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 BeyoncĂ© 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