First Look’s Non-Problem Problems

Vanity Fair has a long piece on the troubles at First Look Media. That, coupled with other reports about the media startup’s recent turbulence, makes it sound like part of the problem is a clash of cultures between the company’s Silicon Valley founder and its legion of journalists. According to the Vanity Fair story,

The problems at First Look are many, including an essential culture clash between people who appear to have antithetical opinions about everything from management style to subject matter to seating arrangements to whether journalists should have landlines. Disagreements over “process” have been at once petty and paralyzing.

And then you start reading the examples of this culture clash, and it strikes you just how ridiculously petty these things seem to be. The entire “Up Your Asana” section of the Vanity Fair story just makes you go, “You guys are grumbling about that?” To wit:

The editors were encouraged to use a task-management system called Asana. It works like this: a person creates a task on Asana and invites relevant colleagues to join the task. The task has a deadline, and everyone invited can see the chains of conversation about the task. When the task is completed, a box is checked, and the task goes into an archive. Jeremy Scahill jokingly called the program “up your Asana.” Matt Taibbi used the program so infrequently he had to be continually reminded of how it functioned.

First Look managers also encouraged the use of RASCIs—responsibility assignment matrices—to manage various projects, whether it was site design or promotional spots. The acronym stands for the five different categories of people on a given project: Responsible, Accountable, Supportive, Consulted, and Informed. Although many of the journalists were not expected to use RASCIs very frequently, editors occasionally had to. In an organization that First Look editors had billed as non-hierarchical, the use of responsibility assignment matrices rubbed some people the wrong way.

First, Asana: The description makes it sound like a typical project-management system, and as someone who has used such systems before, it’s the kind of thing that I would just shrug and go, “Yeah, it’s a new system. Big deal.” Also, how big an annoyance can it be if, in Taibbi’s case, you use it so infrequently that you can’t remember how it works?

Same with the RASCIs. They do sound antithetical to the way many journalists are used to working (but hey, so is “digital first”). But if the story is correct that the journalists were not expected to use them very often and that editors only “occasionally had to,” you have to again wonder why an infrequent annoyance could become a sore spot. Get it done and move on with life.

The other part that struck me as kind of interesting from the Vanity Fair piece:

In late July, Omidyar announced in a blog post that, instead of launching a variety of sites, First Look would be “building out” The Intercept and Racket. No other sites were immediately planned, and First Look would focus on experimenting with the technical aspects of distributing First Look’s journalism, rather than simply creating new content. For some of the journalists who had joined the site expecting to be part of a large, reporter-driven, and all-purpose media organization, the news came as a shock. Omidyar’s technical curiosity about the distribution of news was trumping his interest in actual news, some of the journalists said.

So let’s see: The journalists at First Look apparently

  • are more interested in mocking a piece of unfamiliar software instead of trying to make it work for them;
  • scorn a workflow that’s different than what they are used to; and
  • see leadership’s interest in the technical aspect of journalism distribution as a negative and distraction from what’s really important (writing stories)

Granted, the Vanity Fair article comes off as much more sympathetic toward Omidyar than the other accounts of the problems at First Look. Still, if these attributes were ascribed to journalists at a traditional media outlet, we would say they sound downright curmudgeonly and that their refusal to adapt to a new system is partly why their companies are flailing. How this can be a problem among employees at a startup founded by a Silicon Valley star is … befuddling.


Hail Our Machine Overlords

“We have machine-scaled data, yet we’re asking humans to draw conclusions. We’re trying to fix that.”

— Stuart Frankel, CEO of Narrative Science

The quote comes from a story about Narrative Science raising $10 million to continue its development of software to write stories without any work by humans. Maybe it wasn’t intended to sound this way, but the quote invokes visions of a dystopian future where humans are barely needed by our machine overlords. Perhaps it’s the fact that drawing conclusions is supposed to be where the humans’ value lies in this production chain now that so much can be automated.


A Revolting Suggestion from the DTH

In the wake of the Wainstein report (PDF) on the UNC academic/athletic scandal, UNC’s student newspaper published an editorial yesterday declaring that it’s time to make enrolling as full-time students optional for student-athletes:

Despite The Daily Tar Heel’s past resistance to big-time college athletics, we want to recognize that this University is in the business of fielding high-budget, high-revenue sports teams for institutional gain.

We see little wrong with this arrangement, per se, other than that it has yet to be formally acknowledged by the NCAA and its member institutions.

But it is precisely that disingenuous attitude toward the status quo that fails student-athletes. It is the unwillingness to fully face up to the obstacles they encounter in their attempts to complete a degree while essentially performing a full-time job and managing their celebrity. And it is the pretense that this is a reasonable demand upon those whose compensation is so compromised that provides incentive for fraud here and elsewhere.

The damaged link between academic achievement and athletic eligibility ought to be formally broken. Athletes recruited to this school as such should continue to be given the opportunity to pursue a degree, but they should not be compelled to do so.

This would not preclude students from seeking to excel academically on their own terms, but it would eliminate the need to cover up any existing deficiencies in primary and secondary education, which are only magnified in the face of demanding practice and travel schedules.

The editorial then goes on to say that this

puts more power in the hands of student-athletes to determine the terms upon which they are affiliated with this University and live their lives.

The intent may be noble, but the solution proposed in the editorial is an utterly vile notion under a veneer of rationality and empowerment. In essence, the editorial is saying that because UNC has failed to deliver the compensation it promised to some student-athletes (i.e., a good education), that it should just stop trying and leave it to the athletes to decide whether they want to pursue an education while they are in Chapel Hill. (more…)


Train Travel: If You Build It (Better), I’ll Come


Creative Commons Photo by Erich Fabricius


So the Washington Post recently did this thing where three travel writers set out from Washington D.C. for Raleigh via car, train, and plane to see 1) who would arrive first, 2) who would spend the least money on the trip, and 3) who would arrive with the least stress.

Their conclusions were not surprising:

… the plane is fastest, the car cheapest and the train the least stressful. … The friendly skies are made for: Goal-oriented travelers who just want to get there and hit the ground running or rich-as-Croesus travelers for whom money is no object. … Riding the rails is best for: laid-back travelers who think that the journey is half the fun and timid travelers who fear flying and don’t dare to drive. … You’ll drive if you’re: a control-freak traveler who wants to go when you want to go or a cheapskate traveler who hates to shell out more for transport than absolutely necessary.


I’m hardly a “control-freak traveler” who can’t tear himself away from his car. When I worked at UNC, I walked out to a bus stop every morning. Whenever we go on vacation, if we can avoid renting a car, we do, and we plan our vacation to take advantage of public transportation as much as possible, even if it means walking a little farther or waiting a little longer. But I definitely would not take the train to get from Raleigh to D.C. (more…)