Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What's Left of the Right?

Let's make a list of all the people today's Republican Party has tried its best to alienate.
Gays and lesbians.
Blacks. (What about Black Muslims? Probably a two-fer.)
Women. (Except for Mama Grizzlies, who are presumably traveling, pack-like to support Ms. Palin.)
Environmentalists. (A long time ago.)
People who are unemployed and wish they had a job, unemployment benefits until they can find a job, or both.
Anyone who feels any affinity for any of these groups.
Others I may have left out--feel free to add to the list.
Now, I don't care what your political persuasion, this is not a good state of affairs. A Republican Party that keeps practicing addition by subtraction only serves to polarize the national political debate, make every issue a black/white wedge issue, dampen down the capacity of elected officials who might want to get something, and drive more and more average Americans out of the political process.
If it is a conscious strategy, it is cynical beyond words.
If it is a death-wish, those of us who believe that politics and government are essential to our capacity to create and deliver a positive future can only hope that the process moves rapidly to its logical conclusion, and that at some point a more reasonable, moderate, and thoughtful Republican Party can be re-born.
Because it wasn't always like this.
Once upon a time, a long long time ago, there was a Republican Party that was populated by interesting, smart, capable people. You might now agree with them, but they were impressive. I remember listening to "Capitol Cloakroom" on the radio (I know that dates me, but there it is) and hearing Everett Dirksen's gravelly voice argue for his side of the aisle. Bill Scranton, Edward Brooke, Mark Hatfield, and more were staunch Republicans who had workable political philosophies they were committed to as Republicans.
Today, I doubt Mark Hatfield would be admitted to the Republican caucus.
The old joke about the Democrats was, when they formed a firing squad they lined up in a circle.
Today's Republican Party has formed a circle, and then given guns to an angry mob standing outside the circle, with orders to shoot to kill.
The truth is, we need two parties in this country--maybe more. Interestingly, we also need the parties to be able to work in a more bi-partisan fashion.
That can't happen as long as one of the two parties is committed to killing the political process en route to committing suicide.
What's even worse is, the Republicans may be rewarded for their strategy at the polls this November--which would only convince them to double-down on cynicism. What's beyond cynicism?
Nihilism, I guess.
As the nihilists say in The Big Lebowski, "We believe in nothing, Lebowski, nothing."
After November, that may be where the Republicans head.
It's an ugly thought, and a dangerous game.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Apple Customer Service?

By now it's become a default position to love Apple products and hate Apple customer service--or, more broadly, Apple's attitude toward its customers.
Most Apple users and watchers have suspected that Steve Jobs has always loved his products and their design more than he loves the people who actually buy them. In fact, the old mantra was, Apple's customers aren't worthy of the company's products.
So why bother to register one more tired complaint?
Because it still rankles.
Here's a short version.
I'm in Santa Fe.
I'm flying to San Francisco on Tuesday, leaving for Europe on Wednesday.
After waiting for the votes to be counted, I've decided to take an iPad with me.
Should I drive to Albuquerque and buy one there? Or wait until I'm in San Francisco, and simply walk to the Apple store and buy on there?
Prudence suggests a phone call.
I call the Apple store in San Francisco.
Yes, they have plenty iPads in stock.
Yes, they have one configured the way I want it.
No, they can't predict whether they'll have one on Tuesday.
No, I can't buy one over the phone and pick it up on Tuesday.
No, I can't buy one over the web and pick it up on Tuesday.
No. No. No.
Oh, and have a nice day.

Toxic Leadership

Once again, I've got to hand it to Joe Nocera.
I've been scratching my head for more than a week, puzzling over the dismissal by the HP board of CEO Mark Hurd. The way the story of his firing broke made no sense. Hurd had presided over a remarkable reversal of HP's performance. He came in on the heels of Carly Fiorina, who'd run HP as if it were a corporate platform for her own celebrification, and in short order had made the place spin like a top.
And then, all of a sudden, he was fired.
A woman alleged sexual harassment. The board investigated, and found no sexual harassment. But it discovered something on the order of $20,000 worth of phony payments to the woman. And Hurd was fired. Fired and awarded a going away present of roughly $72 million.
How did any of this make any sense?
In today's New York Times, Joe Nocera explains.
Hurd was a toxic leader. He made HP spin like a top. And he did it by destroying the lives of the work force, slashing the company's investment in R&D, poisoning the company's culture, and earning the hatred of the company's top executives.
It was all about Mark Hurd.
To get at the story behind the story, Joe turned to Tony Bianco, who I knew 30 years ago when he cut his reporting teeth at Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon, and who recently wrote an book investigating the HP spying scandal that wracked the board a few years back. Tony is an investigative reporter in the best tradition of muckraking, and what he found about that spying scandal made him conclude, he told Joe, that Hurd lacked "the moral character" to be HP's CEO.
Then Joe interviewed Chuck House, who I knew back in the days of HBR and Fast Company. Chuck practically broke into a chorus of "ding dong the witch is dead" when talking about the evil influence that Hurd had had on HP. He made the numbers; he destroyed the company's capacity to do great work going forward.
All of which raises a couple of questions.
Why did the HP board need a trumped up $20,000 payoff problem to fire a man that they deeply distrusted and who had lost the confidence and support of the people who did the work to make the company go? Why couldn't the board summon the "moral character" (to borrow Tony's term) to fire Hurd for toxic leadership, and do it on the up and up?
Maybe, just maybe, boards of directors have become so distanced from their real responsibilities and from the actual world of work that they can't do their jobs responsibly. They need some smokescreen that gives them permission to do what they're actually there to do--provide real oversight and governance for the company, and to evaluate management's overall performance and hold it accountable.
And second, why did it take more than a week for a good, solid journalist to sniff out the real story?
Among my friends in business journalism, the Hurd firing was the biggest head scratcher, not just of the week, but of a good long time.
You'd have thought that enterprising reporters would have wanted to be the one to suss out the real story and bring it to light.
Joe Nocera did it. He gets the credit.
And it's the kind of reporting we need a lot more of. More digging, more putting the sources together, more asking the right question.
Hats off to Joe; now let's have more of it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Problem With Conventional Wisdom Is . . . It's Conventional

For the last several months I've had a ring-side seat at one of America's most fascinating media circuses--the sale of Newsweek magazine.
My ticket to the show was provided by Fred Drasner, the man to whom Bill Taylor and I first brought Fast Company magazine as a concept and who, with his then-partner Mort Zuckerman, made the decision to back our magazine.
A few months ago, after a decade-long hiatus, Fred called me out of the blue. He was going to bid on Newsweek, he told me. Would I agree to work with him on developing an editorial strategy, and, if things worked out, to serving as the editor under his ownership.
What evolved over the next few months was a free updated education into the current economics--and thinking--about news, journalism, and publishing in America.
Of course, I told Fred I would join his team, out of a mix of loyalty and curiosity.
But naturally, I started out as a skeptic.
We all know, after all, what conventional wisdom tells us about magazines, in general, and weekly newsmagazines, in particular: they're irrelevant.
News is a commodity. I wrote that myself in Rules of Thumb.
It happens on the web 24/7.
What we need are people who can provide context. Tell us what the news means--don't just produce more of it. Especially more of it that's later, slower, and less interesting that what we get in short, concise blasts that show up on our cell-phones, laptops, iPads, and other devices in real time.
Then I went to New York with Fred and Paul Ingrassia, my editorial team mate, to meet with the current Newsweek team.
And I began to re-think conventional wisdom.
Before we met with the Newsweek people, we had dinner with a refugee from the publication. Our own editorial "DeepThroat."
He made a compelling case that conventional wisdom is dead wrong.
What the world needs, he said, is a respite from the constant blasts that come at us on the Web. We need to be reminded that "the week" is not a useless increment of time. It's vital one, an important rhythm to events and human life. The news that passes as news, streaming across our electronic screens, usually isn't really news, anyway. It's data, information. It doesn't inform us; it numbs us.
What if a news-weekly actually concentrated on the two things its name says it is: all about news; and weekly.
While we were sitting in New York, preparing for our Newsweek meetings, a funny thing happened: Rolling Stone broke a story. A journalist (as it happens, a former Newsweek stringer) had spent a week (that pesky time period, again) in Europe with General McChrystal and his top team members. The result was a story that blew the lid off the Afghanistan command, cost the General his job--and reminded us all what real journalism does: It reports.
The New York media cried foul! Didn't this guy know he was burning his bridges with the General and his staff? Losing access? Probably sacrificing his seat at the correspondent's dinner in DC?
I made a mental note: We need more journalism, more reporting. We need more content, less context.
Then we had our meetings with Newsweek. The magazine had placed a hefty bet on context, not content. The prize of place went to the magazine's columnists and pundits, the public faces of Newsweek who appeared, along with the editor-in-chief, on TV talk shows and radio. They were smart, they were well-informed, they fit the bill for what magazines in America are moving toward--very bright talkers who can tell you convincingly what they think about what they've been writing about. It's created a world of journalism where "news" consists of journalists interviewing journalists.
When I got back home, I picked up the most recent biography of Henry Luce, "The Publisher" by Alan Brinkley. It's not only a great biography and a historical review of the American Century. It's a primer on publishing and the forces that created our ideas of what magazines can and should be. It's a book, ultimately, about America and Americans, and Luce's ability to tell us our own stories, report on our own national dreams and aspirations.
Then I turned to "American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone" by D.D. Guttenplan. Another must-read for anyone who's grappling with politics, journalism, and present-day America, as well as the journey of one of our most doggedly determined journalists, a national treasure who valued reporting and truth-telling above all else.
And I came away convinced that we need Newsweek, and Time, and The Nation, and all the other struggling news-weeklies out there. But we need them to do what they started out to do, not what they've bent themselves into.
Convinced that we don't want hard-core reporting, they've morphed into "theme-based" magazines. They try to guess the direction of the "national narrative," and then "make sense" out of it for us.
Never mind that most of the time their guesses of narrative arc are wrong! How could they be right? Even the best analyst who tries to connect the dots rarely nails it.
The real question is, at this point in American journalism, is that what we need our reporters doing?
Michael Wolff has long argued that American journalism took a wrong turn with Watergate. All of a sudden, the hard-working, hard-drinking shoe-leather-using reporters of the old school became media celebrities themselves.
Journalists got too smart for their own good, too Ivy League for their readers.
Compound that with the Web, that makes news nothing more than a constant crawl across the bottom of whatever side screen you're blind eyes are staring at, add Twitter and every other social media feed to the mix, and make everyone a blogger and a pundit, and you've got the Tower of Babel replacing serious reporting, tough-minded fact-gathering, and relentless questioning of authority.
We need fewer celebrities, and more muckrakers.
We need less streaming and screaming, and more investigative reporting.
At the end, my original skepticism was replaced by a lengthy memo that Paul and I wrote, laying out an editorial strategy for Newsweek, a plan to take the magazine back to its roots and forward to renewed relevance.
Then Sidney Harman outbid Fred Drasner for the magazine, and the memo became, well, a memo.
But here's what I learned from several months of thinking about something that I was sure I already knew the answer to, before Fred called: The problem with conventional thinking--about journalism, magazines, you name it--is that its conventional.
Which means it's probably wrong.
And certainly boring.
Let's hope that whatever Mr. Harman does with Newsweek, whatever TimeWarner does with Time, and whatever else happens to the magazine and journalism world writ large, we end up seeing more experimentation, more back to the roots thinking, and less conventional wisdom.
In their own opposite ways, it's what Henry Luce and I.F. Stone both stood for.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb