Happy 239th American Independence Day

Thomas Jefferson portrait, 1791, by Charles Willson Peale
Thomas Jefferson portrait, 1791, by Charles Willson Peale

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

-Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States of America (1743-1826)

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You can say that again…

From the Verizon news release this morning announcing the $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL:

Lowell McAdam, Verizon chairman and CEO, said: “Verizon’s vision is to provide customers with a premium digital experience based on a global multiscreen network platform. This acquisition supports our strategy to provide a cross-screen connection for consumers, creators and advertisers to deliver that premium customer experience.”

Tim Armstrong, AOL chairman and CEO … said, “Verizon is a leader in mobile and OTT connected platforms, and the combination of Verizon and AOL creates a unique and scaled mobile and OTT media platform for creators, consumers and advertisers.”

First question from the assembled media: What the heck are you talking about? Can you say that again in English?

I wonder why companies still bother to issue press releases. For starters, it’s a safe bet that neither Verizon’s McAdam nor AOL’s Armstrong said any such things. The “quotes” undoubtedly were written by corporate communications specialists who are fluent in the peculiar language of corporate buzzspeak. “Premium digital experience?” “Global multiscreen network platform?” “Cross-screen connection?”


Who is the audience for this news release? Clearly not reporters or editors, who would never allow such gibberish to be used. Clearly not readers, because normal humans don’t talk like this. One has to assume, then, that news releases are written for internal consumption only, or perhaps for other corporate communications specialists at other companies — people who speak their particular jargon.

Or maybe it was written by Shingy, AOL’s resident “digital prophet.” (Yes, AOL has a well-paid employee whose job title is actually “digital prophet.”) No, that can’t be. Shingy is a storyteller.

I’m guessing McAdam and Armstrong both want to tell a story, about how the marriage of Verizon and AOL will be a good thing. The news release doesn’t tell a story, at least not in an effective way. It’s a waste of time for the people who produced it, and for the people they sent it to.

Here’s the real story, which neither Verizon nor AOL would ever say so bluntly: This is a merger of two companies struggling to find relevancy in the new digital world order. The old “phone” networks — Verizon’s legacy — are dying. People are becoming less interested in using their phones to talk, and more interested in using their phones for social media apps, information, and video downloads. The content business — AOL’s legacy — is no longer about content; content (the commoditized version of what we used to call news stories, TV shows, photographs, etc.) is merely a method of transmitting advertising. That’s why old line media companies like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are planning to publish stories directly on Facebook. More people (eyeballs) will see their stories on Facebook than on nytimes.com or wsj.com. More eyeballs equals more advertising revenue.

Verizon doesn’t care about the quality of the content. Just last year it tried to launch its own tech news site, the bizarrely named SugarSting, but folded it after one month. Reporters for Verizon’s tech news service were prohibited from writing about net neutrality, NSA spying, or other topics on which Verizon was, uh, sensitive.

Verizon’s core phone business is dying; voice is just an app on Verizon’s growing digital network, and not a very lucrative app at that. Video is where the money’s at. Customers pay more for broadband than they do for phone service. Verizon thinks that by adding AOL’s expertise in targeting and delivering advertising, it will be better able to compete with the new network titans, Facebook and Google. AOL still makes more than half a billion dollars a year selling 20th century dial-up Internet service to people who don’t know any better, but its real value today is based on its advertising automation technology.

PremiumNotice how both executives listed “advertisers” last in the trio of customers they want to serve, behind “creators” and “consumers.” This is called “burying the lede.” This acquisition is all about advertisers, and advertising algorithms.

Notice they called it a “premium customer experience,” not “the best” or “the fastest” or “the most useful” or “the most enjoyable.” Maybe the dictionary can explain the significance of “premium.”

Hmm. It’s not insurance. That leaves “costs more” and “more valuable.” Costs more for consumers, more valuable for advertisers.

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Anonymous Ad Hominem Attacks

“She was a value destruction machine with near zero cultural sensitivity,” says a top tech CEO. “The [Silicon] Valley opinion was universally and viscerally negative. I literally don’t know a single person who thinks she was great and unfairly treated.”

Carleton S. Fiorina, announcing her candidacy for President of the United States. Credit: NBC News
Carleton S. Fiorina, announcing her candidacy for President of the United States. Credit: NBC News

If contumely for the new Republican presidential candidate Carleton S. Fiorina is so universally shared in Silicon Valley, why couldn’t the reporters at Yahoo! Finance find someone willing to go on record criticizing her? Was it because the quote was too good to pass up, Grade A Prime clickbait, even if the source was a nameless coward? Was it because the reporter was too lazy to find someone willing to say the same thing for attribution? Perhaps it was an amalgam of snippets uttered by several different enemies of Carly Fiorina, consolidated into one convenient dagger. Or maybe, “The reporter just made it up,” said one former senior editor at a top magazine in New York.

Anonymous quotes in stories are “the last resort,” according to my copy of The New York Times Style Book. Notice that the rulebook doesn’t bar anonymous quotes unconditionally. For many stories, especially of great significance and sensitivity, the rules are bent if anonymity is the only way to convey the thoughts of an important source who is integral to the story. Even then, an editor must be convinced that the quote is accurate, that the reporter tried to get the source to speak on the record, and that the reader is given at least some indication of the speaker’s motive for hiding behind anonymity.

But in no case — never, ever — should a reputable publication allow itself to be used by someone to make ad hominem attacks on someone else while hiding behind the screen of anonymity.

In the Yahoo! Finance case, the story — about Carly Fiorina’s performance as CEO of Hewlett Packard — fails to rise to the level of exceptional importance and sensitivity. It’s a campaign story, duh. Without additional clues, the source — “a top tech CEO” — is inconsequential. It could be the douche-nozzle CEO of a tech company that had no dealings with H-P; we’ll never know. And if the quote is reliable — that scorn for Fiorina is universal and visceral in Silicon Valley — then it should be a piece of cake to find another “top tech CEO” with more courage to say similar things on the record.

For the record, I think Carly Fiorina was a disaster as a CEO and would be a disaster as president of the United States. And you can quote me on that.

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Cagney-reporterWhat’s the worst career to enter for someone graduating in 2015? According to CareerCast.com, which fancies itself “the Internet’s premier career site for finding targeted job opportunities by industry, function and location,” one cannot do worse than newspapers.

“Newspaper reporter” ranked dead last, 200th out of 200, in the 2015 version of CareerCast’s Jobs Rated Report. The report is hardly scientific; a good reporter would question the company’s methodology. A cynical reporter (often but not always synonymous with “good reporter”) would point out that there’s no surer way to get a reporter’s attention than to write something snarky about reporters. See? It worked here.

Indeed, CareerCast crows that “Jobs Rated’s national exposure grows every year, receiving coverage from outlets including CNN, Forbes, ABC, CBS and many, many more.”

On the other hand, it is hard to argue that “newspaper reporter” is not an endangered species.

The best jobs? The Jobs Rated report’s Top 10 are skewed to people who favor numbers over words: Actuary, Statistician, Mathematician, Data Analyst, plus engineers and other technical jobs. And numerous studies, done with far more rigor than the CareerCast report, confirm that STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) offer better job prospects and better salaries than newspaper journalism.

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