Thursday, December 19, 2013

Buzzfeed, the Media Apocalypse and Devouring the Young

When I was a senior undergraduate, I participated in an oratorical contest in Pennsylvania between Christmas and New Year.  We were asked to address challenges associated with the coming year.  Since I was a hot-shot, full of myself, and admiringly sardonic, I introduced my speech with a poem that began: “The New Year engulfs us with startling ease, so down with man and down with the trees.”  I got second place because I used poetic sleight of hand rather than cool, hard logic to make my case.  One judge suggested that I might have been more sensitive to the season, including the Incarnation and Winter Solstice; after all, I was young and there would always be plenty of time for the Apocalypse.

The Apocalypse has finally arrived, courtesy of Buzzfeed, which just published a piece about “How the Media Will Report the Apocalypse: It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”  Now with its WTF, LOL, and OMG prompts and snarky, hyperbolic edge, Buzzfeed is not exactly The Onion or even Jonathan Swift, but it nails the tone and voice of major media reporting on the mutant zombie invasion and parsing out blame.  For the NYT, the end is “a regrettable and premature finale,” though an Op-Ed piece agonizes over a ruined wedding.”  Britain’s The Guardian reports that Islington in North London, my birth town, is up in flames and the BBC, true to its mission until the very end, is giving the zombies equal media time.  A piece on a fashion guide for surviving the toxic wasteland might not be over the top.  Of course, with electronic communications unplugged, it is perfectly reasonable for the NSA to be shooting down carrier pigeons.

Britain’s Daily Mail reminds us that they “Bloody Well Told You” that the welfare state, immigration, single mothers, trade unions, gay marriage, the war on Christmas, and Bulgarians would bring about the end of civilization.  For Fox News, there is only one word for it:  Obamegeddon.  MSNBC, trying hard to be relevant, blames the right wing zealots for cutting funding for anti-zombie programs.  Reddit wants our help in finding these creatures but only if one has a degree in forensics or owns at least one box set of The Walking Dead.

“Modern Farmer” reminds us that our money is worthless; only goats matter.  True to form, NPR goes on a pledge drive, pleading: “For the love of God, send us Guns.”  And TMZ shows us Ryan Gosling’s disembodied skull.  Though I gave this effort a “W,” or Winner, the satire grows stale towards the end, perhaps because much of what is parodied is already considered a bit of a joke by many Americans.   A reasonable response to the Fox blather about the War on Christmas or the fact that Santa Claus is white might be to watch the Daily Show.  The very unfunny Karl Marx is quoted as saying: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, than as farce.  Perhaps the same can be said of our political discourse.

After 9/11, Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter said on September 18, 2001, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.”  In 2011, Michael Hirschorn in New York magazine wrote that Carter was trashed for his remarks.  The Onion and Saturday Night Live were back at the humor and irony game by October.   At that time, Hirschorn raised the question of what irony really means and suggested that perhaps we were too used to the reflexive, postmodern irony found in Seinfeld and the Simpsons to assign 9/11 to our collective psyches the way we have done with Pearl Harbor and other events.   Or maybe we were too caught up in our webby world of self-indulgence.

Hirschorn writes that, after John Stewart, “It is hard to cite an influential author, essayist, blogger, artist, or musician who has brought the full range of ironic whizbangery … against the very-more-powerful political-financial complex that is dragging this country to Depression-era levels of inequality.”  This was written more than two years ago and retains more than a ring of truth.
Hirschorn seems prescient about our Brave New Alice-in-Wonderland World.  “It may be the confluence of 9/11 and the dominant culture of webby self-expression that may have dealt irony a double death blow.  The habit of retailing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, now abetted by Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, was born in the ashes of 9/11.  They are mediums that repel the ironists and embrace the earnest-ists in a warm, gooey, communal hug (insert emoticon here).”

The Buzzfeed piece suggests that anything can be parodied because we live in a viral, 24/7 world where up is down and fictions are treated as fact.  This is our existential plight.  We see this in our politics, where there exist few mediated, agreed on truths.  Or worse, truth become personalized, solipsistic and narrow, an invitation for us to act like one of Sherwood Anderson’s grotesques; I believe in one and only one truth and that truth is me.  Hit the Like button if you agree.

Irony is still very much with us, but it’s the situational ironies found in the old Seinfeld episodes that survive in many incarnations.  It’s been almost three hundred years since Jonathan Swift published his A Modest Proposal, suggesting that one way to solve Ireland’s problems of famine, poverty, and finances was to eat its young, with a one-year-old considered to be the most nourishing, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.  Published under the name Dr. Swift and presented as a very sober, logical, philosophical treatise aimed at preventing children of the poor from becoming a burden on parents and nation, this broad satire was a nicely cloaked criticism of the Catholic Church, wealthy landowners, the ruling class and a nation that in a sense was already eating its young.  Swift took full aim at the powers that condemned the young to a life of poverty and a Church that enshrined this condition in its theology.

The good news is that this book is no longer on the list of banned books, having been replaced by books about sex.  Sadly, few people seem to read this slim volume except English professors who still squeeze meaning from this modest tome, enduring any hardship to grab that last shot at tenure.  Even better news is that A Modest Proposal has entered the English language as a metaphor and a conceit, spawning thousands of examples of modest proposals dealing with everything from racism on campus, to reducing Mexican illegals and mother-in-law visits.  Not surprisingly, this metaphor has also entered the gun control debate with one blogger, sounding very much like an NRA meme, suggesting after the Newtown murders that children should carry guns to school and also be taught to gang-tackle armed gunmen.  We learn through some interlocutor that this advice, in the spirit of Swift’s pamphlet, was meant to be ironic.  I missed it entirely.

Swift might not be pleased that we are still consuming our young.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Time, and Time Inc., Marches On

As a child of war, a veteran, and a long-time foe of American military adventurism, I take special, private note when war anniversaries come around.  This year, I thought a lot about Pearl Harbor, perhaps because I am increasingly hammered on social media with commands that tie my support of veterans to the Like button.

I have been to and sailed past the Arizona Memorial many times, and I swear that there is no quieter or more prayerful place on earth as when a Navy ship passes and honors the men entombed in the Arizona’s hull.  I have rarely experienced such godly silence, except perhaps in the catacombs in Rome.

On Veterans Day, I will buy a poppy from the VFW guy outside of ShopRite and probably will keep it forever.  This is the shorthand shared by those who have served.  I recall meeting an in-law years ago and he asked me, what war?  I replied Vietnam.  When I asked him, what war?, he simply said: The Big One.

I’m currently reading The Guns of Last Light, the award-winning account by Rick Atkinson about the war in Western Europe, 1944-45.  We are coming up on the sixty-ninth anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, an event well documented in books and film.  Social media, not so much.  According to one account I read, most Americans consider the Battle of the Bulge a war with their girth and weight, suggesting the Atkinson book, even with its weight and textual girth, might be a useful stocking stuffer. To be on the safe side, we might also include Heller’s Catch-22, Mailer’s Naked and the Dead, and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five so we are reminded of the horrors, miscalculations, and utter randomness of war.

At this time sixty-nine years ago, all seemed quiet on the Western front.  Few in the Allied High Command thought that the Germans would make a major push west into Belgium and Luxembourg. Small tokens of Christmas were springing up.  In the last week of December, Time magazine chose Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme commander, as its “Man of the Year.”   The cover photos showed the commander with legions of soldiers stretching into the distance.  The facts on the ground were much more confused and bloody.

As I’m writing this, Time magazine announced Pope Francis as its 2013 Person of the Year on the Today Show with Edward Snowden the runner-up.  Pope Francis received the award due to his efforts to change the tone of the conversation inside and outside the Catholic Church, nudging the Vatican away from its role as a theological police force.   I have written a number of pieces about some of the theological, cultural, and psychological issues concerning Pope Francis.  They are posted at

Thank goodness for the sobriety of the Time magazine editors, who paid little or no attention to the Reader Poll that put Miley Cyrus in the running.  Next year they might want to consider a venue other than the Today Show, where there seemed more interest in the Digital Dance Off Awards, including the Harlem Shake that the Today staff has immortalized.

Or perhaps not.   It seems inevitable that social media will eventually play a much more vital role in the Person of the Year choices, likely hurried by the spin-off of Time Inc. from the parent in early 2014.  Just how much the world could change for the ninety-year-old Time Magazine can be found in a recent article by Allan Sloan, an editor-at-large at, a Time Inc. property.   Sloan looked closely at the Securities and Exchange Commission filing for Time Inc., his employer, before it is spun out of its parent company, Time Warner.  I followed his advice and conducted a deep dive into this weighty document.

 Documents for SEC are written in a kind of code by a cadre of lawyers who take all the fun out of a spin-off by rattling off an endless list of risks that might scare away even the boldest investor.  So, if I was looking for poetry, this was not the place to come.  But nonetheless, there is drama here.  Sloan, who is writing about his boss, reports that “three top Time Inc. executives (all of whom are now former Time Inc. executives) had made deals to get seven-digit bonuses if the spinoff took place.  Other Time Inc. executives may have similar deals.”

On its face, the document raises questions about the propriety of those negotiating a deal having a financial stake in the outcome.  Sloan calls this a “conflict” and he’s absolutely right.

Sloan also points out that Joe Ripp, “who is leading a company that says in the filing that ‘We are committed to pursuing operational efficiencies and cost leadership,’ got $7.5 million of stock and options (vested at $1.5 million a year for five years) as a ‘make whole’ deal for what he left behind at his previous employer.”  Time Inc. employees will not be pleased that Ripp just announced Time Inc.’s 401K company match is being reduced from 7% to 5% in 2014.  

Time Inc. has taken its share of whacks over the last decade or so for bad management and an anemic digital strategy.   Maybe so, but it’s been something of a cash cow for Time Warner.   Sloan’s brilliant analysis of the SEC documents shows “that for the past three years, virtually all the division’s operating cash—a $1.42 billion out of $1.456 billion—has gone to Time Warner.  That’s 97.5%.  I seriously doubt that the services Time Inc. has gotten from Time Warner for things like human resources begin to balance the scales.”

The industry chatter about the spinoff has largely been about how much debt Time Warner will saddle the new entity with.  That is not clear from the document.  Sloan wasn’t able to find out, but notes it could be as much as $500 million in deferred subscription liabilities alone (magazines people have paid for but not received).  As the writer notes, it is this kind of liability that can sink a business.  Other estimates put the number closer to $1 billion.

  Capital New York, quoting Time Inc. chief content officer Norm Pearlstine, reports that the company will continue staff cuts into next year.  The language of the SEC documents suggests that the next round of cuts could be greater than the 500 positions eliminated in early 2013.

The touching essay Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs wrote about Pope Francis should be required reading. In its breadth, analysis and humanity, it is in the best tradition of Time Magazine, an institution that is ninety years old this year.  

Those who want the inside story of what the new Time Inc. might look like, please see Allan Sloan’s piece ( The SEC filing can be found at

Time is indeed marching on.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Church, State, and the Pope’s Miter in Pieces

As a Catholic and a magazine editor, I’ve long between interested in and amused by the doctrine of Church and State, associated most notably with Time Inc.  By this doctrine, the chief editor and her reports were responsible for making sure editorial content was not contaminated by the devilish intentions of advertisers.  God forbid, no particular religion was invoked in the literal, dogmatic sense to support this doctrine, but one could almost feel the long arm of the Vatican at work here.  A chief editor was venerated and, if not infallible, was considered at least to be seated on the right side of history.

I just returned from a trip to Northern Italy, including Verona and Venice, and even though Rome is safely to the south, the Catholic Church is present in every nook and cranny, and fiercely marketed along the sinuous routes in Venice that force tourists along an ordained and righteous path from the train station at San Lucia to the famous St. Marks Square where the pilgrims gather.  Even if one is pulled in by the strains of the Latin mass or a lilting Vivaldi, it’s hard not to notice the stalls where the bric-a-brac, including the purported bones of saints, are offered by sale with the utmost reverence. I immediately assumed the apocryphal.  When Pope Francis recently presented nine bones of St. Peter to his audience in Rome, I thought that whatever the theology or science at work here, this would be definitely good for business in Venice.

At these stalls one can find almost anything, framed pieces of cloth that belonged to someone holy or framed pieces of a miter or a Pope’s hat worn by some famous bishop.  You can imagine my sense of wonder, serendipity, and, yes, synchronicity to return home and discover that the outgoing Time Inc. editor-in-chief Martha Nelson had cut-up and framed pieces of a miter kept in her office to symbolize editorial independence and distributed this going-away gift to her direct reports, both digital and print.  She acknowledged that although these fragments of the miter were distributed in jest, they served as a reminder that every editor is responsible for maintaining editorial integrity.

Like Ms. Nelson’s gesture, my remarks are in jest and I suspect that Pope Francis, who has given up many of the trappings of office, including living in a luxurious Vatican apartment, might be amused by the symbolic miter cut, framed and returned to the community.  His Holiness would likely have little to say about Time Inc.’s push into native advertising.

With the return of Norman Pearlstine, once editor-in-chief, to Time Inc. in the new position of Chief Content Officer, we can perhaps expect to see a new generation of editors who won’t violate their oath by learning to be good marketers.  As someone who has played in that sandbox, I think editors at Time Inc. in particular have too often been considered a breed apart, a keeper of the faith, and protectors of the miter when they should have been paying more attention to the marketplace. 

Goodness knows the industry needs a strong and sustainable Time Inc., especially with the content business changing rapidly, and publishers are faced with new types of advertising variously called native advertising, content marketing, and sponsored content.  Forbes, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and others are already experimenting with these new advertising formats, demonstrating that on this matter the horse has already left the barn. And it is not just media companies looking at the revenue and branding opportunities.  Consumer brands such Dell, Xerox, GE, Unilever, Coca Cola and dozens of others are now squarely in the content business shaping and telling their own brand stories.  For publishers it is not only the realization that print revenues will continue to decline and digital will not make-up the short-fall.  It is a realization that the basic advertising model has forever changed and media companies will have to adjust accordingly.  Competitors are coming from every quarter, including current advertisers.

I am currently involved in building a platform that links content, cause marketing, and corporate brands fully integrated with social media.  I have been genuinely surprised at the extent brands use content to enrich their story-telling and increase consumer engagement.

I enjoy the parlor game about whether Twitter and Facebook are media companies (they are and become more so every day) but that is so yesterday, coming from the Church/State days.  Advertising agencies, corporate brands, and every online aggregator from Buzzfeed to Mashable all are or will become media companies.

Since the AOL disaster, Time Inc. has been savaged for its digital policy, management incompetence and a host of other sins. But too little has been said about what Time Inc. has contributed to the industry; from its generous support of MPA, to underwriting at its own expense technical specifications that have been widely adopted, to sharing its consumer research, I know of no better corporate citizen in the media ranks. In my seven years at MPA, the magazine media association, Time Inc. staff always gave generously of their time for workshops, committees, and my education.

The industry should welcome the new Time Inc., due to be spun off in 2014, into the content discussion where the geography seems to shift by the day.  It’s a jungle out there.

We can use the help. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Searching for Venus/Aphrodite

I just returned from a visit to Northern Italy with my family.  We spent most of our time in Verona, the home of a childhood friend and his Italian wife.  I had visited cities along the rhumb line from Milan to Venice over the years when I was editor of Bicycling magazine, primarily to meet with frame-makers such as Colnago, Cinnelli, and De Rosa, as well as components manufacturer Campagnola.  I liked the story line: small custom Italian framemakers, the last of the artisans, were holding out against the generic and undifferentiated product line from Asia.  From what I could tell from observing hundreds of bikes around Lake Garda in the pre-Alps, the Italian bike industry is doing just fine.  Much as the cyclists annoyed drivers on the narrow roads around the lake, there was something aesthetically pleasing about this scene, but no more than observing smart women in Verona commuting to work by bike.  Beauty is afoot.  Venus must be close.

On our return to New York, I read that Pope Francis might be considering choosing a woman as one of the next cardinals.  The Holy See Press was quick to squash this rumor, adding that a woman cardinal was “theoretically possible.”  Pope Francis, in his remarks about women, nuns, and the Church’s preoccupation with sexual issues, has made it clear that he understands the importance of bringing the feminine principle into the Church for theological and psychological reasons.  The hierarchy is old, white and crusty and in need of Aphrodite’s influence.  And she’s closer than the vicars think.

In Italy, we made our pilgrimage to Venice and shouldered our way through the narrow streets, competing with the thousands of tourists offloaded from at least five cruise ships.  Venice is a bazaar, and the route from the St. Lucia train station to the famous St. Mark’s Square was past the inevitable barkers selling enough trinkets to sink this delicate city.  But this city is also alleys and canals and surprises, such as strains of Verdi’s La Traviata coming from the Opera House, the understated and beautiful St. Paul’s, a 9th century Russian orthodox church, and the masked parishioners appearing out of nowhere on their way to celebrate their version of the Day of the Dead, which is beginning to look a lot like Halloween.

As much as possible—and guided by our knowledgeable Italian friends, we stayed away from the popular tourist watering holes, though we couldn’t help returning a few times to the bronze statue of Juliet underneath the requisite balcony that was without Romeo and lacked any particular historical license.  But that didn’t matter.  What began as a nod to Shakespeare’s play and an attempt to attract a few more tourists’ euros, this statue has become a shrine for lovers from around the world.  Social media is populated with “selfies” of young men and women, posing with Juliet, and, as if on demand, rubbing her right breast with such passion and tenacity that the poor thing will require augmentation in the need future.

At the entrance to this shrine the walls are covered with thousands of signatures, hearts, and statements of youthful undying love.  The authorities made this space available to discourage tourists from attaching messages to the walls with chewing gum.  Now that the tourists have run out of wall, they are attaching small locks available at a store nearby to a metal wall board.  The locks carry hearts and names of lovers.  My Italian friend said the “love lock” craze started after the publication of a novel Three Meters above the Sky, where this activity suggested undying and unbreakable love.  During the last decade, love padlocks have been attached to bridges in Florence, Dublin, Cairo and dozens of other cities where they are increasingly seen as emblems of vandalism rather than lasting love.  Perhaps so, but we probably need to recognize Aphrodite in whatever form she chooses to appear in.

After a day of visiting a half a dozen churches in and around Verona, my friend asked me my impression.  I said it was as if a “pandemonium of images” visited me.  I didn’t mean that as an exaggeration.  Verona has some of the most beautiful and oldest churches in Italy.  These include: Basilica De S. Zeno, Duomo, Basilica de S. Anastasia, and the Chiesa de S. Fermo.   The Renaissance churches are active and alive, with services generally trumping the needs of tourists.  But this is Italy and the churches can’t help themselves.  The paintings and the frescoes offer startling imagery above the melancholy devotional chants. The statue of Jesus in the Duomo seems voluptuous; the figure almost seems pregnant.  The saints are showing a little too much leg.  The cherubs are just too cute.

I write these words as a Catholic, a student of religious culture, and an academic with a PhD dissertation on “Aesthetics and the Religious Mind in Three Catholic Novelists: Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor.”  My first book of poems was That Kingdom Coming Business, about religion’s role in war.  I explored this more deeply in The Archetype of the Gun, a Kindle e-book, about the religious, mythological, and psychological underpinnings of the gun debate.  So I’ve wrestled with these issues for a long time.

In Italy, I was reminded of the centrality of the image and that beauty cannot be outlawed by edict or canon.  I am indebted to the late psychologist James Hillman and his exploration of this theme in ReVisioning Psychology, one of the most important books of this genre in the last fifty years and grounded in the Italian Renaissance.  Hillman reminds us that in the middle of the sixteenth century, as a response to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church “removed substance and virtue from all holy images.”  Also banished were the myths, the demons, and the Gods from Olympus.  Hillman notes that “Personifying was driven out of churches and into the madhouse.”

But not completely in Italy where, due to cultural forces still shaped by the Renaissance, the sacred and the profane can still rest comfortably alongside one another. Hillman goes back to Marsilio Ficino, “a loveless, humpbacked, melancholy teacher” from Florence for his text because it was Ficino who wrote that soul-making, rather than being the exclusive province of the religious, was central to our imaginings, creative life and culture.  Hillman takes this a little further.  In ReVisioning Psychology, he defines soul as: that unknown component that makes meaning possible, turns events into experiences, is communicated in love, and has a religious concern.  “By ‘soul’ I mean the imaginative possibilities in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy—that mode that recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.”  

In September 2007, James Hillman gave an address on the island of Capri, Italy, in Italian entitled “Aphrodite’s Justice,” a plea to invite Aphrodite into psychology; more beauty and less of the theoretical.  In his invocation to Aphrodite (Greek) and Venus (Latin), Hillman reminds the Goddess of “Those who follow your train and traffic with your gifts—poets, lovers, musicians, craft persons and colorists of many tastes, and those who would make each moment in their day show a sign of Venus in manner, odor, décor, dress and speech, those who bring charm, sensuality, lightness of touch, frivolity even, and the madness of passion—have for too long been relegated in our civilization to a lesser, trivial place, neither serious nor moral.”

It is not surprising that Hillman, beloved in Italy, gave this presentation there.  The sensuousness he describes is part of the fabric of Italian life, often found in the small and the obscure.  Outside the medieval church, Pieve di San Giorgio, north of Verona, were located a stack of granite boulders from a Roman ruins—ancient Rome asserts itself everywhere in the region.  Tucked in the side of this construction was a black, somewhat abstract rendition of the Madonna and Child about the size of man’s hand.  It was not under lock-and-key; it wasn’t secured in any way.  Just there, as it were, in hiding in plain view.

The Lady is everywhere. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Meditating on the New Republic of Magazines

I was in Grand Central Station in New York, looking to break a twenty-dollar bill, so I purchased a copy of The New Republic for five dollars.   The cover art, promoting the “books won’t die” cover story, shows the reedy outline of a hard-cover book, appearing both digital and ghostly at the same time, on a green background.  I will forgive the publisher for the “50 Shades of Green” throwaway line in the lower left corner.  I have now carried this title for more than a week, dipping into it, tasting the poetry, learning how I might be writing the wrong type of books, and what a secessionist American might look like with its 61 states.  I’ll continue to dip into this treasure, a refreshing departure from the usual political cant, and will likely take her on an upcoming trip to Europe.

I read a lot of magazines, many I have worked for directly or been a part of the corporate operations.  And I go to them like an ex-lover, confident and hopeful that I won’t be surprised.  This is not criticism.  I go to Bicycling, Prevention, Men’s Health, Organic Gardening, Runner’s World and other titles for the comfort food and not necessarily for the hot surprises that will burn my tongue.  I go to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Scientific American, Harpers and the like for my soul food.

MPA, the magazine media association, and where I worked for seven years, has long promoted the essential consumer value of magazines as a “time-out,” suggesting both an existential and psychological quiet space.  However, this well-researched truth has at times been shunted to the side by the clarion call of digital, carving up our time, our sentences and words.  I play in this sandbox and know the digital parsing of my psyche will continue.  

During the recent government shutdown, I grew weary of and largely abandoned broadcast television, news sites such as the Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, as well as a favorite of mine, Time Magazine.  My weariness was certainly brought on by the collective noise but more so by the simplistic arguments, the inevitable “on the one hand, and on the other” arguments that satisfied the demands of Semantics 101 but did little to shed light on the massive reductionism on display in our public square.    

I am, of course, at the mercy of the algorithm that follows my keyword passions and indelicacies and now even more so as Google gets closer to my dark side with its “dark search” capabilities.  In a way, I am engaged in a kind of psychological self-voyeurism, following the digital crumbs that make me crazy and enjoying every minute of it.  Psychologists call this being caught in a complex.   I keep scratching that bugger of an itch, long and hard enough for me to see blood.  The current Bloomberg Businessweek must know all this because it features on the cover a very sinister Senator Ted Cruz as the Mad Hatter who, along with his band of dead-enders, took the US through the Looking Glass, arriving bloodied but unbowed on the other side, looking like a discarded Halloween mask.   Magazine covers are such a wonderful way to capture a politician’s trek from tragic to farce.

Magazines also have a penchant for capturing the shadow side of a debate, finding another reality separate from the horse race and “cloud-of-dust” football metaphors that plague our political coverage.  The Atlantic Magazine is a good example of this, as is its sister site The Atlantic Cities, which recently ran an article by Editor-in-Chief Richard Florida entitled “What the Shutdown Revealed about the Economic Divides in U.S. Politics.”  This should be required reading.

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza had previously published a map about the 76 members of the so-called “suicide caucus” who shut down the government.  The Atlantic builds on this, also using data from the Martin Prosperity Institute, and reminding us that the findings suggest correlation, not causation.  The states with higher shares of the suicide caucus districts tend to be less advantaged, less affluent, and less educated.  They also tend to have the largest share of uninsured citizens in the districts.  They also have fewer of the creative class members, including scientists, technologists, artists and media workers.  They are not a robust part of the knowledge economy.  They are less diverse and less urban.   A letter to The Atlantic puts this in perspective: “A minority of Americans seem committed to a past that never quite existed and hope for a future that seems rather unlikely.” 

The Atlantic Cities presents a less romantic view, suggesting the suicide caucuses largely representing areas in the Deep South and Appalachia are intent on “maximizing power of provincial white elites at a time when their numbers are in decline and history has turned against them.”   As Rolling Stone Magazine examined earlier this year, gun manufacturers are facing similar shifts in the same demographic, perhaps explaining the heated and existential nature of the gun control debate.  Both examples suggest a serious demographic splintering and seem to cry out for a shift in the political debate.  We mind find some hints in William Faulkner’s novels and his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, where a few Tea Party originals are said to reside.

While at the recent PRIMEXEAST conference, organized by IDEAlliance, I attended a luncheon keynote by Michael Clinton, President, Marketing and Publishing Director, Hearst Magazines and Chairman of MPA.   Hearst seems to be hitting on all cylinders, given its successes with its latest launches, Food Network and HGTV with Scripps, and the expectations for Dr. Oz, The Good Life, coming in February 2014.  The company has integrated digital throughout its operations as well as any publisher.  Hearst’s Esquire, with its December 2012 edition, has been a leader with its idea of “Live Paper,” the first truly interactive magazine where every single page is enabled for social sharing and saving.  This issue is appropriately described as a collector’s item on eBay and priced accordingly.

Of course, imagining magazines as second screens and making every page interactive is not easy or inexpensive.  But it does show how comfortable and fluent publishers have become with digital.  Everything is possible.  I know where to go when I want my magazine pages populated with QR codes and functionality for Augmented Reality.

But if I want to understand the new rules of trash book publishing or the inner life of novelist Willa Cather or how to find religion without God, this month I will settle in with The New Republic.   I will definitely stay awhile because I want to imagine my place in the 61 States of America.  If The Atlantic Cities is right about the underlying causes, the country might be closer than we think.  Psychologically speaking, for some of our citizens, they already inhabit that new republic. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Responsible Hero Worship

During the current infantile government shutdown, nothing is more likely to make the evening news than an army of World War II veterans storming their memorial in Washington, DC, crushing the barricades with their wheelchairs while assisted by the non-paid, non-working monument police and Harvard-educated clown senator Ted Cruz, blindly participating in his self-scripted morality play shut down before it even opened.

Don’t get me wrong.  If I had been in DC at the time, I would have moved the barricades myself.  I object to crass politicians of all stripes using aging veterans for their scripted talking points.  I’m reminded of the bumper stickers during the Iraq War that encouraged us to support our troops.  As fewer Americans serve in the military—just 1%, I think­­—the military is considered out there, doing the country’s dirty work, and though “I” probably wouldn’t encourage my daughter or son to serve, I can honor those that do, even in some abstract, knee-jerk kind of way.  I can protest against death benefits being denied veterans due to the Sequester.  And politicians can take credit for making sure the military gets paid during the self-inflicted Washington insanity, thus ginning up their patriotism.

Serving in the military was one of the most important decisions of my life and probably had a more lasting effect on my character, discipline and, as an immigrant, appreciation for America than my time in college and graduate school.  I was at sea for four years, mainly in Asia with a number of stints in the Tonkin Gulf.  I had a number of close calls, but that was part of the enlistment compact.  No big deal.  As any veteran will tell you, the military remains in the bones for a lifetime.  It is not unusual for veterans, whatever the severity of their service, to remain quiet for a lifetime.  It’s taken me decades to write my first book about my time at sea.

It is not likely that America will go back to the draft nor should it, considering the inequities of that time.  But we should at least consider some form of national service, if only to get our collective hands dirty.  If not, then let’s treat our military as American citizens and let them, active or retired, suffer the same consequences of living in this imperfect county that at the moment seems to be run by clowns.  Let’s not elevate our military, not because we don’t hold them in high esteem, but because that very act of elevation, placing them up and “out there” resolves us from understanding of what it’s like to serve this country and what it means for us to “go to war,” as we seem to have been doing since I arrived in America.

Let’s not elevate our military, not because we do not honor them, but because that often absolves us of the responsibility of looking closely at what President Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex more than a half-century ago.  The danger that Eisenhower, a warrior himself who played down his Word War II heroics, warned us about is much more pronounced today with America spending more on armaments than the next ten countries combined.  We have outsourced our wars to the 1% and the thousands of civilians—usually ex-military, who continue to fight our wars abroad, without necessarily adhering to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  And have we not noticed at home the militarization of our neighborhoods with full-fledged SWAT teams in more than 100 communities in the US, courtesy of the War on Terror funds?

Let’s not elevate our military, not because we do not remember the price they paid, but because that righteous act might blind us to “first causes” and the fact that our most recent wars, including Vietnam and Iraq, were based on lies.  The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a complete fabrication.  The weapons of mass destruction in Iraq quickly became a late-night television joke.  Some joke.   Our men and women have borne the brunt of this folly that has never been fully adjudicated in the public or political arena.      

When we elevate our military, let it be with full knowledge of past wars, the political mendacity that is disguised as patriotism, and the industrial gun-runners who are in the business of supporting wars as free market enterprise.  As always, follow the money.

We honor our military, living and dead, by not letting our service men and women be put in harm’s way to satisfy an itch of mainly aging white politicians who want to shore up their base or to satisfy their fantasies by engaging in some martial theatrics.  “All wars are boyish,” Herman Melville said.  Think Syria, Korea, and Iran.

We honor our military, living and dead, by slowing down the martial rhetoric, cooling the bombast, and insisting of our representatives that any future war or military action will be decided in full daylight with everyone, including the lobbyists, in plain sight.

We honor our military, living and dead, by insisting that our churches and synagogues that are often quiet on these matters, step front-and-center, explaining to their respective congregations what exactly constitutes just and unjust wars.   And why a sacred text can be as bellicose as a political speech.     

The late psychologist James Hillman writes that “war is not a product of reason and does not yield to reason.”  As a student of war, I agree with him.   So we honor our military, living and dead, by accepting war in all its “unreason,” and by being aware of the speciousness of leaders who prattle about “wars to end all wars” and the like.   Hillman notes that “Like a manic syndrome, war eventually exhausts itself.”

So we honor our military, living and dead, by accepting war as a manic syndrome that feeds on itself until satiated.  The country expressed its exhaustion with war when the drums were beating for Syria.  And this exhaustion came from a largely disinterested public, silent for the last decade.  Our exhausted military have suffered more directly: PTSD, suicides, displacement and unemployment.  Many will suffer for a lifetime.

I honor our military, living and dead, in a Kindle ebook, The Archetype of the Gun, which explores many of the above issues.   Our veterans form the centerpiece of this epic poem, this prayer.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Women Rule at the Social Good Summit

For three days last week, I camped out at the Social Good Summit at the 92nd Street Y on New York’s Upper East Side, not far from where the UN was rumbling to a start and bringing gridlock to the streets.  I attended to get a better sense of the relationship between cause marketing, content marketing and brand marketing as these terms are gaining currency.  I got more than I bargained for.

From a distance, the event did not seem all that auspicious as it had the UN branding all over it—no offense.  My first and only dealing with the UN was decades ago when I edited Pedal Power for Work, Leisure and Transportation.  The book, a Rodale outlier, with contributions from professors at MIT and Oxford University, included information on how to use pedal power to draw water from deep wells.  This use case was intended primarily for Africa.  Long story short:  I went to the appropriate UN committee asking for a $100,000 for test cases in sub-Sahara Africa.   Someone told me they couldn’t consider anything under $10 million.  I was going through my “back-to-the-land” and “small is beautiful” period and wasn’t sufficiently schooled in Big Ideas.

The Social Good Summit seemed like a version of speed-dating on steroids, with dozens of sessions presented each day concurrently with no breaks and no coffee.  I haven’t been able to reach the organizers to ask why such a schedule, so I assume that the unrelenting drum-roll of speakers was necessary because there is so much good to spread around.  I was on my way to becoming a believer.

I’ve been to hundreds of conferences and organized a fair number myself but remember few.  I’m not exactly sure of the reason for this, other than my shrinking brain.  Most events are pro forma, put on by associations that have constituencies to appease.  Understandably, the agenda might go down like yesterday’s gruel.  And if it’s warmed over digital, it’s still gruel.  The Social Good Summit seemed to touch deeper roots.  To borrow from psychology: there was something archetypal afoot.

I got a clearer understanding of the title for this conference after sitting in a crowded theater with 1,000 attendees; many of them, it seemed, were Millennials.  And of this group a high percentage were women.  As the Summit would show, this group brings new ideas, technologies and a social consciousness to the ills of our country and world.  After bearing reluctant witness to the political clown show in Washington DC, it was refreshing to be in a room where the operative worlds were compassion and service.  I thought of the poet Auden’s longing for new styles of architecture and a change of heart.  I thought about Pope Francis’ recent remarks about understanding the “other,” bringing an anima consciousness to the Papacy, a genuine embrace of the feminine for the first time in memory.

I go on, of course, but this feeling was in the air.  The event, which reached 120 countries (streaming, web, etc.) and was hosted by Mashable, showed the new face of social good.  It is driven by social, powered by mobile technology, and measured by engagement.   Storytelling was the essential ingredient in the engagement cycle.  I don’t recall the word “charity” being used.  The focus is on “action to effect change.”

The emphasis on girls’ (LetGirlsLead) and women’s causes was paramount.  The Gates Foundation is in the thick of it.  Melinda Gates stressed the fact that, by 2015, 95% of the global population will have some access to mobile.  She stressed that enlightened story-telling is the centerpiece of any fund-raising effort.

Even content got a makeover.  Every story, every article, every photograph on any platform can become the source of a cause campaign.  A good example of this kind of platform is, a Millennial news site that ties fundraising to very diverse content.  The underlying assumption—very Millennial—is that no piece of journalism is complete without a cause to action.  This is all very immediate and spontaneous.  An article about anti- Obamacare ads is fit subject for a campaign to raise funds for healthcare in Africa.

I was surprised at how extensive the adoption of sustainable business practices have become by the large brands.  Ikea seems to be leading the charge, enforcing a Code of Conduct with the massive supply chain of 11,000.  The company has invested $2 billion wind farms and solar panels.  Coca-Cola is also deeply concerned about sustainability and with good reason.  The company does business in 208 countries, many facing water and other resource shortages.  It is one thing to hear Al Gore talk about the effects of climate change, but entirely another when an executive from Coca-Cola speaks about climate representing a real threat to their business and bottom line.

A central and compelling theme at the Summit was the growing role of advertising and creative agencies in promoting social causes.  This is a global collaboration as the World Economic Forum, the Advertising Council, and Ketchum, the PR agency with a presence in 70 countries, have joined the effort.   Called “Creatives for Good” and launched June 2013 at the Cannes Festival, it is essentially a best practices platform of 60 campaigns from around the world on social issues such as health, education and the environment.

To be sure, the Ad Council has a long history of PSA’s, such as TV spots against drunk driving.  But this is different because Millennials look for an implicit connection social causes and the commercial compact.  As a number of speakers suggested, brands want to be connected to a higher purpose and unmet needs.  Brands need a social currency.  So do advertising agencies.

Some of the winners of the cause campaigns at Cannes include: Saatchi & Saatchi for “Days of Hope,” which addresses the suffering of the homeless during winters in Europe (a homeless person gave the TV weather report); Ogilvy for “waiting for Seven Years,” which featured a dialysis patient telling his story in a crowded train station; Ketchum for “The Tree Comments,” a commercial about the environment. When a chestnut falls from the tree, it strikes a membrane that makes music and tells a tale.

On another front, the Leo Burnett Agency was involved in a campaign: one billion, one day, one message, one word in answer to the rhetorical question: The World Needs More?  The responses flooded in: #change, justice, peace, shelter, etc. in a variety of languages from the four-corners.  This wasn’t the old Coke campaign warmed over.  The agency scraped the social marketplace for key words.  Brands paid $1 a word for sponsorship.  This is a good example of brands and consumers joining together around a cause.  It didn’t hurt that Beyoncé brought a little juice to the proceedings.

The Summit made clear that the embrace of cause by major brands signals a fundamental shift and has become part of their mission statement.  Gucci’s “Chimes for Change,” powered by Catapult, a crowd-funding site, promotes education, health and justice for every girl, every woman, everywhere.

Unilever is a good example of a company that not only associates its brands (Dove, Lipton, Ben & Jerry’s, Persil and others) with particular causes.  Its corporate mission statement embraces a Sustainable Living Plan (USLP).  Unilever’s objectives include:  1. Help more than one billion people improve their health and fitness.  2. Halve the environmental footprint for Unilever products.  3. Source 100% of our agricultural materials sustainably.

I’ll repeat myself: much of this conference was given over to the empowerment of women.  The agenda and a legion of women speakers spoke to this.  Perhaps I have been attending too many male-dominated conferences because what really surprised me at the Summit was the tone of the meetings.  I’m not talking about UN courtesy and deference.  The panels were populated by successful women executives, some of them working for Dell and other companies committed to women’s empowerment.  Dell is committed to empowering one billion women by 2020.  I can’t recall the number of times I heard speakers mention that we are witnessing a new Women’s Movement, global in nature, connected by mobile, fed by social and supported by some of the most prestigious brands.  Again, this was not UN speak.  It was in the air, in the ranks, and in the brands.

I’ll close with a note about mobile and health because it was central to the Summit and has implications both at home and abroad.  Johnson & Johnson is a big player in the sector, focusing especially on maternal health.  In one example in the US, pregnant women are given three free text messages a week to ask their doctors questions and schedule appointments.  This has been a huge success.  There are also people in the field explaining the Affordable Care Act.  Follow-up research suggests women in the program feel more prepared to be mothers and are much more diligent keeping doctor’s appointments.  This program—text4baby—has received a lot of attention and donations through Facebook and Twitter.

During the course of the conference a number of people said, “This is not your father’s UN” and they certainly had a point.  And neither was it your mother’s cause marketing campaign.

The full conference agenda can be found at

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Digital Song

It was another late day suburban circle jerk
Announced on Twitter or some digital song
To discuss the arcane science of wife swapping
Of every race and gender and if enough
Time to explore the fall of Paul
From his horse on the road to Damascus.
The agenda was loose like an open
Source drama, everything out, everything
In, relativity on purpose, until
An invisible third hand steadied
The narrative the way a clown builds
His face outward to touch
The hem of a circus tent.
The men in the group wanted to talk
About sex, the women more interested
In playing the hangman’s game first
On the back of an envelope, then
On a series of hands and finally
On the dining room wall. By now
The energy had shifted
To the feminine side of the house
That is interested in art but would
Settle for a pound of flesh.
Mixed nuts and mixed metaphors
Fill the place and this night’s den
Of contestants on American Idol seem
To be sticking their necks out more than usual.
After the twittering subsides the tech
Chicks with a little help from Photoshop
Project a meadow on a far surface showing
Rolling wheat fields, blue skies
And a very large crow.
The group sighs at all this tranquility
And barely murmurs when a braced upside
Down L with six or seven nooses
Drops into the heart of Kansas.
Men in the room clutch
Their throats as if on cue.
The artist does not notice as she is busy
Putting flesh and blood on those ropes
Choking, kicking up a story, reaching
For the stars though their hands are tied.
In the final tableau it isn’t clear
To the women in the audience
Whether the smoke coming from these actors
Is the soul leaving the body
Or just the fields giving off heat.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Qualcomm’s Sixth Sense & the Personal Internet of Everything

I wanted to launch my fall media diet with enough of a technical protein mix to get me through what is bound to be a very meaty season.  I was right to start with the tantalizing menu items offered at Uplinq, Qualcomm’s annual event in San Diego for developers.  Admittedly, I have a soft spot for QC because I consulted there for a spell and received a substantial and necessary tutorial on what the world will look like when all 8 billion of its mobile inhabitants are posting “selfies” with both hands to the nearest friendly wall within reach.

To play my part, I watched the keynote, given by Chairman Dr. Paul Jacobs, on my mobile, safely removed from the opening pyrotechnics, which I imagined as a 22nd century DJ making music out of the bits and bytes that grew organically from his digital reach, nimble enough to bring down the hemisphere.  This was a technical conference after all and Dr. Jacobs needed this kind of kick-off orchestration; surround sound, surrounded.

For a company that spends a whopping $4 billion a year on R&D, this was not a bad opening gambit that played nicely into one of Dr. Jacobs’ major themes:  a digital 6th sense in our “personal Internet of everything.” If, as Dr. Jacobs remarks, there will be 25 billion mobile devices by 2020, his emphasis on connectivity, context and control seemed spot on.   So does the QC effort to filter out all that digital noise and provide “what’s important to me.”  Proximity is the operative word with devices and apps within my space becoming my own personal map and my cloud.   Qualcomm’s Alljoyn provides the software and core framework that lets compatible smart things around us, whether television, home, or automobile, recognize each other and share resources, data and information.

Jacobs, with an assist from Rhapsody CEO Jon Irwin, announced a wireless audio streaming platform, AllPlay, based on the open-source AllJoyn that can wirelessly stream different music tracks to any room or speaker in the house.  You can also stream music from other sources, including apps.  Rhapsody has integrated AllPlay into its app, underscoring the commercial viability of this audio streaming platform.

Vuforia, an augmented reality platform, was one of the most interesting products mentioned in the keynote.  It literally enables apps to see, bringing them to life with 3D graphic, touch, video and audio.  This can give sexy movement to magazine brands like Maxim and help make the Guinness Book of World Records a living 3D experience.  But the greatest application is probably games.  Start with a table top populated with utilitarian items such as a vase and a tissue box, and through the magic of Vuforia, these objects will soon become stone pillars and castles with all the necessary mythological players battling it out.  Even in this wonderful world, there is some respect for natural law: characters walk around and not through objects.  The bad guys are getting the upper hand until the friendly dragon (as in the QC Snapdragon chipset) seizes the day, provides the extra juice and banishes the interlopers from the table-top kingdom.  Qualcomm calls this particular application Smart Terrain, and it just that because the world of objects becomes a potential video game or some other imaginative expression.  Everything in the living room is in play.

Jacobs discussed many other interesting projects including Gimbal, a robust geo-fencing platform and the new smartwatch Toq, but it was the discussion of “Smarter Objects,” led by Pattie Maes, Professor at the MIT Media Lab, that really gave life to what “Sixth Sense Interaction” meant in practice.  Professor Maes had given an earlier presentation on the subject at TED.   She then demonstrated how a person wearing a camera, projector, mirror and phone could use any surface to interact with data that is projected.  Through various forms of image and marker recognition, a person can get this relevant “sixth sense” information right in front of her.  A book can have an Amazon rating projected on the cover, reader annotations, or critical remarks.   A reader of The New York Times can “add” video to an article on a particular subject.  If you want the time, simply draw a watch on your wrist and the time will appear.

According to Professor Maes, researchers at MIT have developed ways to impose software functionality on everyday objects such as a lamp or radio.  The program called “Smarter Objects” uses augmented reality software to give the household product a virtual programming interface.   Overlaying Vuforia on everyday objects and linking through the AllJoyn platform, the professor’s assistant switched on lamps, turned on the radio and changed settings.  Through a simple tablet command you can drop a new song into the radio.

What surprised me about Jacobs’ presentation is that most of the products he mentioned appear to have an immediate commercial application.  That hasn’t always been the case.

Media companies and advertising agencies should take notice.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What Do the Nook, Road & Track, and Martha Stewart Living Have in Common?

While visiting Carmel-by-the-Sea with my family recently, I didn’t see one camera, digital or SLR.  My son and I walked past a group of 70-something men talking about the pros and cons of taking photographs with their iPads and lesser tablets, commenting on the virtues of storage, thumb drives and ease of posting to FB and Twitter.  No, we did not mutter, “What is this world coming to;” rather, we vowed on the spot to move aggressively up to the next preppy plateau on the technical food chain.  Before leaving, we did our part by taking hundreds of photos with our smartphones. 

Labor Day is not usually the time for predictions about what brands will likely disappear in 2014, but here we go with Douglas McIntyre at 24/7 Wall St. getting early into the game with the ten mostly likely failures.  He uses standard metrics such as declining sales, rising costs, bankruptcy or sales of entity, significant loss of market share, etc.

I didn’t have to visit my local and deserted J.C. Penney, which I have admired of late from a distance, to learn that the company tops the list of brands most likely to disappear next year.  The executive idea to abandon sales and related promotions to keep the riff-raff out has worked stunningly well.

As my experience in Carmel confirmed, I should not be surprised that the Olympus digital camera is also high on the list.  The company simply can’t compete with smartphones that “now offer lenses and chips that capture high quality images.”  Whether the company’s shift to high-end SLR cameras will make a difference, remains to be seen.  But you never know.  I fondly remember the editor of American Photography, now owned by Bonnier and still beautiful, telling me that digital cameras were decidedly not the future. 

I have been a fan of Barnes & Nobles’ the Nook since its launch in 2009, primarily because I thought that publishers would benefit from another robust platform for content as well as a channel for magazine subscriptions.  The Nook’s battle has been uphill from the start and made worse as device prices dropped and they essentially became generic.  Content would become the differentiator and where the money is.   Even the $300 million Microsoft invested in the Nook in 2012 didn’t seem to make a difference.  At the end of the day, it’s always about scale.  Amazon has 130 million visitors per month; B&N has 6 million.  I have published four print books with Amazon and one Kindle Select. I have also published books with Dell, Warner and Rodale and, in terms of file conversion and ease of use, Amazon goes to the head of the class. (Please see

None of the above predictions will serve as much of a brain teaser.  Nor should the presence of Volvo, Living Social or the WNBA on the list.  I see the occasional 1960 Volvo parked at an abandoned ski lodge in Maine, but not much more.  The $175 million that Amazon invested in Living Social in 2010 hasn’t seemed to help and might have been better used in buying a newspaper or magazine.  Ask any Millennial; the daily deal sector lost most of its shine years ago.   So did the WNBA which, despite being a showcase for women’s talent and an important statement about equality in sports, never caught on with the arena or television crowds.

I was surprised to see Road & Track and Martha Stewart Living on this list of predictions, perhaps because I have been involved peripherally with both titles and knew some of the players.  When I worked at Hachette, then owner of Road & Track, I would marvel at all the buzz around Elle magazine when the financials said that Car and Driver and Road & Track were the big money contributors to the bottom line.  But that was then and fashion still rules.  Advertising pages in Road & Track are about half what they were in 2008, down from 1,092 to 699 in 2012.  The decline continues.  

At that time, Road & Track was generating about 80% of its revenue from advertising; circulation revenue was not much of a factor.  I’m not sure how much this ratio has changed since the purchase of Road & Track by Hearst.  Certainly, the automotive sector is crowded with Road & Track, Car and Driver, Motor Trend and Automobile magazines fighting for precious ad dollars.  While I would be very surprised if Road & Track did actually make the dead brand list, this is no longer a simple case of special-interest magazines duking it out for print dollars.  Hearst owns the Jumpstart Automotive Group that serves the full purchasing cycle of the consumer.  The company has significant digital and strategic options.

I’m less sanguine about Martha Stewart Living, though having worked with her years ago on repositioning Rodale’s Organic Gardening, moving it from digest size to full-size, I would never bet against her.  But the advertising numbers paint a bleak picture; in 2012, the publishing division lost $62 million and trend continues in 2013.   McIntyre concludes that Martha Stewart Omnimedia Inc. (M.S.L.O.) might be better off restructuring around its merchandizing and broadcast businesses because the magazine lost is ability to standalone years ago.

It might be considered faintly ironic that the media company and J.C. Penney are tied at the hip, with a ten-year $200 million licensing deal for merchandize design.  At the time of this deal, signed in 2011, J.C. Penney had already purchased 17% of M.S.L.O. for $38.5 million dollars.  As The New Yorker magazine notes in an August 12, 2013, piece, “J.C. Penney’s Martha Stewart Mistake,” that the Penney deal “infuriated Macy’s which thought its own deal with M.S.L.O. gave the company exclusive rights in the bed, bath, and kitchen categories.” Macy sued both companies for breach of contract.   A ruling is pending.

Whatever the legal outcome, the Penney/Stewart doesn’t seem to be working for either party.   As The New Yorker article notes, “Since the deal with Penney was announced, M.S.L.O. shares have dropped nearly forty percent.”  J.C. Penney’s woes have been widely documented, including the fact that it has burned through a billion dollars in cash in the last two years.

Mr. McIntyre, with his list of brand casualties, might be right after all about the Martha Stewart enterprise but for the wrong reasons.  It is difficult to believe that the next Penney management team, especially with the public concern of Pershing Capital Management, its largest investor, will see the M.S.L.O. marriage as in their best corporate interest.

The real money is in the merchandising and not in the magazine.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Changing Face of Media Brands

Having spent almost thirty years in the media business, I feel some sadness when once-marquee brands are passed around the investment community like an unwanted Christmas pudding.  I’ve had many friends at Newsweek and have had occasion to visit a number of their international editions.  In some respects, the magazine seems now to have more cachet outside the country than in—but not by much.

Though I had no inside information, I never had much confidence in the Daily Beast/Newsweek marriage.  The editor, Tina Brown, seemed to be still paying too much attention to the “buzz” factor, which was the operative word that described her failed Talk magazine.  I joined Hachette just in time to review the Talk business plan that Ms. Brown was shopping.  As an investment vehicle the plan made little sense to me, so I recommended Hachette pass, which they did.  Hearst and Miramax stepped in and funded the short, unhappy life of Talk

This closure of Talk got outsized attention because of Ms. Brown’s celebrity and her successes at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.   Even though by Talk’s launch in 1999 digital was decidedly in the air, most publishers considered it a curiosity and not seismic disruptor.  David Carr wrote in The New York Times on the tenth anniversary of the launch part that the “Talk party was the end of an era, a literal fin de siècle.  Flush with cash from the go-go ‘90s and engorged by spending from the dot com era, mainstream media companies seemed poised on the brink of something extraordinary.  But the brink ended up being a cliff.”  Ms. Brown recalled, “It seemed like that happened in the 18th century.”

Newsweek has been sold to International Business Times for an undisclosed sum that was likely pocket change.  IBT is a digital media company with 200 employees.  Christianity Today and The New York Observer have linked IBT to controversial Korean Christian preacher David Jang, who has been hailed by his followers as the Second Coming Christ.    

On the heels of the Newsweek sale came the announcement that The Boston Globe had been sold for $70 million to the owner of the Boston Red Sox and The Washington Post was sold to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in a personal transaction for $250 million.  You can do the math.   The New York Times purchased The Boston Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion.  The Washington Post was worth more than that a decade ago. 

James Fallows at The Atlantic online captured the moment, describing the Newsweek sale as a tremor and the Washington Post sale as an earthquake.  Understandably, there is a great deal of nostalgia around this transaction.  Perhaps The Post had its finest hour forty-two years ago when the Supreme Court ruled for the paper and the publication of the Pentagon Papers changed the course of American history.  More recently, of course, The Post, along with The Guardian, published a trove of NSA documents.

That said, The Post was failing as a business—it reportedly lost $50 million in the first half of 2013.   For all of its journalistic “firsts,” The Post has become something of the company paper in the company town of Washington, DC.  Please read Frank Rich’s article, “The Stench of the Potomac” in the current issue of New York Magazine for his acerbic take on the media’s role in cultivating a political plutocracy where the dominant color is green, as in greenback.   Rich takes some of the wind out of the nostalgia sails.

Naturally, there’s a lot of chatter about Bezos’ purchase of The Post, with some claiming that this is a personal philanthropic move and others suggesting that this is a way to get in the middle of the Washington discussion about taxes, patents, and anti-trust, and monopolistic practices.  Henry Blodget, CEO of The Business Insider, where Bezos is also an investor, suggests that this is a straight business move, even though the transaction is separate from Amazon.  But the business model is implicitly there.  After all, Amazon is in the content production and distribution business.  It’s also in the subscription business with the Amazon Prime offering.  And Amazon is in a position to do what few companies have managed to do at scale:  integrate content and e-commerce.  There is every reason to think that The Post will have a robust digital future.

When I learned that Newsweek had been sold yet again, I reminded myself that magazines and newspapers of all stripes have been coming and going for a hundred years or more and the pace of this change has only been speeded up by digital disruption.  Tastes, psychologies, cultural fixes, collectibles, entertainment, vicissitudes, and the-next-big-thing change and change again.  Most magazines don’t live long enough to become brands.     

George Magazine, with John F. Kennedy on the masthead as publisher, should have been a sure thing, positioned as the intersection of politics and celebrity.  I joined Hachette after the publisher became a partner with Kennedy.  I found the editorial soft and mushy and could not identify the business rationale.  Hachette tried to keep it going after Kennedy’s tragic death, but was forced to shut it down in 2001.  The French fantasy about Camelot kept the magazine going longer than it should have.

Sometimes a magazine’s market position and reason-for-being simply changes or disappears.  Mademoiselle, launched in 1935, was a classy title that couldn’t shift its editorial enough to match the changing sensibility of a new generation of readers.  It also closed in 2001.

Or magazines just run their course, as was the case with McCall’s magazine, launched in 1873.  Some of America’s greatest writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Willa Cather, wrote for the title.  Changing the title to Rosie in 2000, with a very loud Rosie O’Donnell as editorial director, didn’t help and it was shuttered in 2002.   The women’s category, long-called the Seven Sisters, has suffered the most disruption.

Prodded by the Newsweek story, I looked at hundreds of magazines that have closed in the US in the last few decades.  In a way this period was a wonderful time for magazine launches.  The economy was good, especially in the 1990's.  Consumers were becoming much more interested in special-interest magazines that focused on sports, crafts, and hobbies.  “Zines” were all the rage.  And print advertising was strong.  So why not The Glam Eye that focused on the music scene around Toledo, Ohio; New York Dog that was designed to sit alongside Vogue and Cosmopolitan on the newsstand; Psychoanalysis, a comic book that featured three patients in analysis; Sassy, a teen magazine focused on sex, love, and rock & roll; Syrian World, about that country’s high culture; and Greed Magazine, another way to consume music.  Those were the good old days.

Even if the Second Coming Christ is not a secret investor in the business, Newsweek is probably better off with IBF, even though this digital-only company is reportedly flirting with the idea of a print edition of the magazine.   Likewise, The Washington Post will surely be much better off with Bezos at the helm.

I don’t know how much we should infer from the fact that The Washington Post owned Newsweek from 1961 to 2010, selling to stereo equipment magnate Sidney Harmon for $1 and some liabilities.  He then entered a JV with IAC; thus the short-lived marriage with The Daily Beast.   

At the very least, it was time for new money, new management and new thinking to enter this game of brands.

Or to borrow lines from poet W.H. Auden:

“Harrow the houses of the dead; look shining at
New styles of architecture, a change of heart.”

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Timely Taps, Digital Wraps, and Business Going Native

Over drinks in his apartment in NYC, Felix Dennis, Chairman of Dennis Publishing, would brag that he brought Maxim magazine to the States to make a ton of money and leave before anyone became the wiser.  For a man who claimed to have spent $100 million on booze and women, this didn’t seem to be such a remarkable claim (he also claimed to have murdered some unlikely chap, but pulled back from that claim).  That was a decade ago, but I can imagine the chairman LOL on learning that the magazine he sold to Quadrangle Capital Partners LP in 2007 for $250 million (sale included Blender and Stuff) is reported by Bloomberg to fetch bids of about $20 million.  Dennis’ main regret about Maxim was that he didn’t sell it before the lad magazine sector started to lose readers and advertisers.

Launched in 1995, Maxim enjoyed a spectacular rise with a strong assist from its unabashed emphasis on sex, babes and beer, with a little fitness thrown in.  I was in the UK at the time, heading the launch of Men’s Health, and while impressed with Maxim’s brash and noisy launch, I knew somehow that health coverage, while less sexy, would win out in the end.  On its face, Maxim still looks like a very successful magazine with a paid circulation of 2.5 million.   However, an examination of its subscription offers suggests that this is very unprofitable circulation.  This, coupled with a precipitous decline in advertising pages, might have sealed Maxim’s fate.   The lack of a robust digital strategy didn’t help.

With the advent of digital at scale, magazines at risk seem to have fewer second chances these days and fewer takers.  Newsweek’s tablet edition is looking for a buyer, but owner Barry Diller now calls the original purchase a fool’s errand.  And he got it for $1 and subscription liabilities.  That’s the same price that TV Guide was sold for in 2008.   Business Week was sold to Bloomberg in 2009 for between $2-5 million.  I should add that at this writing Jay Penske, the auto racer and publisher of Deadline Hollywood, is reported to be driving into the Newsweek interest lane.
For more than a decade, the media business has been arguing whether we are going through a sustained period of disruption or transformation.  As usual, it’s in the eye of the beholder.  I note MPA, the magazine association and where I used to hang my hat, describes its annual October 2013 conference as a place to examine these “transformational times.”  The television executive who complained during the 2008 Olympics that the networks were exchanging “analog dollars for digital dimes” was certainly talking about disruption.  With digital revenues for magazines coming in on average at 5% or so of total revenues, we might conclude that that executive was on to something.

By now, there are enough digital markers around to decorate Route 66.  When the International Data Group (IDG) announced in 2007 that it had finally crossed the Rubicon, generating as much revenue from digital as from print, that date seemed an important digital marker.  IDG has continued nicely down that well-paved, digital highway.  When the company announced recently that PC World magazine would be exiting print to focus on its digital edition and web site, there wasn’t much of a fuss.  The decision was inevitable because the magazine had lost most of its readership and its reason for existing in that form.  And now we have TechCrunch, Endgadget, Ars Technica, ZDNet and other sites that seem to fill any gap left by the closing of the print title.
The link between print and digital editions can be complicated, as Future Publishing discovered with TECH, an iPad magazine for technology enthusiasts.  This seemed like a very good idea.  I have worked with Future over the years and have enormous respect for the company.   And why not?  They were early into the computer, technology and gaming space.  They had a few stumbles in the States but recovered and seemed quite adept with their digital strategy.  They did not cling to print magazines that were no longer performing.  In fact, with TECH, they decided to launch an iPad magazine without the benefit of a print legacy.  Of course the technology space was already over-populated, but not having a print brand to build upon likely was a contributing factor for the demise of this title.   Sometimes you’re damned when you do and damned when you don’t.

We saw a lot of well-earned high-fives when Hearst announced in May that it had sold more than 1 million new, paid digital subscriptions.  That number also seems like an important industry marker.  I have commented in an earlier post that this focus on new digital customers is really a breath of fresh air and a reasoned bet on the younger and more affluent demographics of a native digital audience.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about the money.  Josh Steinberg in Digiday asks whether publishers are still too print-centric in their strategies, at the expense of future options, such as the iPad.  He writes that “Many publishers include iPad inventory for free as an extension of print packages.  For example, Hearst’s Esquire and Conde Nast’s Wired view print and the iPad as interchangeable products; you can’t advertise in the July edition of Wired’s tablet app unless you advertising in the print magazine.”

Steinberg notes that The Economist sells digital editions separately from print, but charges the same for print and iPad ads.  Print revenues are down, but iPad ad revenues are up 67% YOY.  The Atlantic’s President Scott Havens argues that “Folks are selling iPad editions as if they are similar products;  that’s not good for the industry or those brands.”  In a way, this transition to separate iPad magazine editions is likely just a matter of time and scale.  Steinberg reports that Esquire, which doesn’t sell iPad-only ad pages, has 65,000 iPad subscribers compared to 800,000 print subscribers.  The game would be different if the numbers were reversed.

It’s not entirely clear where the big revenues are to come from if consumer magazines are to reach the point where an appreciable chunk (say 30-40%) of their business is from digital.  Presumably, if and when Hearst reaches 10 million new, paid digital consumers, which could represent 25% of the total circulation file, that would be would constitute a memorable digital marker, though it would likely not be reached for a decade or so.

Some publishers, including The Atlantic and Forbes, are placing bets on what is generally called native advertising.  In another lifetime, this was called an advertorial, and generations of top editors stood at the bulwarks making sure that there would be no confusion between editorial and advertising content.  I was one of those enforcers, lined up on the holy side of the Church vs. State scrum.  Yes, the good old days.

Now, content is everywhere.  You are content, I am content, and Facebook and Twitter are media companies.  Back in the day, though tempers flared, it was relatively easy for consumers to identify ads masquerading as editorial content.  Today, not so much.  Of course, in the past, the FTC has played a role when editorial and advertising lines have become blurred, but we’re currently facing a little more than the threat from sleazy infomercials.  We are becoming inundated with content.  And some of this is by design.

Content is no longer just the handiwork of journalists and other pedigree.  While some see this trend the way Freud saw the threat of unconscious forces sweeping across Europe—the end of civilization, others see the proliferation of content as a business opportunity. IDG discovered more than a decade ago that their consumers often knew as much or more about technical developments as the paid staff.  I think that has become a pervasive truth across many of the top content verticals from cycling to knitting to running.   And the big consumer brands are not exempt from gaining this expertise in content.  Sears, one of the largest distributors of fitness equipment, also generates a lot of content about fitness.  To the list add most of the top twenty consumer brands.  Consumer brands call this activity “content marketing.”

I’ve admired the work Forbes, and especially Lewis DVorkin, Chief Product Officer, has done in bringing clarity, muscle and cover to native advertising and figuring out ways that enable “journalists and marketers, each transparently identified and clearly labeled, to publish content side-by-side in a credible news environment.”  In providing digital real estate on its site for content producers, including its own journalists, consumer brands, readers and bloggers, Forbes has gone a long way to define and embrace the rich content possibilities of our digital age with its BrandVoice offering.  In short, Forbes has created an “ethical framework” for branded content.

But this is not about the romance of content; it’s about business.  DVorkin nails the strategic issue with his prediction:  “The $10 billion digital advertising business is clearly in for disruption.”  He notes that the quarter trillion banner and rectangular ads served up quarterly have become little more than wallpaper to consumers and in the process are driving down advertising CPM.

Forbes’ strategy is to treat content as content, “meaning both editorial and brand content should rise or fall on its merits.”  Media companies are getting pretty good at building content frameworks that serve their diverse publishing platforms.  They are adding metadata or “structure” to content early in the workflow so it can be more valuable and ubiquitous downstream.  That is an essential technical development.

What Forbes is doing is more difficult in the sense that it requires a cultural and imaginative shift, asking publishers to turn structures and historical verities on their head while maintaining that ethical framework around content use.

Native advertising remains a very contentious issue but Forbes has laid down an important digital marker.