Elizabeth Spiers

journalist & digital media expert

SpiersList: VR & The Insurrection, Peter Thiel & Gawker, Miscellaneous Things.

[From my semi-regular newsletter:]

This is a bit of a format change, but this edition of SpiersList is mostly just some light updates and a couple of announcements:

GAWKER / PETER THIEL / RELEVANT SCRIBBLING

I’ve written some things lately, mostly about the Gawker/Peter Thiel situation. The first was a piece on Medium, titled “On Gawker and Peter Thiel” on the potential repercussions of Thiel’s pursuit of Gawker for entrepreneurs. And later, after it was announced that Gawker was filing for bankruptcy, on whether there should be a death penalty for media companies. (To be clear, I  don’t think that bankruptcy necessarily means death. But a billionaire with a grudge who’s willing to endlessly finance litigation that will the cost the company money to defend itself, regardless of whether the suits are legitimate, probably does.) Interestingly, the head of the publication that commissioned the piece wrote a rebuttal, calling me a crybaby SJW and Gawker a homophobic cesspool, which would probably be news to its openly gay owner. I was unfamiliar with her up to this point, but my impression post-Googling is that her moral high ground is somewhere below sea level. And I’m guessing she’s annoyed about this. So it goes.  

THE INSURRECTION, VIRTUAL REALITY, and BEHAVIORAL ANALYTICS

We were quiet about this when we launched, but it seems like things are moving faster than we anticipated, so now seems as good a time as any to talk about The Insurrection’s long game, which is making a deep bet on VR/AR/MR. We’re developing a boutique research practice around the topic and doing some qualitative and quantitative research for companies in the space and brands that want to get into it, and also building out proprietary research products that we’ll sell via subscription. We did a test engagement a couple of weeks ago with Cody Brown’s new company, IRL, conducting and filming exit interviews with participants in a Roomscale event in Brooklyn, and there were some great findings.

One surprise: Everyone we interviewed had strong intent to purchase (in this case HTC’s Vive HMD and relevant peripherals.) When asked about an acceptable price point, people who were unaware of pricing for the headset said they were willing to pay $800 – $1,000 for it–considerably higher than current retail pricing and overall ASPs for HMDs–and there were a couple of outliers in the $2000 range.

We’re also looking to develop a VR analytics product that uses biometrics to measure and allow developers to model user behavior, and potentially define engagement for brands and advertisers. It is of course waaaaaaay early for that, but we’d rather be early than late. So I’m raising a small friends and family convertible round to fund runway and allow us to spec out the product while I recruit a technical lead.

Lastly, we’ll be launching a stand-alone publication on Medium entirely about VR in July. I believe content marketing done well is far more engaging and cost-efficient than traditional ads, so I’m putting my money where my mouth is. There Is Only R will be less about technical aspects of VR than consumer experience, and we’ll publish stories about how VR is being used and where its longer term potential lies. Interested contributors can email me at espiers@theinsurrection.com

Also: if you haven’t done full immersion VR and want to experience the whole shebang, tickets are now available for The Void’s Ghostbusters Dimension experience at Madame Tussaud’s. The shows are only 15 minutes long but it’s more than enough to give you a sense of why it’s so exciting. In the meantime:

FOLLOW US

On Twitter @insurrectionco

On Facebook facebook.com/insurrectionco

 

On Peter Thiel and Gawker

My inbox and timelines have been flooded all day with Peter Thiel/Gawker related posts and emails, and below are some unadulterated thoughts — in no particular order, and replete with typos.

The censorship-via-lawyer problem is what most people are talking about right now, and rightly so. The notion that Thiel or any one percenter could wage a war of attrition against a media outlet with the intent of destroying it for slights real or perceived should be horrifying to anyone who believes that freedom of the press is a necessary condition for an open society where corruptions of power can and should be exposed. But as someone who (for the second time in my career) is operating as an entrepreneur and not a journalist, my first thought on reading the Forbes article this morning was unrelated to journalism.

My first thought was that this must make any entrepreneurs working with Thiel a bit nervous.

The whole situation reads like the plotline from an Evelyn Waugh novel — if Waugh had lived long enough to be exposed to two of our most American of cultural exports: professional wrestling and grainy sex tapes. You have Thiel biding his time for ten years, assembling a legal team, looking for as many opportunities to sue Gawker as possible, and then moving forward with the legal equivalent of a nuclear assault that would be financially implausible without Thiel’s extraordinary levels of wealth and Gavin Belson-y inclination to utterly destroy his enemies. And then you have Gawker, which has been, to put it charitably, inconsistent in the way it defines what is and isn’t newsworthy and invariably tends to be defined by its occasional bad judgment or bad taste rather than its occasional admirable displays of bravery or willingness to cover abuses of power and hypocrisy.

Which sometimes pains me as the founding editor of Gawker, though when I was writing it (2002–2003), it was a very different site. It was New York-centric, far less celebrity focused, and I wasn’t publishing sex tapes. If anything, I probably would have paid good money not to ever have to think about Hulk Hogan’s sex life. (And there have been stories Gawker has done that I wouldn’t have. I thought the Conde Nast CFO story was appalling.) My era of Gawker was mostly interested in insider media stuff, and even then, it just wasn’t that scandalous.

But this new situation disturbs me even without my connection to Gawker.

On the one hand, you have to admire Thiel’s sheer and apparently unending determination to make Denton and Gawker pay for coverage he didn’t like — it’s Olympic level grudge-holding. But the retribution is incredibly disproportionate in a way that seems almost unhinged. It would be hard to argue that Thiel was materially damaged by Gawker’s coverage in the way that he’s now trying to damage Gawker. His personal finances haven’t been destroyed and even the most egregious things Gawker has written haven’t put literally everyone who works for Thiel out of a job. (What did Lifehacker ever do to Peter Thiel?)

Even if Thiel wants to argue that Owen Thomas’s 2007 notorious “Peter Thiel is Totally Gay, People” post had a cataclysmically negative emotional toll for him, trying to destroy the entire business via abuse of the U.S. legal system still seems so epic in its vindictiveness that I couldn’t help but wonder whether this kind of asymmetrical reaction is just part and parcel of what you can expect in Thiel’s orbit generally, if you choose to do business with him.

I honestly don’t know if that’s the case. I hope it’s not. I’ve never met Thiel, though I do get invited to his Dialog conference every year, so it’s conceivable that we’re in similar orbits at least some of the time. And I never go to the conference, but admittedly not for any lack of interest. Thiel has been described to me by mutual friends as brilliant and mercurial, and brilliant/mercurial is, well… kind of my type. (Ask Nick Denton, who could also be described that way.) And he would have been someone I’d have been curious to meet, in part because I am convinced that he’s smart, provocative, and thinks in a very long term way about big thorny problems.

But there’s interesting-fun-mercurial and there’s the kind of mercurial where you start to worry about being anywhere near the blast radius when the person blows up, for of being completely incinerated — maybe even unintentionally. And that’s where I wonder what he’s like as an investor in situations where he’s actively involved. If you have a disagreement with him, is the result a reasonable adjudication of the conflict, or is there always a possibility that even small things could result in total annihilation?

And because I know there’s someone somewhere reading this and thinking “well, what the fuck is wrong with total annihilation when someone screws you over?”, here’s what I’d say: there’s a reason why proportionality is an important concept in the ethics of warfare and I think there’s a parallel here. I don’t want to go into Just War Theory/jus en bello rules of engagement or whether it’s a morally correct military doctrine, but if we didn’t largely hew to it, we could easily end up in a “because we can” cycle of foreign policy that allows wealthy powerful nations to catastrophically and relentlessly attack weaker ones for minor offenses. Disproportionate response facilitates tyranny.

And maybe Thiel thinks that “because I can” total annihilation is appropriate. He is, after all, backing a Presidential frontrunner who views “because I can” as a overriding personal and professional ethos that justifies all manner of morally questionable “spirit of the law” violations.

Maybe Thiel exhibits the same kind of gleeful nihilism. Again, I don’t know. But as someone who will likely be fundraising next year for an analytics product that’s squarely in Thiel’s wheelhouse, these are the questions I was thinking about this morning, in addition to the obvious First Amendment issues. As an entrepreneur: how would I feel about working with someone who would do this?

I would like to think that I would know more about whether this sort of thing is typical of Thiel’s behavior because there would be enough evidence of it one way or the other in tech press. But I don’t think there would be. A lot of self-censoring happens in the tech industry because people fear blowback — and in a way that I haven’t experienced in finance or publishing. Entrepreneurs genuinely worry that capital markets won’t be accessible to them if they express any kind of criticism, or talk about the bad things that happen in the industry. (I am not of that opinion, obviously, but as the former CTO of a big tech co told me a couple of weeks ago with a bit of an eyeroll, “you’re not normal anyway, Spiers.”)

Another factor: I think Thiel aside, tech press is largely fawning toward successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and mostly unintentionally. Journalists who haven’t worked in tech themselves are sometimes genuinely and sincerely enamored with the promise of what they’re looking at and are so dazzled that they fail to ask the questions they should. Some of them are lazy and it’s always easier as a journalist to write the glowing lightweight story, where no one’s going to press you to nail down the facts and you won’t get any blowback from sources or subjects. Ultimately, this has created a sense of entitlement in the industry where denizens of Silicon Valley expect the media to actively support them and any negative portrayals are met with real anger and resentment, even when they’re 100% accurate. And it’s never the media’s job to support the industry — that’s PR. It’s the media’s job to cover it, the good and the bad. But if you’re not used to being covered, and that would describe 99% of the tech industry, the scrutiny can be uncomfortable.

Even comic scrutiny. I’m floored at how many of my colleagues vociferously hate the HBO show, Silicon Valley, because they view it as an indictment of their career choices and take it very personally, seemingly oblivious to the fact that satire by definition seeks to caricature the negative — ideally in the hopes that making it more prominent and pointing out the absurdities will result in some improvement. Silicon Valley doesn’t say that everything in Silicon Valley is horrible and corrupt. It says that this is what the downside of a boom looks like, and sometimes it can be horrible and corrupt, and sometimes it’s just hilarious.

I think when Valleywag was good, it did that, too, and there’s a place for that kind of coverage. I don’t think outing a tech executive serves that purpose, but if you write down the entire value of the Gawker properties on the basis of their worst posts, you fail to appreciate what it does that’s good and why that kind of journalism is necessary.

I certainly wouldn’t expect Thiel to appreciate that under the circumstances, but I also wonder if he knows what kind of signal completely firebombing Gawker sends. I’m know it’s satisfying to send an epic Don’t Fuck With Me message when you’re angry, but looking at it from an entrepreneur’s perspective, it’s hard not to look at the situation and read the message as, I Have No Sense of Proportionality and Might Go Completely Apeshit On You For The Slightest Infraction, Or If Godforbid We Just Have A Simple Misunderstanding.

It seems unreasonable to me. But then I’m not the kind of person who shows up with a gun when what the enemy really deserves is a good solid wedgie.

New Venture! Here comes The Insurrection.

From my newsletter:

The last time I sent out SpiersList, I was working on a new site with Flavorpill called Everup, and quite a lot has happened since then. (See here. Or listen to Dan Maccarone’s Story in a Bottle podcast.)

And now I’m starting something new. It’s partly a continuation of what I’ve been doing for over a decade: launching new digital products and helping them grow, with a couple of new twists.

This week we’re launching The Insurrection, an agency and media lab we’re describing as a creative and research shop for revolutionary brands. (There’s an unwritten rule that boutique agencies have to sound like ominously named indie bands, and besides, who doesn’t want to co-opt The Insurrection?) Our [very, very temporary] site is at www.theinsurrection.com.

WHAT WE DO

Our specialities are branded content and research, broadly. And we’ll be incubating our own digital products internally both for our own use and as prototypes of what we can do for clients.

Branded Creative 

On the branded creative side, we offer A to Z execution for new launches, from ideation and hiring to product development and monetization. We also help with audience development, SEO, and where applicable, one-off custom publishing. And the process doesn’t stop after launch. We also work with clients to develop ancillary channels and products, from video, to custom bots and social products, to offline integrations.

Research

Philosophically, we believe in both quantitative and qualitative approaches, and our research unit ensures that everything we do is backed by data as well as what we’ve learned from experience working with a wide variety of clients, from Fortune 500 companies to seed stage startups. On the more traditional side, we offer standard research services: focus groups, surveys, polling, IDIs, and even (*GASP*) dial testing. But our sweet spot is digital, so we’re particularly excited about launch/prototype research, native ad effectiveness measurement, online reader panels and newly emergent methodologies and technologies in the neuromeasurement space.

Our Laboratory, Autonomous Microventures

Lastly, we’ll be incubating some new things ourselves to ensure that what we’re producing for clients exceeds expectations and give us the opportunity to leverage our internal knowledge to develop products that are exciting and sustainable even outside of branded executions. We believe this model works particularly well because our agency business creates a pipeline for scalable products we develop in house while the lab feeds the agency side by functioning as a prototyping mechanism for experimental products we’d make available to brands.

Secret Menu Items

Lastly: There are some things we’ve offered historically that we’d continue to offer on an as-requested basis, but probably won’t advertise–among them, executive branding. This includes content strategy for individuals and ghostwriting, as well as coaching and early stage-startup advisory.

We also do recruiting, hiring, and training for existing clients as part of our execution strategy. If you don’t have in-house talent for projects we’re working on together, we can help with that.

OUR TEAM

My two primary partners are people I’ve worked with for over a decade, at multiple companies. Michael Woodsmall is The Insurrection’s Chief of Staff, and is a former managing editor of The New York Observer, co-creator of Thrillist’s Supercompressor, and co-founder of The Inertia Mountain, an adventure sports site. Michael and I have worked together on several new launches, and his versatility and adaptability continue to impress me.

The Insurrection’s Director of Research is Peter Feld, PhD, a veteran of both Condé Nast (where he was the Director of Custom Research) and many, many political campaigns as a pollster for Peter Hart, Celinda Lake, and Global Strategy Group. (Ask him about Dukakis ‘88. Or Tsongas ‘92. Or Teen Vogue‘03.) Peter also has extensive writing and editorial experience—he was also one of the editors I hired at The New York Observer—plus a long history of helping brands, publishers, and politicians strategize using actionable data, and he’ll be doing that for us, too.

WHERE WE ARE

Physically: our offices are in the Flatiron/Nomad area: 1140 Broadway, 10th floor. We’re sharing space with Alley Interactive, a development firm for publishers that I worked with at the Observer.
Online: www.theinsurrection.com

In terms of process: I’m currently raising a small friends and family round (a rolling convertible) to give us a bit of runway and cash to prototype a specific research product. There’s still some room, and interested parties can contact me at espiers@gmail.com.

We’ll also be doing a newsletter for The Insurrection that covers developments in our areas of expertise. It won’t launch for a few weeks, but if you want to go ahead and sign up, you can subscribe at the bottom of the site.

In the meantime, you can follow us on Twitter @insurrectionco and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/insurrectionco .

New Venture TK and some gratuitous lists.

I alluded to this earlier, but I’m starting a new company that I probably should have started several years ago. The Everup experience, for better or worse, clarified a lot of things for me, re: my own motivations and interests–and where I think digital is going. I tend to use writing and list making to work out arguments and refine my own thinking and have done that since childhood.  (I don’t think this will surprise anyone, but I was a weird kid.)

So here’s a variation:

THINGS I LIKE (and want to continue doing):

  • Working on growth-oriented businesses. I’ve learned the hard way that this means working on businesses that are properly capitalized. But seeing something really take off is one of the most exciting things for me, and it’s worth more to me than security.
  • Developing new revenue streams. I’m a shameless pragmatist and I like creative unconventional solutions. Revenue development appeals to both of those qualities.
  • Calculated risk taking. Life is short, and I’m naturally analytical. I love a well placed long shot.
  • Figuring out how to make a product better serve a specific audience. I like research more than anyone I know who works in media. Maybe it’s a vestige of my short career as an analyst, but I want to know everything I can about a potential audience. (Or customer, in non-media parlance.)
  • Hiring and mentoring first time managers. I never expected that I would enjoy this, to be honest, nor that I would be reasonably competent at it. But I’ve coached a lot of people who’ve gone on to do great things and that’s one of the most quietly rewarding and satisfying things I can think of.
  • Creative ideation. I think everyone enjoys this, so I’m not going to pretend it’s unusual. But I am one of the few people I know who doesn’t want to kill myself when someone suggests a formal “brainstorming” meeting–though I probably go about it in a non-traditional fashion.
  • Steep learning curves. I like using my brain. (Or what’s left of it after years of working on the Internet and non-stop bombardment by notifications, news alerts, emails, texts, gifs, snaps, tweets, bleep bleep chime click POOP EMOJI.)

THINGS I DO NOT LIKE (and want to avoid ever doing again)

  • Running a business that’s entirely dependent on a declining and regressive form of revenue generation (display ads, for example).
  • Working for or with entrepreneurs and owners who value control over expansion. (There’s nothing inherently wrong with running a small biz, but I’m not interested in it personally.)
  • Maintenance jobs. You could offer me a ton of cash and a fancy title and permanent tenure and if the tradeoff is that I have to run a business that won’t evolve or materially grow, I’d turn it down because stasis depresses me.
  • Being in meetings where people use the word “learnings” to explicate findings. But I’m probably going to have to suck it up on that one. I don’t think “learnings” is going away. It’s marketing jargon syphilis; we just have to learn to live with it and hope it doesn’t destroy our brains.

Podcast!

I’m the guest interviewee for Dan Maccarone’s Story in A Bottle podcast this week.** Topics/proper nouns covered, in no particular order: Spanish wine, high growth startups, Gawker v. Hulk Hogan, why I hate maintenance jobs (and display ads), Everup, The New York Observer, equity agreements, brand journalism, Donald Trump, Alabama, SPY magazine, why no one has any job stability, TheSquare.com, curiosity, medical devices, the Barkley Marathons, the 55 Broad building, why writing 12 posts a day 7 days a week is unsustainable for a single human being, Return Path, the Bulgarian Bar, transparency, Frank Quattrone, why journalists need to understand how their industry works on the business side, Dealbreaker, data demagoguery, snark, Suck.com, shoestring budgets, kittens and Taylor Swift, failure (my own, other people’s), why there is no good time to start a company–and no bad time either.  You can listen here.

** We did the interview a few weeks ago.

Flavorpill is hiring! (And I won’t be there.)

I’ve worked with Flavorpill off and on for over a decade and spent the last four years as their editorial director on a part time basis. So when we began talking about Everup, I felt like I was working with partners I know well and trust. We hadn’t hammered out equity issues yet, but figured we’d get there.

You can probably guess where this is going: we did not get there. Flavorpill’s CEO wanted half the company and a $500K convertible note on top of that, and I don’t feel like I can say yes to those terms. I can’t justify it to myself or potential investors and I don’t believe I could raise money with the resulting cap table. So I basically have to walk away and start over.

The version of Everup that I wanted to create needs funding because it’s far more expansive that what it is now and isn’t just a content play. That said, I believe the version of Everup that exists now can enjoy some nice organic growth and makes sense as a Flavorpill property.

But personally, I’m not interested in organic growth. At this point in my career and life, I need to work on things that have potential for fast, explosive growth.

So shame on me for not insisting that we hammer these issues out in the beginning. I should have done that, and would have done that with pretty much any partner but Flavorpill. (I also wanted to do Everup so badly, I rushed into it.) But sometimes these things have to be learned the hard way.

The upshot is that Flavorpill is keeping the site, and I’m staying on till the end of April to help them find an editor for it and do what I can to help my colleagues (all of whom I’ve enjoyed working with over the years) transition. Everup’s managing editor, Michael Woodsmall, will also be leaving with me. Michael has worked with me on several site launches and dropped everything and moved from the west coast to work with me on Everup. So we’re going to start from scratch again.

In the meantime, I need an editor and a social media manager for Everup. If you’re interested, or know someone who might be, you can email me at elizabeth@everup.com. The job description for the social media editor is here and the editor in chief listing will be up shortly.

Condé Nast and digital media

Ravi Somaiya has a report in the Times today about internal shifting inside of Condé Nast and some of the business challenges they’re facing. Key graf:

In a separate interview, Mr. Sauerberg confirmed that Condé Nast took in over $1 billion in revenue in 2015. The company said that while its print business, spread across nearly 20 magazines, remained profitable, revenue there had been flat since 2012. Its digital business is up nearly 70 percent over the same period but that component, as with virtually every other legacy media company, represents a much smaller percentage of overall revenue, which has declined in recent years.

If you haven’t spent any time in or covering CN, you’d probably have the following question: Why can’t CN make digital work? Everybody understands why print is flat (except maybe a few holdouts at CN, to be fair). But this is a company with a lot of smart editorial people. What are they doing wrong?

I’m going to shamelessly speculate**:

If you look at the political structure of CN and the reporting lines, all editorial lines report to Anna Wintour. And when I say editorial, I also mean branded content, etc. All business lines report to Sauerberg and other CN chiefs with print backgrounds. And let’s just say they’re not averse to micromanagement.

Wintour is a brilliant editor and creative director, but you’d be hardpressed to find any evidence that she–or anyone else at CN really understand the digital business and specifically, how it differs radically from print. Too many traditional media companies think print or broadcast expertise translates directly to digital, because on some level, in the back of their heads, they assume digital is easier. Or that it should be–lower barriers to entry, etc.

And digital is different, not easier. Taking a print person and throwing them at a digital problem is no different from taking the head of NBC News and making her the editor in chief of the New Yorker, or vice versa. These skills sets are not transitive.

Digital is different in the way it is consumed, and the way it is monetized and it’s not clear that CN even really thinks about digital except in a way that pairs those elements with print analogues. It’s heavily reliant on display and despite the fact that they have the resources to develop and deploy better ad tech, they don’t. They don’t do much in the way of integrated creative services, experiential media, etc.–and what they do manage to execute is not exactly cutting edge. Inasmuch as they’re aware that their media will largely be consumed outside of a web browser, you don’t see it translating to best in class mobile apps or cross-platform experiences that really engage their readers or even better, build new audiences.

And this is partly because they still think of their brands as 99% words and photos on a page. But here’s a question: what does Vogue look like if you can’t read it in print and you can’t just go to Vogue.com? What does Vogue mean anymore without that? Are they thinking about this? As an institution? Because those of us who work in indie publishing think about this all the time. What do our publications (and content) look like for users who see them primarily on social platforms? In a message on Slack? As part of an offline experience? And how do you monetize while leveraging third-party distribution systems you don’t control? How do you build consistent engagement when the media consumption experience is so fragmented? How do you then measure than engagement across the reader’s entire experience of your brand?

I know there are going to be some people at CN reading that and saying YES, SO AND SO IS WORKING ON THAT RIGHT NOW. I’m saying that no one at CN is thinking about these things with any urgency, but if there’s anyone there over the age of 25 who really understands the implications of Snapchat and has any actual decision making power, I would be surprised. Right now any smart digital people CN does have report to people who can’t decipher what they’re looking at, and they don’t have the autonomy to really do their jobs. So let’s rephrase the question: are the people who may be thinking about and working on those problems people who have any capability to get anything done politically? Can they work without being stifled by legacy concerns? Are they properly resourced? My guess is no.

Which is why I suggested earlier on Twitter that maybe it makes sense for CN to acquire a small agency that does 360 degree executions including great branded content instead of trying to make its existing talent base do things it can’t. (I would also suggest something that I have been suggesting every year I’ve worked in media: take R&D seriously and resource it like you’re aiming for growth and not just looking for some quick technical fix to get you out of a rapidly collapsing sinkhole. )

Of course, acquisitions are like organ transplants. The host’s first inclination is always going to be to reject the transplant on some level, but you can mitigate that. (Keep the shop out-of-house, and give it some autonomy. Don’t try to integrate it to death, just use it to do more unconventional executions and to educate people internally about how the process works and what the competition really looks like. Organ transplants: risky, but they save lives!) It’s also something I suggest as a near last resort. I don’t think that CN politics are amenable to bringing individuals in house and expecting material changes–at least not without the buy in of people at the top, who are still very print minded, even if they’re trying their hardest not to be. At some point in the future, digital is going to be their core business. Not a complement, and not a hedge. Core. Maybe not tomorrow, but when it is, who’s going to be responsible for making it work? Anna Wintour? I doubt it.***

** Though it’s not entirely speculative; I covered CN as a media reporter for a while and did some consulting to Bob Sauerberg’s then department on a tablet mag when the iPad first came out.

***I hope she proves me wrong. If big publishers learn how to do these things, I think it’s better for all of us.

How Not to Pitch an Editor, v. 9824792387429387429

Every year or two I write the same article (or blog post or whatever), and it’s usually about specific media properties I’m editing or launching or, in some cases, have only some marginal involvement with. The article is always directed to freelancers who are pitching stories to that publication and do it in the worst, most offensive, time-wasting way. (Here’s my Observer version.)

And I cleaned out my inbox today, so one unlucky but deserving freelancer got the following email after BCCing me on a publication-inappropriate blanket pitch, twice. (The blanket email ended with “Give [me] a chance,” and the freelancer is not a kid with no experience, which would make it more forgivable.)

Hi [redacted] – No self-respecting editor is going to assign you a story if it’s clear that you’re pitching multiple publications at once and BCCing everyone on your list. I don’t normally even respond when freelancers do this, but you’re the third offender in my inbox today.

Your pitch needs to be targeted to the pub you’re pitching and it needs to be clear that you read that publication. Why should I (or any busy editor) give you a chance if you’re not willing to do the minimum amount of work?

I don’t know why this is so hard to understand. All you really have to do–and I say this as someone who started in media as a freelancer myself–is imagine for five seconds what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a crappy irrelevant pitch that even more insultingly, was sent to 1000 people besides yourself. It basically says:
– I don’t read your publication, or if I do, I can’t be bothered to frame my pitch in the context of what you’re doing
– I don’t know if you’re the right person to pitch, but I’m happy to clog your inbox JUST IN CASE!
– I think you’re so desperate for stories from freelancers generally that you’d accept something that was shopped to every outlet in existence–at the same time.

The irony here is that the emails I got today were for a publication where I advise editorially but don’t assign articles for. That’s a somewhat forgivable mistake and if I got a real pitch, tailored to the pub, from someone who bothered to do the research and wasn’t spamming me and half the media industry, I’d forward it to the right person because it would seem like a good faith mistake.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

So here are some omnibus guidelines, freelancers:
– Know the publication you’re pitching. Make it obvious to the editor that you do, perhaps by mentioning similar coverage the pub has done, writing the pitch in the style of the pub, etc.
– Make some (tiny! cursory!) attempt to figure out who to pitch. If you spam everyone who has an email on the masthead, it’s not as if they won’t know you’re doing that. People talk to their colleagues. And when the office manager forwards you the same pitch wanting to know where it goes, you really look like an asshole.
– Do not mass email editors. No one you’d actually want to write for is so desperate that they’d take something that’s been shopped everywhere.
– Do not call with a pitch. Ever. It’s inappropriately disruptive. (And it makes you look like a technophobe.)

And some next-level guidelines if the pitch gets to the discussion level:
– If you get a pitch rejected and see the same topic covered in the pub, it doesn’t mean that the pub stole your pitch. You’d be floored at the number of times I’ve gotten pitches for stories about things our staffers would cover and are covering (I’d like to a profile of Bernie Sanders!) and then when the obvious, have-to-do-it profile of Sanders comes out, the freelancer accuses the pub of “stealing the idea”. Then you have to tell the irate freelancer that they weren’t the only person who noticed that pour-over coffee was A Thing now, or that the snowstorm might have produced some hilarious behavior from people in the outer boroughs. Does idea stealing happen? I would guess so, occasionally. But in my 14 years of working in media, I’ve never personally seen it. I have seen a lot of freelancers pitching ideas other people also had.
– The more high-concept and/or voice-driven the piece, the more of it you’re going to have to write on spec to get it assigned by an editor you haven’t worked with before. If you don’t have exclusivity or a scoop or some level of expertise, you’re going to have to actually write more of the story to prove that it works and you can do it.

Pro-level: Ask upfront about payment terms and read your actual contracts. If the publication pays “net 60”, don’t call them in two weeks wanting to know where your check is. But I’m all for holding their feet to the fire on day 61, btw. But also understand that your editor doesn’t necessarily control the checkbook, and if the company is late, your editor is probably not the person being negligent or making a conscious decision to pay you later. With very few exceptions, they are going to be on your side in that situation, because only an unprofessional jerk would assign something, knowing or believing that the freelancer probably wouldn’t be paid or wouldn’t be paid in a reasonable period of time.

I had a freelancer at the Observer who had done work for the paper before I got there and who called up and practically threatened to kill my first child because the paper was late paying him. I had never even worked with this guy** and I was just as upset and infuriated that people weren’t being paid on time as he was, but he didn’t care about that, ignored my explanation that I did not actually manage cash flow for the company; that the accounting department told me they had just processed the check; and told me that he’d call my boss and get me fired. I explained to him, diplomatically, that my boss was precisely the reason why he hadn’t been paid on time, and happily gave him my boss’s telephone number, should he feel inclined to complain to the right person.

I was sympathetic to that guy’s situation, but I will never, ever work with him (and ironically, didn’t in the first place!) Know where your bread is buttered–and isn’t.

Another pro-tip, same level: if you need a payment expedited, that’s sometimes negotiable, especially for a something that’s particularly valuable to the publication. But you have to negotiate it up front. (I also tell publications I advise that there’s a premium for paying faster. Most people are willing to do things for lower fees if you can pay faster than industry standard. Even freelance writers understand the time value of money, and reliability is just as important for publications as it for freelancers.)

So end of rant. But I’m just going to auto-send this link to the next TK/infinity number of people who inappropriately spam me with pitches.

** And FYI, I approved all payments to freelancers that were outstanding the day I got the job. One high profile columnist repaid me for making sure he got paid immediately by resigning publicly in the New York Post, having never spoken to or worked with me at all. I’m sure it made him feel good to publicly tweak the owner of the paper, but it also ensured that I’d never work with him in the future. I was collateral damage in that situation, but it doesn’t excuse the behavior.

On New York Values

I grew up in a small town in Alabama (Wetumpka, pop. 6,528), and lived there until I went to college at Duke in 1995. The area was and is overwhelmingly conservative, not very diverse and most of the people I grew up with would self-identify as evangelical Christians. (My family was Southern Baptist.)

I had a fairly happy childhood and have many fond memories of friends, family and the teachers and mentors who helped me develop into my adult self. We were taught to value family, work hard, be polite.

I went to college in the South, enrolling at the only school I applied to. I had a partial scholarship and a lot of financial aid. I’m still paying off the loans. (Would be nice if they gave me a discount when I go back to talk to students, hint, hint.) By my count, there were fewer than 10 people in my graduating class from Alabama and more than 250 from the New York metro area. Duke was a southern school in geography only, and the students were, for the most part, incredibly well-off. I grew up in a working class community–my dad was a local lineman for Southern Company–and any idea I had before Duke about what truly wealthy people were like was quickly dismantled, for better and for worse, after four years there. On the upside, I had some culture shock going from Alabama to Duke, but none from Duke to New York.

So I’m very familiar with the heartland values that Ted Cruz thinks he’s representing: the far right constituency that’s still futilely fighting against gay marriage, equal pay for equal work for women, family leave, reproductive choice, and voter rights laws that don’t disenfranchise minority populations. Among other things.

Those people do exist and they’re just as real as the New Yorkers Ted Cruz thinks he’s talking about: the New York liberals who are pro-choice and support gay marriage.

RE: the latter, I should know; I am one. I would self-identify as a New York-based, pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage liberal. I’ve lived in New York for 16 years, which is only two years less than I lived in Alabama. We’re raising a child here, and our primary reason for doing so is that we want our kid to grow up in an area where almost no one thinks that people who are not white, not straight, not male, not economically well off, don’t deserve the same rights as people who are. I should note here that this is not everyone in the heartland, or even everyone who’s a conservative. But we all know who he’s talking about.

And certainly there are some bigots and elitist assholes in New York, too. But it’s a lot harder to maintain bigotries in a place where segregating yourself into little silos of people who are exactly like you is nearly impossible. By virtue of living here, you live and work with people who are racially diverse, economically diverse and have a range of gender and sexual identities. In fact, you live on top of them. You’re sandwiched in between them on the subway in the morning. You interact with a few thousand of them every single day.

And somehow we mostly get along. So I don’t worry that if my son turns out to be gay that it will be terrifying for him to come out of the closet, or that he’ll be threatened by the neighbors for having the temerity to be gay in public. I don’t worry that if we have a daughter and she happens to need the services of Planned Parenthood–where I purchased low-cost birth control for a year when I didn’t have health insurance–that she will be harassed by protesters en route to their facilities. I don’t worry that some theologically illiterate person will distort Biblical scripture to justify their own feelings that the poor deserve what they get (and that people on welfare deserve derision instead of help), that God frowns upon inter-racial relationships, that women always belong in the kitchen instead of the workplace, and are only self-actualized as wives and mothers. With the exception of harassment en route to Planned Parenthood (mostly because there are only two clinics in AL and the closest one was two hours away) I saw all of these things happen where I grew up, and I don’t want my son to be exposed to them.

We also live in a safe neighborhood where kids walk to school and pretty much the only people who have concealed carry permits are law enforcement officers. I don’t worry about my kid getting shot either.

But the irony here is that Cruz doesn’t even know his own party well, because it’s changing. Most Americans (in both parties) support gay marriage, so when he sneers at New York for doing so, he’s demonstrating not only his homophobia, but his own political stupidity. I predict that anyone still doing that in another generation is going to be completely unelectable to any major national office, and Cruz will have some regrets.

He may also have some regrets the next time he comes to New York with his hand out and Republican New Yorkers decide they don’t need to fund him. And Donald Trump is right about one thing (god, I hate saying that): nothing is more emblematic of New York values than the way the city pulled together after 9/11, an event that neocons love to cite to buttress their warmongering, and that New Yorkers wish they’d shut up about. After all, the terrorists didn’t target god-fearing people in small town heartland. They targeted liberal New Yorkers. Nothing raises the ire of a fundamentalist terrorist like a bunch of sexually liberated heathens who have the temerity to be successful and influential on the world stage.

All of that said, I’m sure if my son grew up in Alabama there would be some good values he’d pick up, too. I’d like to think that there were things I learned growing up that shaped my character in ways that were positive. But if I have to choose, I’ll take New York values any day over the particular strain of heartland values that Cruz is talking about.

Okay, Internet: make me breakfast!

I made a New Year’s resolution to avoid carbs and sugar before 6pm and the toughest thing is figuring out breakfast. (VB6 worked for me for a while and I still do it every now and then, but tend to feel more energetic and satiated during the day if I don’t totally rule out animal protein.)

Some of this is because the Western idea of breakfast is pretty much either pastry/sweets/cereal-oriented or some type of egg dish. Years ago I spent a couple of months in Cambodia and Thailand and enjoyed eating the same things for breakfast that I’d eat for lunch–noodle dishes, spicy salads. I’d just do that now, but sadly, my favorite salad places aren’t open yet, and between managing a baby until his nanny arrives and trying to get out the door as fast as possible, I’m terrible about preparing food at home during the week.

But I’m also short on creative ideas that would be easy to put together and portable (given my perpetual quest to head out the door as quickly as I can). I’m also ambivalent about eggs, and shamelessly and spitefully buy my friend Bryan’s idea that American breakfast is a construct invented by Big Egg–the obviously pervasive and all-powerful egg lobby.

I think my palate is no different at breakfast than it is the rest of the day: I like spicy things, garlicky things, and sour vinegar-y things. So of course I love authentic Thai food, Sriracha on everything, and these things, which I could eat a barrel of. I would also love those flavors in a breakfast dish.

So what should I start making for breakfast? (What does Joe Weisenthal eat for breakfast? I feel like he would have similar protein and spice requirements.)

This is where we are, Internet. Blogging about breakfast.