Making sense of The New York Times’ Amazon exposé

2789374419_035708cbfd_oBecause I’m working on a book that deals in part with how Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos is transforming The Washington Post, I read The New York Times’ account of Amazon’s brutal workplace environment with great interest.

Reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld portray a company in which high-ranking employees are regularly reduced to tears, in which everyone is encouraged to drop anonymous dimes on one another, and in which a culture of 80-hour-plus work weeks is so ingrained that nothing — not even serious health problems — must be allowed to interfere.

This story is still playing out, but I have a few preliminary observations.

First, very little in the Times story will surprise anyone who read Brad Stone’s 2013 book “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.” Stone goes into great detail about what a difficult place Amazon is to work. A key difference is that Stone, unlike Kantor and Streitfeld, is at least somewhat sympathetic to Bezos and understands that he and his team have built something truly remarkable.

Second, the Times article did not convince me that the culture of Amazon is uniquely awful. If you’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, you know that the upper reaches of Apple could be pretty hellish back when Jobs was ranting and raving. Occasionally you hear stories along similar lines about other tech companies. Would you want to run afoul of Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison or Steve Ballmer?  We’re also talking here about a special kind of white-collar, highly educated hell among people who could easily leave and work elsewhere. How about working as a clerk at Wal-Mart? Or as a farm laborer in California?

Third, some of the details in the Times article are being disputed. Nick Ciubotariu, a high-ranking engineer at Amazon, has written a long response to the Times article defending his company. It’s a mixed bag that will provide fodder for Amazon’s critics and defenders alike. Some of it is mind-bending, such as this: “No one is ‘quizzed’ — the quiz is totally, 100% voluntary.” Huh?

Some of it, though, is worth pondering. Ciubotariu, a newish employee (he’s been there 18 months), writes that he has heard the Amazon culture has improved in recent years, and he accuses the Times of relying on old stories from former employees. That has some resonance, as Stone in “The Everything Store” describes Bezos’ halting efforts to curb some of his excesses.

But Ciubotariu also offers specific denials of some of the Times’ assertions, including the most toxic one of all — that a certain number of employees are fired every year as a deliberate management practice. Here’s how the Times puts it: “Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff — ‘purposeful Darwinism,’ one former Amazon human resources director said.”

Here’s Ciubotariu: “There is no ‘culling of the staff’ annually. That’s just not true. No one would be here if that actually took place and it was a thing.”

At Re/code, Peter Kafka reports that Bezos himself has responded in a memo to his employees, urging them to read both the Times story and Ciubotariu’s response. Bezos writes in part:

The [Times] article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.

I am sure that we haven’t heard the last word.

Photo (cc) by Luke Dorny and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Muzzle Awards follow-up: Two victories for free speech

awardAmong the New England Muzzle Award recipients I recognized last month at WGBHNews.org were Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, for backing a ridiculous 70-year-old state law that banned political lying, and New Hampshire State Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a leader in the effort to outlaw the scourge of so-called ballot selfies.

This month, the courts agreed on both fronts.

According to Zack Huffman of Courthouse News Service, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down the anti-lying statute, with Justice Robert Cordy writing:

We conclude that [the statute] cannot be limited to the criminalization of fraudulent or defamatory speech, is neither necessary nor narrowly tailored to advancing the commonwealth’s interest in fair and free elections, and chills the very exchange of ideas that gives meaning to our electoral system.

It is now safe for the presidential candidates to campaign in Massachusetts.

In New Hampshire, U.S. District Judge Paul Barbadoro ruled that the ban on posting photos of a marked ballot could not be justified even though it was supposedly designed to eliminate bribery, with the selfie providing the proof needed that the person taking the bribe had voted as instructed.

The problem, Barbadoro noted, was that such fraud had not actually taken place in at least the past 100 years. In addition, Barbadoro ruled that the law “deprives voters of one of their most powerful means of letting the world know how they voted,” according to an account of the decision by Jeremy Blackman of the Concord Monitor.

The moral of these stories: Do not mess with the Muzzles.

WGBH News illustration by Brendan Lynch.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

A good night for Bush and a bad one for Trump

I hadn’t expected to watch Thursday night’s Republican debate. But it turned out to be available on my flight to San Fransciso, my credit card was twitching in my hand, and so…

For what it’s worth, I thought Jeb Bush was the winner and Donald Trump the loser. There were three adults on stage: Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich. Christie positioned himself as a bad man for bad times, ready to cut your Social Security and take away your civil liberties, and that never appeals to voters. He certainly got the better of it stylistically with Rand Paul, but I suspect most Americans like the idea that the government can’t spy on you without a warrant.

Which leaves Bush and Kasich. Both were calm, amiable and, in my view, quite appealing. But Kasich, the governor of Ohio, seemed more like the guy who should be welcoming the candidates to his home state, not an actual candidate. Bush seemed happy to be there and fundamentally optimistic in his outlook. He made no obvious errors. It was the biggest event of the campaign so far, and he did well.

Now I realize that Trump has made a shameful and shameless buffoon of himself on numerous occasions, and his poll numbers have only gone up. But I thought the Fox News moderators did an excellent job of forcing him to talk about the fact that he’s not much of a Republican or a conservative. Not that he cared — he responded to everything with his usual bluster. But that, more than a litany of offensive Trumpisms, is going to take a toll on his campaign. He could run as an independent, of course, but I strongly suspect he’ll be a much-diminished figure six months from now.

The post-debate punditry seemed to focus on Marco Rubio. I agree that he didn’t embarrass himself, but he struck me as stiff and overly prepared in the manner of someone who was a little too young and inexperienced to be up there.

Of the rest, Scott Walker disappeared into a miasma of blandness, Ted Cruz should disappear, Rand Paul failed to meet even the extremely low level of plausibility set by his father (although, as I said, I’m mostly with him on civil liberties and his opposition to foreign intervention) and Ben Carson made me wonder what all the fuss was about two years ago.

And Mike Huckabee is just a hate-mongering disgrace.

Guest commentary: Reform public-records law now

The following statement was released Monday by the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance.

The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance, a network of more than 40 groups committed to reforming the state public records law, today commended Gov. Charlie Baker for issuing guidance to improve state executive agencies’ handling of requests for information, but emphasized that significant changes to the law itself are still needed to achieve broad, enforceable access to public information throughout the Commonwealth.

Responding to widespread criticism that the Massachusetts public records law is among the weakest in the country and routinely flouted by public officials, Baker last Thursday issued a memorandum to cabinet secretaries providing guidance on how to “reduce delays and costs that burden accessibility.” The memo directs agencies to designate a records access officer to help streamline requests, to standardize fees for copying and staff time, and to set expectations for agency response time. The guidance applies only to state executive agencies, not municipalities, independent agencies, or other entities subject to the public records law.

MassFOIA commended the governor’s action but simultaneously called for legislative reform.

“We applaud Gov. Baker for providing leadership and direction to improve access to public information,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “But even the best-intended administrative guidance is inherently limited. It doesn’t have the force of law and it won’t have any impact on access at the municipal level.”

“The governor deserves credit for taking this step,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts, “but we also need legislation to fix the law itself and ensure real accountability. Otherwise, Massachusetts will keep getting failing grades and officials will continue to treat freedom of information as a suggestion instead of a public right.”

Several of the provisions outlined in Baker’s memo may increase timely and affordable access, but they set no firm deadlines for complying with requests or overall limits on the amount of money that agencies can charge to provide information the public has a right to obtain.

“Even under this guidance, agencies can — and in all probability will — continue to charge a fortune for requests that they perceive as complex,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “Time and again we’ve seen Massachusetts agencies demand huge fees when other states turn over the same information for a fraction of the cost. While this guidance is a step in the right direction, it won’t prevent abuses of the law.”

“One of the most important reforms is attorney’s fees for those wrongly denied public records, and that cannot be established by the governor,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “That takes legislation. We’re pushing for a vote on a strong comprehensive bill in the legislature in September.” Forty-seven other states provide attorney’s fees to hold officials accountable when they refuse to follow the law.

The state public records law grants the public the right to access information about government operations from the executive branch and municipalities, subject to certain exemptions. MassFOIA contends that the law is weak and needs updating for the digital age, having not been substantially amended since 1973.

In July, the legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight gave the nod to a bill supported by MassFOIA, which is now before the House Committee on Ways and Means. Key provisions would update the law to reflect advances in technology, rationalize fees for obtaining public records by having them reflect actual costs, and provide attorneys’ fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information. It would also help government officials fielding public records requests by allowing them additional time for compliance and the ability to ask for other accommodations in “exceptional circumstances.” Legislative leaders have indicated a desire to vote on public records reform legislation in the fall.

The proposed legislation aims to improve access to information the law already defines as a public record. It would not alter the scope of the public records law or make any changes to existing exemptions, including those for personal privacy, criminal investigations, personnel records and trade secrets. Rather it would modernize outmoded language in the law and strengthen procedures for compliance and enforcement.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Promote access to records in electronic form.
  • Direct agencies to assign a “records access officer” to streamline responses to public records requests.
  • Lower costs for requesters and limit charges for redacting documents to withhold information.
  • Require attorneys’ fees when access to public records is wrongly denied, creating an incentive for agencies to obey the law.
  • Extend the time for compliance from 10 to 15 days.
  • Allow record-keepers to obtain more time or the ability to charge special fees when responding to frequent or unusually large requests.

 

Hail hits Hub

Click on image for Instagram video

Click on image for Instagram video

The view from Pavement Coffeehouse on Gainsborough Street in Boston a little over an hour ago.

The New Haven Independent takes to the airwaves

WNHH station manager Lucy Gellman and New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass.

WNHH station manager Lucy Gellman and New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass.

John Dankosky stood before the 20 or so fledgling radio hosts who had crowded into the New Haven offices of La Voz Hispana de Connecticut and told them not to be afraid to assert themselves in the face of an overly talkative interview subject.

“It’s your show and it’s your microphone and they are your guests. You need to be the gatekeeper,” said Dankosky, vice president of news at Connecticut’s public radio network WNPR and host of the daily public affairs program “Where We Live.”

Dankosky was leading a session of Radio 101 for WNHH, a low-power FM (LPFM) community station scheduled to make its debut on August 11. The station is being launched by the New Haven Independent, a pioneering online nonprofit news site that debuted 10 years ago next month.

Read the rest at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Talking about ‘The Wired City’ in San Francisco

I’ll be talking about how I researched “The Wired City” this Friday as part of a panel at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which is being held this year in San Francisco.

The panel is titled “Creation of Community in the Magazine Form: Legacy to Online.” I’m calling my talk “Observing the Online News Community,” and I’ll discuss the value of in-person observation and reporting when conducting research of this nature.

The discussion will be held from 3:15 to 4:45 p.m. and will be moderated by Sheila Webb of Western Washington University. Other panelists will be Elizabeth Hendrickson of Ohio University, Amanda Hinnant of the Missouri School of Journalism and Michael Clay Carey of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.