Elizabeth Spiers

journalist & digital media expert

DIY Your Own Indie Pub

Quick link: I had a long conversation on Friday with an acquaintance about what it takes to start a lightweight indie pub and pointed her to ModelViewCulture co-founder Amelia Greenhall’s post “Start Your Own Brand: Everything I Know About Starting Collaborative Feminist Publications.” It’s comprehensive but digestible. Not everything is strictly necessary (working outside of your home for example, is a “nice to have” but not a necessity in my opinion) but it covers all the bases, and is largely applicable to any kind of indie publication, collaborative feminist or no. The business models might differ a bit if you’re a for-profit enterprise, but it’s a good setup for a low overhead operation.

I don’t think everyone should be an entrepreneur professionally, but I recommend doing something entrepreneurial at some point in your career. It can be deeply satisfying, and running something you own is very different from having any sort of traditional job, even if it’s one you love.

How Do You Feel?

When women who’ve had kids find out I’m pregnant, this is the first question they ask. It’s appreciated, because after you read small libraries’ worth of pregnancy literature about the myriad of things that can go wrong and the damage the whole process can and does inflict on your body–all with the caveat “it may be a little uncomfortable and possibly life-threatening for you, but don’t worry, the baby is fine“–you start to feel a little dehumanized. Sure, you feel like death warmed over, but congratulations, lady, you’re doing fine fulfilling your primary role in life, which is physical incubator. All of these things that would be taken seriously as health issues were you not pregnant (or that would at least engender a modicum of empathy) are things that “can happen”, and the general prescription is to suck it up.

Of course, hearing that the baby is fine is wonderful, and as an eternal pessimist I’m pleasantly surprised at every test that comes back reporting that our son appears to be completely healthy and normal. I attribute this to my own caveman-like mystification that my body is capable of incubating another human and even seems to know what it’s doing. Or at any rate, it’s muddling through enough that the baby is developing properly so far.

But I will say this, five months in: if there were some alternate way to safely and healthily incubate a baby besides growing one in my uterus, I’d probably opt for it. I’m not convinced that we are so evolutionarily evolved that every part of this process is both necessary and beneficial, much less totally optimized. But I don’t think that’ll happen in my lifetime, so we’re back to suck it up, mama.

So here is how I feel: like crap a lot of the time. Less crappy than I did four weeks ago, when life consisted of minutes dragging by while I willed myself not to vomit–which is living in the moment in the worst sort of way. But the supposed second trimester return of energy, appetite, etc. isn’t really happening for me, which is apparently not that unusual. Non-stop nausea has been replaced by exciting new side effects–most recently, out of nowhere blood sugar drops and near blackouts that mercifully have not yet resulted in me bashing my skull against anything. Plus an assortment of other physical symptoms that I don’t even want to go into.

I don’t think my experience is that unusual, though I know plenty of women who had bliss-filled pregnancies with no morning sickness and normal if not surplus amounts of energy and no issues. But I’m struck by how taboo it is to just acknowledge that it’s not going that way for you. That frankly, it’s not very pleasant at all and you’re not particularly enjoying it. And I feel like I’ve dodged a lot of bullets so far. I didn’t have this, and don’t have this or this. I also have a supportive and empathetic husband who’s done his best to try to understand the essential weirdness and potential unpleasant ramifications of walking around all day with a live human being living in your body–and perhaps because he has the imagination to do so, says that he’s also very grateful that he will never ever have to do it himself.

But when other women have confessed to me that their pregnancies were difficult–and in more than one case, that they absolutely hated being pregnant–it’s always in whispered tones and with an air of apology. There’s a lot of cultural pressure to put on a happy face because why would anyone be less than ecstatic about this process, which so obviously ultimately results in … a baby!

The implication seems to be that if you don’t find pregnancy itself a wonderful experience that it’s somehow reflective of how you feel about the baby, or the responsibilities and implications of motherhood. Don’t find every minute bliss-filled and blessed? You must not want a child badly enough, or be grateful enough that you’re getting one.

There’s a bit of a cultural notion that women have to be martyrs to be good mothers. This is stupid and demeaning. Suffering is not inherently virtuous, and embracing it does not make you a better parent.**

As an adoptee, I’ll even go a bit further and say I don’t think physical pregnancy is necessary at all for healthy mother-child bonding. Maybe it creates pleasant memories for some people, but I don’t think that’s a given. And anecdotally, I don’t think my parents love me any less than my two brothers who were not adopted simply because they didn’t participate in my physical gestation. (Maybe this is a happy delusion on my part, but I genuinely believe it.)

So I’m just going to say it: I don’t like being pregnant. Most days I feel like I’m recovering from the flu after a two and a half month severe hangover. And I’m thrilled that we’re having a baby and grateful that he’s healthy. These things are not contradictory.

Shorter “how do you feel?”: like shit! And very excited! At the same time!

So here’s an offer: if you happen to be pregnant right now and it’s painful for you, feel free to email me and get it off your (probably recently and possibly painfully enlarged) chest. I will not view you as a walking incubator or imply that you should just suck it up. In my experience, just being able to say “I am not enjoying this” helps a tiny bit.

Pregnancy can also be very isolating and it’s good to know that you’re not alone when parts of it are difficult.

** As a lapsed Southern Baptist, I’m inclined to think this is a particularly Judeo-Christian notion: suffering is noble, character building, etc. But I’m inclined to agree with Meghan Daum and the Buddha: suffering is often pointless and should be avoided.

VIP (Very Important Plant) Update

Four months in: The money tree is still alive and I’ve only managed to kill one of the succulents. (Apparently, you have to water them more frequently when your radiator heat is drying out everything in the house, including yourself, your husband and your cat.)

plantsurvivors

On the matter of Weev vs. Kane

Update, January 20: Kane’s response is here. She acknowledges that she said some racist stuff while she was dating Weev, but dismisses her behavior on the basis that it was “irony” or “satire.” She also takes me to task for having the temerity to have an opinion about it, asserting that I’m jealous of her career, washed up, and obsessed with her, “relentlessly picking on her”. By which I suppose she means I last wrote about her for Matter six months ago and hadn’t given her another thought until a bunch of people emailed me the Breitbart piece two days ago, which is the actual reality of the situation. People who are gods in their own minds don’t always realize that they don’t figure nearly so prominently in the minds of others.

That said, I don’t think that suggesting that she has some ‘splainin to do re: racist behavior implies Team Weev or that it’s okay to harass her–though having an opinion about her in public is not harassment no matter how many times she calls it that.  For some perspective, it’s worth reading what the co-founder of Model View Culture has to say: Amelia Greenhall left MVC after four months of working with Kane and here she explains why. I contacted Greenhall when I was working on the Matter piece and she didn’t respond. When I asked Kane why Greenhall left, she said  “I think we just had a little bit different vision of the company and the time commitment that it would be around it,” implying I suppose that Greenhall wasn’t willing commit and Kane was. Greenhall now says that’s not true, and rightly points out that you can believe that MVC is aiming to do and generally does do good work (which I believe is true) and still have qualms with Kane and it is not some sort of de facto endorsement of Weev. There is third option.

****

I’m getting a bunch of emails about this piece by Weev on Breitbart–largely because I did a profile of Shanley Kane for Matter several months ago that ended up being less a profile than a sit-down and some analysis thanks to some controversy manufactured by the subject prior to publication. I emailed earlier to a couple of acquaintances:

FWIW, I trust Weev less than Shanley by an order of magnitude, but as I learned from unfortunate experience, she apparently considers lying a legitimate means to her various ends.

My hunch is that the truth is somewhere in between–not as bad as Weev portrays (and Weev is, let’s not forget, a self-proclaimed liar) but I’m sure she has some skeletons she’d rather not see dragged out of the closet. But if I were in her shoes, I’d address anything he’s saying that’s true and verifiable, or it’s going to undermine the good things she’s trying to do.

And everyone loves a creepy right-winger who repents and turns into a good liberal. Look at Arianna Huffington.

And I say that as someone who likes Arianna.

To contextualize the comment about lying: During the course of reporting that story, Kane claimed on Twitter that I had been harassing her family and friends, when I hadn’t contacted any of them–and in fact, at that point in the reporting process, didn’t know who they were. Then she claimed that I was harassing her, Tweeting “LEAVE ME ALONE” over and over again, apparently to convince followers that I was contacting her at that very moment, and had been, repeatedly and relentlessly.

All subjects are unreliable narrators, but there’s a difference between the unreliability inherent in anyone’s self-perception and unreliability introduced by intent to deceive. That said, in the annals of bad subject behavior, it’s not the worst I’ve experienced. But after that I had to assume it wasn’t the first time she’d made something up whole cloth in order to get what she wanted, and I think it probably lowers her moral high ground on other issues.

I should mention here that there’s a strain of militant activism that says lying is a legitimate tactic, ethically speaking, but I don’t subscribe to that. I work in an industry where making things up whole cloth gets you kicked out of the industry, probably for life. And my tolerance for being lied to myself is very low. I’d always rather know the truth, even if it’s ugly and uncomfortable.

But I don’t think that’s so much what’s at issue here. It’s more about whether it matters if she was a racist asshole two years ago, given what she’s trying to do now.

I’m inclined to think that it doesn’t as long as she continues in her current vein, working on behalf of women and minorities in tech–though it might make people of color understandably more hesitant to work with her, especially if she doesn’t offer a satisfactory explanation for it.

But I do think people are capable of changing their political stripes and overcoming their own bigotries. It happens more rarely than we’d all like, but it does happen.

So if some of what Weev is saying is true, I’d be interested in hearing from the subject–honestly–about what happened, how she came to the views she has now and what made her change her thinking. Not because some sort of mea culpa will make it all better, but if someone more reliable and reputable than Weev corroborates the details in the Breitbart story, I think she owes her supporters an explanation.

Grumpy Cat

james

James involuntarily parted with his testicles yesterday. NOT HAPPY ABOUT IT.

Sorry, buddy. This is the price you have to pay for three squares and a roof over your head. Luv u.

How to Be A Good Media Owner

Sarah Lacy has a piece up on Pando titled “The trait all media owners need (Hint: Tech moguls like Omidyar, Hughes and Williams don’t have it)“. At the risk of spoiling it–it’s worth reading the whole thing–she makes an argument that the tech moguls above have a problem with the confrontations that inevitably arise when you’re in the business of doing real journalism. Advertisers are not always going to be happy with what you publish. Subjects are not always going to be happy with what you publish. Journalism exists to uncover the truth–or as close as we can get to it, and the truth is not always convenient for the business side of the publication, or the owners, or even everyone who works on the editorial side.

It can be very difficult for owners (especially wealthy, well-connected ones) who aren’t accustomed to absorbing blowback from stories and editorial decisions that fulfill the mission of the publication, but create some inconveniences for them personally. This is especially true for first-timers who may not understand or appreciate the role journalism plays in free society, or may think that journalistic mission and ethics are dispensable if they get in the way of other perqs of ownership. If you view the publication you own as primarily a vehicle for your own personal and professional interests, don’t be surprised if the journalists you hire are not willing to consider themselves agents in the service of the same.  I think a lot of first-time owners learn this one the hard way. (If journalists wanted to work for the owner in a PR capacity, they’d work in PR. The hours are better and so is the pay.)

If you’re an experienced journalist and doing your job correctly, you will encounter conflict in the course of doing your job. You will be yelled at–in person, on the phone, in all caps emails–usually for simply doing your job. Someone who knows nothing about journalism will eventually malign your ethics, integrity, personality, intelligence, etc., and you will be subjected to grand sweeping statements about the corruption of the media by people who are angry that you’re not giving them the story they want to read. Subjects will call your boss to complain, will threaten to get you fired, threaten all sorts of things. This doesn’t happen all the time, but happens, and depending on your beat or specialty, with some frequency.

And it will not matter to the people screaming at you that you’re doing your job, and you’re doing it ethically and well, because in their view, it’s simply your job to deliver what they want regardless of whether it’s true or fair. This is an occupational hazard and the only way to escape it is to get out of journalism.

Eventually these sort of conflicts make their way up the masthead. The owner gets those same phone calls, emails and in-person confrontations. At which point, they have two choices, assuming the story is in fact accurate and fair: they can support the journalism of the publication they own, or they can throw you under the bus to make their own lives easier. Not surprisingly, the latter is a great way to lose the support of the newsroom and possibly end up with a raft of resignations.

Nick Denton isn’t the easiest person to work with (neither am I) but as an ex-journalist himself, he’s not averse to those sort of conflicts, and I never worried while writing Gawker that he was going to throw me under the bus to placate a subject, advertiser or friend. In that sense, he has exactly the quality that Lacy is talking about. I think Nick is also a rare exception. Most owners are more conflicted, for lack of a better word, and their personal values and the values of the organization are not always perfectly aligned.

At the Observer, Jared was very supportive on tough stories where he had little relation to the subjects, but we had some pretty epic arguments over stories where he considered the subject a friend. (This didn’t surprise me, and both Nick and Jared would confirm that I’m not conflict-averse, so I wasn’t unprepared for it. That said, knowing conflict is going to happen doesn’t do much to mitigate the fact that it can be exhausting and sometimes demoralizing. But it is part of the job.)

We had one such argument over a critical piece involving Chris Hughes. He and Jared are friends–or at least friendly acquaintances–and Chris made his displeasure known, and not surprisingly, that displeasure was relayed to me as Jared’s displeasure as well. The reporter on the piece left shortly after to go to business school, and I’m told Chris later bragged that he had gotten the reporter fired for negative coverage. (Not only was the reporter not fired, I was very sad to lose him.)* A short time later, Betabeat did a piece on the sale of Jumo to Good Magazine. Once again, Chris called Jared, who called me. I defended the piece and reviewed the sourcing, offered Hughes yet another chance to comment. He refused. Jared didn’t try to demand that I kill the story, but wasn’t happy about it and made that clear. (As clear as he could make it short of firing me, anyway.) And ultimately, he probably had to defend it to Hughes again, given that it didn’t mysteriously disappear and the reporter with the byline remained at the Observer, having conspicuously not been fired. So if he was under the impression that the Observer got rid of reporters who did negative coverage of the owner’s friends, I imagine Chris Hughes was probably disappointed the second time around.

The reality is these kind of situations are difficult for both the editors and the owners, and they require backbone and a heavy tolerance for the sort of conflict Lacy is talking about. In the owner’s case, it’s tolerance for blowback from people they may like or respect, wrapped in that person’s expectation that the owner will act on their behalf to change or kill the story. (And blowback from advertisers that may come wrapped in similar expectations.) News is not a subject-is-always right sort of business and as an owner you have to be comfortable telling powerful people no on a regular basis–and sometimes being threatened yourself. Of the nasty phone calls Jared got while I was at the Observer, I’m fairly certain I only heard about a fraction of them.

In the editor’s case, you need a tolerance for having difficult conversations with the owner that are respectful of the owner’s position but protect the integrity and work of the publication, even when that work might make the owner’s life more difficult, and even when those conversations may put your job at risk. It’s your job to absorb that blowback so your reporters can continue to do their jobs.

If you have a thin skin and a low tolerance for conflict, you really shouldn’t be in the news business at all, as an owner, editor or reporter. If you’re doing it well, it’s going to be hell for you.

So of course I have some reservations about Chris Hughes as a media owner based on my experience of how he views journalists and journalism. That said, I don’t think TNR’s prospects are as dire as some have painted it, and hope for their sakes that he feels differently about his own staff. And I’m interested to see what Gabriel Snyder does there. (And hey, if you’re really nostalgic for the Marty Peretz era, you can still read Peretz–now in the pages of the New York Observer.)

But I should also mention here that I think Lacy might be wrong about Evan Williams. One of Medium’s biggest controversies last year was my Shanley Kane piece for Matter/Medium because the subject claimed on Twitter that i had violated her privacy and contacted her friends and family for the profile, which was completely untrue. A lot of people took the subject’s claim at face value and took Medium and Ev to task immediately. I think there was a tiny bit of panic initially because Medium hadn’t really dealt with anything like that before, but ultimately, they stood by the story. Ev stood by the story. I think journalism is new territory for him, but he’s hired a lot of people who are well versed in it and as far as I can tell, has given them the latitude and resources to do their jobs. As the unintentional guinea pig regarding Medium’s tolerance for conflict or lack thereof, I think they did a pretty good job, and under a lot of public scrutiny. So I’m optimistic there. Ev might not relish conflict (at least not the way Nick Denton does) but I think he knows it’s part of the package if Matter is going to do what it set out to do when he acquired it.

* To clarify, I don’t believe that Hughes actually called and demanded the reporter be fired or anything like that. I don’t think very many people have that level of hubris. My impression was that he believed the reporter was fired, either because the byline was no longer there and he jumped to conclusions or he was misinformed, and took the opportunity to gloat. Which is petty, but not quite OFF WITH THEIR HEADS level tyranny.

Happy New Year

So far, Lock is doing a better job with 2015 blogging than I am. I’m not sure daily blogging really works for me, but I think it’s been worthwhile generally, and plan to keep it up.

In other news:

I wrote another Diary column for the FT. Topics covered: pregnancy apps, the NYPD, the inevitable march to the grave. I was going to write about the lamentable decline of British naval power, but Jeremy Paxman beat me to it. (My previous column is here. Topics covered: meditation, Silicon Valley types at Esalen, drones, the inevitable march to the grave.)

Also: I’m still looking for an editor-in-chief for this site.

 

Top Five Digital Media Launch Mistakes

I’ve been thinking about my work plan for 2015–things I want to change, things I like, and so on. Part of that process is figuring out what I’m doing wrong and what’s out of my hands. With consulting, what’s out of your hands can be anything from nearly all of it to almost none of it, depending on the client and the extent to which they give you the necessary authority to manage the project. In the last few years, I had one (very big, epically bureaucratic) non-media corporate client that seemed to actually relish doing the opposite of what I told them they should be doing, and 90% of my job was triage after they went off and did exactly what I told them not to do. But that’s actually pretty rare.

The bigger problem with larger clients is that when you have forty stakeholders at every major decision point (and you’re not one of them, by the way), you’re going to end up with a publication that looks like it was produced by forty people who couldn’t decide on a cohesive strategy. And in many cases, that problem is compounded by the fact that none of those forty people have any experience producing a media product. There’s a lot of risk-aversity; they don’t necessarily understand the media environment; and the decision making process is driven as much by internal politics as it is rational considerations about resource allocation and expected returns. Those are structural problems and if you’re working in one of those companies, I think the best thing you can do is find a group or a project area where you have some autonomy–a skunk works situation where you can carve out the space to take calculated risks and do it quickly.

It’s actually more frustrating to me when smaller, more agile companies make mistakes because I think they’re better set up to learn and adapt. So here’s some advice for them: five launch mistakes to avoid. I mention these five specifically because they happen so frequently.

1.) “We’ll just hire an intern for that.”

If the job could be done by someone with no experience, it’d be earmarked as an entry level position. You can’t just throw an intern at whatever you don’t want to spend money on and expect the results you’d get if you had staffed it properly. I’ve had some great interns, some of whom went on to work with me full-time and followed me to other jobs. Good interns are wonderful. But even the good ones need managing and teaching.  Interns are not staffers. They’re not invested in the same way, and they’re not bringing any prior knowledge or experience to the table. The best case is that you get someone enthusiastic and smart who learns quickly–and you have to have the resources on hand to teach them. And most of the people I see making this mistake want to hire interns precisely because they don’t have enough resources. So if the position needs to be a full time position and you can’t afford it, don’t fool yourself into thinking that this is a solution. It isn’t. It’s a bandaid, and it’s probably coming off the first time you get rained on. (Intern mistakes can be just as dangerous as staffer mistakes.)

2.) “What’s the salary range for that position? Great–we’ll take the lowest possible number and subtract 10K.”

This is the next step up from problem #1. You will pay for this mistake anyway–in talent and turnover. And especially at the entry level, turnover is costly because your senior better paid people have to spend all of their time training. Too many companies view junior talent as dispensable below a certain level because they don’t realize how many resources go into priming junior staffers to be senior staffers and once they’re trained up and doing their jobs well, they leave if they’re underpaid.

And the reality is, you need to budget for a range of salaries, not just the really attractive smaller number on the low end. Unless you want your entire product to be staffed with entry-level people–in which case you will get the kind of product that is produced by people with no experience. (And yes, there are outlier situations where this has probably worked. But let’s be pragmatic and assume that you are not the lottery winner.)

No one likes to hear about either of these mistakes because it implies that creating good content is going to actually cost money. Here’s the hard reality: it does. If you’re launching a new media property, you don’t need 200 staffers, but you’re not going to get very far with one and a handful of interns either.  There is a reasonable and happy medium.

Running lean is one thing, but you have to understand the difference between “lean” and “starving.” There is no genius in setting your product up to fail by spending the least amount of money possible. No one is going to look at your career and admiringly say, “Well, his company failed, but he spent the least amount of money possible running it into the ground.”

3.) “Our company has a proprietary CMS, ergo we are a tech company.”

What’s your primary product? What are you monetizing? If it’s not your technology, you are probably not a tech company–and you’re probably not going to get a tech company valuation* or the scalability of a tech company by insisting that you are. (Do you even have a company without content? No? Then you’re still probably a media company.**) Something else no one likes to hear: Media is not easily to scale, and margins are tight. The internet makes scaling easier, by nearly eliminating distribution costs, but you still need people to produce product (your content) and there’s a finite ceiling on what an individual can produce. You can add multipliers–investments in marketing, optimization technologies, and so on–but until our robot overlords have fully developed AI, you still need more people to produce more product.

I had a recurring conversation with the owner of the Observer about this, wherein he would play devil’s advocate: Why should I invest a million dollars more into the Observer when I could put it into an early stage tech company? If you’re just looking for returns, maybe you shouldn’t. A million dollars would get you more bang for the buck in early stage tech than it would in traditional or even digital media, assuming your investments don’t fail entirely.

But if you buy a newspaper, you can’t will it into being a scalable unit of proprietary technology simply by putting it on the Internet. If you’re not prepared to deal with the structural realities of the media market, then yes, you should probably spend your money elsewhere. This is why most media owners are not traditional investors anyway. No one gets into media because it’s the highest return business they could possibly be in.

Media is as different from technology as medical devices are from airlines or consumer packaged goods. The Internet is not enough of a commonality to conflate the two. So if you’re going to be a media investor, you need to understand the economics of the business and how it scales. And you can’t stick your head in the sand about the fact that the markets are not the same.

(Nick Carlson’s excellent Times mag profile of Marissa Mayer earlier this week highlights the fallacy of that. I don’t have an objection to thinking of media properties with a product orientation–in fact, I’d encourage it for anyone in the role of publisher–but you can’t think of them as technology products.)

4.) “Our audience is 316 million people between the ages of 18 and 65 with a 50/50 gender split.”

No, it isn’t. There are some products with an audience this big, but I doubt you’re running a toilet paper company. You need to decide who your target user is, and that user needs to be fairly specific. A 63 year old woman living in rural Alabama (i.e., my mother) doesn’t have the same preferences or behavior as a male teenager living in yuppie Brooklyn (half my 14 year old neighbors.) You can make a product for both of them, but in the beginning you have to make some choices. You have limited resources (as evidenced by your enthusiasm for hiring interns!) and if you spread them thinly across multiple markets, you won’t get traction in any of them. So who are the early adopters? (Who do you want to be the early adopters?) Targeting one market doesn’t necessarily turn off another one. But you have to have some idea of who you’re talking to, especially when your publication is new and doesn’t have an established brand yet. If you appear to be speaking indiscriminately to everyone, you won’t connect with anyone. Pick an audience now. You can always expand it later.

5.)  “We’ll just build a good product and the audience will find it.”

A few years ago this might have been true. But if you’re launching something new in 2015, the competitive market (in your category, and generally–anything else that might be capturing your target audience’s attention) is not what it was a few years ago. You need to actively market and promote, especially for a new launch. I like to hire editors and writers who are organically predisposed to putting their hard work out there, but you’re also probably going to have to allocate some resources to formal marketing, audience development, search optimization, etc.–if not from day one, then as soon as possible.

I’m not talking about broad spends around branding exercises here, which I find almost completely useless at the beginning stages. Audience perception of your brand will be driven more by what you end up producing than what you tell your audience the brand is. You can shove your mission statement and supposed identity down their throats all day and if what you end up giving them doesn’t reflect your supposed commitment to quality-slash-community-slash-whatever, your brand will be whatever their average experience of your content is.

But you need a catalyst to get going. Yes, there are people who start successful sites and they get traction entirely by word of mouth. And JK Rowling was rejected a thousand times before she got a book deal, and penicillin was discovered because Alexander Fleming mistakenly left a petri dish open, but no one would assume that the key to successfully getting a book deal is to be rejected a thousand times first, or that you can generally make a major scientific discovery by littering your lab with uncovered petri dishes. Again, you have to assume that you’re not the lottery winner here. And no one’s been able to figure out how to mechanically engineer word-of-mouth popularity. The typical site is going to need a push.

And why do people make these mistakes? Because everyone loves the fantasy that you can start with absolutely nothing and make a successful media company. There are great origin stories where it looks like that’s what happened, at least on the surface. From a distance that’s what Gawker looks like: 25 year old yokel from Alabama with no media experience blogging from her couch. But then you have to pull back the frame and note that the publisher was an ex-journalist and successful entrepreneur who already had a couple of exits under his belt. The 25 year old contributed the voice, which was crucial to the site’s success, but if she could have done it all by herself, she probably would have gone out and done that. Instead, there was some experience and money involved. And the competitive market was pretty much empty at the time. 100, 000 uniques a month was a meaningful number.

I don’t have any nostalgia for the media market then, and I wouldn’t go back. But it’s surprising to me how many people think it’s still 2002, and that the single-blogger-on-her-couch scenario isn’t just possible, it’s some sort of baseline. Low barriers to entry via magical thinking become no barriers to entry. And that’s just not the case anymore–if it ever was.

* Unless the investment community collectively agrees to stick their heads in the sand and call you a tech company, in which case you might. That kind of assessment often tends to come (not coincidentally) after the company has already managed to acquire eight figures or so of investment money that might look pretty boneheaded if it were put into a media company. Again, let’s not assume you’re the lottery winner here.

** I think that platform companies that are also functioning as publishers are an in-between exception here, but that’s another post.

Pregnancy and privilege

Blogging has been pretty lackluster here for a while, and I suppose I alluded to why a few weeks ago: a combination of busy season with work and feeling under the weather. And I can now clarify: by “under the weather” I mean morning sickness.  And by “morning sickness” I mean all day nausea and exhaustion. (I described it to my husband as “like having a severe hangover, every day, all day, for two and half months–interrupted by occasional bouts of food poisoning.”)

Last week, I turned 38, and this little guy turned 14 weeks old:

bebe

 

He arrives in June, and we’re thrilled and grateful. (And mildly terrified, as we probably should be.)

Apparently, the crappier I feel, the healthier it is for him, so I remind myself of that while I sit in meetings trying not to vomit on my colleagues. I tend to over-schedule myself with projects, and thankfully I didn’t do that for Q4, even though we had no idea the baby was coming. But even so, it’s a big adjustment to find your energy levels sapped to half of what they usually are, and still try to function like a normal (much less productive) human being.

But it’s also made me very aware of the incredible privileges I enjoy that many people don’t. I work for myself essentially, so while I tend to book more than the standard 40 hours of work a week, I also control my time to a certain extent and can modify my schedule to accommodate things like doctor’s appointments, and if I’m really feeling like death warmed over, turn a meeting into a conference call. (I spend half my time at Flavorpill, and the co-founders, Mark Mangan and Sascha Lewis, have been incredibly understanding, which I really appreciate.) I also have a incredibly supportive husband, whose empathy and efforts have made all of it much easier. I am exceedingly lucky, and aware that many women are not.

So I’ve been following the case of Peggy Young (the former UPS worker whose suit against her former employer is now being argued in the Supreme Court) with a lot of personal interest. Critics of Young argue that her pregnancy was a personal decision and the company shouldn’t have to accommodate her as a result, because why should other people subsidize her desire to have children?

But if we treat the decision to have a child as some sort of recreational, entirely optional voluntary activity, we have to admit that only women are penalized for it at work. A thought experiment: My husband and I worked together at The New York Observer, and I was his boss. I made more money than he did, and if we’d been married then, and I had gotten pregnant, it would have been a mutual decision, not one that I made unilaterally.

And if biology were not a factor and we lived in an alternate sci-fi universe where men were capable of carrying children, we might have made a rational decision that he carry the child instead of me. After all, if I had to miss work, we’d take a bigger hit to our collective income than if he did. But that’s not the reality. If we decide to have a child, I am the one who absorbs the physical toll of it for nine months and there’s no getting around that, absent hiring a surrogate. If the Observer had accommodated me in that situation, they wouldn’t just be subsidizing my decision to have a child, they’d be ensuring that my husband could make the decision to be a father as well. For every woman having a child, there is usually a spouse or significant other somewhere who made the same decision but will face no negative repercussions for it professionally. And you don’t see anyone framing a man’s decision to have a child as anything less than admirable. It’s not a “voluntary decision” he made in lieu of focusing on his career.

So I feel for Peggy Young and women like her who are treated by their employers as if the normal difficulties of pregnancy–and the decision to have a child at all–are a failure of work ethic and possibly character. Life isn’t fair, but we have a moral obligation to make it as just as we can. And this isn’t something only women should be fighting for. If you’re a man and you think you want kids in the future, or you have them already, you should have a vested interest in making sure the woman who bears your children isn’t punished for it.

Maybe I’ll just take a break from Facebook…

The Root has a good piece up on how to deal with friends’ racist reactions to Ferguson on social media. It’s sadly necessary, at least for me. In my fifteen years living in New York, I’ve found myself arguing on many occasions that not everyone in my homestate of Alabama is racist, homophobic and generally averse to progress, but then I look at my Facebook feed and find that a good number of my high school classmates seem determined to prove me wrong on that count.

The rhetoric around Ferguson is particularly nasty, ranging from assertions that black people are somehow inherently inferior to just incredibly blind acceptance of Darren Wilson’s narrative that Michael Brown was behaving aggressively while going out of their way to disregard all other testimony. (It’s worth noting that Alabama’s fairly gun happy and people think any display of aggression at all is reason enough to shoot someone dead, but it’s particularly convenient for people who believe any young black man who is any way subverting white authority should be punished in the harshest possible way.)

The same thing happened when gay marriage was a big item on the national agenda and there were the usual worn-out and brain-dead cliches about homosexuality being a choice, typically followed by a Bible verse* that did little beyond telegraphing the post author’s lack of theological training. (It doesn’t surprise me that Alabama is #2 on this list. As usual, the state is only redeemed by the even more appalling behavior of Mississippians.)

The Biblical rhetoric that bookends those displays of hatred particularly irritates me because I grew up Southern Baptist and my understanding of the religion is that in its best form, it’s fundamentally about compassion and the recognition that we’re all imperfect (“sinners” in Biblical parlance) but redeemable. And spewing vile crap about black people displays none of that compassion, being completely unable to empathize with the large swaths of people in this country who face systemic systemic discrimination on a daily basis displays none of that compassion, being unwilling to empathize with Michael Brown or his family displays none of that compassion, and being unwilling to look at the hard data on the extent to which black people in this country are subjected to police harassment because you want to believe they deserve it displays none of that compassion.  There is so much self-righteousness and so little empathy. And hatred rooted in your own sense of self-righteousness doesn’t justify itself.

I had a conversation a while back with a friend who asked me why so many poor white southerners were so inclined to hate non-white people, gay people, women as a class. Or conversely, why do the bigots tend to be poor? I said that A) they don’t. Most of the people posting racist things to my FB page right now are squarely middle class and some of them, by cost of living standards in the state, are fairly well off. B) But inasmuch as some of the bigots are poor, uneducated, unaccomplished, and so on, they have very little to feel superior about and if they can convince themselves that being white–or male, or straight–brings with it some sort of moral superiority or superiority of judgment, that’s pretty much all they have to cling to. They have nothing but their hatred to make them feel better about themselves.

And here I could launch into a Not All Alabamians digression, but I think everyone knows that.

There are many things I love about my home state, but the pervasive bigotry is the one major reason why I’d never move back there. We plan to have kids, and I do not want them exposed to that. That’s not to say that racism and homophobia don’t exist in New York, but it’s a matter of degree, and it’s just better here on that count. You can’t live in this city and not be exposed to people who aren’t like you. And if I have to choose, I’m going to opt for the city where my kid will never get forwarded an email comparing the US President to a monkey, preceded by the caveat “I’m not racist, BUT….”  I can handle it, but I’m not going to subject a child to it.

In the meantime, I’m just going to point you to the donation page of the Southern Poverty Law Center. They’re based in Montgomery, Alabama, where I was born, and they do hard, necessary, fantastic work.

*Somehow all of the praying in public types gloss over the well-known story where Christ called the Pharisees hypocrites for doing the same thing. But cherry picking doctrine is also par for the course.