Dec 06 2014
I introduced myself as the “Flak” when you sat down next to me for the media dinner with the executive I was guarding. There’s no use in glossing over the word “flak” with an excrementitious title like “Vice President of Brand Marketing.” I know what you think about 50-something ex-reporters like me who turn into corporate whores. I thought the same thing about them in my 20s. They were the middle-aged burn outs who couldn’t hack a mortgage and college tuition on the thin gruel of an editorial salary; Quislings who betray their knowledge of the secret rituals of a newsroom with them to the executive suite and whisper them into the ears of CEOs, divulging the the secrets of manipulating the press with Jedi mind tricks.
Flak. Mouthpiece. PR professional. What became of old reporters in the early 20th century before Edward Bernays adopted the psychological tricks of his father-in-law, Sigmund Freud, and persuaded the people of America that their weekly Saturday night bath wasn’t enough to prevent them from smelling and in the process sold a lot more soap for his clients at Listerine, the brand that made the word “Halitosis” a nightmare of every Babbitt and Dale Carnegie in the 1920s; thus inventing the art of Public Relations? Did those old hacks suddenly turn into Sidney Falco in The Sweet Smell of Success, going from the hustle of the newsroom and barking “Get me rewrite!” into pay phones, to whispering night club calumnies into the ears of whatever J.J. Hunsecker they doted and depended on?
I know you wonder if that’s the fate that awaits you on your reporter’s road. I wondered about it too. I knew then that people like me didn’t especially like me, or thought my insights were as brilliant as they pretended. I knew my twenty-something powers and influence were vested in the names of the newspapers and magazines I worked for and not my sparkling words or probing mind. A week after I hit the big time and started working for Forbes I reached the chairman of General Motors five minutes after calling the generic switchboard of the company’s Detroit headquarters. He took a call from Forbes. Not from Churbuck.
Your enthusiasm for your beat was like a tonic. “I’d have hired this kid,” I thought as your eyes lit up talking about hackers and botnets and the seamy underside of the Internet. I chased that beat once. It’s fun. It’s challenging. It can make a career. Ask Adam Penenberg.
I asked you about life in a modern Internet newsroom. About the Buzzfeed-ification of the press. Of Nick Denton’s focus on dashboards and traffic. Of your need to not only report the news, check the facts, write the words, but also distribute it — like a digital newsboy — tweeting and “plus-oneing” and cross-linking and hoping you found the magic combination of keywords and techniques to make Google love your post.
Then you spoke about your influence and the challenge of getting someone at Google to talk to you. “It’s about my audience,” you said. The numbers. The bigger the numbers, the more the influence.” I couldn’t tell if you were resentful of the old media cows and their 100-year brands, inferring I rather be talking to some old reporter from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal than a bright guy from Techcrunch or GigaOm. So I probed with a question, begging forgiveness before asking it: “Would you rather be where you are, in the new world working with an awesome content management system, in a hot, hip newsroom. Or would you rather be working that beat for the New York Times?”
You were honest. You picked the Times. I didn’t feel vindicated, only sad that you would probably not have the experience of walking through an airport and seeing your story on the cover of Fortune or Forbes, sitting there for the world to see and read for a week or two. Wistful that your best efforts, doubtlessly as good as mine back when, would slip down the river of news into the memory of the Google. That you knew sticking a numeral in a headline made it perform better than one that didn’t. That no one would give you two months to develop a 10,000 word monster of a story that would make headlines of its own.
It must be grueling. We talked about fact-checking, holding back when there were doubts about the facts, about the shame Newsweek felt when it identified the wrong inventor of BitCoin….the fast twitch Adderal-fueled news cycle where any flak like me can claim to be a Forbes contributor thanks to a new model where any semi-literate can build their Klout score by submitting drek to their LinkedIn feed.
It was edifying for me and I wanted to tell you to take a second to appreciate your beat and to soak it all in. That you were doing what every new generation needs to do, inventing the new way, the new methods and models.
Yes, I’m a flak now. I walked away from the newsroom in 1995 when I filed my last print piece on the retirement of Bill Ziff for Forbes in the twilight of his brilliant career, a long, thoughtful and emotional piece (at least the first version was) where he said from the wisdom of his years, “Business saved me from a life of abstraction.”
I’m not sure what those words really meant — I think it was a comment on how the death of his father while he was a student studying abstract philosophy in Germany pulled him out of academia and into the hurly-burly world of New York publishing — but, like my other mentor, Jim Michaels, who pressed into my hands a VHS tape of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara just to hear Undershaft the arms merchant’s defense of profit and progress, they were passing on a torch and understood that the raw talent and energy of a twenty-five year old is a very short walk away from taking on the same solemn responsibility to do the same with the next generation.
The trick is not to be portentous about it, because nothing is worst than bad advice delivered under the veil of earned wisdom.
I wish I could offer encouraging words about the future of journalism, but it’s no less under-appreciated and challenging than it was in 1980 when I wrote my first piece (on a sewer bond hearing which my editor cut in half and said, “Don’t cry kid. This isn’t a short story about granny’s funeral you know.”). And I hope it is every bit as weird and fun as it was for me — there’s no better place I can think of than a newsroom on a good news day for, as General Gavin said to the nervous paratrooper approaching the drop-zone over Normandy on D-Day: “Buck up son. Don’t be nervous. Don’t you like jumping out of airplanes?” And the soldier said, “No sir, I don’t. But I like hanging around guys who do.”
I walked past the first offices of Forbes.com the next morning, the entrance to 85 Fifth Avenue where a couple dozen of us in 1995 made up a new medium through trial and error. We knew it was likely going to be the so-called best years of our lives and thankfully we had the energy of our youth to pull through late nights of hard work and even harder play. The names that passed through that drab open newsroom on the second floor on Fifth Ave. went on to do even more marvelous things. We were you once and now you are us. Good luck. You will walk by that Tribeca loft in thirty years, look up and remember when the tidal wave crested and carried you onwards. And don’t worry about being a flak, it’s actually a ton of fun. Trust me.