A stronger union

norma-tae Let’s talk about unions for a second. As a person who writes about media, I’m no expert on unions. But in the past week, I saw two articles that are interrelated—both reported by two local media outlets in two different states. You might have missed them, because as far as I can tell they didn’t garner much national attention.

The first headline is: Missouri Gov. Greitens signs right-to-work legislation

The second headline is: GM earns $9.43 billion in 2016; UAW workers get record profit sharing

So-called right-to-work laws basically strip labor unions of their powers. Those powers usually include worker benefits, profit sharing and wages that keep up with the rise of the cost of living.

Now, I say “so-called” because who doesn’t agree with a right to work? By God, that’s our due as Americans, to have a right to work!

But “right to work” is a misnomer. It’s a misdirection in the way that the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and the National Center for Policy Analysis are. Who doesn’t want research and analysis of policy?

But when that “research” concludes that a five-cent plastic bag charge that seeks to help the environment (and save the city money) is “a radical scheme to harm New Yorkers,” well, one wonders. And when that “policy” includes congratulating a racist for becoming the attorney general of the United States while simultaneously coopting a hashtag that developed organically in support of opposition Senator Elizabeth Warren, one wonders.

Which leads us to “right to work,” which actually means something along the lines of “makes it more difficult to be protected as a worker.” It means, “It’s good for the bottom line of businesses but not for the pockets of workers.” It means, “Defunding and defanging unions that fight for workers.”

Missouri is the 28th state to adopt this type of law. Meaning more than half the states in our union have such laws. Meaning that Republicans’ strategy of picking off individual liberties state by state, bit by bit, law by law, district by gerrymandered district, has worked. (It has a corollary in a slew of restrictive and vile state abortion laws, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)

Said the governor of Missouri, “For too long in the state of Missouri, for too long people bowed down to intimidation, they bowed down to powerful union bosses who acted to protect their own interests instead of protecting the interest of Missouri workers.”

I’m sad to report that the era of “post-truth” and “alternative facts” has fully taken root when unions are said not to protect workers but instead “intimidate” them. This is not unlike the lies about the inner-city wasteland dystopia that is Chicago—you know how those “inner cities” are, filled with crime and devastation and, well, nonwhite people all on welfare.

These types of lies caused the rise of Trump et al. in the first place. We are seeing the results of the hard work of the Republicans for the past quarter-century, if not longer. They convince poor people that a corporate fat cat has their best interests at heart; that laws that protect them from being poisoned by the water supply are just “a thinly veiled attempt to wipe out coal mining jobs”; that the unions that protect them are actually harming them.

So now for the other piece of news you may have missed. It’s related to the fallacy above.

Last year, GM earned a record $12 billion. That company’s union-sanctioned profit-sharing formula, part of a union-negotiated contract, stipulates that UAW workers receive about $1,000 in profit sharing for every $1 billion in profit.

“Today’s performance bonus announcement of a maximum of $12,000 each rewards our members’ dedication and commitment to building some of the most popular and high-quality vehicles in the world,” said UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada. “They deserve every penny of that collectively bargained bonus check.”

Now, fair is fair. The article reports that “Workers received zero money in profit sharing from 2005-09 when the automaker was struggling.” But since then? $9K apiece in 2014 and $11K each in 2015. Does that seem like a lack of worker protections?

By the way: That’s just at GM. Ford’s “UAW-represented workers will receive $9,000 on average in profit-sharing checks before taxes thanks to a near-record profit for the automaker.” And “Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said last month that UAW-represented workers will receive, on average, a $5,000 profit sharing check for 2016, or about $1,000 more than they did last year.”

So first, let’s cut the shit. The shit peddled by Republican, pro-business, richly paid CEOs who get stock grants and bonuses while regular workers get screwed. You want to know why we have the highest GDP of all time but suffer from economic stagnation? Just ask the “right to work” hawks.

Second, let’s hear it for the local media, in this case in St. Louis and Detroit, that are doing the work of documenting the day-in, day-out lives of Americans.

Third, the national media are working their butts off with no resources, skeleton staffs, closed bureaus and too many stories to tell.

But. But, but. Anyone could easily have found these stories. I’m not Carnac the Magnificent here (millennials, it was a Johnny Carson sketch).

So reliable mainstream media, I’m begging you: Make the connections. Tell the stories of Americans, not businesses. These laws, this administration, these governors and congressional representatives, these bullshit salesmen are bringing this country to the brink.

Or, as a matter of fact, maybe you should start believing your own bullshit: Let’s make America great again. Let’s start by bringing back unions.

Read More

Now as then: The Grapes of Wrath

Kern County, California. Household equipment of Oklahoma family along highway in small construction camp. (National Archives)
Household equipment of an Oklahoma family along a highway in Kern County, California. (National Archives)

I enjoy reading before bed. But I’ve discovered that I can’t read most modern fiction or any nonfiction—it’s too interesting and keeps me awake. I save that stuff for commuting or when I otherwise want an escape hatch to a different world.

Over the past several years, I’ve discovered—and, in some cases, rediscovered—difficult fiction, mostly capital-L Literature and mostly long, to read before bed. I find that having to use my brain in this way exhausts it, for the most part.

Austen, Dickens, Trollope. Gissing, Tolstoy, James. Hawthorne, Cather, Fitzgerald. I read Gone With the Wind for the first time last year, and it is so good. So horrifically racist! But so good.

I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve learned a lot about myself. But mostly what I’ve learned is that much, if not all, of what these great authors wrote is universal, insightful and exceedingly relevant today. Anna Karenina is my emotional intensity. David Copperfield is my spirit animal.

I began reading The Grapes of Wrath in early November. After the election, I couldn’t pick it back up. I couldn’t do much, to be honest. The day after the heartbreaking loss, my spouse and I moved the TV and cable box into the bedroom and didn’t leave the bed until the following Monday, alternately crying, shaking our heads and otherwise going through the stages of grief. It’s fair to say I’ve been disillusioned. And I’ve been struggling.

I’ve turned toward history for explanations. I’ve been reading about Nixon and Boss Tweed. I’ve been trying to find precedent. Past is prologue and all that.

In mid-December, I rewatched the documentary The Dust Bowl, which is now streaming. It reminded me of the horrors of the worst man-made ecological disaster this country has ever experienced. It reminded me that I wrote a long blog post a few years ago, when I first saw the Ken Burns documentary on PBS, about how the media industry today is very much like farmers during the Dust Bowl (doing more with less, coping with disruptive technology, praying for a miracle solution, losing self-respect, folding up the tent and trying something new but not knowing what that is). And it reminded me that I should pick back up on The Grapes of Wrath, which, if you don’t know, concerns the Joad family, poor Oklahoma tenant farmers who are forced from their land by drought and nefarious bankers. They load up their possessions and travel to California seeking jobs but find only misery.

A family from Oklahoma works in a cotton field. Note the house, which is built almost entirely of packing boxes. (National Archives)

Reading this book now, knowing who will soon be president and who elected him; knowing there are refugees who need help, not hate; knowing this man will massively block immigration and massively increase deportation; knowing he will give tax breaks to the corporations and fat cats who need them least; knowing intimately the fear he strikes in the hearts of anyone who isn’t male, white, Christian and straight. This is the state of mind in which I read The Grapes of Wrath, and it was like Steinbeck fired an arrow in 1939 that landed at my feet in 2017.

I want to share some quotes from the book. Some capture my feelings about trying to forge a career in the media industry today. Some are about how it feels to be Other, to be struggling, to be forlorn, to be without hope. Most are about the America I forgot existed—the dark America whose hatred would propel it to elect to its highest office an unqualified, petty dictator with a history of sexual assault and deceit. The America that has seemingly not changed since 1939, when Steinbeck wrote these words, or since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or since Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

“If ya don’ wanta take what they pay, goddamn it, they’s a thousand men waitin’ for your job.” —Hooverville stranger to Tom Joad

“I ain’t no good anymore. Spen’ all my time a-thinkin’ how it use’ ta be.” —Pa Joad

In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything.

The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simply—the causes are a hunger in the stomach, multiplied a million times; the hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times.

“If it was the law they was workin’ with, why, we could take it. But it ain’t the law. They’re a-workin’ away at our spirits. They’re a-tryin’ to make us cringe and crawl.” —Tom Joad

They live on beans, the business men said. They don’t need much. They wouldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny—deport them.

“I’m learnin’ one thing good. Learnin’ it all a time, ever’ day. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.” —Ma Joad

Repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only a half step, never the full step back.

Families from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas settled throughout Weedpatch, in Kern County, California, and brought their church institutions with them. (National Archives)
Families from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas rapidly settled throughout Weedpatch, in Kern County, California, and brought their church institutions with them. (National Archives)

Read More

Checking in on Facebook Instant Articles

fb instant Fortune media hound Mathew Ingram noted in May 2015, when Facebook’s Instant Articles format launched, that Big Blue saw it as “as a mutual exchange of goods, driven by the company’s desire to help publishers make their articles look as good as possible and reach more readers.” He went on to say:

But whenever you have an entity with the size and power of Facebook, even the simplest of arrangements becomes fraught with peril, and this is no exception. Why? Because a single player holds all of the cards in this particular game.

Around that time, Gawker’s Nick Denton, since brought low by a multimillion-dollar lawsuit loss you may have seen coverage about, went so far as to call the Facebook-publisher relationship not a distribution partnership but “abject surrender”:

So many media organizations are just playing to Facebook. They’re just catering to the preferences…expressed in some algorithm that nobody understands. It’s almost like we’re leaving offerings for some unpredictable machine god that may or may not bless us.

Almost a year after its launch, and a year’s worth of tweaks to the Instant Articles product, we have a more complete picture of the pros and cons.

Pros

Massive distribution open to many publishers
Following its closed launch with a limited amount of “partners,” including the New York Times and National Geographic, Facebook has opened the program to publishers big and small, in the U.S. and around the world, “giving every news organization the capability to publish their content on the social network,” according to Poynter.

WordPress plug-ins make it easier
After a rocky launch that required programmers to reformat every article especially for Facebook, the company was able to scale it to most new organizations through a WordPress plugin the company created, “essentially greasing the skids for mass adoption of the program among news organizations.” Per Poynter:

The plugin is being built in partnership with Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com, and helps translate news stories to Facebook’s Instant Articles format. This removes a significant hurdle for news organizations.

New potential revenue streams
It’s no secret that magazines are continuing to fold and even digital-native sites can’t make the numbers work. We’ve also seen the rise of ad blockers and native/sponsored/branded content. Are content partnerships like these the answer, or at least an answer?

Cons

Only certain companies are seeing real benefits
BuzzFeed and Vox, to name two, are on board with the new format. Vox even hired media heavy hitter Choire Sicha to oversee its distributed partnerships (Facebook, Snapchat, Apple News and others, presumably). Per the WSJ, “Vox Media has long counted its own content platform as a key to its success. But now it says the future lies in platforms run by others, so it’s bringing in a digital media stalwart to help strengthen those ties.”

But others have yet to make hay from Facebook’s sunshine. As Fortune notes:

The media industry is in a “get big or go home” phase.

BuzzFeed and Vox are big, so they can play in Facebook’s Instant Articles world better than the smaller guys can.

It’s difficult (and costly) to track the audience
As AdAge reports, publishers have to pay more to track their audiences on distributed platforms. Yes, they get bigger distribution (theoretically, anyway), but ComScore apparently charges “$15,000, per platform, per year, to add tracking capabilities.” And six months post-launch, Apple News still doesn’t even have ComScore integration. This puts publishers in a tough position: In order to help their bottom lines, they want to reach the audience wherever the audience is, but doing so costs money they don’t have.

It’s not clear that publishers make money
Following on the point above, in the distributed content ad model, if you don’t know how much audience you have, you also don’t know how much revenue you stand to make. At this point, publishers are still crossing their fingers that this translates to revenue.

Jobs continue to be cut but not added back
Publishers are “re-allocating resources to build teams that produce content for specific social platforms,” per AdAge, but they’re cutting far, far more than they’re adding. Journalism is going through the kind of massive…transition, disruption, sea change, slaughter, whatever you want to call it, that is epic in scale. There are too many outlets that have closed up shop or gone through major layoffs to name. It’s especially chilling when digital-only publications like Mashable, IBT and Slant (just in the past couple of weeks) can’t even make the numbers work.

Distributed content alone isn’t going to save publishers. Maybe a combination of distribution, ads that escape blockers, native/sponsored content and cutting more staff will help. Also? Prayer. Honestly, prayer seems to be publishers’ main strategy at the moment: Please, Facebook and Google, don’t change your algorithms. Please, Snapchat and Apple News. Please, BuzzFeed and Vice. Please, someone figure this out for us. God bless us, every one.

Read More

Yahoo’s painful (deadly?) cuts

yahoo-signage Yahoo is having an awful month. First it was sued by a former employee, then it had an awful earnings report, and now it has closed down nine content areas: tech, food, health, parenting, makers, travel, autos, beauty and real estate.

“Global editor in chief” Martha Nelson (I put her title in quotes because it’s so hilariously made-up sounding), who used to run Time Inc. editorial, said:

As we make these changes, we acknowledge the talent and dedication of an extraordinary group of journalists who brought new and newsworthy content to Yahoo.

If that’s not a eulogy, I don’t know what is. It’s too bad: More journos, mostly in the New York office, out of work. They join employees from Rodale, Time Inc., Bloomberg and any number of publishers who can’t make the numbers work.

Meanwhile, this week in London, the BBC cut 1,000-plus jobs, and the Independent closed down its print edition, which will result in layoffs. At least in the U.K. they seem to have a humane acknowledgment that people will be losing jobs. Unlike in the States, where CEOs release statements riddled with meaningless corporate jargon like “right-sizing,” the director general of the BBC, Tony Hall, said:

I recognise this is a very tough message. I’m under no illusion that what I’ve said today will cause great anxiety across many parts of the organisation. This is a lot of change and it will happen quite fast. But I want all of you to know that we’ll handle this decently and fairly.

It’s a sad time for those who used to and still do practice the noble profession of journalism—or at least those who do so at legacy shops. My next post will be about how BuzzFeed, Vox, Facebook and Snapchat are adapting much better than publishing’s old guard.

Read More

Amazon goes back to the future

dbpix-company-borders-tmagArticleAmazon is opening brick and mortar stores! “What a world, what a world!” to quote the melting Wicked Witch of the West.

It seems that after spending its first 20 years putting local bookstores out of business, the company has realized: Hey, gosh, people really like local bookstores.

I should mention that Amazon.com put out of business not just thousands of local bookstores but also countless outposts of chain bookstores. Mall standbys like Borders, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, B. Dalton, and Waldenbooks are for the most part but a memory.

Perhaps Amazon can lease spaces formerly occupied by some of these businesses. After all, “Their goal is to open, as I understand, 300 to 400 bookstores,” said the CEO of a shopping mall who has apparently been in contact with Amazon.

Maybe Amazon can somehow make a go of brick-and-mortar stores. Maybe it knows something the defunct bookstores did not. Maybe it has enough time and money that it can afford to experiment. Maybe it has a long enough runway that it will figure it out. Maybe it has some secret algorithms that can help. Maybe Jeff Bezos himself will be stocking shelves in the back. Who knows?

But I think we can all agree that it’s spectacularly odd that the company that’s probably responsible for people even coining the term “bricks-and-mortar” is pursuing this strategy. What a world.

Read More

Yahoo for sale! Any takers? Anyone? Anyone?

Yahoo-News-Digest-Logo

Boy, Yahoo this week, huh? First the company gets sued for instituting a quarterly performance review system that an ex-employee says has “been used to fire hundreds of employees since [CEO Marissa] Mayer joined the company,” per The New York Times. The accuser, Gregory Anderson, who worked at Yahoo News, says execs there “routinely manipulated the rating system to fire hundreds of people without just cause.”

Two things stood out to me in the article. First, this nugget, which every time I read it brings a wide smile to my face:

Ms. Mayer has steadfastly refused to use the word “layoff” to describe the thousands of jobs eliminated since she joined the company. She even forbade her managers from uttering what she called “the L-word,” instructing them to use the term “remix” instead.

Imagine! “We’re sorry to announce that everyone in this room is being remixed.” What?

The second standout bit is this:

The court filing said that managers were forced to give poor rankings to a certain percentage of their team, regardless of actual performance. Ratings given by front-line managers were arbitrarily changed by higher-level executives who often had no direct knowledge of the employee’s work. And employees were never told their exact rating and had no effective avenue of appeal.

Uh, that sucks. My advice to Yahoo would be: Careful what you wish for when you hire journalists. They’re gonna do what they do. And you will be called out.

Despite its left turn into eye-roll territory with this dude also claiming so-called reverse gender discrimination, it’s a hell of an interesting turn of events.

Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter notes that “Yahoo’s fourth-quarter earnings were overshadowed by the company’s announcement that it would cut staff as it explores a sale.” (If you’re keeping track, that’s more staff than it’s already cut illegally. Allegedly.)

In fact, continues THR:

Yahoo has outlined an aggressive cost-cutting strategy that includes reducing its headcount by 15 percent and closing offices in Dubai, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Milan and Madrid. Those cuts are expected to reduce Yahoo operating expenses by $400 million by the end of the year.

Jeez! That’s a ton of staff, 15 percent! We know from reports that this includes shuttering many of its “digital magazines,” and the company already shut down Yahoo Screen. That’s a lot of creative people out of work, which is really sad.

It seems that one bright note was for Yahoo was the growth of its new “Mavens” program, which somehow stands for mobile, video, native and social. Wow, mobile and native are growth areas? No kidding. Welcome to 2012, Yahoo!

I guess these kinds of good-idea-but-way-too-late decisions are why the board wants to sell, per Kara Swisher at Re/code, despite Mayer wanting to keep the company and keep trying to grow it:

Strategic alternatives is code for: Come on down, Verizon! Hey there, AT&T! All private equity guys welcome here!

I’m sure Mayer, like all of us, is wondering where it all went wrong with this venerable brand. (And also: WEHT Tumblr, man? No one ever talks about Tumblr anymore. So much for David Karp being the next media guru.)

I wish had an better answer than, “We’re living through a historic shift in the media and no one knows what will happen,” but I don’t. Meantime, media people: Gird your loins, prep your bunkers, and find a partner who’s a dentist or a pharmacist.

Read More