Tribune's Frat-House Culture, Bullying for SEO and Nick Denton's Real Intentions

The Best Media Writing of the Year, Part Two

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Mainstream media remained largely on the defensive this year, facing disintermediation by social media and Wikileaks, but also started hunting what it hoped was a future in the form of the iPad.

Amid the now de rigueur navel-gazing, The New York Times showed that it could still produce arguably the strongest and most effective body of media business coverage out there. David Carr added to the weekly treat that is his regular column with an opus on frat-boy behavior at the Tribune Co. that led to the resignation of CEO Randy Michaels, under whose regime the employee handbook and indeed the corporate culture was rewritten to be a little more, shall we say, loosey goosey:

"Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use," the new handbook warned. "You might experience an attitude you don't share. You might hear a joke that you don't consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process." It then added, "This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment."

The new permissive ethos was quickly on display. When Kim Johnson, who had worked with Mr. Michaels as an executive at Clear Channel, was hired as senior VP-local sales on June 16, 2008, the news release said she was "a former waitress at Knockers -- the Place for Hot Racks and Cold Brews," a jocular reference to a fictitious restaurant chain.

The Tribune Co. wasn't the only Times story that got results. One of the bizarre publicity strategies of recent years originated with Vitaly Borker, who sounds a lot like a "Grand Theft Auto" character with a marketing degree. Mr. Borker goaded consumers into posting angry but Google-friendly comments about his vision-wear website, DecorMyEyes, by verbally abusing them. An investigation into this nefarious SEO strategy by The New York Times' David Segal was not only massively entertaining but led to a change in Google's algorithm and Mr. Borker's arrest on fraud charges. As an example of what we're dealing with, here's how Mr. Borker treated one customer who complained:

"Listen, bitch," he fumed, according to Ms. Rodriguez. "I know your address. I'm one bridge over" -- a reference, it turned out, to the company's office in Brooklyn. Then, she said, he threatened to find her and commit an act of sexual violence too graphic to describe in a newspaper.

The media spent a good chunk of the year slobbering all over Nick Denton's Gawker empire and its enviable audience, a tongue bath that resulted in a few not-terribly sophisticated profiles. Reuters' blogger Felix Salmon did some actual reporting, however, shedding light on the privately held company's ownership structure and laying out what changes in its editorial approach means for web publishing. I particularly liked his descriptor for the Gawker tone -- "anarcho-ironic" -- and this surefooted bit on Mr. Denton's intentions:

Denton has absolute control of the company, and the way that it is structured, so minority shareholders have every reason to worry that he could -- if he so desired -- move things around so that he and maybe a few close associates ended up with 100% ownership of the most valuable bits of the company, while the other shareholders ended up with very little.

I don't believe that Denton has done that, and I don't believe that he will. By all accounts there's now only a single class of shares, in the Cayman parent: Once the restructuring is finished, very soon, all shareholders will own identical shares in exactly the same company. (Some of them will have options, as well as shares -- something else which serves to consolidate Denton's control.) But none of the employees know that for sure, and they haven't been told it in writing. Instead, they just get occasional cryptic communications from [COO Gaby] Darbyshire, informing them of dividends or restructurings, and occasionally telling them to sign and send back various pieces of incomprehensible legal paperwork. They do what they're told; they have little choice. And they're probably correct to simply assume that Denton and Darbyshire wouldn't do to them what Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel did to Eduardo Saverin. But they've all -- literally -- seen the movie. They know it's possible.

Through his firehose Twitter stream that, contrary to Kanye, is about just about everything but the author, Roger Ebert has found a relevance no one would have imagined after cancer treatment took his jaw and, with it, his ability to eat and speak. He's ever the film critic, but now has become a loud enough voice on politics that the Tea Party submitted him to vicious, pathetic attacks that were themselves newsworthy. Thank this wonderful profile by Esquire's Chris Jones that helped to relocate Mr. Ebert on the cultural map.

Roger Ebert can't remember the last thing he ate. He can't remember the last thing he drank, either, or the last thing he said. Of course, those things existed; those lasts happened. They just didn't happen with enough warning for him to have bothered committing them to memory -- it wasn't as though he sat down, knowingly, to his last supper or last cup of coffee or to whisper a last word into Chaz's ear. The doctors told him they were going to give him back his ability to eat, drink and talk. But the doctors were wrong, weren't they? On some morning or afternoon or evening, sometime in 2006, Ebert took his last bite and sip, and he spoke his last word.

We end with a look at the massive success that is the iPad, the Apple device that showed there's more than a little future for tablet computing and that's already spawning new ways of consuming information, especially that's contained between the covers of books. Designer Craig Mod, who spent years working on print projects that did done nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for e-readers, walked us through the publishing world of the next few years. In an iPad world, he sees two types of content, formless and definite, which he describes in an incredibly useful and wonderfully illustrated essay posted on his personal site:

Formless Content can be reflowed into different formats and not lose any intrinsic meaning. It's content divorced from layout. Most novels and works of non-fiction are Formless.

When Danielle Steele sits at her computer, she doesn't think much about how the text will look printed. She thinks about the story as a waterfall of text, as something that can be poured into any container. (Actually, she probably just thinks awkward and sexy things, but awkward and sexy things without regard for final form.)

Content with form -- Definite Content -- is almost totally the opposite of Formless Content. Most texts composed with images, charts, graphs or poetry fall under this umbrella. It may be reflowable, but depending on how it's reflowed, inherent meaning and quality of the text may shift.

What sets Mr. Mod's cool, analytic essay aside from so much media writing is this: Even as things change, he understands, there's room for many adaptations. That constant evolution grinding out mutant forms we see before us reflects anything but the sort of zero-sum game where the winners and losers are always clear. And that might just be the most important lesson for any observer of today's media business.

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