The New York Times exposé on Amazon, which reveals the sickeningly pressure-cooker environment at the online retailer, has set a number of pigeons aflutter. There is the company at the heart of the expose, of course, a firm that has altered the paradigm of how the world shops, which has had to defend its human resources, or HR, practices.
Such was the backlash that Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos made a statement to the effect that he does not recognise the Amazon depicted in the piece and that if any employee suffers to the extent described, they should get in touch with him. NYT public editor, on the other hand, has taken the newspaper to task for lack of data and an over-reliance on anecdotes. Meanwhile, sundry Silicon Valley workers have come out with their own pro- and anti-tech stories.
Amid the heat generated by the issue, it is worth stressing that the publishing of the story itself is undeniably good news. With the stratospheric rise of tech companies, a perception has gained ground that these places are attractors of the most disruptive talent. The “cool” quotient of such employers as Google and Facebook matches the big monies that investors have poured into them. As a host of new companies such as Airbnb and Uber look to transform how we stay and travel, there is no gainsaying that the tech pack commands an outsize influence in the media.
NYT exposé was, therefore, an important story that needed to be done. The 11,000-word report, which talks about employees crying over their desks and not being able to switch off even on a honeymoon, is an eye-opener that punctures a hole in the standard media narrative. To be sure, this is not the first time that concerns regarding tech’s work culture have been raised. Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao filed a lawsuit against her then employer Kleiner Perkins in March this year, alleging that the San Francisco-based venture capital firm had discriminated against her for being a woman. Pao lost the suit but focused attention on the gender disparity that continues to hobble tech.
Be that as it may, there is a larger story in the exposé that has not received nearly enough attention, a story that the media should be especially attuned to because its contours will determine the media’s fortunes. NYT exposé, more than anything else, frames questions around the creeping ownership of traditional media by Silicon Valley giants.
Analyse the evidence. Would Washington Post, a rival of NYT, have been able to run this story? Unlikely, since the paper is owned by Amazon’s own Bezos, who bought it from the Graham family for $250 million in 2013. Since then, the Post has taken a number of measures to boost its readership including launching a diary-like format for its website. While those tech changes are certainly helpful and the huge war chest that Bezos brings to the table is a definite plus, the acquisition of a legacy media property by a tech giant would have editorial issues.
This is not a one-off case either. The New Republic, a storied liberal magazine, was taken over by Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, in 2012. That event was received badly at the magazine and saw a spate of exits. Meanwhile, both Google and Facebook have penetrated deeper into the media space. Facebook has tied up with a number of media houses to enable visitors to read their stories within Facebook without exiting the platform to visit another site.
Google’s case is a little different, and rather more ominous. With the rise in online media, traditional newspapers have resorted to paywalls to compensate for the losses from declining print circulation. Google requires them to provide at least five articles free every day for them to be indexed in the search engine’s database. While this may be excellent for news consumers, it has led to much bad blood against Google, especially in Europe, where the company is battling a host of charges.
The European Commission is hearing arguments in anti-trust cases that charge Google with misusing its preponderance in search to give greater weightage to its own results. A number of companies, including, funnily, American firms such as reviews website Yelp and Microsoft (whose search engine Bing competes with Google), are fighting Google on European soil.
The Amazon story may have been a very special case of a newspaper mounting an exposé on a tech giant. But the growing tech acquisition of traditional media can have more long-term effects. With more and more millennials, not just in the West, shifting online for their news consumption, the big tech firms will get greater power in not just bringing innovation to how news is presented but in what sort of news can be presented. Would a Washington Post do an exposé on its employer is only one side of the debate. Would there be an interest in longform journalism of any sort where there is little online readership for it? Already, new media properties are looking to launch with a mobile-first strategy. (The Quint back home is an example.) Would this ecosystem allow for big, investigative stories to be reported?
Of course, a lot of these questions are up in the air. It is possible that greater regulation will clip the wings of a Google or a Facebook, and thereby create a more level-playing field. It is also possible that fair-minded citizens will collectively pour money to allow small, independent publications to continue to do pioneering stuff.
That said, the power of the tech pack is unlikely to diminish. With their deep pockets and evangelical zeal, these new-age masters of the universe are eager to rescue old media. What will be left when this giant wave overtaking the media space recedes in anybody’s guess.