Can Silicon Valley Save Journalism?

Journalism is dead. Long live journalism.

In August, 2013, the Washington Post made waves when it announced its sale to Jeff Bezos, Founder & CEO of Amazon. The purchase, coming at a time of historically low print circulation, led Daily Show personality John Oliver to quip, “There are now more people buying newspapers than there are people buying newspapers.”

Bezos sees things differently, foretelling a “golden era” at the WaPo, where he intends to introduce a new, startup-inspired culture of risk-taking and experimentation.

In 2012, another old media property fell into the arms of a Valley darling. This time, Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who led President Obama’s online organizing efforts in 2008, purchased The New Republic, an influential magazine reaching progressive audiences in politics and culture.

Hughes, who now serves as Editor-in-Chief, seeks to expand the publication’s digital footprint — particularly on next-generation tablets and e-readers — while preserving the high-quality journalism for which they’re known. In the eighteen months since the acquisition, New Republic print circulation is up by 20% and web traffic has tripled, following a doubling of staff and an expansion into a New York Office, branching out from the company’s traditional Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Now, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is jumping into the journalism ring, too. Omidyar’s new media venture, First Look Media, “seeks to reimagine journalism for the digital age, combining the promise of technological innovation with the power of fearless reporting.”

Since launching less than a week ago, the venture’s first in-house publication, The Intercept, stars former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, whose series of articles about the NSA, based on documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, ignited a fierce and ongoing debate about the limits of government surveillance.

With founders now donning the mantle of Editor-in-Chief (as Hughes has done), it’s no wonder that a reverse migration is happening, too. Consider Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, the magnetic duo formerly behind AllThingsD, the flagship digital publication of the Wall Street Journal. Their new venture, Re/code, places them in competition with other tech-focused news upstarts, including PandoDaily and TheVerge.

Even Bill Keller, former Executive Editor of the New York Times, is joining a new venture after a 30-year career at the so-called paper of record. His new role will make him Editor in Chief of The Marshall Project, a newly-formed nonprofit that raises critical awareness about the American criminal justice system, which, in Keller’s words, “is bizarrely horrible and weirdly tolerated.

Despite fears of an eroding press, journalism bustles with activity and innovation. New outlets are springing up regularly, while those in the old establishment await a new, experimental culture inspired by a surge of founder-driven acquisitions. The future of the media may be brighter than we once imagined.

Twitter CEO Wins Crunchies, Crappies

The power of Twitter lies within his chin.

In what might be a Silicon Valley first, Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, won two startup awards on the same night, highlighting both the achievements of his role at the company’s helm, and the controversies created in the process.

Inside the Davies Symphony Hall, Costolo won “Best CEO,” the Best Actor equivalent of The Crunchies, Silicon Valley’s lavish annual award ceremony co-organized by TechCrunch, GigaOM, and VentureBeat. Costolo’s newest accolade emerged from fierce competition, in which he edged out Tesla’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer, and runner-up-winning Travis Kalanick of Uber.

“This is really a team award,” said Costolo, in a gracious and brief acceptance speech. “It’s just such a delight to be able to get up in the morning and come to work with such enthusiastic, and creative, and courageous people. It makes it fun, it makes it exciting, and it never gets old, so thanks very much — I really appreciate it.”

Today marked the seventh year of The Crunchies, and the first of another event: The Crappies, organized in protest by the San Francisco chapter of Jobs With Justice. Playfully adorned with hand-written, paperboard signage, The Crappies organizers “awarded” individuals and companies for actions deemed problematic and harmful to the city and its myriad communities.

Dick Costolo was among the dubious cast of Crappies prizewinners, receiving the award for Best Tax Evader. The award references the company’s decision to relocate to the city’s Mid-Market neighborhood in the now-termed “Twitter building.”

In agreeing to the move, Twitter accepted a payroll tax credit pioneered by Mayor Ed Lee. The credit, misleadingly called the “Twitter tax break,” in fact extends to any company that relocates to the Mid-Market neighborhood, a trending district that incorporates areas of Civic Center and the Tenderloin, along with stretches of SoMa from 6th to 10th Street.

In guise of the real Costolo, local nonprofit worker and activist James Chionsini, playing a rather convincing Fake Dick Costolo, accepted the award. Chionsini’s last tweet, dated from almost a year ago, rings today with newfound prescience:

The Crappies have followed a wave anti-gentrification protests across the Bay Area, where private buses transport Google workers to and from the company’s Mountain View headquarters. The protests, widely covered in both tech and mainstream press, highlight the tensions rippled by the wave of a tech economy that fails to lift all boats.

“San Francisco is in a crisis,” decries Jobs With Justice. Median rental prices recently topped $3,000 for the first time in history, situating the City by the Bay as the country’s single most expensive place to live.

McWarehouses: Will Amazon Pay a Living Wage?

Free shipping, sponsored by wage slavery. (Image credit: TheGuardian.)

In sweltering heat and brutal conditions, workers toil in massive facilities from which Amazon’s endless cascade of merchandise swiftly flows, nodally linking the glossy shimmer of glowing gifs to cryptically smirking cardboard parcels that arrive briskly to the steps of one’s front door.

Jeff Bezos has built a virtual retail empire the likes of which the world has never seen, but at a human cost that is coming under increased scrutiny, particularly in the light of widespread walkouts by fast-food workers, whose demands for a $15 hourly wage and the right to unionize may evoke a similar plight to Amazon contractors — where poverty-line wages, 110-degree temperatures, and a lack of benefits are the norm.

Similar to the assembly-line workers who manufacture iPhones at Foxconn facilities in China, Amazon distances itself from its warehouses by shifting their operations to third-party contractors. USNews reports:

While it’s true that Amazon, the online retailing giant, has been a very successful company – and just announced the creation of some 7,000 new jobs – a large part of its success comes from the toil of underpaid, overworked temporary employees who work in distribution centers, often for contractors looking to squeeze every last penny of productivity out of them.

Many of the warehouses exist without central air conditioning, leading to indoor temperatures over 100 degrees during summer months. Rather than implementing the sort of climate control systems that Amazon’s white-collar workers surely enjoy in Seattle, at least one warehouse instead opts to staff ambulances on stand-by, whisking a steady stream of dehydrated, head-stressed workers to area hospitals.

According to the Morning Call, a local newspaper in Pennsylvania, “temperatures soar on hot summer days, production rates are difficult to achieve and the permanent jobs sought by many temporary workers hired by an outside agency are tough to get. Only one of the employees interviewed described it as a good place to work.”

Such draconian conditions, which evoke more closely a nineteenth-century Marxian hell than a modern, digital-economy workplace, seem out of place in a technology industry that in many other sectors offers prized, rather than punitive, employment. The impact on the bottom-line is unclear: competing retail giant Walmart pays warehouse workers an average of $19 an hour. CNN contrasts conditions between the two companies, remarking,

The average warehouse worker at Wal-Mart makes just under $40,000 annually, while at Amazon would take home about $24,300 a year. That’s less than $1,000 above the official federal poverty line for a family of four.

Even in Europe, with a comparatively strong labor movement, conditions for the American retail giant are hardly better. The Guardian notes that Amazon treats its UK warehouse employees with similar levels of harshness to those in America:

The pay rate is £5.50 an hour plus a £1 hourly bonus for night staff who are rostered four shifts a week.

“They offer the minimum needed to hire people around Milton Keynes and don’t seem to care about the turnover,” said Mr Lockhart.

An employee claimed that ethnic miniority staff felt they were frequently overlooked for promotion, an allegation denied particularly forcefully by Amazon which said in recent months two black or Asian employees had been appointed to management posts.

Often we judge the quality of technology startups by the acumen and accomplishments of their founders, who are lauded upon becoming billionaires, a status accolade that affords front-cover magazine spreads and expense-paid trips to Davos.

Given that the tech economy generates such magnanimous wealth for a select few, ought not we expect its workers to be treated at least as well as those who work for Wal-Mart?

#sfbeta calls upon Amazon to guarantee each one of its workers — whether on salary or contract — a minimum living wage of $15 per hour, opportunity for full-time employment, affordable health benefits, safe indoor temperatures, and the right to unionize without threat of retribution.

Amazon is a vast and profitable company, whose rising tide should lift all boats, not precious yachts alone.

And you're done.

And you’re done.