Tuesday, April 29, 2014
If you’ve read my blog for a while — or simply looked at my header — you know that my personal (trademarked!) adage is “Never Is the Next New Thing™.” It started out as a 2010 observation about fashion trends. I wrote:
“I used to say, ‘Never say never’ when it comes to fashion, but I’m taking it to the next level and declaring, ‘Never is the next new thing.’ I’m convinced that the styles that are most hated at first — the ones that make people say, ‘Never!’ — are the ones that are most loved once our eyes adjust, with past examples including leggings and various kinds of jeans: skinny, acid-washed, high-waisted, distressed and boyfriend.”
“I’ve seen it in my business as well as in the fashion world. People who told me they’d never wear skull jewelry or big jewelry are buying those pieces from me. My multi-finger ring sets that stores totally dismissed in 2008 were copied by Topshop this year. The luxury-goods experts who told me my accessibility through social media would ruin my business are now saying no business can exist without a social-media presence. So-called impossible things — both good and bad — happen every day in fashion, in business, and in life in general.”
A psychological phenomenon known as “fading affect bias” describes the way negative emotions fade quicker from memory than positive emotions. Clay Routledge, an associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University who studies nostalgia, explained it to me this way:
“When people experience something that might be perceived as threatening, unpredictable or chaotic, in the immediate aftermath there’s this cognitively conservative response: ‘I don’t like it, it’s inappropriate and unacceptable.’ That seems to fade over time.”
I spoke to Clay when I was writing for the Huffington Post after Miley Cyrus scandalized many viewers of last August’s MTV Video Music Awards with a provocative performance. When I pointed out to online commenters that previous generations were every bit as scandalized by Elvis, the Rolling Stones and Madonna, the response was, “Yeah, but they’re icons.” They didn’t come out of the womb as icons, though; they were only perceived that way later. I did some research to prove my point and you can read that here and here. (And I saw with my own eyes that Miley’s career wasn’t ruined, as many critics — both professional and armchair — predicted it would be.)
This pattern of alarm followed by acceptance isn’t limited to fashion and music. I’ve experienced it in three different industries, including luxury goods as mentioned above — each time due to the difficulties of integrating the Internet with an existing business. The first Internet-related job I had was in 1995, when I was an editor at the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition at the time of its launch. (Prior to that I spent three years at Dow Jones News Service, then three more at the print Wall Street Journal.) That was actually quite good. In my recollection, the venture had decent support from the company. The reporters did moan that they were going to have to do twice as much work — a story for the paper and a story for online — but I’m sure they eventually realized it was one story, distributed two ways. I don’t know for sure because I accepted a job at CNN’s financial-news division and worked in television for four years.
I always wanted to leave business news and get into pop-culture-related journalism, so it seemed like a dream come true when I was hired as managing editor of People Magazine’s website in 1999. Remember what I said Friday about being specific when you’re wishing for something? Never wish for a “dream job”! Wish for a “good-dream job” or you could wind up with a “bad-dream job.” It was a nightmare to get the job I wanted and discover that the corporate culture was inhospitable to anyone it hired to do that job. I had been warned that the environment might be bad because the president and chief executive officer of Time Inc. — the owner of People — had once described the Internet operations there as a “black hole.” But that was in 1995 and surely things had changed, I thought. Wrong! The online editions of the magazines were separate operations from the magazines themselves. I didn’t report to the managing editor of People Magazine but to a revolving cast of characters that came through whatever our separate department was called at the moment. Because of that, People Magazine viewed People.com as competition that would cannibalize the print readership, rather than a way to break stories and expand upon magazine content. I had to beg for scraps of content. The most memorable experience was when John F. Kennedy Jr.; his wife, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy; and her sister, Lauren Bessette were killed in a private-plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard on July 16, 1999. I was in Los Angeles at the time, coordinating breaking-news coverage for the website by email and phone. I asked a magazine editor to use some information from a story that had been submitted by a magazine reporter, and was told no, because it might hold as an exclusive for the magazine. This was happening on a Saturday. The magazine didn’t go to print till the following week. I was amazed. It was the biggest story in the world at that moment — everyone was covering it, including the 24-hour news networks like my old stomping grounds of CNN. What tiny factoid was still going to be exclusive to People nearly a week later when the magazine came out?
It didn’t matter much in the end because not that many readers could access People.com. Right before I took the job, someone licensed People.com’s content to AOL to bring in some revenue. If you typed “People.com” to your browser, you would get a notice saying that you could see the content only if you (a) subscribed to the magazine or (b) subscribed to AOL.
High-speed broadband Internet connections would become widely available in a few years, but at the time we were still using dial-up. If you subscribed to AOL, you got a disk via snail mail. This one from 1999 is being sold on eBay right now.
You would install the AOL software and then use it to get online via a modem and a phone line. This is what connecting sounded like, for those of you who didn’t live through it.
If you connected successfully, you would be online. If you weren’t successful, you could be listening to that sound for a long time as you tried and tried again. There are still some people logging on this way, believe it or not. Last year, MediaBistro reported:
“…as always, the hilarious highlight of any AOL earnings report is noting that it’s still raking in lots of cash from people using its dial-up service. Though subscription revenue declined nine percent for Q1, those customers who continue to live in 1999 brought the company $165 million.”
Always nice to have an item that can be described as a “hilarious highlight” in your earnings report! Anyway, dial-up service wasn’t standard in offices, so our tech people had to hack the system in order to allow me and my staff to see our own site at work. I quickly realized this AOL arrangement was bad news. It was tough to get links within AOL unless we wrote exactly what they told us to. I wanted to coordinate with the magazine, not with the dial-up service, so, instead of being the cheerful liaison I was hired to be, I spent months trying to wiggle out of the deal. I succeeded and we went from page views in the thousands to page views in the millions (well, the millions were when I put up a poll for People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue. Click bait! It was still novel then.). My celebration was cut short in January 2000, when Time Warner — the owner of Time Inc. and People — was sold to AOL in a deal valued at $350 billion. Ten years later, the New York Times wrote:
“To call the transaction the worst in history, as it is now taught in business schools, does not begin to tell the story of how some of the brightest minds in technology and media collaborated to produce a deal now regarded by many as a colossal mistake.”
Based on my experience with AOL, I knew this was going to be bad. Moreover, based on my track record of arguments with AOL editors, I didn’t see a lot of career opportunities for me post-merger. Fortunately, around this time, investment banks were starting to think they needed websites. They were interested in finding web-savvy editors with business-news experience to run them. I had a number of interviews at Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers. I was wary of the atmosphere at Lehman Brothers. It seemed like a whole lot of guys high on testosterone who thought they were right about everything. That describes every investment bank but it was worse there. I remember saying to the future MrB, “If there’s one thing I know, it’s that I will never work for Lehman Brothers.” Back then I didn’t know that “Never Is the Next New Thing™,” or I would have chosen my words more carefully. I did indeed wind up working at Lehman Brothers because — including a signing bonus and guaranteed year-end bonus — Lehman offered me four times what I was making at People.com, PLUS a high-speed Internet connection. They had me at “high-speed.” Just kidding! They had me at “Here’s a lot of money.” They were so desperate to have me, I figured they would support me in my role. My title was managing editor for e-commerce and, again, the rest of the company seemed suspicious of the e-commerce team, like we were there to cause trouble instead of help. As a result, for a long time no one would let me do a damn thing except hire a few people. One of my employees came to me about two weeks after she started, near tears, because she was sure she was going to be fired for not doing anything. I said, “Oh, I used to feel that way too. You’ll get used to it!” Eventually, we did get to work, but we never got to do as much as I wanted, in part because various departments would use their own tech people to sneak content onto the internal website without review. At Lehman, whoever made a lot of money was right, and I was in a non-revenue producing department. I once was prevented from correcting spelling and grammatical errors because a top guy had approved the copy with the errors.
I originally planned to save my Lehman Brothers money for retirement and go back into journalism once I’d recovered from the AOL trauma, but when it came time to make a move, going back seemed too safe and boring. I’d thought a few times about having my own company. I’d designed my own engagement ring in 2001 — I was referred to the diamond dealer by my tearful, diligent employee — and I’d designed a few things for myself since then. Why not try a jewelry business in partnership with that diamond dealer? I liked the idea of something that would make women feel beautiful, and I’ve always thought that jewelry is one of the best things besides makeup for that. Jewelry and makeup always fit and make you glow. I left Lehman in 2005 to focus on the jewelry, which was great timing, because I was able to sell my stock in 2006, two years before Lehman went bankrupt during the 2008 financial crash. I don’t always know when to refuse bad jobs, but at least I leave them in a timely fashion.
By 2006, I was without a business partner. The following year, after commenting on a lot of fashion blogs, I started my own blog to promote the jewelry but also to write, because I missed journalism. As I’ve said before, experts told me this was a terrible idea. Luxury goods need to be out of reach to be desirable, they said. Well, this July 23 will be my seventh “blogversary.” Most of my sales are generated by my social media — which includes this blog, but also Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The effect of social media isn’t limited to sales made directly through my website. Potential customers often reach out to me offline after finding me online. In addition, I get press, I meet people in the industry, I find out about opportunities, I track personnel changes at stores and publications, I spot inspiration for pitches to the stores and publications, I find inspiration for an entire line of jewelry — all from social media. Ask Eryn Patton, my diligent right-hand woman who runs my business Instagram, how often I forward her relevant tweets in the middle of the night. (I mean, don’t ask her, because she’s busy doing a million things for me, but theoretically, you could ask her.)
As for the luxury companies that were so above it all? They’re all online. Their social-media people — like Oscar de la Renta’s OscarPRGirl and Donna Karan’s DKNYPRGirl — are minor celebrities. Marc Jacobs named a handbag for blogger Bryanboy. Of course, traditional media outlets have been complaining about bloggers occupying the front row of fashion shows since at least 2009 and, last year, the backlash intensified with Oscar de la Renta saying he’d scale back his show to avoid having “20 million people with zero connection to the clothes” distracting the buyers and old-media editors. Sure, he doesn’t have to woo the online community now. He’s co-opted it! “Never Is the Next New Thing™,” kids. The Internet is an accepted part of a high-end fashion business. Meanwhile, over at People, if celebrity gossip happens after hours, you’ll see it on the website long before you see it on the magazine. There’s no question about holding it back. “Never Is the Next New Thing™” there too. Lehman Brothers is gone, but all the surviving investment banks have websites. I would hope that the companies are more cooperative with the people who run those these days — that those employees are seen as part of those companies rather than strange interlopers from the digital world.
I’ve been reflecting on these experiences as I help the Columbia Daily Spectator through its own Internet-related “Never Is the Next New Thing™” moment. I’m the chairman of the board of alumni trustees at the Spectator, Columbia University’s undergraduate-student newspaper. Anyone who is in the newspaper business or who reads about the newspaper business knows that print ad revenues have been falling for a long time. All the other sources for news, combined with younger people’s preference for online reading, are cutting into print readership and the perceived effectiveness of print ads. Spectator is affected by this like every other newspaper.
The newspapers have done some damage to themselves by resisting new methods of delivering their content, the same way the recording industry was hurt when it resisted responding to consumers’ changing behavior. There are legitimate reasons for clinging to the old ways: Print ads have always brought in much more money than online ads. People in the business like to say that print dollars turn into online pennies. But when print is declining in popularity and ads are fewer, you risk going down with the ship if you don’t change. (Yesterday, Slate, citing the American Enterprise Institute, reported that newspaper print ad revenues are now the lowest they’ve been since 1950.) That’s when it’s time to look for new ideas and new opportunities. If you don’t, your rivals will. I saw that first-hand at People, which feared its own website would take away magazine readers. It was always People Magazine versus People.com, but if your own website can hurt you that badly, just think about what someone else’s website can do! It should have been People the brand versus all of its competitors. Instead, while People was busy fighting itself, E! Online took off. And then came 2005, when entertainment bloggers like Perez Hilton popped up. Anyone can have a gossip site now. People should have taken that chance to dominate in 1999, when it nearly had the field to itself. But, then, the bigger worry at the magazine was a competitive threat in the print realm as US Magazine changed from a monthly magazine to a weekly, going head-to-head with People. To be sure, People is still a huge magazine today, but now there is a whole crop of weekly celebrity magazines, so that focus on US didn’t even eliminate print rivals.
I empathize with the print-focused folks because, despite my long history online, I love reading print papers and have even sung the praises of print on this blog. To date, none of my readers or friends have reported back that they’ve given up online reading as a result of my nostalgia. I get it. I don’t buy CDs and I think it’s amusing that other people do. I download my music song by song, so I don’t have any of those filler songs that I don’t like, and I don’t have CDs cluttering up the place. Why would you want it any other way, I’ve wondered. Similarly, people who are not me get their news online. It’s easy. They’re always on the phone or computer anyway; they don’t have to have paper clutter; they can read practically anywhere they are, except on an airplane taking off or landing. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 71% of readers 18 to 29 get their news from the Internet, compared to 63% of my age group; 38% of people 50 to 64; and 18% of people 65 and over. In response to this, the Columbia Spectator’s student leaders are committing to a big online expansion, while reducing the print schedule from five days a week to once a week. The daily news will still be reported on the website, and probably much more of it than has ever been reported before. If news related to Columbia breaks in the middle of the night, it better be on that website in the middle of the night because, trust me, I will be looking. The weekly print publication, which will come out Thursdays, won’t be covering seven days of news like John Oliver’s new show Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.
I said it will not be like that! Instead, it will feature in-depth articles, a weekend arts supplement, a sports weekend review and the like. I hope to see something very dynamic and different.
This plan came together relatively quickly. As recently as Spectator’s February fundraising dinner featuring Katie Couric, I was working with the students on the concept of a fundraising campaign to help defray the high costs of producing the print paper. Try as we might, at that time, we couldn’t come up with any convincing argument beyond tradition. And, as one person who knows Spectator well wrote recently, “… should that tradition be preserved as some magnanimous but empty gesture made at great … expense?” I wasn’t going to argue tradition was a good business decision, so I put the idea aside. Then the students presented their “Web-first” plan at a meeting on April 16. I had known this would come up someday. The previous student publisher warned the trustees repeatedly about the declining print revenues and that sooner rather than later, the print paper would start to lose money. I was hoping for “later” rather than “sooner.” In fact, in February, after the failure to put together a campaign for the print newspaper, I’d said cheerfully to friends and family, “We might have to start focusing on online soon — but I’m sure it will happen after my term as chairman ends [in February 2015] so I won’t have to deal with it.” I was counting on that, so when the students told me their plan I was like …
But I’m realistic. As I said to the New York Times about Spectator on Friday, “My feeling is that our valuable product is the content. Whether it’s print, Internet or something that hasn’t been invented yet, they’re all just delivery tools.” The reason the New York Times called was because of trustee John “Rick” MacArthur. Rick skipped the meeting where the plan was first discussed, but found the time to forward to the Times an email chain discussing the proposal. The chain included his own rants, such as: “I am quite simply appalled by the arrogant, presumptuous tone of the board members, and the staff, who want so blithely to dispense with more than a hundred years of tradition.” If you’re into rants like that, New York Magazine last year collected a bunch of Rick’s under the title, “John R. MacArthur Still Hates the Internet.” The intro made me LOL:
“John ‘Rick’ MacArthur, the wealthy president and publisher of old-fashioned monthly magazine Harper’s, likes to emerge from the serenity of his personal library every now and then to remind us that the Internet is evil.”
While there were other trustees who argued against the student proposal, or who at least had serious reservations about it, the majority voted to support the students on Sunday. With one exception, the debate was passionate but polite, and a lot of useful, actionable items came out of it. It’s going to be a very busy summer at Spectator and I know that everyone is committed to making this plan work.
Meanwhile, Rick resigned, as promised, and I thanked him and wished him well.
Another trustee, Steve Waldman, had some great insight which I asked him if I could share. Steve is the editor-in-chief, president and co-founder of Beliefnet. For the last few years, he has been writing and speaking about (in his words) “the serious risks to communities and democracy posed by the decline of print newspapers (first via my FCC report and then via Knight-financed speaking/writing tour) and the very difficult economics of digital-only properties.” Steve wrote to the trustees:
“One of the things that’s frustrated me about this debate is that its been cast as being pro-print or anti-print. … The question is not print – yay or nay? – but what kind of print. The one thing about which there is strong consensus is that free, daily, print newspaper editions do not make sense economically.
That’s why I think what the students have proposed is the perfect balance. A weekly print addition is not just ‘one fifth of a daily,’ it’s a different product – one that can be constructed in a way to preserve most print advertising while reducing costs. It may well be that a weekly print edition can be profitable while a daily almost certainly cannot.”
“The strongest argument the students have made is that they would be able to produce a better digital product, and better journalism. This seems very logical to me. There’s only so many hours in the day and gray cells in the brain. They need to be spending far more of that focused on how to make the digital operations – the site, social media and most of important the mobile experience – more and more interesting.”
Steve also noted, “And if you’re spending most of your time on print, you’re also making yourself less employable when you get out of college.” That’s a good point that Cindy Royal of the Nieman Journalism Lab — which describes itself as an attempt to help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age — brought up in a story yesterday titled, “Are journalism schools teaching their students the right skills?”
“Finally, my view is that Spectator is an institution worthy of preservation for the ages but that it is primarily for the current students who put in the insane hours. To block something that is the clear overwhelming preference of the current students, we would need to have strong evidence that this is an irreversible, horrendous move. I don’t think it is. Far from it, it is, in my view, quite smart and sensible.”
For more on the Columbia Spectator’s decision, you can read this story on Bloomberg Businessweek. (Bloomberg Businessweek is the rebranded version of the old magazine BusinessWeek. Bloomberg bought the magazine after its ad revenues plunged. Sound familiar?) I liked the thoughtful piece by 2011 Columbia grad and former “Speccie” Betsy Morais that ran on The Awl, except for her description of me as the “former editor of the Arts & Entertainment section who has since become a jewelry designer and the wife of Paul Steiger, ex- Wall Street Journal managing editor and the founder of ProPublica.”
The Spectator is the first Ivy League newspaper to change its daily printing schedule, and it’s tough to be first. There’s a lot of criticism before that helpful fading affect bias does its job and erases all the negative memories. In creative work — fashion, music, art, writing, design — I’ve found it’s possible to be so early that by the time other folks copy your work, the original has been forgotten. (That’s what happened with my swear rings, for instance. In that case, I might have been better off being third.) Spectator’s situation isn’t like that. If others follow its path, it won’t take away anything from Spec. While it can be bittersweet to see latecomers applauded for what the pioneers were criticized for, I do believe Spec’s “never” will turn into the “next new thing” for other news organizations. I am thankful to the students — especially Michael Ouimette, Abby Abrams and Steven Lau — for their enthusiasm and determination, and to the majority of the trustees for their thoughtfulness and dedication to a great Columbia institution.
UPDATED TO ADD: Here is the Wall Street Journal’s online update on Rick and his shenanigans. Rick spent hours last night sending emails to the trustees that were also copied to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CBS, Newsday and who knows who else. Probably my parents and first-grade teacher, Mrs. Davis, were in there somewhere. I got the last word in Journal piece — and you know I love to have the last word! It quotes from the Never Is the Next New Thing™ email I sent right after Rick resigned:
“Wendy Brandes, the board chairwoman, weighed in as well. ‘Internal and external reaction to this kind of move is the same across industries: first resistance, then acceptance, and, finally, enthusiasm,’ she wrote in response to Mr. MacArthur’s resignation e-mail. ‘Best of luck with Harper’s.’”
UPDATED AGAIN TO ADD: New York Magazine chimed in here. Reporter Joe Coscarelli asked me about Rick and I said:
“I’m surprised that he would embarrass himself that way … He was a very inactive board member and very rarely attended any meetings. It’s funny to see what it took to arouse a sleeping giant. This is the most I’ve ever heard from him.”
Rick wound up cussing.
“Absolutely I’m disowning [Spectator]. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I don’t hope they succeed at doing better interactive graphics. I think that’s bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit. I don’t support it.”
UPDATED APRIL 30, 2014 TO ADD: Steve Waldman wrote a good piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. I had a laugh over this part:
“… it’s often damn hard to create excellent content while keeping costs very low, especially since the main ingredient to good journalism is human beings. It’s almost as if you need some sort of cruel organization in which talented people work insane hours for no pay. Hmmm. Sounds like a college newspaper!”
As Steve concludes, because of factors like free labor, Spectator may not be “literally a model that can be copied in its particulars by the pros. But the students’ sense of balance, and their spirit, offers many lessons for the grownups.”