’ve got a family that I would like to support and show up for well.

I’ve got a demanding job doing something really important, that I want to make sure I show up well for.

I’ve also got a first draft of a majority of a novel printed out and sitting on my coffee table with pen edits all over it. I’d really like to finish it. It’s taken far longer than I intended or hoped for.

And I want to spend time organizing my thoughts for both my job and my creative work, which also means writing in this space and getting feedback from all of you.

Social media has the weird effect of making you feel like you’ve achieved something — made a post, perhaps received some feedback — without actually having done anything at all. It sits somewhere between marketing and procrastination: a way to lose time into a black hole without anything to really show for it.

So I want to move my center of gravity all the way back to writing for myself. I’ll write here; I’ll continue to write my longer work on paper; I’ll share it when it’s appropriate.

Posting in a space I control isn’t just about the principle anymore. It’s a kind of self-preservation. I want to preserve my attention and my autonomy. I accept that I’m addicted, and I would like to curb that addiction. We all only have so much time to spend; we only have one face to maintain ownership of. Independence is the most productive, least invasive way forward.

 

IndieNews

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Heat pumps outsold gas furnaces again last year — and the gap is growing

"Americans bought 21 percent more heat pumps in 2023 than the next-most popular heating appliance, fossil gas furnaces." Quietly, the way we heat our homes is changing - and it has the potential to make a big impact.

Because heat pumps use around a quarter of the energy of a conventional furnace, and don't necessarily depend on fossil fuels at all, the aggregate energy savings could be really significant. Anecdotally (I have a steam furnace that I hate with the fire of a thousand suns), it's also just a far better system.

It might not seem like a particularly sexy technology, but there's scope to spend a little effort here on UX in the same way that Nest did for thermostats and make an even bigger impact.

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Can ChatGPT edit fiction? 4 professional editors asked AI to do their job – and it ruined their short story

"We are professional editors, with extensive experience in the Australian book publishing industry, who wanted to know how ChatGPT would perform when compared to a human editor. To find out, we decided to ask it to edit a short story that had already been worked on by human editors – and we compared the results."

No surprise: ChatGPT stinks at this. I've sometimes used it to look at my own work and suggest changes. I'm not about to suggest that any of my writing is particularly literary, but its recommendations have always been generic at best.

Not that anyone in any industry, let alone one whose main product is writing of any sort, would try and use AI to make editing or content suggestions, right? Right?

... Right?

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Journalism Needs Leaders Who Know How to Run a Business

"We need people with a service mindset, who understand how to run a business, but a business with a mission that’s more important than ever. We need leaders who embrace new revenue models, run toward chaos, and are excited to build new structures from the ground up. We need leaders who are generous, who nurture the careers of their employees, and who are serious about creating diverse and inclusive workplaces. And we need leaders promoted for their skills and their thoughtfulness, not their loud voice, charisma, or pedigree."

A lot of these values have been championed by some of the more progressive organizations in tech that I've seen, as well as other kinds of workplaces that have thought hard about the conditions that actually lead to productive work that matters.

What doesn't work: reverence for old models, or treating journalism as if it's somehow completely special and different. There's a lot to learn from other sectors and people who have tried hard to improve their workplaces everywhere.

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Opinion: I'm an American doctor who went to Gaza. I saw annihilation, not war

"On one occasion, a handful of children, all about ages 5 to 8, were carried to the emergency room by their parents. All had single sniper shots to the head. These families were returning to their homes in Khan Yunis, about 2.5 miles away from the hospital, after Israeli tanks had withdrawn. But the snipers apparently stayed behind. None of these children survived."

There is no justification for this horror. This is not a solution; this is not an acceptable response. It has to stop.

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Paying people to work on open source is good actually

"My fundamental position is that paying people to work on open source is good, full stop, no exceptions. We need to stop criticizing maintainers getting paid, and start celebrating. Yes, all of the mechanisms are flawed in some way, but that’s because the world is flawed, and it’s not the fault of the people taking money. Yelling at maintainers who’ve found a way to make a living is wrong."

Strongly co-signed. Sure, I have a bias: around a decade of my career in total has been spent working directly on open source projects. But throughout doing that work, I encountered people who felt that because I was releasing my work in the open, I didn't have a right to earn a living. I reject that entirely.

I agree with every part of the argument presented in this post. If people can't be paid to work on open source, only people with disposable time and income will get to do so. The result is software that skews to people from wealthier demographics who don't have families, or that can't be sustainably maintained - and I don't think that's what we want at all.

There are people who say "we need universal basic income!" or "the solution is to get rid of money entirely!" and that's lovely, in a way, but people need to eat today, not just in some future post-capitalist version of the world.

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It's kind of impressive to see Ghost become a real open source alternative to WordPress. Many people have said it couldn't be done - but by focusing on a certain kind of independent creator (adjacent to both Medium and Substack), they've done it. It's a pretty amazing feat.

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Leaked Emails Show Hugo Awards Self-Censoring to Appease China

"A trove of leaked emails shows how administrators of one of the most prestigious awards in science fiction censored themselves because the awards ceremony was being held in China."

What's remarkable here is that they weren't censored by the government - instead this trove of emails suggests it was their own xenophobic assumptions about what was necessary to be acceptable in a Chinese context that shut authors out of one of the most prestigious prizes in science fiction. This includes eliminating authors whose work that would have been eligible was actually published in China.

There's a dark comedy to be written here about a group of westerners who are so worried about appeasing a government they consider to be censorial that they commit far more egregious acts of censorship themselves.

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The text file that runs the internet

It's hard to read this without feeling like the social contract of the web is falling apart.

And when social agreements fall apart, that's when we start having to talk about more rigid, enforced contracts instead. As the piece notes:

"There are people on both sides who believe we need better, stronger, more rigid tools for managing crawlers. They argue that there’s too much money at stake, and too many new and unregulated use cases, to rely on everyone just agreeing to do the right thing."

I think it's inevitable that we'll see more regulation and a more locked-down web. Probably, past a certain point, this was always going to happen. But I'll miss the days of rough consensus and working code.

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Building Slack: Day 1

Catnip for me: the first post in a new blog that tells the story of building Slack from the ground up, by two of its former employees.

This was surprising to me, although I guess I don't really know why: "We used the tried and true LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP). We were all deeply familiar with these conventional tools, and Cal and the Flickr team had defined a framework for building out and scaling web applications using them (called flamework for Flickr framework)."

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Caribou High School to use fingerprinting to track student attendance

"[The ACLU] publicly challenged the school district in a statement to media outlets stating that it has filed a public records request seeking more information about the district’s decision to [a firm] to track student attendance and tardiness by having students place their fingers on a biometric scanner."

So many questions: how anyone thought this was a good idea to begin with; how the data is stored and processed; whether this is legal; what the software company providing this platform could possibly be thinking. Nipping this in the bud feels like a good idea.

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Extending our Mastodon social media trial

The BBC extends its Mastodon experiment for another six months: "We are also planning to start some technical work into investigating ways to publish BBC content more widely using ActivityPub, the underlying protocol of Mastodon and the Fediverse."

The BBC's approach has been great: transparent, realistic, and well-scoped. I suspect we'll see more media entities exploring ActivityPub as the year progresses - not only because of Threads, but as activity as a whole on the social web heats up.

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Who makes money when AI reads the internet for us?

"Local news publishers, [VP Platforms at The Boston Globe] Karolian told Engadget, almost entirely depend on selling ads and subscriptions to readers who visit their websites to survive. “When tech platforms come along and disintermediate that experience without any regard for the impact it could have, it is deeply disappointing.”"

There's an interesting point that Josh Miller makes here about how the way the web gets monetized needs to change. Sure, but that's a lot like the people who say that open source funding will be solved by universal basic income: perhaps, at some future date, but that doesn't solve the immediate problem.

Do browser vendors have a responsibility to be good stewards for publishers? I don't know about that in itself. I'm okay with them freely innovating - but they also need to respect the rights of the content they're innovating with.

Micropayments emphatically don't work, but I do wonder if there's a way forward here (alongside other ways) where AI summarizers pay for access to the articles they're consuming as references, or otherwise participate in their business models somehow.

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Against Disruption: On the Bulletpointization of Books

"A wide swath of the ruling class sees books as data-intake vehicles for optimizing knowledge rather than, you know, things to intellectually engage with. [...] Some of us enjoy fiction. And color." Amen.

I'm firmly on team fiction. A brilliant novel can teach you more about the world than a hundred AI "thunks"; as this article says, it's about the interpretation more than it is about data. Writing and reading are inherently human endeavors. They're a conversation that sometimes takes place over generations. There is no shortcut.

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A creative process

The silhouette of someone walking above the cloudline.

Over on Threads, Amanda Zamora asks:

I'm plotting away on Agencia Media and some personal writing/reporting this weekend (over a glass of 🍷 and many open tabs). One of the things I love most about building something new is the chance to design for intended outcomes — how to structure time and energy? What helps quiet chaos? Bring focus and creativity? Inspired by Ben Werdmuller’s recent callout about new Mac setups, I want to know about the ways you've built (or rebuilt) your way of working! Apps, workflows, rituals, name 'em 👇

A thing I’ve had to re-learn about building and creating is the importance of boredom in the way I think. I know that some people thrive when moving from thing to thing to thing at high speed, but I need time to reflect and toss ideas around in my head without an imposing deadline: the freedom to be creative without consequence.

The best way I’ve found to do that is to walk.

The work I’m proudest of was done in a context where I could walk for hours on end. When I was building Elgg, I would set off around Oxford, sometimes literally walking from one end of the city to the other and back again. When I was building Known and working for Matter, I roamed the east bay, sometimes walking from Berkeley to the tip of Oakland, or up through Tilden Park. I generally didn’t listen to music or audiobooks; I was alone with my thoughts and the sounds of the city. It helped me to figure out my priorities and consider what I was going to do next. When I came up with something new, it was more often than not in the midst of one of those walks.

When you’re deep into building something that’s your own, and that’s the entirety of what you’re doing (i.e., you don’t have another day job), you have the ability to structure your time however you’d like. Aside from the possible guilt of not working a traditional office day, there’s no reason to do that. Particularly at the beginning stages, I found that using the morning as unstructured reflective time led to better, more creative decision-making.

Again, this is me: everyone is different, and your mileage may vary. I do best when I have a lot of unstructured time; for some people, more structure is necessary. I think the key is to figure out what makes you happy and less stressed, and to get out from behind a screen. But also, walking really does boost creativity, so there’s that.

I recognize there’s a certain privilege inherent here: not everyone lives somewhere walkable, and not everyone feels safe when they’re walking out in the world. The (somewhat) good news is that indoor walking works just as well, if you can afford a low-end treadmill.

So what happens when you get back from a walk with a head full of ideas?

It’s probably no surprise that my other creativity hack is to journal: I want to get those unstructured thoughts, particularly the “what ifs” and “I wishes”, out on the page, together with the most important question, which is “why”. Writing long-form in this way puts me into a more contemplative state, much the same way that writing a blog post like this one helps me refine how I think about a topic. Putting a narrative arc to the thought gives it context and helps me refine what’s actually useful.

The through line here is an embrace of structurelessness; in part that’s just part of my personality, but in part it’s an avoidance of adhering to someone else’s template. If I’m writing items on a to-do list straight away, I’m subject to the design decisions of the to-do list software’s author. If I’m filling in a business model canvas, I’m thinking about the world in the way the canvas authors want me to. I can, and should, do all those things, but I always want to start with a blank page first. A template is someone else’s; a blank page is mine.

Nobody gets to see those thoughts until I’ve gone over them again and turned them into a written prototype. In the same way that authors should never show someone else their first draft, letting someone into an idea too early can deflate it with early criticism. That isn’t to say that understanding your hypotheses and doing research to validate them isn’t important — but I’ve found that I need to keep up the emotional momentum behind an idea if I’m going to see it through, and to do that, I need to keep the illusion that it’s a really good idea just long enough to give it shape.

Of course, when it has shape, I try to get all the expert feedback I can. Everyone needs an editor, and asking the right questions early and learning fast is an obvious accelerant.

So I guess my creative process boils down to:

  • Embrace boredom and unstructured, open space to think creatively
  • Capture those creative thoughts in an untemplated way, through narrative writing
  • Identify my hypotheses and figure out what needs to be researched to back up the idea
  • Ask experts and do that research as needed in order to create a second, more validated draft
  • Get holistic feedback from trusted collaborators on that second draft
  • Iterate 1-2 times
  • Build the smallest, fastest thing I can based on the idea

There are no particular apps involved and no special frameworks. Really, it’s just about giving myself some space to be creative. And maybe that’s the only advice I can give to anyone building something new: give yourself space.

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Hidden prison labor web linked to foods from Target, Walmart

"Intricate, invisible webs, just like this one, link some of the world’s largest food companies and most popular brands to jobs performed by U.S. prisoners nationwide, according to a sweeping two-year AP investigation into prison labor that tied hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of agricultural products to goods sold on the open market."

It's very on the nose that a former Southern slave plantation is now the country's largest maximum-security prison and a hub for this kind of forced labor.

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Enough is enough—it’s time to set Julian Assange free

The former Editor in Chief of the Guardian on Julian Assange: "I know they won’t stop with Assange. The world of near-total surveillance, merely sketched by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-four, is now rather frighteningly real. We need brave defenders of our liberties. They won’t all be Hollywood hero material, any more than Orwell’s Winston Smith was."

It's interesting that every description of Assange's actions needs to start with, "I'm not a fan of Assange." He's certainly a problematic character. But I do believe that the war leaks he helped release were an important insight into what was being done in our name. They were important, and it's also notable that they're being downplayed now.

Rusbridger's larger point - that his potential extradition has larger implications for press freedom - is also well-made. We need people to hold truth to power; sometimes that involves revealing the secrets that are being kept from us.

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Meta won't recommend political content on Threads

"Threads users will be allowed to follow accounts that post political content, but the algorithm that suggests content from users you don't follow will not recommend accounts that post about politics."

It's not clear to me what the definition of "politics" encompasses here. Is it just literal party / election politics? Does it include discussions about equal rights, which would disproportionately hit users from underrepresented groups?

Adam Mosseri says that he wants to create a "less angry place", but what about the topics where people are right to be angry?

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FCC Makes AI-Generated Voices in Robocalls Illegal

"The FCC announced the unanimous adoption of a Declaratory Ruling that recognizes calls made with AI-generated voices are "artificial" under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA)."

A sign of the times that the FCC had to rule that making an artificial intelligence clone of a voice was illegal. I'm curious to understand if this affects commercial services that intentionally use AI to make calls on a user's behalf (eg to book a restaurant or perform some other service).

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What Medium's Tony Stubblebine has learned about tech and journalism

Tony is a smart, analytical person, which comes across strongly in this useful, transparent interview about the future of Medium. It's doing better than it ever has.

Also, I like this, which is very close to how my career has worked to date:

"The creator economy locked a lot of people into this passive income game that just doesn’t pay nearly as well as the other game, which is research something until you know more about it than anyone else, and then go get paid for that."

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