Tag Archives: Steve Jobs

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.

A moment of optimism for the future of journalism

In just four days, a major metropolitan newspaper (The Boston Globe) and, now, a national newspaper (The Washington Post) have been sold to wealthy new owners with good-guy reputations who’ll be able to operate debt-free while they try to figure out how to turn around the fortunes of their beleaguered acquisitions.

John Henry’s buying the Globe is one thing. Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Post is quite another. Post-Steve Jobs, is there a more visionary tech entrepreneur than the founder of Amazon? This is great and hopeful news for anyone concerned about the future not just of the newspaper business but of journalism.


Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

This is a sad day. Steve Jobs has died. He was a visionary and a genius — a genius of design, and of knowing how we wanted to work and play long before we had any idea. “The world is immeasurably better because of Steve,” said Apple in a company statement, according to NBC News. It’s true, and how many people can you say that about?

Three for Thursday

There’s so much going on this morning that I can barely keep up. And I really need to return to (shhh!) the Book. So here’s a quick roundup, to be followed by a more important matter, and then (I tell myself sternly) that’s it for today.

  • Don’t miss Michael Levenson’s splendid Boston Globe article on the millions of dollars being spent on Beacon Hill by developers looking to build casinos in Massachusetts. Levinson wins extra bonus points for referring to “gambling interests” rather than the PR-ish “gaming interests” so beloved by those trying to improve the image of their miserable industry. As Dick Hirsch says of “gaming”: “They are trying to wrap a noxious substance in an elegant package in order to conceal its toxicity, deodorize it and tell us what a benefit it will be.”
  • Very sad news about Steve Jobs’ decision to step down as Apple’s chief executive. Forgive me if I’ve said this before: he may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard, always keeping his focus on what users want – and even on what they don’t know they want. He is a visionary and quite possibly a genius. The must-read is this essay by Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. Don’t skip the video. Though it is universally believed that Jobs is gravely ill, I hope he can contribute to Apple in a reduced capacity for a long time to come.
  • Best wishes to Jim Romenesko, the indefatigable media blogger who announced his semi-retirement yesterday. Starting in the 1990s, Romenekso – first at his own site, later for the Poynter Institute – has been linking to (and offering short, intelligent commentary on) every bit of media news and gossip he can find. Especially in the early days of the Internet, he gave alt-weekly types like me a small national readership. Here’s a piece I wrote about him for the Boston Phoenix in 1999, when he announced the move to Poynter. And here’s a Phoenix article written by Mark Jurkowitz in 2005 on the dread “Romenesko effect.” Good luck to Jim, the best friend obscure media columnists like me ever had.

Why The Daily is straight out of 1994

I haven’t had a chance to play with The Daily yet. If I’m really, really good, maybe Mrs. Media Nation will let me borrow her iPad so I can have a look. In terms of the business model and the approach, though, the mutant spawn of Rupert Murdoch and Steve Jobs looks remarkably like the early-’90s Knight Ridder newspaper of the future come to life.

I was first introduced to the digital newspaper at a conference at Columbia University in 1993. Among the speakers were retired Boston Globe editor Jack Driscoll, a true visionary, and Knight Ridder futurist Roger Fidler.

Fidler presented an idea: a newspaper that you would download onto a digital tablet of some sort. Fidler was so far ahead of his time that his tablet still hasn’t been created. The iPad is a step along the way, but Fidler’s notion was that it had to be light and flexible, with the same image resolution as a quality magazine and so cheap that newspapers would give them away.

Take a look at the 1994 video above, in which Fidler introduces his tablet, and consider all the stuff he and his colleagues had already figured out: an easy navigation system (he envisioned a stylus rather than your finger); embedded videos; interactive advertising.

The problem was that he missed the two developments that did the most to undermine the newspaper business: the Web, which made the kind of closed media ecosystem he envisioned obsolete; and the demise of “branded content” as a selling point. News has become a commodity in ways we couldn’t have imagined nearly two decades ago. So it’s fascinating that Murdoch and Jobs have attempted to resuscitate those two moribund notions.

First, you’ll only be able to get The Daily through a closed system. For Fidler, it was your cable television box and, if you were on the move, digital kiosks of some sort. For Murdoch and Jobs, it’s the iTunes Store.

As for branded content, that’s what The Daily is all about. It’s on but not of the Internet, so you won’t be able to search for individual stories or find links to Daily content on aggregators like Google News or the Huffington Post. It’s a discrete, branded product, and you will either buy it (for 99 cents a week) or you won’t.

Will it work? As I told Chris Lefkow of Agence France-Presse, it will probably enjoy some modest success, but I can’t see it truly taking off. There’s nothing you can get from The Daily that you can’t get somewhere else for free.

A lot of news organizations are experimenting with paid-content models right now, but all of them envision remaining more or less open to the great conversation that the Internet has fostered. The Daily, by contrast, is straight out of 1994.

Interestingly enough, Fidler tells the Poynter Institute that he loves The Daily:

My first impression is very positive. Team Murdoch has done what I’ve always hoped newspapers would do with their tablet editions — create an interactive hybrid of print and Web that is visually rich and enjoyable to read.

So does Slate’s Jack Shafer, with reservations.

Personally, I would love a high-quality (which is to say, non-Murdoch) digital news service that looked like The Daily but that wasn’t cut off from the Web. If that’s where, say, the New York Times is eventually going with its tablet apps, then that is something I’d truly find exciting.

The Daily? I wish Rupe and Steve well, but I’m I don’t plan on becoming a customer.

My iPad lust runneth over

In my latest for the Guardian, I finally admit that I get a thrill up my leg every time I visit the Apple store and hold an iPad.

A corrupt proposal to save radio

The news in this Ars Technica story is so nutty that, frankly, I was reluctant to pass it on until I saw it in this morning’s New York Times. Yes, there are occasions when Media Nation still likes its MSM confirmation.

In case you haven’t heard, your friends at the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) have worked out a scheme that would require cell phones, personal digital assistants and other handheld devices to include FM radio.

This mind-boggling federal mandate would be part of a grand bargain under which broadcasters would pay performance royalties, ending an exemption that goes back to the earliest days of radio.

Nate Anderson of Ars Technica reports that the Consumer Electronics Association — yet another lobbying group, although in this case on the side of sanity — is “incandescent with rage.” In the Times, Joseph Plambeck writes that, according to phone-makers, smartphones that include FM chips will be bigger and chew through batteries more quickly.

More to the point, who wants radio on their smartphones? The only reason radio is still hanging on is that the ubiquitous, wireless Internet hasn’t come to your car yet. The idea that Congress could go along with this corrupt scheme to save a dying technology is somehow depressingly unsurprising. In a world of Pandora and streaming Internet audio, no one needs FM (or AM) radio.

I would love to see Steve Jobs frog-marched out of Apple headquarters for selling an iPhone without an FM chip. It would be great publicity for him.

If nothing else, this outrageous story should put the lie to the notion that large corporate interests care about free enterprise. When you think about how gingerly news executives have approached the idea of government subsidies for journalism, it’s quite remarkable that another segment of the media industry thinks nothing about demanding a federal bailout for its archaic, unwanted business.

Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons and republished here under a Creative Commons license.