The days when every business broke guitars…

When Jeremy showed us the “United Breaks Guitars” movie during class the week before last, I had to laugh. Not just because it was a funny bit – although it was – but because there was a time when many businesses treated their customers in that way. Especially in media.

I know – I used to do it myself.

To recap: Band members traveling together to a gig on United looked out the windows of their plane before takeoff only to see United’s baggage handlers tossing their instruments around like the gorilla in the old American Tourister commercials.

Sure enough, the players found on arrival that their instruments had been damaged, thus beginning a customer-service nightmare that culminated in the short film we saw. Even after the film went viral, United’s response was tepid at best.

Like Jeff’s well-documented experience in Dell Hell, this was the nature of much customer service in the era before the full bloom of social media. And this despite the lip service paid to such notions as “customer-facing companies” and hoary shibboleths such as ”the customer is always right.”

This was particularly true in media companies, where the lines of communication tended to run in direction only and executives were unaccustomed to dealing with unhappy customers, who were treated as annoyances at best and marks at worst.

Home delivery customer service – the lifeblood of most newspapers — was comically bad, with papers delivered everywhere but where they were supposed to go, circulation directors who found a rich vein of humor in the resulting complaints, and little done to solve small problems that sometimes dragged on for years.

Things were hardly better upstairs in editorial, where citizen complaints about stories were routinely laughed off, ignored or treated with disdain. And if you wanted to get a top editor on the phone to talk you had better be the governor, the mayor or the police chief – or you’d find yourself talking to an overworked editorial assistant or secretary-gatekeeper at best.

Small wonder, then, that this period coincided with a noticeable rise in libel suits against newspapers, a decline in trustworthiness ascribed to the media in attitudinal surveys and a growing feeling that the media was just another arrogant, unresponsive institution instead of the public-spirited citizen watchdog it was supposed to be. This attitude has hardened into the current serves-them-right perspective on the disruption of big media.

That disruption has brought a lot of pain to legacy media, but it has also forced it to walk the walk on customer service — now that social media has institutionalized two-way communication and evened the balance of power. After experiencing their own versions of “United Breaks Guitars” and “Dell Hell” campaigns, you can bet that old media doesn’t respond to complaints in the way it used to — even if it is a result of fear rather than respect.

Either way, it’s a good thing.

My Ankle, Part 643…

I want to assure my long-suffering classmates and instructors that I do not intend to make a career of writing about my broken ankle. But a few things that happened to me in New York last week led me to reflect on something Alex Taub and others said repeatedly during our whirlwind tour of start-ups a few weeks ago.

Be nice. Help people.

New York is a city renowned for its Darwinism and brusque mien. If Chicago is the City of Broad Shoulders, New York is the City of Hard Shoves. Outta my way, Mack.

Unless you are on crutches. Fold your arms over a pair of these universal injury signifiers and watch what happens: The surly doorman sprints from behind his desk to open the door for you. Strangers actually look up from their iPhones to give a balky brass door the shove you have been unable to deliver effectively with your hip. Your fellow elevator passengers, usually jockeying to escape the car first, insist that you precede them, even though your pathetic crutching will only slow them down.

In short, New York is a different sort of town when people are nice, when they are helpful.

It’s simple to understand why New Yorkers behave this way: Empathy. It’s easy to look at someone on crutches, imagine what it would be like to be so encumbered oneself and move to help out if you can.

I think the same sort of mechanism is at work in the be-nice mantra we heard during our visits. At first I wondered if it was some karmic or Aquarian sea change in the business world, until Jeremy brought me up short: “I doubt people of the same age on Wall Street are very worried about being nice to each other.” Indeed, much as I tried to foster it during my last assignment, American business in general doesn’t place much of a premium on being nice or helping others, unless you are CEO of, say, the Boy Scouts, and even then…

No. What it is, I think, is that all of these young entrepreneurs work in the same small pond, rub elbows with the same people, congregate in the same places, go to the same events. It is said manners evolved as a kind of social lubricant to prevent clashes in the crowded interior spaces of an evolving society. Being nice is one way to keep the peace in an intensely competitive environment.

But there’s more to it than that. Every one of these entrepreneurs knows what it’s like to need a hand, to be treated kindly, or to get a crucial introduction or sit down through another’s intercession. Or not. And so they’re empathetic when someone else needs something they can provide. Like those who’ve been helping me.
There is one more dimension to the entrepreneurial be-nice admonition that does not line up with the motivations of my helpers. These business people all know that theirs is a small community, and that some of them will make it, a few of them in a very big way. They hope the favor will be returned if they need it, and they realize what a huge potential chit that could be.

I doubt any of my helpers are hoping that they will break their ankle sometime in the future and that I will return the favors they have done me over the last five weeks. At least I hope not.

The state of journalism and Professor Pangloss

Matthew Yglesias of Slate wrote a provocative and widely circulated post last week urging media consumers to ignore “the doomsayers” worrying about the state of journalism and enjoy the incredible profusion of content the Web makes available to readers with even the most arcane interests.

The doom-saying to which Yglesias referred was the annual Pew report on the state of the media – a gloomy document that chronicled continuing revenue and job losses in the nation’s newsrooms, concomitant reductions in coverage and the reader defections those losses have caused. Grim stuff.

Nevertheless, “American news media has never been in better shape,” proclaims Yglesias. “That’s just common sense.”

Putting aside the Panglossian naiveté of Yglesias’ point of view – it is clear even as he celebrates this alleged high point in American journalism that he has little idea how journalism is funded – he makes a critical logical error and then compounds it by confining his analysis to the area of journalism that bests proves his point. Meanwhile he completely ignores another, equally important, if not more important, area of the business.

In attacking the Pew report, Yglesias calls it “a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare—productivity. Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors, today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.”

Let me count the ways in which Yglesias errs in this single paragraph.

First, he accuses Pew of focusing entirely on the producer side of journalism rather than the consumer side – which is true enough. But then he proceeds to do exactly the opposite, celebrating the diversity of news on the web from the consumer perspective without giving much if any thought to how that news is produced, and what the impact of declining financial support for that mechanism means for the bounty he is celebrating.

And, by the way, we’re not just talking about declining support for old media. Freelance blogger Nate Thayer – presumably one of those contributing to Yglesias’s marvelous cornucopia of content, recently wrote bitterly about being asked by to repurpose a blog post he’d done so the site could run it for free. Notwithstanding Thayer’s complaint, this happens all the time. If this is the business model for Yglesias’ American journalistic renaissance, he should enjoy it while it lasts.

Then Yglesias says the Pew study fails to sufficiently celebrate productivity. I wonder why? Could it because it is all too familiar with assessments of this new productivity similar to Allyson Bird’s?

“You get called out of a sound sleep to drive out to a crime scene and try to talk with surviving relatives. You wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, realizing you’ve misspelled a city councilman’s name. You spend nights and weekends chipping away at the enterprise stories that you never have time to write on the clock…
I quit my newspaper job at 28, making less money than earned when I was 22.”

Yglesias then backs up his productivity argument with a simile about the small number of farmers producing more food than anyone ever thought possible. Except he fails to mention two things: These farmers get paid, and paid well, for what they produce – the average family farm had average annual income of nearly $82,000 in 2004, a salary most bloggers and reporters would kill for — and many are subsidized by the government itself.

But Yglesias’ biggest gaffe may be what he fails to address at all. In breathlessly describing the bounty of web news, he fails to mention a single instance of what we might call local news. Surely we can read broadly and deeply about the Cypriot banking crisis, as Yglesias suggests. But what about the crisis of corruption at city hall? What about the scandal at the local bank? Not so much, especially as local, old-media operations shrink and their would-be hyper-local successors struggle to find a workable business model.

In Candide, the title character rejects the mindless optimism of his mentor, Professor Pangloss and comes to the conclusion that “we must cultivate our garden.”
Yglesias’ celebration of the Web’s current news bounty is akin to the farmers he mentions eating their seed corn and mistaking it for a banquet. It’s not enough to be optimistic. Those of us who care about journalism and especially local news must cultivate our gardens.


Broken bones … and business models

Please help me!

A few weeks ago, I broke my ankle in two places after fall on some black ice in a parking lot. From the moment I heard the snap of bones breaking as I landed on the joint, it was clear that my world had changed. Always inclined to go it alone, I would now be dependent on others – my wife, my friends and colleagues, my doctors – to help me as I crutched, hopped and wheeled my way through a recovery that could take months.

I can’t stress how hard accepting help is for me. But I have no choice – I just can’t do this by myself.

My situation came to mind recently when I was contemplating the case of an important mid-career journalism educator whose world has changed in a similar way. Tuitions are way off because of trouble in the industry. Its other traditional means of support are tanking. And unless something is done quickly, the future looks grim.

What’s the difference between it and me? It’s this: When another journalism educator in another region of the country approached it with a proposition for a partnership – a plan that would have helped both institutions, the mid-career educator scarcely even wanted to talk about it. Like me, its world had changed and it needed help. Unlike me, it declined a potential source of it.


I can’t say, really, apart from a vague explanation that the institution was too wrapped up in its own problems to contemplate the proposal. As ridiculous as it sounds for a business to be too wrapped up in its problems to consider a way of solving them, I can tell you as a management-level veteran of several large news organizations that it’s sadly familiar.

Based on that experience, here are three reasons why troubled institutions decline help when they badly need it:

Arrogance: A variation on the too-big-to-fail fallacy, this factor causes leaders to believe heir institution is too important to the audience to succumb to the laws of business. The names of some news organizations so afflicted can now be found on the rolls of the closed and the bankrupt.

Denial: Few successful leaders are so clueless as to not see the handwriting on the wall but many refuse to heed it all the same, believing that the crisis is not as bad as it appears, or will somehow pass, or that somebody somewhere will come up with a solution. The final destination is usually the same as in the case of arrogance above.

Inertia: Sometimes, as in the case of the mid-career journalism education institution, companies are so busy worrying about their problems that they forget that the idea is to do something about them – and that requires an open mind and a bias toward action. This is a variation on both the frog in the pot parable and Clayton Christensen’s idea of the Innovator’s Dilemma: By the time institutions start responding to the trouble, their flailing about actually intensifies it.

It seemed ironic and sad to me that an institution that has spent so much time training managers to avoid these pitfalls would itself succumb to the one of the simplest and most common: failing to accept help.

Now, could I ask you to please roll my wheelchair over to the water fountain?


In defense of Marissa Mayer and woman managers everywhere…

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer can’t win for losing these days, it seems. She’s taken hits in the press for ending telecommuting at her company while building a private nursery next to her office, and more lately for deciding to review all new hires in the company.

Let me tell you something: If I were the CEO at a company that was tanking as severely as Yahoo, I’d be doing the exact same thing. In fact, I’d doing a lot more than that – as I’m sure Mayer is.

Of course, if I were the CEO of Yahoo, nobody would be writing about me and the heartless things I was doing to my employees. Why? The answer, I hope, is obvious: because I’m male, and it’s not news when male bosses piss workers off. It’s accepted, expected even. Dog bites man.

Let a woman do the same, though, and the best she can expect is for her management style to be called “unorthodox” by the Washington Post. (Exactly what is unorthodox about giving a failing organization a few swift kicks in the ass is beyond me.) What’s the worst she can expect? Well, if you’ve been following the story, you’ve already seen it.

How did this come to be? Some of it, of course, is good old-fashioned sexism. Some of it is same-sex sour grapes – many professional women have noted that some of the cruelest behavior toward women is inflicted by other women (Are you listening, Maureen Dowd?). And some of it is the backlash from promises women have made about how much different the world would be once they were in charge.

There is no doubt that women as a whole are superior at team play then men, no doubt that they operate better in groups, no doubt that they see workers more as individuals than as cogs in a big machine. This is all to the good, a boon to the workplace and fair enough.

But just because women possess these attributes doesn’t mean that the mere appointment of a woman to the top job will – or should — transform a company into a workers’ paradise. And especially not if the enterprise is failing, as Yahoo is. Sometimes the sicker a patient is, the stronger the medicine required – whether the physician is male or female.

In her new book, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes that part of the reason women aren’t getting ahead faster in corporate America is because too many want to be liked. It appears that this is not a problem for Marissa Mayer. And I say good for her.