“If I Could Have One Wish …”

Each time I started my Nieman Lab 2014 look ahead, Steve Martin paid a call. Clad in his elegant suit, seated on the stage at Studio 8H, he solemnly proclaimed his one wish for all the children of the world to join hands and sing in harmony, then quickly segued to increasingly selfish and grandiose desires.

A diversionary tactic, true, but also a reminder of how easy it is to slip into pretension. Also of how easily we can scratch a retro video itch …

Why This George Tames Picture Of JFK Is My Favorite

Why This George Tames Picture Of JFK Is My Favorite

New York Times photographer George Tames captured this image of John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office on Feb. 10, 1961, only weeks after he was sworn in as president. Captioned ‘The Loneliest Job,’ Kennedy looks as though he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders in utter solitude. In one image you can see everything you need to know about the isolation and responsibility of the presidency.

In reality, it’s an object lesson, a reminder that the 1,000 words a picture speaks can be our projection. Kennedy broke his back in World War II and despite the glorious football photos that showed an agile, athletic young president, he was in constant pain. He stood at the table behind his Oval Office desk to read the papers — leaning down with his weight supported by his hands to get a closer look.

Knowing that doesn’t change the power of the image, which presages some of the days Kennedy would have in that office during the Cuban Missile Crisis and other moments of personal or public crisis.  When I think of JFK, this is the last picture in my personal slideshow.

It’s also a reminder that what we see isn’t always what it is.

It’s All Right To Cry

As soon as a teary Kolten Wong was spotted being interviewed in the Cardinals’ clubhouse following his Game 4-ending pick off on first base, you knew what was coming next: endless references to Tom Hanks’ incredulous, near-whiny moment in A League of Their Own:

But I much prefer the sage advice of Rosey Grier, the Los Angles Ram who tackled Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, when he sang Carol Hall’s lyrics for Marlo Thomas in the groundbreaking Free to Be You and Me …:  

When Grier, who became a minister, sings to the little boys, “I know some big boys who cry, too,” it’s a permit slip.  Hearing — and seeing –Grier sing It’s All Right To Cry was a gender game changer, meant to help boys feel better about emotions and to make girls more comfortable with their own.  Even so, when I played softball on an otherwise all-boy team, it was a matter of pride not to even wince when I was hit by the ball (sometimes intentionally) catching batting practice. (The coach instituted a “laps if  you swear” rule since a girl was on the team; I finally swore, did my lap and the rule disappeared.)

Later as a young reporter at The Atlanta Journal covering my first murder trial, I got teary after a conversation with an editor after a series of long days. I wanted to write another story about it that seemed vitally important at the time; he wanted me to realize the case was over.  A male reporter saw me trying to choke back the tears, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I cried after  my first one, too.”

His message was in sharp contrast to the senior female editor in another department who’d had to fight and scrape for every bit of respect; for her, crying was anathema — a raised flag that women couldn’t be taken seriously. I learned from both.

We continue to send mixed messages about tears. It’s still noteworthy when a man cries or, as in the case of Hilary Clinton on the campaign trail,  when some women do.  We look down on people who don’t cry at the “right” time and askance at those who cry when we think it’s not  appropriate. Imagine if the U.S. Speaker of the House known for crying was Nancy Pelosi, not her successor John Boehner.

Above all, though, it’s human and when tears come at the height of emotion, it can be cathartic.

How To Hack Google: The Wikipedia World Series Edition

Look up “St. Louis Cardinals” or :”Cardinals” on Google right now and this is what you’ll see:

Wikipedia hack on Google

The description of the “gay butt sex”* Cardinals is an indirect hack of Google display space, made possible by reliance on Wikipedia. Change the Wikipedia entry and you can change the way something is perceived on Google and other sites piping in Wikipedia info.

The vandalized Wikipedia entry is back to “professional baseball team” now but the Google box on the Cardinals, playing the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the World Series tonight, has yet to catch/cache up.

* Yes, it is pathetic that this is still used as an insult.

Updated: The vandalized version was still showing on Google 90 minutes after this posted. Now it’s missing — literally. The box on the right has been removed, leaving this view at 6 pm CDT:


For comparison, here’s the Red Sox search result:


10/30/13 Update: Google told Gary Price at Search Engine Land that the problem in the Google Knowledge Graph box was “a technical issue on our end that let outdated information through.” Price is intrigued by how Google’s crawler managed to catch the vandalized Wikipedia entry, which was up only briefly. I’m  still interested in why it was wrong for hours on Google and why it had to go the band aid route by removing the box temporarily. 

Google Click-to-call Ad For HealthCare.gov Is A Fake

It’s a real trust-but-verify Thursday. During a mobile Google search for HealthCare.gov this afternoon, the lead ad caught my attention. Hmmm, HealthCare.gov is buying click-to-call ads? Interesting outreach idea to drive phone applications while the website is having highly visible  problems. An 888 number? Let’s click.

photo 1 (2)

No identifying info when the automated woman’s voice answers with 4 options: 1 to reach customer service, 2 to get quotes, 3 for medical questions, 4 for other questions. The medical option is a big clue that it’s not the real call center.  I try 3, doesn’t connect. I call back in, same truncated recorded answer sans ID. I try 1. Doesn’t connect. I look down at the phone and realize the number I’m calling doesn’t match the number on the ad. Instead of 1-888-981-7912, which is what shows as the click-to-call number in the ad, it’s actually dialing 1-855-709-8045.

Wrong number

By now, I’m pretty sure this has nothing to do with the federal government but I try backing it out. Sure enough, I find similar ads on Google desktop — one without any number and that shows the 855 number with HealthCare.gov address — along with the HealthCare.gov Google+ followers. (Automated linking at work.)


HealthCare.gov is encouraging people to apply by phone, highlighted here on the mobile site. The real call-in number: 1-800-318-2596.

photo 3 (2)

So who’s behind the faux ad? I call the 855 number again and press 2 for sales. Not shocked to get an actual person this time. When I ask, the very polite sales rep tells me I’ve reached American Health Agency,  an insurance agency based in Scottsdale. I tell him I found him via an ad that says I’m calling HealthCare.gov. That’s ok, he tells me, because the call is about health insurance exchange options. No matter what I say, he doesn’t see a problem. I let him off the hook. He’s not any more responsible for this than the call center reps at HealthCare.gov are for that site’s woes.

I’m not feeling so kind about Google Ads, which allowed a click-to-call set up that doesn’t having matching numbers. Or about the person or persons at American Health Agency deliberately misrepresenting the company to consumers.

Atlantic Media Loses Its ‘Mary Poppins’ To Bloomberg Media

Justin B. Smith didn’t spend his whole career at Atlantic Media but there were times in recent years where it looked as though he might stay there for the rest of it as long he could keep growing, innovating and pushing out new brands. In the end, it really wasn’t big enough for someone who hits just about every tick on the list for a major media company in need of a top executive in the digital age — and who deserves a chance to see what he can do on a bigger playing field. Smith has that bigger field now: Bloomberg Media Group, where he will be the new CEO. David Carr broke the story Sunday evening. [I rarely quibble with David’s writing choices but the kicker quote from Google’s Eric Schmidt is unnecessary; Smith doesn’t need Schmidt to establish his digital cred.]

So what does this have to do with Mary Poppins? The comparison never occurred to me but it did to Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley — and it works, although whether it will turn out literally to work in practice is a different issue.

Bradley wrote an extraordinary staff memo, provided by the company and included below in full, about Smith’s role in dragging Atlantic Media into a profitable modern age and what his departure means. The mix of details and genuine emotion illustrate much about what makes  Atlantic Media different; imagine Politico owner Robert Albritton writing anything like it.  

At the end of Mary Poppins, the Banks family has learned it can live quite happily without a nanny as long as everyone pulls his or her weight, lessons that couldn’t have been learned without the outside influence who quickly became integral yet not irreplacable. In this case, the staff Smith built and leaves behind will report directly to Bradley.

Compare that to Bloomberg Media, which will now be run by someone from the outside. That doesn’t mean Dan Doctoroff is hiring Mary Poppins or that Bloomberg Media needs a spoonful of sugar, but he has opted for an outsider who knows both how to launch and how to change from within without wrecking the foundation or leaning on it too much. His hands-on involvement in the 2012 launch of Quartz, a digital global finance publisher, adds another layer of expertise that should help at Bloomberg and may have made him more attractive.

Unlike Mary Poppins, which leaves us with the feeling that Mr. Banks can make a go of his new life and that the family will be just fine flying their own kites, we’ll get to keep watching what happens with Bradley and Atlantic Media — and Smith at Bloomberg Media.


July 28, 2013

Letter of Appreciation

My Atlantic Media Colleagues,

As I settle into this writing, I think some will have heard by now of Bloomberg Media Group’s recruitment of Justin Smith as chief executive officer. In truth, Justin did hesitate before accepting the offer; he has loved his work with Atlantic Media. But, it’s hard to see how he reasons to “no”: global CEO, global brand and reach, television, radio, conferences, three magazines and burgeoning digital traffic.

 Though this will tax your time, I decided I would rather write a letter of appreciation for Justin than the traditional corporate press release. I want you to know what I hope Justin knows already—what a gift he has been to this enterprise.

Our First Meeting

 On reflection, I suppose our first meeting was a bit staged: dinner in Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel dining room, seated beside the fireplace, talking for three hours. An aging owner, in an old-world setting, pitching a mid–19th century long-form literary magazine to a next-generation leader. I decided on Justin in one meeting.

Still, I seem to have gotten a detail wrong. I just assumed we were welcoming Justin into our storied magazine and its storied past. Justin understood—or at least decided—that he would time-travel the whole lot of us to media’s future state. Looking around now, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Correctly, Justin would give credit to Scott Havens, James Bennet, Scott Stossel, Bob Cohn, Jay Lauf, Elizabeth Baker Keffer, Zazie Lucke, Kevin Delaney and their many Atlantic colleagues. But, I also think it’s fair to name as “the Justin era” what Justin and those of you at The Atlantic and Quartz have accomplished: reversal of fortune for a magazine in a 60-year decline; doubling of revenues; return to profits; constant original creation including The Atlantic Cities, The AtlanticWire and Atlantic-initiated Quartz; growing events business; growing website; 25 million monthly Atlantic readers and visitors; and, just now, two more National Magazine Awards.  David Brooks once told me that, if I turned around The Atlantic, it would become the only thing for which I would be remembered.  Now, Justin has gone ahead and done it already.

An Intense Instruction

Justin led The Atlantic for two years and then Atlantic Media for an additional four. In one sense, my time with Justin reminds me of the time I spent with the Atlantic’s late editor, Michael Kelly—the everyday, dialed-up to intensity. After six years, and speechless, any of us might ask, “Wow, what was that about?”

In my frame, Atlantic Media was earning its doctoral degree in modern media from one of modern media’s master practitioners. What Justin believed, he taught, and, as with Michael again, Justin’s beliefs were fierce: That the revolution underway in media is more radical than we—the industry—appreciate. That the contest between legacy and insurgent players is mortal, with advantage to the insurgents. That surviving legacy properties will have had to learn the disciplines of the insurgents—and that they can. That velocity is first among the virtues. That the speed of change is unprecedented. That ideas have their season but not more. From search to social media to native advertising to the next advantage. And, that Atlantic Media could and would and has leapt to the frontier.

More personally, watching Justin taught me truths about media I’d failed to learn in my first decade in the sector: the centrality of brand; the importance of brand excitement; the very particular importance of New York and New York talent to creating excitement. Justin exhorted me to “go for my inner Don Draper;” as I didn’t have the least idea what Justin was talking about, this never really caught on.

As to Atlantic Media

Justin will leave us a changed—and much better—media company. That begins with his—and now my—Atlantic Media leadership team. Scott, Bruce, Tim, Jean Ellen, Kat, Zazie, Michael, Tom, Emily. As with Justin, I have complete confidence in this group. More generally, and as to “extreme talent” across the board, I think Atlantic Media is at its record high-water mark. After reflection, I’ve decided that, rather than appoint a Justin successor, we will let the current leadership continue independent of any reporting structure—save to me—and grow to fill the empty spaces Justin’s departure leaves behind. In fact, I found this an easy call.

As to Bloomberg

Here, I need to redouble my effort. I just can’t seem to find it in me to dislike the Bloomberg enterprise. I’ve always trusted and liked Justin’s new boss, Dan Doctoroff. Even now, I’m affecting a furious countenance. It just needs work.

As to Justin

Like Mary Poppins, if a little more euro, Justin came, changed the family and, when the work was done, moved on. I will miss him.

With my best wishes to all.


Double Homage to Saul Bass & Dave Brubeck

What started as a Google doodle homage to the unmistakable movie and poster work of artist Saul Bass by Matthew Cruickshank turned into a double homage including Dave Brubeck. Cruickshank explains that corresponding with Jennifer Bass “was inspirational and led to hearing that Saul Bass was a Dave Brubeck fan.” The result is as sublime as either man’s work (despite being a billboard for Google).