Hacking through Amazon’s jungle of coverage


The New York Times exposé of working conditions at Amazon lacks two key attributes: context and — I can’t quite believe I’m saying this — balance.

Like everyone in my feeds, I read the story with something verging on horror. Since then, I’ve seen many tweets presenting another perspective and just read a point-by-point rebuttal by an Amazonian.

Where’s the truth? in the mix. Except as a reader, I had to go search for that mix.

First, context: Last night on Twitter, I half-joked that Amazon sounded like many newspaper newsrooms:

Jay Rosen later responded:

You get the point: Where is the context about work as a whole? Is every office as wonderful as Google and Facebook are supposed to be? No, of course not. We all know that. So to what standard is Amazon being held? Is it better or worse than comparable and realistic (read: unGoogle) workplaces? That’s not in the piece. It needs to be.

Now to balance. Nick Ciubotariu, an engineer and executive at Amazon, wrote a very long rebuttal on LinkedIn, which I found only thanks to a Dan Gillmor link. Amid some amusing techcospeak (an issue “gets actioned”) are clear and sincere explanations for much of what The Times thinks it has exposed. For example, the orientation at any company, taken out of context, might sound like brainwashing; that’s normal. He says that the cases of how employees with pregnancies and health and family issues were allegedly mistreated are appalling and the company must address them. He acknowledges that Amazon might have changed between its founding and his hiring 18 months ago. But he likes working there. He, like many colleagues, is attracted to tackling huge problems — and that is obviously not easy work.

The Times talked with some Amazon employees but makes a point of saying that they were offered up by the company and so they are presumed to be like North Korean media handlers; they are to be discounted. Most of what The Times garnered from unofficial sources was negative. Most of what Ciubotariu says is positive.

We, the readers, are left to balance these accounts ourselves. And that’s my problem. The Times should have presented enough of that conflicting evidence so that we could weigh evidence and decide for ourselves whether Amazon is hell in Seattle.

But The Times decided that for us. It wanted to expose Amazon’s working conditions. It devoted two reporters for six months to do just that (who would devote such resource to finding out that it’s an OK place to work, if you have to work?).

The Times had an agenda. Well, some of you might remind me: Haven’t you, Jarvis, argued that journalism is by definition advocacy? Yes, and it’s clear The Times wanted to tackle the issues that arise from such demanding work. But as a journalistic institution, The Times is still required to exhibit the intellectual honesty to credibly and fairly present evidence that counters its worldview. It is still required to give us in the public the respect and trust to make our own decisions about what it presents.

But that’s not what The Times did. I am not doubting the truth of what The Times presented, only the selection. I am also not saying that after balancing all this, I would want to work at Amazon. I can’t stand the idea of a culture that enables an anonymous feedback system, which The Times exposes and its employee defends; I sure as hell won’t want to see that trend spread to other workplaces. I worry about a culture that can allow the cases of cold-hearted lack of empathy for employees’ lives that The Times presents, even if they are just anecdotal. On the other hand, I admire greatly the commercial and logistical miracle that Amazon has built. I love the idea of working side-by-side with people as smart, accomplished, dedicated, and passionate as the people who have built Amazon. I also read the piece worried that all this publicity would lead — Gawkerlike — to unionization, and I think that could jeopardize its growth.

On that last point, you may think I sound like an owner. I am. I have long held a few shares in Amazon. So you should judge what I say here with that conflict of interest well in mind. You’re probably scolding me right now for not saying it at the top of this piece. You’d be right. And that is how I illustrate my last point: The Times did not say until halfway down its very long piece that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which some say is closing in on The Times.

The problem at a moment like this is that once one starts to believe The Times might have an agenda, one is left trying to suss out what it might be: against Amazon and its owner, Bezos, who is a competitor; against technology, a direction too much of media is taking (you should see the latest from Der Spiegel; its technopanic should be printed in purple ink); in favor of big labor? I wouldn’t be wondering that if The Times had given me greater context and balance and sufficient information to let me decide about Amazon for myself rather than having it decided for me. And that’s too bad. There is much good reporting here. There are important issues and modern-day phenomenon that deserve discussion. Instead, we’re starting to discuss The Times.

LATER: I think I’m clear about this but let me be extra clear: I am not saying The Times has a competitive agenda against the Post and thus Bezos. I am saying that it will open itself up to such questioning by not being sufficiently transparent and not exhibiting intellectual honesty by providing sufficient balance to make clear that in the end the judgment is the reader’s.

BEZOS RESPONSE: The letter Bezos sent to Amazon staff:

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:


I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:


Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at [email protected] Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

Thank you,


What Would Alphabet Do?

Eakins, Baby at Play 1876.jpg
You’d expect me to say this but Google’s transformation into Alphabet is a brilliant move that enables Page, Brin, and their company to escape the bonds of their past — They’re just a search company. Why are they working on self-driving cars and magical contact lenses and high-flying balloons? — and go where no one has thought they would go before.

To Wall Street and countless bleating analysts — not to mention its competitors and plenty of government regulators — Google was a search company, though long ago it became so much more. I don’t just mean that it also made a great browser, the best maps, killer email, an open phone operating system and some of the best phones, and a new operating system (and the damned fine computer I’m writing on right now) — and that it acquired the biggest video company and the best traffic data company. I don’t just mean that Google has for a long time really been the powerhouse advertising company.

No, Google long ago became a personal services company, the post-mass-market company that treats every user as a customer it knows individually. That is the heart of Google. When they say they “focus on the user and all else will follow,” they mean it.

But Google was also a technology company, working on projects that didn’t fit with that mission.

So this move lets Page and Brin move up to the strategic stratosphere where they are most comfortable. It lets them recognize the tremendous job Sundar Pichai has been doing running the company that is now “just” Google. It lets them invest in new experiments and new lines of business — cars, medical technology, automated homes, and energy so far, and then WTF they can imagine and whatever problems they yearn to solve. It lets them tell Wall Street not to freak at a blip in the ad market — though, of course, the vast majority of the parent company’s revenue will still come from Google’s advertising business.

A journalist asked me a few minutes ago whether there was any risk to the change. I couldn’t think of any then. I suppose one risk is that this will only freak out especially European media and regulatory technopanickers, who will now go on a rampage warning that — SEE! — Google does want to rule the world. But what the hell. They were going to do that anyway.

A few weeks ago at Google I/O, I had the privilege of meeting Page. To introduce myself, I said that I wrote a book called What Would Google Do?. “Oh, I remember,” he said with impish grin and then he asked: “What would Google do? I want to know.”

See, I don’t think even Larry Page knows what Google — er, Alphabet — will do. He is now setting himself up for discoveries, surprises, exploration, experimentation, and a magnificently uncertain future. Who wants a certain future? That’d be so damned boring. So horribly conventional.

Disclosure: I own Google — er, Alphabet — stock. And I now lust after Alphabet swag.

New video powerhouse


The amazing Samir Arora, CEO of Mode (née Glam), called with some impressive numbers on his company’s new platform and aggressive push into video.

A two-minute video illustrating 100 years of fashion gained 1 million views in six days, 10 million in 21, and now — a bit more than eight weeks out — has 58 million views. Almost three-quarters of those views came on Mode’s own network — where they can prioritize users based on relevance and influence; the rest on Facebook, YouTube, et al.

In two months, Mode is now the 13th video property according to ComScore; it was already the 7th web property.

Through this, Mode is building two big video revenues streams: half from prerolls (YouTube’s territory), the other half from distributing brands’ video content and from sponsorship of its own video content. Video, of course, has enviable CPMs running $20-$45 for this kind of content.

Note well that with Mode, creators always get paid for their content — whether as revenue share or for hire. Importantly, under certain circumstances, distributors also get paid.

Glam started as a network; that is what brought Samir and me together. It then set about building tools for content creation, curation, and distribution. Samir’s big lesson, he said, is that an ecosystem needs a platform.

Mode still is under the radar for many in media. I’d reset your radar.

Here’s VentureBeat on the these numbers; and Scoble, too.

Journalism is not a crime: A letter to German authorities

A large group of key figures in journalism and technology in Germany and elsewhere has published an open letter to German authorities in a critical fight for press freedom there. The letter is below. I am among the signatories. The editors at Netzpolitik and their sources were being investigated for treason for sharing government documents openly. A furor ensued in German media and online. The case was supposedly called off. Then the German justice minister called for the resignation of the chief prosecutor who had started the investigation. Rather than going quietly, that prosecutor is accusing the justice minister of interfering in a case; this is now being called a constitutional crisis. This case and the danger are not over.

Jacob Appelbaum put out a call on Twitter for those who would want to join in a letter to German authorities. I did; so did many I respect. Here it is:

“The investigation against Netzpolitik.org for treason and their unknown
sources is an attack against the free press. Charges of treason against
journalists performing their essential work is a violation of the fifth
article of the German constitution. We demand an end to the
investigation into Netzpolitik.org and their unknown sources.”

“Die Ermittlungen gegen die Redaktion Netzpolitik.org und ihrer
unbekannten Quellen wegen Landesverrats sind ein Angriff auf die
Pressefreiheit. Klagen wegen Landesverrats gegen Journalisten, die
lediglich ihrer für die Demokratie unverzichtbaren Arbeit nachgehen,
stellen eine Verletzung von Artikel 5 Grundgesetz dar. Wir fordern die
sofortige Einstellung der Ermittlungen gegen die Redakteure von
Netzpolitik.org und ihrer Quellen.”

“Les charges contre Netzpolitik.org et leur source inconnue pour
trahison sont une attaque contre la liberté de la presse. La poursuite
pour trahison des journalistes qui effectuent un travail essentiel pour
la démocratie est une violation du cinquième article de la constitution
allemande. Nous demandons l’arrêt des poursites contre les journalistes
de Netzpolitik.org et leurs sources.”

“La investigación en contra de Netzpolitik.org y su fuente por traición
es un ataque a la libertad de la prensa. Acusaciones de traición a la
patria hechas contra periodistas quienes estan realizando su labor
esencial es una violacion del quinto artículo de la Constitución
alemana. Exigimos que se detenga la investigación en contra de
Netzpolitik.org y su fuente desconocida.”

Mahsa Alimardani, University of Amsterdam/Global Voices
Pierre Alonso, journalist, Libération
Sebastian Anthony, editor, Ars Technica UK
Jacob Appelbaum, independent investigative journalist
Jürgen Asbeck, KOMPASS
Julian Assange, editor-in-chief, WikiLeaks
Jennifer Baker, founder, Revolution News
Jennifer Baker (Brusselsgeek), EU correspondent, The Register
Diani Barreto, Courage Foundation
Mari Bastashevski, investigative researcher, journalist, artist
Carlos Enrique Bayo, editor-in-chief, PÚBLICO, Madrid, Spain
Sven Becker, journalist
Jürgen Berger, independent journalist
Patrick Beuth, journalist, Zeit Online
Ellery Roberts Biddle on behalf of Global Voices Advox
Florian Blaschke, blogger and managing editor, t3n.de
Eva Blum-Dumontet, Privacy International
Anne Bohlmann, freelance journalist
Detlef Borchers, freelance journalist, Heise
Stefan Buchen, journalist, NDR
Silke Burmester, journalist
Jan Böhmermann, late night TV host
Wolfgang Büchner, managing director Blick-Group, Switzerland / former
editor of DER SPIEGEL, Germany
Shawn Carrié, News & Politics editor, medium
David Carzon, deputy editor, Libération
Marina Catucci, journalist, Il Manifesto
Robin Celikates, associate professor of philosophy, University of Amsterdam
Graham Cluley, computer security and privacy columnist, grahamcluley.com
Gabriella Coleman, Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy,
McGill University
Josef Ohlsson Collentine, journalist, Pirate Times
Tommy Collison, opinion editor, Washington Square News
Ron Deibert, director, The Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs,
University of Toronto
Valie Djordjevic, publisher and editor of iRights.info
Daniel Drepper, senior reporter, CORRECT!V
Joshua Eaton, independent journalist
Matthias Eberl, multimedia journalist, Rufposten
Helke Ellersiek, NRW-Korrespondentin, taz.die tageszeitung
Carolin Emcke, journalist
Monika Ermert, freelance journalist
Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director, Association for Progressive
Cyrus Farivar, senior business editor, Ars Technica
Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, journalist, Motherboard, VICE Media
Carola Frediani, journalist, Italy
Erin Gallagher, Revolution News
Johannes Gernert, journalist, TAZ
Aaron Gibson, freelance journalist and researcher
Dan Gillmor, author and teacher
John Goetz, investigative journalist, NDR/Süddeutsche Zeitung
Gabriel González Zorrilla, Deutsche Welle
Yael Grauer, freelance journalist
Glenn Greenwald, investigative journalist, The Intercept
Markus Grill, chief editor, CORRECT!V
Christian Grothoff, freelance journalist, The Intercept
Claudio Guarnieri, independent investigative journalist
Amaelle Guiton, journalist, Libération
Marie Gutbub, independent journalist
Nicky Hager, investigative journalist, New Zealand
Jessica Hannan, freelancer
Sarah Harrison, investigations editor, WikiLeaks
Martin Holland, editor heise online/c’t
Max Hoppenstedt, editor in chief, Vice Motherboard, Germany
Bethany Horne, journalist, Newsweek Magazine
Ulrich Hottelet, freelance journalist
Jérôme Hourdeaux, journalist, Mediapart
Johan Hufnagel, chief editor, Libération
Dr. Christian Humborg, CEO, CORRECT!V
Jörg Hunke, journalist
Mustafa İşitmez, columnist , jiyan.org
Eric Jarosinski, editor, Nein.Quarterly
Jeff Jarvis, professor, City University of New York, Graduate School of
Cédric Jeanneret, EthACK
Simon Jockers, data journalist, CORRECT!V
Jörn Kabisch, journalist, Redaktion taz. am wochenende
Martin Kaul, journalist, TAZ
Nicolas Kayser-Bril, co-founder of Journalism++
Matt Kennard, Bertha fellow at the Centre for Investigative Journalism,
Dmytri Kleiner, Telekommunisten
Peter Kofod, freelance journalist, boardmember Veron.dk, Denmark
Joshua Kopstein, independent journalist, Al Jazeera America /
contributor, Motherboard / VICE
Till Kreutzer, publisher and editor of iRights.info
Jürgen Kuri, stellv. Chefredakteur, heise online/c’t
Damien Leloup, journalist, Le Monde
Aleks Lessmann, Bundespressesprecher, Neue Liberale
Daniel Luecking, online-journalist, Whistleblower-Network
Gavin MacFadyen, director for Center of Investigative Journalism and
professor at Goldsmiths University of London
Rebecca MacKinnon, journalist
Tanja Malle, ORF Radio Ö1
Dani Marinova, researcher, Hertie School of Governance, Berlin
Alexander J. Martin, The Register
Uwe H. Martin, photojournalist, Bombay Flying Club
Kerstin Mattys, freelance journalist
Stefania Maurizi, investigative journalist, l’ESPRESSO, Rome, Italy
Declan McCullagh, co-founder & CEO, Recent Media Inc
Derek Mead, editor, Motherboard (VICE Media)
Johannes Merkert, Heise c’t – Magazin für Computertechnik
Moritz Metz, reporter, Breitband, Deutschlandradio Kultur
Katharina Meyer, Wired Germany
Henrik Moltke, independent investigative journalist
Glyn Moody, journalist
Andy Mueller-Maguhn, freelance journalist
Erich Möchel, investigative journalist, ORF, Austria
Kevin O’Gorman, The Globe and Mail
Frederik Obermaier, investigative Journalist, Germany
Philipp Otto, publisher and editor of iRights.info
David Pachali, publisher and editor of iRights.info
Trevor Paglen, freelance journalist and artist, America
Michael Pereira, interactive editor, The Globe and Mail, Canada
Christian Persson, co-publisher of c’t magazine and Heise online
Angela Phillips, professor Department of Media and Communications,
Goldsmiths University of London
Edwy Plenel, president, Mediapart
Laura Poitras, investigative journalist, The Intercept
J.M. Porup, freelance journalist
Tim Pritlove, metaebene
Jeremias Radke, journalist, Heise, Mac & i
Jan Raehm, freelance journalist
Andreas Rasmussen, danish freelance journalist
Jonas Rest, editor, Berliner Zeitung
Georg Restle, redaktionsleiter, ARD Monitor
Frederik Richter, reporter, CORRECT!V
Jay Rosen, professor of journalism, New York University
Christa Roth, freelance journalist
Leif Ryge, independent investigative journalist
Ahmet A. Sabancı, journalist/writer, co-editor-in-chief and
Co-Spokesperson of Jiyan.org
Jonathan Sachse, reporter, CORRECT!V
Philip Di Salvo, researcher and journalist
Don Sambandaraksa, Southeast Asia Correspondent, TelecomAsia
Eric Scherer, director of future media, France Télévisions
Kai Schlieter, Reportage & Recherche, TAZ
Christian Schlüter, journalist, Berliner Zeitung
Marie Schmidt, journalist, Die Zeit
Bruce Schneier, security technologist and author
David Schraven, publisher, CORRECTIV
Daniel Schulz, Redaktion taz.am wochenende
Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti, independent journalist and researcher
Merlin Schumacher, editor in chief, for Zebrabutter
Clay Shirky, associate professor, NYU
Teresa Sickert, author and radio host
Christian Simon, editor, Social Media Watchblog
Claudia Simon, kultur propaganda, Berlin – www.kultur-propaganda.de
Mario Sixtus, Elektrischer Reporter
Michael Sontheimer, journalist, DER SPIEGEL
Efe Kerem Sozeri, journalist, Jiyan.org
Matthias Spielkamp, iRights.info, board member of Reporters without
Borders Germany, member of the advisory council of the Whistleblower
Volker Steinhoff, Redaktionsleiter ARD Panorama
Andrea Steinsträter, journalist and editor at the news team of the WDR
Catherine Stupp, freelance journalist
Batur Talu, media consultant, Istanbul
Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director, Freedom of the Press
Dimitri Tokmetzis, journalist, De Correspondent
Ilija Trojanow, journalist
Albrecht Ude, journalist
Martin Untersinger, journalist, Le Monde
Nadja Vancauwenberghe, editor-in-chief, EXBERLINER
Andreas Weck, journalist
Jochen Wegner, editor-in-chief, ZEIT ONLINE
Stefan Wehrmeyer, data journalist, CORRECTIV
Rob Wijnberg, founder, editor-in-cheif, De Correspondent
Jeroen Wollaars, correspondent for Germany and Central Europe, Dutch
public broadcaster NOS
Krystian Woznicki, berlinergazette.de
Maria Xynou, researcher, Tactical Tech
John Young, Cryptome
Juli Zeh, author
Christoph Zeiher, independent journalist

Exploding our ideas of membership: A CUNY summit

We are holding an important event at CUNY on August 26 exploring membership strategies for media — beyond pledges and paywalls.

Let’s be honest: In most news organizations, membership is just another word for subscription or for hawking tote bags. At this event, I want to see us push far beyond the present state of the art and challenge ourselves to reimagine what membership can mean for news organizations and their relationships with the people and communities they serve.

We will start with sessions led by two innovators in membership: public-media genius Melody Kramer (who just released a superb report with her latest ideas) and local media’s best friend, Josh Stearns, who is working on membership experiments in the New Jersey news ecosystem. We will learn about best practices in membership from outside the media industry (what could the frequent-flier miles of news be?). And — this is the critical part — we will take all that information and inspiration and then, in the best spirit of the unconference, brainstorm new opportunities for membership for news organizations of various types and sizes.

Here is the sign-up for the event.

I see three frontiers for innovation:

* New tribes: A person might feel an urge to join a club called the Guardian because it takes on causes or NPR or even The New York Times out of patronage. But does anyone really want to belong to — will they feel an affinity and loyalty to and want to brag about their special relationship with — say, Columbus Dispatch? Not so much. But one might well want to belong to the Columbus pissed-off commuters’ club or the Columbus school improvement society or the Columbus environment alliance or the Columbus senior club. My point: communities are internally, not externally defined; they are not built outside-in or top-down under brands. The premise of our social journalism program at CUNY is that we must begin by listening to communities and understanding their needs before we can serve them well. The same goes for membership. The opportunity is to build membership from the bottom up by serving many communities with many affinities, loyalties, and needs that we can answer.

* New currencies for contribution: We can extract value from our relationships with the public we serve in so many forms other than just cash. Indeed, we must learn to value our people — our users, our readers — beyond just their circulation dimes or CPM pennies. We must value them as individuals rather than as members of an anonymous mass. To join a community, we should value and credit the public’s effort, expertise, contributions of content, volunteer marketing (i.e., social media love), commerce (buying things through us or from our advertisers), and showing up (coming to our events). I explored some of these notions in a long-ago post that speculated about a reverse pay meter; Melody explores many more in her report.

* New currencies for reward: When we give our members nothing more than access to our content, then we are merely putting a new label on an old business model: the subscription. We can reward members in so many more ways: with access to events and our journalists, with some voice in the allocation of our resources, with social capital, with discounts from our advertisers….

Out of these ideas and more that we will explore on August 26 will come many new models for membership. The product of the day will not only be potential new business models but also new ways to look at–to quote my friend Jay Rosen–the people formerly known as the audience. When our members are our collaborators, the recipients of our services, experts, and our friends, then the nature of our product — our service — called journalism changes fundamentally. If we have any hope to compete with Google, Facebook et al for the attention and affection of the public we serve — and for the first-party data that will rescue us from advertising commodification — we must reconsider our essential relationship with them. We must become members of the same clubs.

If this is of interest to you and your news organizations, please sign up now.