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.

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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)

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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.

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Time Inc.’s, and the media’s, death by a thousand cuts

Michael Wolff isn’t my favorite person. Actually, I find him quite loathsome — repellent and creepy in the same way I find Woody Allen and Ricky Gervais. He has described himself as a crank and an obnoxious know-it-all, and he has a decidedly Mr. Burns quality about him. But as a chronicler of the media industry, its rise and its collapse, the guy is singular and clear-headed. (Call me a sap: I started to pay him slightly more mind after reading his heartbreaking essay about his aging mother in New York.)

In his essay detailing the decline of Time Inc. from “greatest magazine company in the history of the form” to “farce,” Woolf levels his gaze at several factors that led to that company’s downfall. He applies his trademark snarky criticism, of course. But what caught my eye was not just the utter truth of it, which I’ll get to in a moment, it’s that in it Wolff displays a stunning encyclopedic institutional knowledge that’s lacking in most news reporting on media, let alone specific news about this merger (or sale, or whatever we’re calling this new magazine company that will be run by Meredith with mostly Time Inc. titles). This essay is precisely the kind of media reportage that’s going the way of the dodo (or, more to the point, the way of print). I doubt Wolff had to look up a single fact in his piece. The knowledge probably rolled right out his head and into his fingertips; after all, the man has studied this industry, written about it and thought about it for decades.

Compare this with the latest garbage produced by…pretty much everyone these days. I’ve talked about David Carr’s pollyanna-ish views before. The entirely of Huffington Post’s media beat apparently consists of reprinting emails and press releases. Keith Kelly and Jeff Bercovici do a fair job not out-and-out fellating their media subjects most of the time, unlike some of their peers. But I can’t remember the last time either of them actually broke news, and I definitely don’t remember the last time Bercovici actually wrote anything controversial — or original, for that matter. This “article” about Tim O’Brien leaving the Huffington Post features zero original reporting; it’s just a republication of the internal email. Really? There’s nothing more to dig in on about the company’s allegedly “rule” that a person can’t both write a book and be on staff simultaneously? That’s a new one to me and everyone else in the industry, so there’s probably something else going on. Pick up a phone and call some people. This is called news reporting.

Back to Wolff’s piece, which doesn’t have a ton of original reporting either, but is instead an informed assessment of what Time Inc. was and could have been, followed by no small amount of anger and sadness about what it ultimately became — and even a bit of enthusiasm for the small life it might yet have left in it.

Even in the context of the general decline of the magazine business, Time Inc. warrants special shame and humiliation. Not long ago, it was America against the Italy and France of its two closest rivals, Conde Nast and Hearst. But then Time Inc. became the Soviet Union. Now it is likely to be taken over by Meredith. Meredith. From Des Moines. Which is, well, Iowa.

Wolff captures my experience of the Time Inc., and I’m sure everyone else’s who has worked there, too. It’s a frustration that we know these titles and their web presences are huge and influential, and we’re proud of them, but navigating through the “warring fiefdoms,” as he calls them, and “dysfunctional management” really take it out of you on a day-to-day basis, and that is why the company has stagnated and stalled — and finds itself in the position it does.

While vast resources and considerable brain power in the company were devoted to digital adaptation, the result was to do as little as possible while building as large a bureaucratic foundation as possible. I’m not sure there is any company that has spent so much time talking about its digital future to such little effect. This was farce on quite an amazing scale.

Wolff describes the “hopelessness and frustration” of editor-in-chief John Huey, and I assure you that trickles down.

Cuts became the constant norm. Quality disintegrated. Influence dissipated. The end of the company was all but certain. The raging hostilities within the enterprise made redemption or progress or a new idea or even good will impossible.

As soon as the world’s largest publisher hired an advertising executive instead of a publishing one to lead the company last year, it was obvious and inevitable that the company was headed toward oblivion. I know there are other factors at play, mostly macroeconomic ones — the ruinous economy, the dismal advertising climate, the digital (r)evolution. But it used to be that Time Inc. took pride in its ability to survive disaster. When I was there, I was bucked up more than once by the stories of the company surviving wars, catastrophes, the Depression. It seems hard to believe that what took down such a blue-chip publisher — with its own freakin’ building in midtown! — was…what? Banner ads and CPMs? Bureaucracy? Upping circ by lowering itself to the poor quality of its competitors? Bad decision making at high levels?

It’s a sad state of affairs. I guess this is what is meant by death by a thousand cuts. It’s too bad, because Time Inc. was always a beacon of quality and determination, a leader in the field. RIP. Which is a sentiment even the gimlet-eyed crank Michael Wolff can get behind.

Disclosure: I once worked at Time Inc. (obviously!) and at AOL.

Update: The Meredith deal fell through, and Time Warner announced March 7 that it plans to spin Time Inc. into an independent public company; current Time Inc. CEO Laura Lang will step down.

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Broadway reviews, part three

My stint with the Broadway.com Word of Mouth Panel continues. In recent months, I’ve had the pleasure of taking in the fun but forgettable family fare that was the musical Elf; the entirely unforgettable The Other Place, starring sure-to-be Tony winner Laurie Metcalf in a heartrending performance; the delightful (if occasionally slow) biographical performance piece Ann, starring one of my favorites, Holland Taylor, as former Texas governor Ann Richards; and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a Chekhov-inspired comedy (really!) that stars the surprisingly hilarious Sigourney Weaver. Click on my face to play the videos!

 

Elf video review:

The Other Place video review:

Ann video review:

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike video review:

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Broadway reviews, part two

As I mentioned last month, I’ve recently had the opportunity to be part of the Broadway.com Word of Mouth Panel for the 2012–13 theater season. I get amazing seats at new shows for free, and my only obligation is to have an opinion on it afterward — not a big challenge! Here are my reviews of Annie (loved it!) and Dead Accounts (didn’t love it!). Click on my face to play!

 

Annie video review:

Dead Accounts video review:

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My Broadway debut

Well, my debut of sorts. I’ve recently had the pleasure of being “cast” as part of the Broadway.com Word of Mouth Panel for the 2012–13 theater season. The deal is, they send me to shows and afterward film my thoughts about the show I’ve just seen. Opinion forming isn’t a big problem for me, especially in the realm of Broadway, so it’s a pretty sweet deal! I’m noticing annoying little things about myself that I can improve on in the future, but overall it’s been a fun experience so far. Here are the first two videos in which I appear. Click on my face to play!

 

The “Meet the Panelists” video:

The Heiress video review:

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My Barbra obsession, then and always

In honor of the Barbra Streisand “Back to Brooklyn” concert tonight (and the preshow fans’ dinner, and the postshow fans’ drinks outing…), I’m posting my recent contribution to Alison Waldman‘s new book, Barbra Memories. She used my essay as one of dozens included in the book  (click for full size).

It is posted below in its original form.

 

I was 10 when I saw Yentl on a rollaway VHS player in Sunday school at my synagogue in Toledo, Ohio.

Her voice was so pretty, she was so strong, and she was Jewish, just like me! Thus began my raging, decades-long obsession with Barbra Streisand.

In short order, my dad sought out 12-inch records for me from the local library and garage sales: Funny Girl (the movie), The Barbra Streisand Album and My Name Is Barbra. I was as entranced by her voice as I was by the pictures of her on the covers. Though I had fallen for her in Yentl, it was those early albums that cemented the fascination. Her voice was like no other I’d heard before: gorgeous, playful, resonant, full of personality. I’m quite certain I didn’t understand the ennui of “Cry Me a River” or the irony of her version of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” I’m sure I didn’t know the heartbreak of “My Man.” All I knew was that her voice — brassy, belty, zippy — spoke to me on a level I’d never experienced before. It was like she was singing to me. I was transfixed. I was moved. I was obsessed.

I continued the pursuit. When I was 13 I checked out the biography Streisand: The Woman and the Legend from the Wood County Library and read it passionately. The book portrayed her as bold and brash, confident and a little weird (boldly dropping the extra A?!). I ate it up. Every fact of her life spoke to me on a deep level. She was born one day before my mother, both in Brooklyn, NY. Somehow this transmogrified in my mind as though Barbra was my real mother — they must have been born in the same hospital, so maybe my mother was switched with her, and so I’m really Barbra’s daughter…? It all made sense in my adolescent mind.

There was more. She played clubs in the ’60s New York’s Greenwich Village; my grandfather owned a bar in the ’60s in the Village! Did they ever meet; did she ever go there?! I read other biographies. I bought tapes. I borrowed CDs. I rented bad sex farces. I also rented great love stories. I was transfixed when she was onscreen. She was like me — but talented! And that voice, that voice…

I developed a highly attuned sense of Barbra; I took her on as a role model and a hero. I shook my head at the Jon Peters years. I was dismayed by the press’s portrayal of her as an inflexible haranguer. I admired her unwavering support of liberal causes. I cheered her unrelenting quest for perfection in all things. And I marveled at her undisputed artistic achievement.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the peak years of my Barbra obsession coincided with the time I was developing my sense of self, the age when one is most influenced by and impressed with idols of all kinds. The summer before college, I even forced my teenage friends to watch Yentl and was positively dismayed when they shrugged her off as a middle-aged woman who didn’t remotely carry off the conceit of playing a girl pretending to be a boy. But this didn’t stop my adoration, nor did it prevent me from forcing my freshman-year roommate to listen to The Concert night and day.

But hero worship often ends. It ends roughly about the same time you start to realize it’s not the drinking that kills you, it’s the daylong recovery instead of the hour-long one. You’ve grown up and grown past it — or at least I did.

I found criticisms where I used to find only abject adulation. I thought Barbra’s new material was overproduced, overorchestrated. Big-voiced, belting Barbra, backed by a 60-piece orchestra, can be uplifting and life affirming (for example, “A Piece of Sky”). Intimate, lush Barbra can be smooth and inviting (“Speak Low,” “Lazy Afternoon”); pop Barbra can be upbeat and fun (“Stoney End,” “Guilty”). Sweet Barbra can be lovely and enchanting (“Evergreen”); jazzy Barbra can swing and dip (“Cornet Man”). But where was the simple bass-drum-piano accompaniment that let her voice be the star? The funky approach and unexpectedly off (but somehow perfect) pronunciations that showcased her talent in her early years had been replaced with sappy life lessons, bombastically produced. She was different. Or maybe I was.

When she toured in 1994, I couldn’t afford tickets (I was only 17 and still in high school, after all). I vowed that if she ever toured again, I would go no matter what. Thankfully that came to pass in 2000 (the “Final Tour”!) and again in 2006. Despite the fact that I’d grown up a bit — and, I thought, grown past my obsession — in both instances, I was moved to tears (during the “Yentl Medley” and “Down With Love,” respectively). And I expect to be bawling my eyes out again this time. Her unique take on the lyrics and surprising phrasing can still stop me in my tracks and give me goose bumps. Quite simply, she moves me. I don’t know how, exactly, she will move me this time, but I know that she will. How could she not? She’s been a precious and well-loved (and -respected, and -esteemed) part of my life since I was a child — since before I was able to put the emotions she made me feel into words like this.

Put simply, I am grateful for the many gifts she has been blessed with and with which she has, in turn, blessed me. Occasionally, on moments like this, when she’s on stage and in strong voice, I let myself feel that gratitude, let myself be transported back to my teenage bedroom, back to that classroom in shul — the one by the rabbi’s office, with the red carpet and the rollaway VCR — where I was first mesmerized and charmed by her voice, her look, her charisma, her authenticity, her talent.

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The differences between print and online publishing

I’ve spent the past month helping edit a book. A real, old-timey, printed-pages book, with big photos and tons of words. While it has been an all-consuming grind to move the thing from words on a screen to designed layout to perfected page, creating a book also opened my eyes even further to a handful of differences between the print and online worlds of publishing. I suppose I knew these differences abstractly — after all, I’ve worked in the print publishing world for a more than a decade and I’ve written about some of these variations before — but living the book-publishing life instead of the online-publishing one for a month solid has put these five distinctions into stark relief.

1. Standardized technology
Practically the entire print world (magazines as well) uses Adobe’s Creative Suite. If you’re a publisher, you’re using InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator, period. Occasionally there are major disruptions —  when the industry moved from QuarkXPress to InDesign around the turn of the century, for example, after having been Quark-centric for the previous half-dozen years. If a stranger wandered in off the street to a prepress shop or printer, they’d see InDesign being used. If a college kid majors in graphic design, she’d better be taught to use Illustrator. If you’re a photographer or retoucher, Photoshop is your go-to.

Compare this to the completely opposite world of online publishing. There’s not a standard content management system that every publisher uses. Open-source platforms like WordPress and Drupal are huge and growing — they’re being selected as the go-to CMSes more every day — but they’re not widespread enough to be called a standard, at least not the way InDesign is for print publishers. More often, each Internet publishing site has its own, homegrown, cobbled together, Frankenstein half-solution, which works well enough to connect A to B, but just barely, and it is not a complete solution in the way that Adobe Creative Suite has been for print.

There’s also no standard photo-editing app: Photoshop is one option for online photo editing, but so are Pixlr, Aviary, Gimp, on and on. Even Facebook and Twitter — not to mention Instagram — offer online photo editing.

In fact, Internet publishing reminds me of nothing more than print in the 1980s and 1990s. Computers were being introduced and used to some degree for word processing, but there was no single software system for print publishing. We’d moved well beyond copy boys, news alerts coming across actual wires and traditional typesetting, but the “technology” that most publishers used then included paste-ups and X-acto knives (or some version thereof). We’re living the equivalent now online. Will the Internet standardize to a single CMS? Will there be a turnkey solution invented that takes online publishing from primordial to fully evolved?

2. Established process and workflow
The printed word carries with it an established process, one that has been more or less the way things have worked since Gutenberg. First you write the words, then you edit them, then you publish them. This is true still in print publishing. Broadly: brainstorm, assign, write, edit (line edit, fact-check, copyedit), design, prep, print, and then distribute completed, unalterable product. There are often many rounds of each of these steps, and distribution can be a months-long process. But a process it is, and one that carries a fixed order and a good degree of finality.

Online publishing, on the other hand, usurps this process from end to end; the online workflow is not fixed. Anyone can devise her own ideas and then write them. They needn’t be edited nor fact-checked, but even if they are, many people and even organizations publish first and edit later, and then republish. This doesn’t actually disrupt the distribution process a bit, because the piece is a living document that can always be changed. The immediate distribution means that readers can also respond immediately, and they do, via comments and social media, and this often precipitates yet another round of reediting and republishing.

Compare the reactions of print versus online outlets to the publishing scandal of the summer: Jonah Lehrer’s making up of quotes and self-plagiarization. His book publisher, Houghton, had to “halt shipment of physical copies of the book and [take] the e-book off the market,” as well as offer refunds to readers who purchased copies of the book. Presumably, they will actually fact-check the book sometime, then issue a new version in a new print run sometime before…who knows when.

Lehrer’s online publishers, on the other hand, merely republished his pieces with an “Editor’s Note” appended that they “regret the duplication of material” (NewYorker.com) or a  “notice indicating some work by this author has been found to fall outside our editorial standards” (Wired.com).

I haven’t discussed the cost-as-expectation factor because I want to limit this post to my observances on technology and workflow as an industry insider, but I do wonder whether, because the Internet is free, the standards are lower for both process and product. Regardless, it’s clear that making corrections as you go along isn’t possible with a printed product once it’s been distributed.

I also think that because the Internet is not only a publishing business but is also a technology business in a way that print is not, editors are cribbing from technologists’ desire to embrace iterative methodologies and workflows, such as Agile (in relief to Waterfall) — more on this below.

3. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities
Hand in hand with the process itself are the people who conduct the process. Print, having been around for centuries, has evolved to the point where jobs are delineated. It can be stated generally that in the world of print, photographers shoot pictures and photo editors select among these pictures. Designers marry text and art. Copy editors edit copy. Printers print. Managing editors meet deadlines, collaborating with all parties to get things where they need to be when they need to be there. There’s no such delineation in the online publishing world. Editors in chief shoot photos and video; copy editors crop art; writers publish. Everyone does a little bit of everything: It’s slapdash, it’s uncivilized, it’s unevolved.

I think that soon this madness will organize itself into more clearly defined roles, or else we’ll all burn out, go crazy and move to yurts in the middle of Idaho. This is happening already in small degrees in online newsrooms, and it’s starting to reach into online publishing broadly, but I have to believe that the insanity will decrease and the explicit definition of roles will advance as we sort out how it all fits together.

4. Focused, respectful meetings
It caught me off guard to realize that something as simple as speaking to coworkers is very different in the print versus online worlds, but the meetings I had when I was working on the book were a far cry from those I’ve had when I was working online. They were focused, with little posturing, corporate speak, agenda pushing or bureaucracy. At no point did anyone say, “Let’s take that offline” (translation: “Shut up”). At no point did I wonder, “Are you answering email or IMing the person across the table right now instead of paying attention to what I’m saying?” It’s pretty simple: No (or few) laptops and lots of respect for others and their abilities.

Technology likes to put labels onto concepts that publishing has been using for decades. For example, Agile has concepts like “stand-ups” and “Scrum.” Print has been having these sorts of as-needed-basis check-ins as long as it’s been around — it’s called “talking to your coworkers,” and it works quite well as a method of communication and dissemination of information. For all that’s going against it, print succeeds on a human level; technologists are playing catch-up in this respect. Whether this is because most technologists are men or most technologists are introverts I’m not sure, but the cultural and human-interaction differences are clear. If online publishing did a little more in the way of focused and respectful meetings — or maybe even fewer organized meetings and more on-the-fly collaboration — I think the industry would reap major benefits.

5. Frequency of disruption by and importance placed on email and social media
When I was head’s-down editing on paper for this book, and when I was on the computer editing, devising schedules or creating task lists, I didn’t check email, Facebook, Twitter, or really any other website except during lunch. Turns out, this behavior is fairly easy to do when you’re not working on a website yourself. I’ll admit that I felt a little out of the loop on the latest stupid thing Mitt Romney said. I missed the uproar about, next-day recap of, and explanatory cultural essay regarding Honey Boo-Boo. But I didn’t actually feel less engaged with the world. Having been completely engaged in the task at hand, I felt like the focused energy I was able to pour into the book benefited the work and my own sense of accomplishment.

When I work online I often end days thinking, “What did I actually do today? Meetings, emails, checking social media…now the day is over, and what do I have to show for it?” Quite distinctly, when I ended days on the book, I could say with conviction that what I had worked on mattered. I moved whatever I was working on from one state to the next, and I improved it when it was in my hands. It was a welcome departure.


The book will be in stores a few months. And I’m about to press “publish” on this post, which will then be live and available to anyone with an Internet connection the moment after I do. All of which serves as the starkest reminder yet about the benefits of, drawbacks surrounding and often chasm-like differences between each medium. Unlike print, for online publishing the history is being written as its being lived, and I feel privileged to be a witness to it.

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“But can he do it?” Who cares?

The New York Times today published another entry into the annals of a trend I’ve noticed that I call the “But can he do it?” story. It’s a series of stories that profile a white guy “reinventing” the media, as reported by a white guy in the media. This one is about David Karp, the 26-year-old “wunderkind” who invented Tumblr. It’s filled with quotes like: “‘He has very little notion of what it means to be a conformist,’ or to measure his thinking against abstract conventional wisdom.”

Eye roll. A privileged white guy is a nonconformist? OK, if you say so.

But this is only one article, one that follows many, many eye-rollers before it with the same theme. For example, there was the Ken Auletta profile of Tim Armstrong in The New Yorker last year, in which he questions whether Armstrong’s strategy of revitalizing AOL’s home page and investing in local will pay off. (I guess Armstrong didn’t bother to tell Auletta that actually the other part of this “strategy,” the winning part, was buying the Huffington Post a week later.)

The Washington Post recently did a “But can he do it?” piece on whether Chris Hughes really can revitalize The New Republic. And speaking of white guys revitalizing the media: Can Josh Tyrangiel remake Businessweek now that it’s Bloomberg Businessweek? And speaking of The Washington Post (talk about the insularity of the media), can Robert Thompson remake it under NewsCorp?

On and on. Obviously the trend is indicative of a much larger problem, which is that white guys in the media are constantly (unconsciously?) creating these stories so they can continue to reinforce their own relevancy. The narrative of “But can he do it?” is really their own, so they think it’s interesting for others to read about. And then their editors, who are for the most part white guys in the media, also think it’s interesting, so they OK the stories, and the column inches, and the emphasis in coverage. But obviously no one else cares whether these white guys in the media will succeed except for other white guys in the media.

Really: Will Bloomberg Businessweek make money? Will David Karp reinvent advertising on the Internet? Well, WILL THEY?

Who cares?

And also, of course, the articles never actually say or even predict whether these white guys will or will not reinvent these media properties/websites, because the writers have no idea. Which just reinforces how useless this so-called reporting truly is. No one actually knows how this business is going to go in the next few, handful, several, many years in the future. These stories might as well be headlined: “Does this white guy know something the rest of you white guys don’t?” The answer, at the end of each, is, “Maybe!” And also, if not explicitly, “I hope some day this guy or a guy like him will hire me!”

The same is true, by the way, for political profiles and business profiles. “Can this white guy win this election/policy argument/budget showdown against other white guys?” “Can this white guy sell more lightbulbs/lumber/lathes than the other white guys?”

It’s boring. It’s irrelevant to most of the population. No one knows the answer anyway. And yet it’s the focus of coverage because, unfortunately, white guys run everything. So it’s a problem for women, gays, minorities and anyone else who would like see themselves and their lives and struggles reflected in the media but is completely un- or under-represented.

Final note on this: “But can he do it?” is basically is Ken Auletta’s reason for being. It seems like every article he writes is another breathless “But can he do it?” He wrote a whole book that was basically a “But can they do it?” about the two white guys who created Google. Rarely, he writes a “But can she do it?” But given that there are only two powerful ladies in media (obviously, Jill Abramson and Sheryl Sandberg), these are unusual. But fair’s fair, he did write them, though I’ll warn you that neither of these women has any answers about the future of media, either.

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