I’m finishing Lab Rats by Dan Lyons and feeling thoroughly depressed but laughing about it. The feeling is like a go-to-bed-pull-the-shades-suck-my-thumb level of depressed while watching the Three Stooges. I was laughing before I finished the foreword.
Lab Rats follows Lyons’ 2017 best-selling Disrupted, and as a bit of a sequel, it takes a horrifying look at the peculiar culture of contemporary companies which he experienced first hand at Hubspot, a successful Cambridge, MA marketing software company. Disrupted landed with a bang in 2017, largely because a few executives got fired or censured by Hubspot’s board of directors for some weirdness involving the FBI and an investigation by the company’s law firm amidst rumors of extortion against the publisher, Harper-Collins.* It also is a very accurate and very funny account of what it feels like to be a fifty-something disrupted by transformation and reduced to going to work at a modern company that fires people and says they were “graduated,” invites a teddy bear to attend meetings to represent the customer, and substitutes wages for benefits such as a beer garden, candy wall, ping pong tables and bean bag chairs.
Dan, who was a writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley for two seasons following his misadventure at Hubspot, is a great humorist, but also a great reporter, and his experience at Hubspot hit a chord with readers who flooded his inbox with confessions of their own workplace despair inflicted on them by incompetent managers, unscrupulous venture capitalists, and bullshit management theories that combines to make their office feel more like the Stanford prison experiment and less like the world-changing adventures the corporate mission statements, principles, values, DNA wall plaques and culture codes proclaimed they were.
So in the aftermath of Disrupted Dan went on the road and headed back to Silicon Valley, which he’s covered since the early 80s for PC Week, Forbes, Newsweek, the New York Times, Wired and GQ (and lampooned for two gloriously funny years when he anonymously gave the world The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.)
He opens with a lunch meeting somewhere in Menlo Park. He’s seated with a woman who uses Legos to train employees to reveal their secrets and fears and gel together as a “team.” After trying to hypnotize him, the Lego Lady asks him to make a duck out of the pieces. He hands her a single piece and declares that’s his duck.
From the sweatshop conditions imposed by power-crazed venture capitalists who commit smash-and-grab public offerings by taking unprofitable startups public on the strength of a business model that essentially comes down to selling dollar bills for $0.75 cents, to Orwellian companies that plant moles amongst their employees and encourage snitching while reading those employees emails and instant messages, Lab Rats is about the perversion of modern work into a series of two-year tours of duty where the rank and file are subjected to a barrage of bizarre management theories ranging from Agile and Lean Startup, to Legos and the Holacracy.
Having ended my own 3.5 year tour of duty in a software startup last March, I guess the book is picking off some scabs that I had left unscratched for the past few months while I recovered from the trauma of the open office, buzzword bingo, constant Slack interruptions, fights with the CEO over “purpose statements” and bullshit marketinglessness words like “Digital Experience.” The insanity of the modern startup, with its founders’ lemming-like drive to hustle their way to riches like their heroes Gary V., Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk, Eric Ries; the infliction of new “productivity apps” that aren’t productive at all; the constant surveys from the HR department to gauge morale; the team-building exercises, the meetings about meetings …..Dan writes in a target-rich environment tailor made for his are-you-shitting-me? sense of humor.
Goodbye to all that. All I can say in my old age is thank God I’m not 23 and saddled with a lot of college loans and dragging my butt into an office that looks like a day care center where nothing gets accomplished and the only certainty is getting fired.
I now work at a place with no instant messaging, no interruptions, no quarterly morale surveys, no ping pong, no bullshit and everyone has the sanctuary of their own office. I’ve never been happier. There are no meetings to plan meetings, no cheery emails declaring some co-worker is a “Super Star,” no reboots of the corporate strategy every quarter when the next management fad comes along to hypnotize the boss.
I’ve never been happier, but I’ll also never forget the utter despair of modern digital marketing in an industry where “culture” comes down to reducing people to disposable beings who are measured, monitored, and berated into suicidal despair.
Dan doesn’t dwell on the outrageous excesses of corporate culture emanating from the Valley. He shows some companies that actually subscribe to the old theory that “contented cows give more milk” and that employee happiness — starting with their compensation — actually makes for a better company, a true culture, and ultimately better products.
* All’s well that ends well for those Hubspot execs — the stock went public at $30 and now trades around $130 — and one wound up as CEO of another hot company.
**Dan and I were colleagues at publications ranging from our high school newspaper through The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, PC Week, and Forbes.
I’m in Los Angeles this week, and not having posted anything in a long time, noted a couple things to share this morning:
Plovers return to Santa Monica beach after 70 years: (my hotel room is sur la plage and has killer sunset views) Here’s a piece in Longreads about how fencing off a section of sand the size of a soccer field and planting some beach plants like rosa rugosa led to the return of the first plover within four months. Turns out people like their beaches clean and groomed, but clean beaches don’t stack up enough seaweed for sand fleas and flies to thrive, and without the bugs, no birds.
2. Om Malik has some thoughts on watches and the changing nature of time in the era of the Apple Watch (which I do not own being of the Android persuasion). Great quote of Lewis Mumford to the effect that the signature machine of the industrialized modern age was the clock.
3. The Bullshit Web: Nick Heer at Pixel Envy writes about the clutter and crap that drives sensible people to install adblockers. I picked this up from the always excellent Project VRM mailing list.
“The combination of huge images that serve little additional purpose than decoration, several scripts that track how far you scroll on a page, and dozens of scripts that are advertising related means that text-based webpages are now obese and torpid and excreting a casual contempt for visitors.”
4. Alfred Lee and Corey Weinberg write in The Informationabout slowly changing policies by startups to extend the window of time beyond 90 days for edeparting employees to exercise stock options by departing. The piece hit a nerve as I just let a bunch of options go unexercised, seeing no sensible reason to go deeply out of pocket and then wrestle with the tax consequences for some future hope they’d actually be worth more than they cost. It would have been far better if I could have dawdled on the decision, but in the heat of starting a new gig there was no way. Moral of the story — unless you’re in the founding class, options remain a chimera for most employees for private tech companies.
5.Best of Enemies – downloaded this great documentary off of Netflix for the flight to the west coast. William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were invited to debate during the 1968 conventions and the sparks flew. A harbinger for the current shouting head phenomena that is the basis of modern political debate. After watching that I headed to Esquire’s “Classic” archives to read Buckley’s 12,500 word essay about his famous meltdown. Next on the reading list is Vidal’s version of events, which spawned one of the ugliest lawsuits and literary feuds in history. Vidal calls Buckley a “Crypto-Nazi.” Buckley calls him a “queer” and threatens to sock him in the nose. All hell breaks loose.
On May 6th, I joined the firm of Sitrick And Company as a Member of the Firm (e.g. “partner”) and the first Head of its new Boston office at One Post Office Square. I’m going to build a global tech practice for the firm as well as advise its clients in New England and the Boston area.
Mike Sitrick, the founder of the firm, has been the leading crisis communications specialist in the country for more than 30 years and advises a blue ribbon of corporate and celebrity clients out of the firm’s headquarters in Los Angeles. The firm also has offices in San Francisco, Denver, Washington, DC and New York City.
Sitrick is home to a roster of former national and local business reporters with the likes of Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Bloomberg on their resumes. One of them, my former Forbes colleague Seth Lubove, recommended me as the guy to build up the firm’s tech practice. So thanks to Seth, here I am.
Crisis communications is a fascinating and often misunderstood specialty in the public relations world and Sitrick is the acknowledged black belt at it. In January his second book — The Fixer — was published by Regenery, and in it he lays out a simple ten rule framework for how to weather those adrenaline-filled moments of sheer panic hat come to every organization on occasion. Most telling is his contrarian approach to working with the media. Where many PR firms and internal PR teams take an adversarial stance in their relations with the press, Sitrick prides itself on working closely with the media to get its clients’ version of a controversy out there rather than hide behind the stonewall of “no comment.”
I can look back at several key points in my career when I felt the most energized and empowered, and nearly all of them were associated with some form of crisis or breaking news. Working a crime scene or fire as a cub reporter at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. Saving a colleague choking on a roast beef sub in the Tribune’s newsroom with a Heimlich. The Shattered Glass scoop my team at Forbes.com broke open in 1998.
Calming down pissed-off customers flooding the Better Business Bureau and social media with complaints over delayed computer shipments at Lenovo.
2017 was enlivened by some challenging crisis work at my former job – running PR at Acquia — and I quickly realized my attention and productivity both soar when things go wrong and hit the proverbial fan. So as I parted ways with Acquia, the one thing I wanted to do was more crisis work — either at my own agency (codenamed “Dumpsterfire”) or with an established one where I could learn.
The chance to work with and learn from Mike Sitrick sold me and so here I am.
A press release went out this morning. Here’s a link to it.
Sitrick And Company Opens Boston Office
David Churbuck, Founder and Editor of Forbes.com, former Chief Content Officer of McKinsey and VP of Digital Marketing for Lenovo, Named Head of Boston Office and Member of the Firm
LOS ANGELES, May 11, 2018 /PRNewswire/ — Sitrick And Company, internationally recognized as one of the top strategic and crisis communications firms in the nation, today announced that it has opened a Boston office. The firm now has offices in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Denver and Washington, DC.
Simultaneously, the firm announced it has named David Churbuck, founder and former Editor of Forbes.com and former Chief Content Officer of McKinsey & Company’s TomorrowLab, as Head of the Boston Office and a Member of the Firm.
Mr. Churbuck, an award-winning tech journalist and digital marketing communications executive, brings 20 years of journalism experience and 10 years of corporate experience to the position.
In addition to founding and serving as Editor in Chief of Forbes.com, Mr. Churbuck served as Senior Technology Editor and New England Bureau Chief at Forbes. While he led Forbes.com, the site exposed the New Republic scandal chronicled in the 2003 film Shattered Glass. While Senior Technology Editor at Forbes, the magazine won awards for his cover story about digital forgery, and his early coverage of the Internet.
Mr. Churbuck served as Vice-President of Global Digital Marketing at Lenovo from 2005 through 2010, where he won awards for Lenovo’s pioneering athlete blogging campaign – Voice of the Summer Games — during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He also served as a founding partner of Eastman Advisors, a digital strategy firm in New York City, advising clients in the entertainment, art and luxury goods sectors on their ecommerce, social media and digital marketing strategies.
Prior to joining Sitrick and Company, Mr. Churbuck was VP of Corporate Marketing at Acquia, a Boston-based SaaS provider of open source content management solutions to Global 2000 clients.
A native Cape Codder, Mr. Churbuck holds a bachelor’s degree in American History from Yale University.
Mr. Churbuck joins a roster of reporters and editors from such publications as The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bloomberg News, NBC and CBS Television.
Michael Sitrick, the firm’s founder, Chairman and CEO said that he has long eyed Boston as a market that could benefit from the firm’s unique set of skills, but had not found the right person to run that office.
“David fills that need,” he said.
“I speak for everyone at the firm when I say we are very thrilled to have David join our team,” Mr. Sitrick said. “His knowledge and expertise in the media, financial, and technology sectors, as well as in digital and social media will further enhance our ability to serve our clients. It takes a certain combination of judgment and skill to succeed in this business and I am confident David has both.”
Mr. Churbuck added, “It’s an honor to join a firm with a reputation as outstanding as Sitrick And Company’s. The opportunity to work with Mike Sitrick and his team is compelling. Their reputation for achieving results for clients is well known. Mike and I share the opinion that there is significant opportunity to bring a new level of value to clients in the technology sector, not only in Boston but worldwide. I am very excited to join the firm and look forward to helping our clients achieve their goals.”
Sitrick And Company is internationally recognized as one of the top strategic communications firms in the country. Based in Los Angeles with offices in New York, San Francisco, Denver and Washington, D.C., Sitrick And Company was founded nearly 30 years ago and is recognized as one of the nation’s top strategic public relations firms. Best known for its work advising clients during crises and other sensitive matters, the firm has a successful business in corporate, financial and transactional communications, as well. It has advised well over 1,000 public and private companies, organizations and individuals on myriad issues. It was acquired as a wholly-owned subsidiary by Resources Connection, Inc. (NASDAQ: RECN) in November 2009.
William Safire was a hell of a writer. He was the Nixon-era speechwriter who gave Vice President Spiro Agnew the wonderful line “nattering nabobs of negativity,” won the Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times columns covering the misdeeds of Bert Lance, and then ended his career with a wonderful weekly column in the Times: On Language
I miss that column, where he would chronicle with great affection and little judgment the vicissitudes of the English language from street slang to bitter battles over the Oxford comma or whether or not to spell judgment or judgement. On the cusp of language in the news, he doubtlessly would have been in his element with “covfefe” last week, but he also could play the part of grammar cop without coming off as too much of a priss or traditionalist locked in the past.
“I welcome new words, or old words used in new ways,” he once wrote. “provided the result is more precision, added color or great expressiveness.”
In these days of fake news, crushing corporate bullshit, politically tempered speech and constant assaults on the First Amendment from both the right and the left, it’s frightening to think we lack a modern day Safire to call bullshit when the powers that be prevaricate, obfuscate, and spackle over the cracks of truth with their verbal wormings. Safire was a language maven — to use his preferred term — in the tradition of Mencken, Orwell and Bierce. Today we get “content marketers” and “brand message consultants” instead.
Safire’s career as a public relations man and presidential speech writer put him in the unenviable job of having to anticipate Murphy’s Law and prepare for the worst case scenario as any crisis communications pro is trained to do. In 1969, as the Apollo 11 mission sent the first men to the moon, it was Safire who took it upon himself to draft a statement for President Nixon to deliver to the nation via TV in the event the astronauts were stranded on the moon with no hope of rescue.
It’s been called one of the most beautiful speeches never delivered. Here’s the full text:
H. R. Haldeman
July 18, 1969.
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT:
The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.
AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.
Alan White, Editor in Chief of the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, passed away yesterday (January 19, 2017) at the age of 68. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, mentor to many, Alan was my first full time editor and my introduction to what it meant to be a reporter many years ago.
He was a gentle man, a keen reporter, and a very elegant editor who didn’t need to raise his voice or affect gruff bluster to command respect and inspire good work. His passing, in these dark days of journalism when daily newspapers feel so marginalized and hanging on by the thinnest of threads when they are needed the most, comes as hard news, especially given his long run at the Eagle Tribune these past forty years.
In 1983 I joined the Eagle-Tribune through my friendship with Alan Rogers, a classmate and neighbor who’s family had founded the paper in the 19th century to serve the mill city of Lawrence on the Merrimack River close by the state line with New Hampshire. I had been a student stringer for the paper during high school, but with hopes of landing a real job with a real paper I moved east from San Francisco with my future wife, rented an apartment in Andover, and started work as a cub reporter on Alan White’s New Hampshire desk.
The Eagle-Tribune’s circulation was about 60,000 and it’s footprint covered Lawrence and Haverhill, the towns along the river, and up north into New Hampshire as far as Derry. The Eagle Tribune was an afternoon paper, an anachronism today, so our presses started running in the late morning with the goal of getting the paper on the subscriber’s doorsteps by the time they came from the mills.
I was assigned Salem, NH. That was a big beat for a new reporter because it was a bit of a wild boom town for Massachusetts residents who wanted to bet on the horses at Rockingham Park, buy beer on Sunday, ride the roller coaster at Canobie Lake or get a new refrigerator free from sales tax. My life consisted of driving around the town, checking in on the district court, the police department, the fire department, and, in the evening: attending meetings of the board of selectmen, the school committee or whatever civic group was holding an event worth a few column inches in the next day’s paper. Some days I would turn in three stories. Never did a day go by when I didn’t write something.
My first story was about a very dry and uneventful sewer bond hearing. I sat in the town hall meeting room, very confused by things like the open meeting law and executive sessions; occasionally amused by the cranks in the audience who took to the microphone to vent their theories or take jabs at the board members. I had a Canon AE-1 loaded with black and white film, a blue Bic pen, and a reporter’s notebook that had the exhortation: “Accuracy-Brevity-Clarity” on the cover.
I was helpless. My handwriting is unintelligible at best when I work at it, but a total waste of ink when I’m nervous and trying to transcribe what someone is saying. Worse of all: I didn’t know how the notebook actually worked and was very confused by how the damn thing was supposed to be used because I didn’t realize the spiral binding was meant to be at the top, and not the side like a notebook I used in school. So I taped the meeting on a microcassette recorder for back up, followed every boring word and motion and vote until it adjourned at 10 pm, then finally went back to the newsroom to sit down and write my first story.
I wrote. I listened to the tape. I puzzled over the notes. I wrote some more. Eventually, after hours of work I sent the story to Alan’s queue in the Hastech editing system and went home for some sleep; knowing I was expected back the next morning to answer questions and put the story to bed.
But the next morning all hell broke loose. A police captain was shot in his bed by his wife with about 30 minutes left before the presses were supposed to run. Delaying the presses meant all the delivery trucks would have to wait, the overtime for the union drivers would pile up, and there would be hell to pay. So, with lots of urgency, the ace reporter on staff went to work while other reporters worked the phones, others radioed in on walkie talkies from the scene, and the photographers drove like mad men to snap pictures and return in time to develop them and get them onto plates. While the reporter , cigarette hanging from his lip, the editors looked over his shoulder offering edits as he wrote, wasting no time to wait for him to finish to actually edit it.
I felt useless but kind of exhilarated. Now this is News, I thought. This was a genuine catastrophe and these poorly dressed people were making something out of the chaos against the clock. For the first time I witnessed a deadline. I saw spinning headlines, editors shouting “STOP THE PRESSES”, newsboys shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”
In the middle of it all, going placidly amidst the haste, sat Alan White, a substantial man with his wire rimmed spectacles, and he summoned me to his desk.
“So this story here…” He pointed at the black screen glowing green with the words I had written the night before and I tried to look eager while reading his face for some desperately needed praise. “….is about 1000 words long and I only need 150. So. I am going to do this….”
Alan did some secret Masonuc keyboard-macro-combination-thing and popped the cursor to the bottom of the story.
“.…and get rid of all of this…..” He highlighted 90 percent of my First Story and with a dismissive tap of a key, deleted it forever.. “.…then I’m going to fix the ending here….” He wrote two sentences with only his index fingers and thumbs (because no one ever was a touch typist in a newsroom), looked at them with a little pride while something withered up inside of me and died. I. Was. A. Writer. Alan read the surviving six paragraphs silently, then turned from the screen and looked at me abd through me, thought for a moment, then turned back to the computer and wrote the headline with no indecision. He hit another key, yelled at the copydesk to let them know they had incoming and dismissed me. “There. Done. See me after lunch.”
I didn’t eat lunch. I sat at my desk while trying to look busy. I read the cheat sheet for the computer’s keyboard shortcuts trying to figure out the black art of making it do the things Alan could make it do.
The press started. The entire building rumbled and shook. All the shouting over the cop shooting vanished as if it hadn’t happened. One second the place was nuts. The next it was Alan White eating a sandwich out of a brown bag and reading the first edition with his feet on his desk. When I saw he was finished I went back as requested.
“Look. I know you worked on that thing for hours, but you got to understand one thing this isn’t a short story about your grandmother’s funeral. Okay? Nothing personal, but when you don’t write tight then I have to spend all my time time cutting things back, looking around in there for good quotes and I just don’t have the time. So… Tomorrow. Do better. Write less. Write fast. Write tight. Okay?”
“Yes Mister White.”
“It’s Al. Get out of here and go knock on some doors. Any questions?”
I had lots of questions, foremost was how the notebook thing worked. So I asked him. He stared balefully at me then took my notebook out of my hands and looked at my notes from the sewer bond hearing. “Whoa. Were you dropped on your head as a baby? Is this shorthand or hieroglyphics?”
I explained I wasn’t sure how to use it. His deadpan answer: “You write in it.”
I explained I didn’t know how to hold it. It was long and thin and the spiral was on the narrow edge, not the long one. Alan squinted, genuinely puzzled by the question. He handed the notebook back and said, “Show me.”
So I demonstrated my lack of technique and tried to explain the notebook was poorly designed and maybe I should go buy a more traditional one with my own money and, well, sorry, I’d be fine. I wanted to get away from the embarrassment before I totally confirmed to him I was a cretin.
“Wait. Show me that again.” I wrote some more. Flipped a page, wrote on it to the bottom. Flipped the page again. Wrote on it.
“No. No. No. Not like that. Where did you go to college? Whatsamatta U? You’re wasting half the pages.” He grabbed it back, folded the thing open onto itself so there was a blank sheet on either side and then demonstrated that the technique was to flip the notebook over — scribble down one side, give the whole thing a flip, keep scribbling, then turn the page over and voila, two more blank sheets. Flip it, write, turn the page. Flip it, write. Turn the page.
I was enlightened. Alan handed it back. “Want to know why it’s that way?”
“Please,” I said.
“So you can stuff it in your back pocket.”
Three months later, while I was sitting at my desk covered with vending machine coffee cups with poker hands printed on the side (hole card was underneath the bottom), Alan came by, grabbed a waste paper basket, and cleared away my collection of carefully stacked and completed notebooks I had been saving for some future reference. I freaked out over the invasion but Alan kept grabbing stacks of notebooks and throwing them into the trash. “Um. I was saving those for….”
“For what? We don’t save notebooks.” Alan said.
“We don’t? I mean, shouldn’t I keep them just in case…..”
“In case of what? You want to frame them? Want to know why I throw away notebooks?”
“Yes. Of course…”
“Because the DA can’t subpoena a landfill.”
In six months Alan White taught me enough of the trade that I was finally doing some real investigative reporting that made the front page on a regular basis and wasn’t six inches of deathless prose about the Salem Kiwanis luncheon buried deep inside of the New Hampshire edition along with the other little blurbs from Plaistow and Atkinson and Londonderry. In eight months he decided I was good enough to cover the 1984 New Hampshire presidential primaries and trusted me — me, a callow 23 year old kid — to ride around the Granite State asking Jesse Jackson and Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan and George McGovern and Gary Hart questions that would wind up with their answers printed on the front page.
Alan White taught me how to push for the news. He pushed me to get the courage up to ask a dead kid’s mother for a picture to run next to the story of her son’s tragic death by a hit and run driver while she was insane with grief, but still get the goddamn photo. He taught me how to cover a fire, a car accident, how to make cops like me and let me cross the police tape. And most importantly, Alan taught me how to maintain my objectivity, always challenge everything a politician told me, and for god’s sake learn to spell a person’s name right. The man was tough. The man was fair. He made me want to be better.
He was wickedly funny, took joy in the news we couldn’t print (Alan reveled in newsroom gossip), and was always the best election predictor in the newsroom, Alan was always ready to talk about fishing, his deep abiding passion, specifically striped bass which he hunted from his home base on Plum Island in Newburyport.
I realize now, as I do the math, that the Alan White I knew, the New Hampshire editor, was only 33 years old at the time I worked for him. His patience, his confidence in his reporters, his unrelenting standards for accuracy, all are the things that led him to become the editor in chief of the entire paper long after I moved on to other papers and the rest of my career. But Alan loyally stayed in that newsroom, even after the Rogers family sold it to a chain and it was absorbed into the great contraction of the news business that killed off lesser papers by the hundreds over the last 20 years.
He won two Pulitzer Prizes. Two. And through it all he patiently schooled hundreds of reporters — many of whom are still my good friends to this day, a couple of whom followed me from the Tribune to PC Week and Forbes like Dan Lyons and Russell Glitman.
Alan would have wanted to be remembered as a reporter. He wasn’t a “journalist.” Alan was a reporter from Worcester and proud of it. He knocked on doors, questioned everything, but did it with a grace and focus I can only wish I could begin to channel today.I bet he would have edited this post down to half its size.
It riles me up to no end to hear some bright-eyed know-it-all declare “what we really need is some engaging story telling to ignite our flaccid content marketing strategy.” There are an abundance of douche marketing “storytellers” ready to sell us a breathless how-to book, or charge us a hefty consulting fee before they tuck us all in, sit on the end of our beds, and crack open the white-paper edition of Go Dog Go! and put us to sleep with some nighttime fable of how to create lovable marketing content that will engage and connect us to the thought leaders that will flip our funnels and turn us from faceless users to loyal brand advocates.
But I digress.
Digression is what I’m here to write about today. Digression is a maddening art and a truly guilty pleasure that squanders time. Taken too far it can be worse than oral surgery. Done right it can delight and leave us begging for more. Who among us hasn’t sat stupefied in the presence of some absolutely horribly pedantic story teller who just. can’t. seem. to. get. to. the. goddamn. point? Yet, who can argue with Lord Byron’s brilliant epigram, about his lover, Caroline:
“Caro Lamb, Goddamn”
Or the shortest, sad story ever told, attributed to Hemingway:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
While brevity is the soul of wit, and short words always win out over longer synonyms, our Ritalin society can be tagged with the depressing acronym: TL;DR — “Too Long; Didn’t Read.” The art of spinning a yarn, telling a tall-tale, being a true raconteur (a person who can tell an anecdote in a skillful and amusing way) just doesn’t seem to fit when declaiming on a four-part framework for calculating the ROI of website personalization.
After all: story telling is the original entertainment medium. Think of Homer sitting around the fire and telling the story of brave Ulysses to a crowd of illiterate Greek kids. The heart of the story-tellers is the spoken word — not the written — and it would do us all well to remember that stories were invented around the campfire, delivered from memory by a story teller, and is the origin of the theater, the novel, film and ultimately the place from which the music of language was tested and perfected. Digression in a story is a way to build suspense, foreshadow events, explain and provide background, and show off one’s erudition. How to weave a footnote into a narrative is a delicate balancing act that few can pull off.
In this era of TED talks and the Moth Radio Hour, Podcasts, personal reminiscences, and self-indulgent blogs such as this one, this is no surfeit of stories to consume. Headlines beg for our limited attention, we get seduced by clickbait and listicles, A/B tested by algorithms to see what reptilian part of our hippocampus will cause our right index finger to flex and click. So in our quick-twitch, Adderal-amped lives, let’s consider the luxury of digression; of stretching out and letting a story teller take their time, hook our attention like an angler sets the barb in a fish’s lip, and hold us for 1,000 pages from one sentence to the next, always wanting more. Let’s follow the footnotes, spend sometime looking up a word, chasing more information, and realize we live in an age of amazing possibilities when it comes to digressing and falling down the rabbit hole of digression where incredible discoveries might be found.
My late friend Jimmy Guterman was fascinated with the impact of hypertext — links embedded in text — which could be followed by the reader down different paths. He would have laughed at the concept of corporate storytelling and punctured the conceit with some droll bon mot. He quoted, in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company founder Alan Webber, opening a conference about content and context by saying “…Webber began the two-day event by arguing that storytelling is overrated….”
Before HTML came on the scene in 1994, Jimmy and I experimented with a hypertext project using the engine behind Microsoft’s help engine — the name escapes me — to digitize the rules governing yacht racing. Jimmy took it further into fiction, but I can’t find any examples on his blog. Experimental fiction has played with alternative plot tracks — Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch has two different possible chapter sequences. Video games — the most lucrative entertainment medium extant today — represent one of the best manifestations of interactive story-telling, the hype that was touted around “interactive television” in the 1990s, when viewers could pick different plot lines or camera angles.
Two writers embody the beauty of digression for me me. Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace in nearly all of his books, but especially his masterpiece Infinite Jest. In 2005, Wallace wrote a profile of a right-wing talk radio host for the Atlantic Monthly. The print edition, which I read on an Acela to NYC, was a masterpiece in taking the principles of digital hypertext and linking onto the printed page. The editors at the Atlantic reformatted the digital edition, using color cues on words to designate footnoted material.
“Navigating the baroque structure of footnotes within footnotes on either the original manuscript or galleys would have been nearly impossible, so we worked on a printout of pages in the ingenious design of our art director, Mary Parsons.”
Here’s a link to their explanation of how they edited and formatted the piece. It presages some amazing examples of interactive journalism and storytelling such as the iconic New York Times piece on an avalanche tragedy, Snowfall.
Here’s the text as it is formatted online:
And here is what the reader sees when they click on the colored words with the [+] prompt:
For me the revelation has been reading William Manchester’s three-volume epic biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion on a Kindle. While e-books are a bit of a tragedy in terms of substantial additions to one’s physical bookshelf, the developers at Amazon have introduced some amazing things in the decade they’ve been perfecting the Kindle interface. For example, any Kindle user is familiar with the ability to look an unfamiliar word up in a sentence simply by highlighting the word and seeing a pop-up definition appear. That in itself is an amazing service to readers like me who are guilty of skipping past some obscure word and missing the opportunity to add something new and amazing to our vocabularies. But it’s the addition of Wikipedia that takes things to a whole new level. Consider when Manchester talks about Churchill’s relationship to the Royal Navy in the years between the two world wars and introduces “Lord Chatfield, Admiral of the Fleet.” Well, my middle name is Chatfield, I have a personal stake in finding out who the hell Lord Chatfield is, and thanks to the Kindle I get right to his entry on Wikipedia, share it with my brother Henry (who also has the Chatfield middle name), and we both get a good laugh and begin referring to each other as “Admiral of the Fleet” whenever we pull our skiffs out of the harbor.
I read Wallace’s Infinite Jest through the first time without taking the time to follow each and every foot note to the end-notes. When I finished the novel — a serious door stop at 1000 plus pages — I started to read those notes and realized what I had missed.
What we have before us, to go back to Guterman’s piece about Alan Webber, is “context within our content”, the ability to stay in the narrative but take a digressive detour out without losing our places. I think it’s incumbent on any writer to indulge their reader’s with some detours, to walk them down a side-path to some hidden spot. In all our wheel spinning in search for optimization and algorithmic textual perfection, take off your shoes, kick back, and get lost down the rabbit hole of digression. Who knows what surprise you might stub your mind on.
I was a political reporter in the early 1980s when I worked at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, MA.. My beat consisted of covering the elected officials in the paper’s circulation area which consisted of the 5th Congressional District along the northern border of the state with New Hampshire, along the Merrimack River valley to the seacoast and encompassing the mill towns of Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill. It was a solidly Democratic district with lots of old school Irish-machine Democrats,tons of Hispanic immigrants in the cities from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and some white-wine and brie liberals down around Thoreau country in Concord and Lincoln.
This was the district where John Kerry got his start after returning from the Vietnam War (I met him as a sixth grader at the Pike School in Andover when he was running against Paul Cronin for the first time, losing a contentious race that included his campaign headquarters getting burglarized. This was the district where the late Paul Tsongas (still my personal favorite among all politicians I’ve covered — for personal, not political reasons) rose out of Lowell and the Greek base there to be the Commonwealth’s second US Senator beside Teddy Kennedy. This was the district that butted up against the southern commuter tier of New Hampshire.
So in the winter of 1984, shortly after getting promoted at the callow age of 24 to State House Bureau Chief, I was assigned to the New Hampshire Presidential Primary and told to develop full feature-length profiles of each and every one of the candidates. This was Reagan’s re-election, this was the campaign where Walter Mondale, the eventual Democratic nominee would tap Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate. This was the campaign where Gary Hart came out of Colorado to shake things up and eventually crash and burn for his indiscretions and unwise taunting of the press to look into his background.
That winter I had the chance to meet and interview every candidate, Republican and Democrat. I rode in the back of a car with George McGovern, the South Dakota legend who lost badly to Nixon in ’72. I interviewed Jesse Jackson. Hart. Mondale. Reagan, Ernest Hollings……Very heady stuff for a recent college grad who had first voted in 1976 but never had been particularly political. I was rubbing elbows with person heroes from the Boys on the Bus era: David Broder, Curtis Wilkie, Walter Robinson, Jules Germond, Ted Koppel, Brit Hume and of course, Hunter S. Thompson.
Election night at a newspaper is an amazing thing, especially back in the pre-CNN days of 24-hour news coverage when newspapers were still pretty influential (hence the reason the candidates took the time to talk to me because the Eagle-Tribune’s impact on the voter-dense southern counties of New Hampshire was pretty significant). I worked the polls in Salem, NH because I got my start covering that town and it was a very politicized place because NH Governor John Sununu lived there.
Going into election night it looked pretty much like a lock for Reagan. New Hampshire was still rock-rib Republican so the press was chasing the Democrats around the state to see who would go against the Gipper. Iowa caucuses weren’t a thing in 1984 — not to the extent they are today, so New Hampshire was still emphatically First in the nation and the media circus was amazing. I was excited. I was in the middle of the news. I was writing good stuff and finding myself drawn into the sports-like atmosphere of election reporting. The pollsters, the debates, the grassroots door-to-door ground game stuff. People were actually asking me my opinion and I realized I was expected to pick some winners.
Alan White, now the editor in chief of the Eagle Tribune, and the New Hampshire editor in those days, was my mentor and he organized a newsroom election pool, advising me I better win or my credibility would suffer post-election. Everyone was assuming Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s VP, would win the primary. The polls had him leading. He was well funded, he was getting most of the attention, but ….
But something about Gary Hart was interesting to me. Something about his past experience working on the McGovern campaign in 1972. Something about his progressive Colorado, John Denver Rocky Mountain High attitude. He had charisma, he had sex appeal, and he had a raucous young campaign team that seemed willing to take chances.
So I picked him to win.
Al White told me I was crazy. I stuck to my guns. And sure enough, Hart upset Mondale in a big way, disproving all the polls and pundits the way a certain someone did last Tuesday night.
What did I learn? That the polling booth is an incredible sanctuary for all of us. A place where we can take all the time we want, ponder our choices, check off boxes and come out and flat out lie to the exit pollsters or even our friends and family about what we did behind the curtain. I learned that big data and statistics are samples, not measurements, and that the more “conventional” the wisdom, the more likely it is to fail. I learned that front-runners take things for granted, fall prey to hubris, and commit the most mortal sin any politician can make — assume support from their base without working for it.
I wondered why there was some discussion this past election year over ballot selfies — people snapping pictures of their ballot to post on social media — freedom of speech, right? Then a wise friend said, “It prevents coercion by organizations like unions who may ask for proof in the polls by their members. It keeps the secret ballot, secret.”
That secrecy in the polls, reminds me of my father’s answer whenever I asked him how much money he made (“A dollar ninety-eight”) or who he voted for (“Gus Hall)* — somethings are our business and ours alone. Yes, there are a lot of incredulous people in my social streams wondering who created such a surprise last Tuesday. There are people outraged the popular vote is (ahem) Trumped by the Electoral College**
But elections are about the expression of choice, in private, between you and me and our single ballot. Not about movements or coalitions, demographics or samples.
So did I call Trump like I called Hart? Yes I did, back when he announced his candidacy. I told a friend that America always gets the President it deserves, and it felt appropriate that the country would elect a reality TV star, just as it felt appropriate that Jimmy Carter was defeated by an actor who played opposite a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo.
How did I vote? Well, I am Tony Churbuck’s son, so I’m not telling. When I was a political reporter I was tempted not to vote in the belief a political reporter should be utterly objective. I am a registered Independent — always have been — and since my first time in the polls in 1976, when I was an 18-year old freshman and the Vietnam was had just ended, to last Tuesday, I have applied the same personal test to every ballot: “Who is the smartest person here?” Some people apply the “who would I want to have a beer with?” Me, I perform my own intuitive IQ test and cross my fingers. Looking back over the 11 presidential elections I can proudly say I voted in each and every one, and picked a nice balance of Democrats and Republicans in the general election. I haven’t picked the winner every time, oh far from it.
I only regret one bad vote, and that was 2000 when I denied Al Gore my vote because of the sexual shenanigans of Bill Clinton — but that election was a total shit-show of hanging chads, so I get a mulligan.
And finally, a last word from an ex-bartender, inflicting one’s personal politics or religious beliefs on other people is a sure fire way not get a tip. I get the surprise and shock, but keep your counsel to yourself, defend your right to a secret ballot, and if you want to change things, go volunteer. But please, don’t expect me to commiserate. How I voted is my business, not a loyalty-test.
*:perennial candidate for the American Communist Party
**: I support the Electoral College on the basis that it fairly distributes elective impact to the rural, sparsely populated counties and doesn’t over-emphasize metro voting blocs
Written on vacation, while deep in the final volume of Manchester’s biography of Churchill, a master of the English language who despised doublespeak and verbosity:
During my five years with Lenovo, the personal computer company born out of the acquisition of IBM’s PC division by the Chinese computer company, Legend, the experienced IBM executives who came over with the acquisition used to engage in something they called “straight talk.” I found this term a bit off-putting because it made me question what I was hearing the rest of the time, but it mainly referred to a mano a mano conversation in which one person told another person some blunt truth in unvarnished terms with some scatological obscenities mixed in to underscore the point. The official term for straight talk is, I suppose, “Plain English” and while I’m sure anyone would agree simple-and-direct beats jargon and clichés, it amazes me how quickly we all lapse into wordiness and meaningless pomposity.
In corporate communications, indeed in any organizational vocabulary from governments to religions, the insidious creeping effects of bureaucratic doublespeak inevitably begin to infest the words and messages of the institution. George Orwell wrote the definitive essay on this phenomenon in his 1946 piece, Politics and the English Language. Dickens satirized it in Little Dorritt with the invention of the “Circumlocution Office.” For centuries, indeed as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, guardians of the language have railed against its pollution by double-speaking, pedantic bloviators who refuse to follow the canon of simple, clear communications.
As a corporate communicator, a so-called “content marketer,” I have a conflicted view of the disease as both a carrier and critic. Without casting stones inside my own house, let me just say that I fight a constant, daily war against the forces of derivative babble-speak, and think, after over a decade within the walls of corporate communications (after two spent in journalism), that I understand the source of the pestilence.
Its name is Google Search.
In technology marketing, language is defined by a three-way symbiotic relationship between the technology press (who are on the wane and not nearly as influential as they were in the 1980s), technology analysts (who are like the press in many regards, but carry the responsibility for creating the taxonomy of categories that define markets, such as “Marketing automation” or “Platform as a Service” or “Web Content Management.” Because technology and governments need acronyms to survive, these analyst categories lead to “WCM” and “PaaS” – and if the press adopt them, which they often do unwittingly, then two legs of the three-way relationship are set and it is only left to the corporate side to adopt them and try to define themselves within those terms.
The analysts rank the companies within a market category, issuing reports (sold at high cost to corporate subscribers) which are used by customers to select the technology that best suits their needs.
So where does Google come in? Simple. The best book on the topic remains John Batelle’s 2005 definitive work: “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture”It’s essential reading for anyone in digital marketing, but it does the best job of explaining the impact Google had on the language by using the citation system of academic journals to make a value-judgment of which links it returned on a search would be ranked first. This gave us the sordid world of search engine optimization and search engine marketing, and before we knew it words and links had been, to steal a phrase from Doc Searls and David Weinberger, “weaponized.”
Now, in corporate communications, when you put pen to paper so to speak, you need to wonder “how will this rank in search?” If a competitor seems to be doing well with “The Internet of Things” or “Big Data” and making claims to analysts and the press as well as on its own website and ebooks that its products are the best for “IoT” or “Big Data,” well then by golly why not us?
Technology doublespeak moves quickly and has no pride, more quickly than teenagers inventing new slang like “420” or “Netflix and chill.” If some “thought leader” says a startup needs to “pivot” to meet new opportunities and become “agile” then suddenly LinkedIn and Twitter are awash in other wannabe thought leaders jumping on the “agile pivot” bus. The end result is perfectly good words –words Orwell or Strunk & White or Ernest Gowers would approve of – suddenly start to get worn out like old coins that have had their embossing erased by so many fingers over time. We know that old dime means “ten cents” but poor old FDR is just a ghost and the date is barely legible anymore as we hand it over for a stick of gum.
The old Dudley Moore movie Crazy People is about an advertising executive who suffers a nervous breakdown and winds up in an asylum. This scenario leads to a hysterical extreme of “straight talk” taken too far. Moore, unable to let go of his workaholic ways, enlists his fellow patients to help him develop some campaign concepts. This yielded the memorable copy line: “Metamucil: It Helps You Go to the Toilet. If you don’t use it, you’ll get cancer and die.”
I’m not railing against the corruption of corporate communications and public relations. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, “I think I need the Freedom to Innovate” but yet we can easily toss that phrase it into some boilerplate and move on, having checked off some of the magic buzzword bingo words we want Google to rank us on. I’m not proposing we all move to some Hemingway-esque model of short declarative sentences with short declarative words. But I do believe that if a message is ever to truly standout, then it needs to leave the pack and be scrutinized for any bombastic, verbose, sesquipedalian tendencies to use the incomprehensible to blow a smelly fart of vaporware and its friend, fear-uncertainty-and doubt over the poor reader.
The challenge isn’t knowing how to write, it’s persuading other people that good writing is better than bullshit. All I can say is good luck. It’s a lonely place to be inside any organization in love with the smell of its own verbal farts and try to open a window to clear the air. It can be done, but it is a constant battle, always rekindled as new carriers of the disease float in from some other plague town, spouting their theories of “lovable marketing content” that is “engaging, authentic” and spread like dandelions over the fields of social media. Just stick to your guns, remember the admonition printed on every reporter’s notebook: “Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity” and take heart that great men like Churchill railed against the insidious, pernicious infection as loudly as the greatest writers ever known. Heck, Churchill won a Nobel Prize for Literature, so I take that back. The man saved England with the language of Shakespeare, Gibbon and Kipling.
Let me conclude with George Orwell:
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
And for you lost souls toiling in the coalmines of jargon, a brief reading list:
Full disclosure: I know these guys and I love what they’re doing. I spoke to Sam Parr the co-founder a couple weeks ago about the shitty state of online “content” (the fact we call it “content” is indicative of how grey-goo it has become) and he’s got the swagger.