The Pursuit of an Identity

Writing for oneself is a self indulgence. It’s like a cleansing routine that you want to have the discipline to do, but never have the time. Life takes its own course if you don’t steer it the right way.

There are many things I learnt about myself this year. One that I’m still internalizing is that ego is a debilitating instinct, and can frequently lead one down a path for the wrong reasons. I even have a story to show how that happened to me.

A Life-defining Chapter

When I left SoftBank as a VC, and joined Flipkart in 2010, I was their 40th employee. I did well to pick up the SEO tricks, but my real contribution was in finding the voice of the company that resonated with customers. This helped me grow the social channel from scratch, and the momentum began to pick up on Twitter and Facebook, where our reach was growing exponentially. Sachin once said to me, “You’ve built something extraordinary,” which seemed to echo the sentiments from a board meeting because I was soon inundated by calls and questions from the investors’ global portfolio. As a young company, our challenge was awareness – no one outside a few small pockets even knew about us. It was a snowball that was just beginning to show the hockey stick growth everyone loves to see.

Soon, however, we wandered off the clarity we had, and I was told to focus on the Affiliate channel. Wasn’t asked, was told. There were no performance reviews, no measurement of results, nor a formulation of what we were working backwards from. Whatever there was, it was in Sachin’s head. I’m at fault here, because I didn’t try to build the personal connection. I wish I’d done because I’d have felt easier pushing back when I was told to do something. As a person with a plan, and with views on how to get where we wanted to, being told what to do without a discussion became the most disempowering and demotivating part of work. It became a grind.

Thinking back after a few years, I realized that ego had prevented me from building a deeper relationship with the company itself. A few days after I’d joined, Sachin told me that an investor had said, “Oh a Stanford graduate, she’s can’t be the right person,” with the presumed suggestion that “hotshots don’t work”. Anyone who knows me would say straight up that I’ve never thought of myself as a hotshot. I didn’t give these words much weight then but these thoughts, expressed with innocent concern, can separate the employee from the company. I had a thing to prove that was distinct from others who were the right persons.

When work became a grind, I started to think less like a owner of the company, and more like an employee. I thought, “Hey, if I’m working so hard, I might as work for myself.” In reality, I was already working for myself, and had a great set of people who already had a great thing going. So, when I saw my ability to act cut down, I took it as an affront to my ability to think, and decided to leave to start my own company. This was probably the worst decision I’ve ever made, but one that I wouldn’t have really understood had I not spent the last five or so years at Amazon.

The Pursuit of an Identity

I did a lot of soul searching in the years after I left Flipkart. In working through the unsexy parts of building my own company, I developed a deep understanding of payments technologies and the ecosystem, and eventually joined Amazon’s Global Payments Platform in 2012. Ironically, this was where Sachin and Binny Bansal had first worked before starting Flipkart. Before I joined Amazon, I wrote to them asking if I could help them build a payments business and that I had an offer from Amazon, but they turned down the idea. I take a little satisfaction in having tried because it was the first point where I had shown that I was willing to separate my ego from my desire to work with the right people.

At Amazon, for the first time I saw what it means to have a customer-driven culture of ownership work at scale. In most cases, it allowed for both an opportunity to think for myself and to be intellectually honest, to develop and present my plans and ideas, and to be awarded for clarity of thought. Developing clarity is filled with painful toil, and it deserves the space we can give it.

I needed the space to be myself, but the Flipkart experience helped shaped my identity in another fundamental way. I live in constant fear, of failing in the next six months, and of not catching myself when my ego gets in the way.

As a child, I’d lived in constant fear of not meeting my parents’ expectations. Unmet expectations took away from my identity as a person, and fear of failure had been a driving force throughout my childhood. After I joined the workforce, I thought I’d finally made it. I was wrong, and I’ve spent the last 14 years “making it”.

I also fear my ego. Most startup environments, even the one I am in right now, are driven by individual personalities. The idiosyncrasies of a place like this can be empowering if they work in your favor, and disempowering if you let them work against you. This the air in which egos clash. So, I’m always on guard now.

What about tomorrow?

To steer life the right way, we want to find a way to judge our actions, so we know why we do what we do, and so we can be comfortable with ourselves. So we can be more intentional, less insecure, and more self-aware. That way, even if things don’t work out, you’re not upset with yourself. You’re not playing dice. Your intentional actions turn failures into more interesting stories. Sometimes they’re even life defining.

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How Information Grows in Amazon

In a recent article, it was fun to read how Greylock’s most recent partner, Josh McFarland pitched to Jeff Bezos, who apparently said, “Most ideas are worth what you pay for them,” but then asked to keep McFarland’s page. I’d recently worked closely with Tellapart, and had in fact spoken with McFarland at GHC16 only a couple of months ago. Back then, I’d honestly wondered how long he’d stay at Twitter, so connecting the dots was fun. But I digress.

Bezos probably sees dozens of new ideas everyday, who knows. A few of them make it to real products. However, the value that he has created goes far beyond either ideas or products. He has created a machine that converts ideas into products. The accumulated knowledge of how to do this is the greatest value of all, and that’s what I’ve been trying to unpack for myself. Not that I’m going to do a fair or even a complete job, but to get started I want to draw some parallels with a book I recently read on How Information Grows.

Agreeing that persistence and accumulated knowhow enable the conversion of an idea to a new product, we can further chip away at what drives or limits the creation of this knowhow or knowledge. Knowledge is limited by an individual’s capacity to learn, and learning that is experiential requires both time and other people with relevant experience. Skills that depend on intellectual capital, craft or judgment are honed over years through education, training, and experience. Knowledge intensive jobs such as scientific research, service design, and general design work require people learning from other people with relevant experience. So, limited by individual capacity, we create networks of people to increase our capacity to learn. But what drives people’s ability to form effective networks?

1. Informal connections, distributed experiments

Silicon Valley’s dense social networks encourage entrepreneurship and learning. Companies compete intensely while at the same time learning from one another about changing markets and technologies with people intermingling to develop knowhow. Boundaries between teams, companies, local institutions, and universities are fairly porous. Amazon has created similar porous boundaries between scores of businesses that learn from each other, and from its executives who have learnt from experience. Hundreds of experiments are carried out by individual teams, and anyone can reach any other person in the company to get advice, mentorship, and sponsorship.

2. Combining diversity

The knowledge and skill of a soccer team hinge on its diversity since strikers and goalies differ in the individual knowhow they possess. Players contribute to the team by adding knowledge and knowhow that is not redundant with others. This diversity allows the team to perform actions that cannot be performed by single individuals like winning a soccer game or playing in an orchestra. This division of knowledge and knowhow, not just labor, is what endows networks of people with fantastic capacities such as those required by a soccer team to win the Champion’s League. Amazon combines the knowhow of running retail and digital businesses for consumers as well as running highly reliable services for enterprises. These businesses add to each other in visible ways to grow the flywheel of human and invested capital. Silicon Valley is far more diverse in the people it employs as well as the products and services it produces, but it lacks coordination.

3. Coordination

Former coach of Barcelona, current coach of Bayern Munich, Josep Guariola was asked by a student at the MIT Media Lab: “Pep, if we built a team of robots, would you come and coach it?” He replied, “The main challenge of coaching a team is not figuring out the game plan but getting the game plan into the heads of players. Since in the case of robots, I do not see that as a challenge, I kindly decline the offer.” Plans at Amazon are six page narratives that are reviewed at every level. The idea is to provide in-depth knowhow that anyone who reads the plan can grasp so they can ask questions to tease out the group’s experiential learning. These plans discuss the what as well as the why.

I usually imagine culture to be an intrinsic characteristic of a network, but at Amazon its “leadership principles” could probably represent an executive team member in their own right. These principles are the only instance I’ve seen of a company scaling its culture, and providing a common language for all participants to articulate individual behaviors and their impact literally in short hand. It’s a meta language that allows us to assess people in addition to other quantitative measures.

So, if Amazon were just a piece of land, I wonder if South Lake Union might have been Washington’s Silicon Valley. Reversing the analogy, and maybe stretching it beyond safe consumption, if Silicon Valley were a company and you could have stock in Silicon Valley, which would you pick?

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Evolution of News: Phase 3

The Ideal of Objectivity

Information vs. Story 

“It is in the Times that we can all worship the Idols of the Cave without being caught in our idolatry,” said Benjamin Stolberg in the Atlantic (1926).

Calling upon the badge of respectability that the Times endowed, Stolberg’s suggestion leaves us with the question of why the Times conferred respectability while the World did not. It is likely that the Times wrote for the rational person whose life was orderly, and under control. Its articles offered useful information, not revelations or sensational stories of revelry. Its readers were relatively independent and participant, often the “insiders”. While refined in their discourse, they might have aspired for more color. However, for many coming to the cities for the first time, life was a spectacle as never before, and the World spoke faithfully to the experience of these masses, who were relatively dependent and non-participant. In simply serving “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, the Times projected an air of objective detachment, which suited the educated and wealthy class well.

“Public Opinion”

Meanwhile, Walter Lippman in Public Opinion (1922) had begun to demolish the fantasy of “public” supremacy that the rhetoric of democracy had built around it. In the Phantom Public (1925), he writes: “[Public affairs] are for the most part invisible. They are managed, if they are managed at all, at distant centers, from behind the scenes, by unnamed powers.” Lippmann argued that the fault was with the “unattainable ideal” of citizenship.

There is no special wisdom in the will of the majority. On the contrary, wisdom is more likely to lie with insiders, experts in the practice of governing. The people do not govern and should not govern,; at most, they support or oppose the ones who do rule. The public fails to see that the difference between rulers and the ruled is that between insiders and outsiders.

As doubt in democratic institutions and capitalism rose, public opinion became more detached from reason and rational understanding, of which there was little to go around. The professional classes, for their part, now took public opinion to be irrational, and therefore something to study, direct, and manipulate. The “educated” developed a elitist attitude towards ‘reason’ and the ‘public’.

Public Relations

When public relations first arrived on the scene, its impact was admirable. An accident had occurred on the main railroad line near Gap, Pennsylvania. Railroads had traditionally tried to suppress news of accidents. Ivy Lee, in contrast, invited reporters to the scene of the accident at the railroad’s expense. An accident on the New York Central soon thereafter was hushed up, as usual. But in light of the recent Pennsylvania policy, this invited anger and brought the New York Central bad press. This was the beginning of a new relationship between the railroads, the largest corporations in the country, the press, and the reading public.

Ivy Lee began as a reporter in 1899 in New York for the Journal, then the Times, and finally the World. He then established, Parker and Lee, whose motto was “Accuracy, Authenticity, Interest”. He argued that propaganda, which he defined as the effort to propagate ideas, was acceptable as long as the public knew who was responsible for it. He quoted Walter Lippman:

No one can present the whole of the facts on any subject. The effort to state an absolute fact is  simply an attempt to achieve what is humanly impossible; all I can do is give you is my interpretation of the facts. We are very prone to look at everything through the glasses colored by our own interests and prejudices.

While this was a criticism of subjectivity of knowledge, for Lee it was a cynical defense of his business. Since all opinions are suspect, all are equally entitled to a place in the democratic forum.

While Lee stressed that opinion was self-interested, Edward Bernays argued that it was irrational. This led Bernays to a libertarian rationale for public relations:

In the struggle among ideas, the only test is … the power of thought to get itself accepted in the open competition of the market.

News appeared to rapidly become less about reporting, more about reprinting the framing of facts proposed by special interests who could afford to hire public relations experts. Reporters did not like publicity agents, but the ease with which agents were able to use printed lines for their purposes, free of cost, surprised the agents themselves. As Bernays said, “A public relations counsel is not merely the purveyor of news, he is more logically the creator of news.” This is exactly what journalists feared. Moreover, reporters who enjoyed getting the scoop were now stopped at the gates of PR. Newspapers that had once fought the “interests” now depended on them for the handouts.

Roosevelt was the first president to set up a press room  in the White House. Woodrow Wilson initiated the regular press conference. Reporters gained a more secure though more formal relationship with the White House. It was clearly manipulated by the president and his office.

As Lippman put it:

The development of the publicity man is a clear sign that the facts of modern life do not spontaneously take shape as they can be known. They must be given a shape by somebody, and since in the daily routine, reporters cannot give shape to facts, and since there is little disinterested organization of intelligence, the need for some formulation is being met by interested parties.

World War I

“The astounding success of the propaganda around war opened the eyes of the intelligent few to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind,” Edward Bernays wrote.

While many American journalists suffered military censorship as war correspondents in Europe, others themselves served as agents of the American propaganda machine at home. President Wilson created a committee on Public Information in 1917, which employed many journalists to write, collect and distribute information favorable to the American war effort. It churned out 6000 press releases, and enlisted 75000 “Four Minute Men” to deliver short speeches in movie theaters and public places, and even enrolled Boy Scouts to deliver copies of Wilson’s speeches door to door. Historian Jack Roth has called the war “the first modern effort at systematic, nationwide manipulation of collective passions.” Nothing could have been more persuasive in convincing American journalists that facts themselves are not to be trusted.

The Ideal of Objectivity

Even as late as the 1920s, “objectivity” was not a term that journalists or critics of journalism used. Newspapers were criticized for failing to stick to the facts, and Times boasted that it presented “all the news”, by which it meant information. It was the body of knowledge that could be understood without context.

However, in Public Opinion, Lippman explained the emotional impulse behind the quest for objectivity:

“… men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the aggressor, and can only flourish where the audience is deprived of independent access to information. But where all news comes second-hand, where all testimony is uncertain, men cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions. The environment in which they act is not the reality, but the pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses. The whole reference of thought comes to be what somebody asserts, not what actually is.”

Lippmann believed that science held the solution. “There is but one kind of unity possible in the world as diverse as ours. It is unity of method, rather than of aim; the unity of disciplined experiment.” For him, journalism did not have to be rescued from the capitalists, but from itself:

Since human beings are poor witnesses, easily thrown off the scent, easily misled by a personal bias, profoundly influenced by social environment, does it not follow that a constant testing of the news and a growing self-consciousness about the main sources of error is a necessary part of democratic philosophy?

He believed that the scientific method and beliefs would make journalism not only more professional, but more liberal and more heroic. Liberalism meant openness, he wrote – remaining free in mind and action before changing circumstances without being paralyzed by skepticism.

News Management

Not long after, in the 60s, objectivity in journalism, regarded as an antidote to bias, came to be looked upon as the most insidious bias of all. “Objective” reporting reproduced a vision of social reality which refused to examine the basic structures of power and privilege.

When the Commission on the Freedom of the Press was established in 1944, Henry Luce, co-founder of the Time magazine, told the Editor and Publisher that the “freedom of the press” was no longer in evidence. His main concern was that “big government” controlled the press, not by censorship, but by flooding it with information. In many cases, the press was complicit in the information that was censored. In 1955, when Eisenhower was in a Denver hospital recovering from coronary thrombosis, members of his cabinet flew to Denver to ostensibly consult with him. In fact, they were in Denver only to present to the public misinformation that the president was still able to perform his duties. The press knew of the deception, but did not report it. Russell Baker, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote: “Because the tradition of the American newspaper compels it to report with straight face whatever is said by anyone in high office, it was unable to suggest any element of charade in the parade of the Cabinet officers to Denver. And so, in a sense, the press was seduced by its own morality.”

Daniel Boorstin in 1961 coined the term “pseudo-event” to refer to happenings that are planned for the immediate purpose of being reported. “While propaganda substitutes opinions for facts, pseudo-events are synthetic facts, providing a ‘factual’ basis for people to make up their minds.”

In the 1960s, after a series of small events including lies about the U2 flights over Soviet Union and the New York Times’ downplaying the impending invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the fourth estate was outraged by the statements of Arthur Sylvester, spokesman for the Pentagon under Kennedy, who defended news management in the Cuban missile crisis. On Oct 30, 1962, he argued:

In the kind of world we live in, the generation of news by actions taken by the government becomes a weapon in a strained situation. The results justify the methods we used. I think the inherent right of the government is to lie – to lie to save itself when faced with nuclear disaster – is basic, basic.

Until then, the press was used to cooperating with the government officials to suppress news. But Sylvester’s words threatened the role of the press as a conscientious upholder of democratic values. For the press, to cooperate with the government in keeping news from the public was one thing, for the government to keep information from the press was something else. It was perhaps bad for the government to keep information from the press by dodging; it was certainly bad for the government to lie outright. But it was worse still for the government to announce its right to lie. Earlier, if the press discovered the lie, it could embarrass the government. The Sylvester statement placed the government beyond embarrassment. From then on, reporters began to suspect that Sylvester’s crude philosophy had become everyday government practice. Vietnam finally drained the reservoir of trust between the government and the press.

American position in the war was unusually delicate. American support for Vietnam had never been popular, it violated the Geneva Agreement of 1954, and especially after the Bay of Pigs, there was fear of feeding anti-American propaganda. The attitude of the Diem regime towards newsmen did not help. All this made American officials defensive, wary, and hostile of reporters, well before there was any sentiment in the press against American involvement in Vietnam.

When reports from Vietnam flowed back, news of civilian casualties in Vietnam directly contradicted President Johnson’s announced policy. As such, every journalistic feat that evaded news management called attention to news management. Lippmann had felt that newspapers had no special access to truth – their responsibility was to print news, they would be able to print better news only if the government and independent agencies of intelligence could provide them with more reliable data. Now, when the credibility of the government and “independent” agencies was in doubt, if events themselves are constructed, then reporting the news was not just an incomplete approach to the truth, but a distorted one.

Interpretative Reporting

Reporting for Beginners by Curtis MacDougall, was revised and republished in 1938 as Interpretative Reporting. In it MacDougall writes, “The trend is unmistakably in the direction of combining the function of interpreter with that of reporter after about half a century during which journalistic ethics called for a strict differentiation between the narrator and commenter.” McDougall was interested in “giving substance” to the news. He argued that the United States had been unprepared to understand World War I because wire services and newspapers had reported only what happened, not an interpretation of why it was happening. In 1929, the beginning of the depression also found journalism unprepared, and reporters “utterly unqualified” to cope with a major news even in anything but a factual manner.

He held that interpretative reporting was not inconsistent with the aim of objectivity.

… the most successful newspaper men and women of the future will be those with wide educational backgrounds, a specialist’s knowledge in one or more fields, the ability to avoid emotionalism, and to remain objective, descriptive styles, the power of observation, and above all, the ability to comprehend the meaning of immediate news events in relation to broader social, economic, and political trends.

The Time magazine, founded in 1923 by Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, was forthright in advocating a blend of fact and opinion. “Show me a man who thinks he’s objective,” Luce said, “and I’ll show you a man who’s deceiving himself.” Luce recommended that newspapers drop the division between editorial and news desks, and put on the front page “intelligent, criticism, representation, and evaluation of the men who hold offices of public trust.”

The most important adaptation to the sense of subjectivity of facts was the introduction of the syndicated political columnist. By 1937, Walter Lippman’s column was syndicated in 155 papers. The New Republic observed in 1937 that “much of the influence once attached to the editorial has passed over to the columnists.”

Against Objectivity

Arguments against objectivity fall in three major categories. It is the combination of these objections that make the case for continued reflection around the limits of objectivity.

1. Reported content rests on a set of substantive political assumptions whose validity is never questioned. These assumptions are absorbed by reporters and readers through every day life and professional influence.

2. The form of the news story incorporates its own bias. A typical news story is not biased left or right, but towards statements of fact which are observable and unambiguous, towards events rather than processes. This format reinforces existing structures of power. It favors institutions which are most oriented to, and best able to control “events” or stage pseudo-events. Powerful institutions, particularly the government, are attuned to the “event-orientation” of reporters, and so can manipulate them, while social movements and reformers holding to an “issue-orientation” tend to be ignored by journalists, until they too can gain the power to stage “events”.

3. A news story is constrained by the routines of news gathering. The process of news gathering reinforces official viewpoints. “Objectivity” is not a conviction of journalists. It’s not even the belief in the scientific method that Lippman championed. Instead it’s a practice, a strategic ritual, which journalists use to defend themselves against mistakes and criticism. It is a set of conventions which persist because they can limit the extent to which reporters can be held responsible for the words they write, such as quoting speakers in positions of recognized authority.

New Branches

The literary tradition has deep roots in journalism. A finely crafted story, not a safe story or an objective story, is powered by “feeling as well as intellect”. It has found expression in magazines like the Rolling Stone and The New Yorker.

Meanwhile, investigative reporting was evidenced in Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate scandal. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein denied that they did anything exceptional. For them, it was business as usual. It was not journalism of advocacy or personal passion, but a force of energy. Where they took liberties with the law, Woodward and Bernstein apologized. Where they followed the rules, like the guideline of confirming every important charge with the testimony of at least two informants – they were proud. They make a case for journalism true to a potential ideal of objectivity, and counter to the conventions justified in its name. Investigative reporting may have its traditions and rewards, but it will not have its handbooks.

Previous – Phase 2: The Rise of the Times


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Most Beautiful Rose

The most beautiful rose is the one that grows in your garden. And, of course, the best camera is the one that’s in your pocket.


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I’ve always wanted to ask a white person how their English happens to be so good, you know, to get what it feels like to be on the other side of that question.

“Your English is really good,” I slipped in while paying the lovely 20-something lady who had been serving us at a cheerful cafe, Holybelly. It was her first day at the cafe, and she had merrily admitted to not knowing an item on the menu, asking the owner in front of us without much hesitation.

“Thank you. We try,” she replied. I pressed on, “Did you learn it at school?” “No, just while traveling,” she said with some embarrassment. And just like that, I’d scratched a lifelong itch.

Really must recommend the youthful three-year old cafe by the way. The owner had a croissant tattoed on one arm,and grapes on the other. On the board it says:

Holybelly – the place where the customer is always loved, but not always right.


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Baggage Drop-off Lane

I consider myself a fairly evolved airport animal. In my mind, it’s an evolutionary advantage to not have to check in baggage. I hate carrying much baggage to begin with – a habit from my younger days when I went hiking, and had to carry stuff for days, come rain or sunshine. If it wasn’t not necessary, it wouldn’t go into the bag.

The checkin rule is kind of snobbish, growing out of a desire to spend as little time at airports as possible. It’s also childish because I now carry a backpack no matter where I have to go, or for how many days. A week in Paris, a week in India, three days in Iceland and a week in Barcelona. Ok, at this point, I’m showing off although I make but an innocent point.

The joy of traveling though is usually with someone else. If your husband is smarter than you, he’ll check in his baggage, and won’t break his back carrying an 8 kg backpack for 2 hours in crawling immigration lines. You can also then join in the fun and adventure of finding the baggage carousel, and then swipe left, bag after bag. Great game, because the bag is never certain to arrive.

There’s so much to say about losing baggage. If only I could lose the kind of baggage that I actually wanted to. Even when I know I’m carrying it around, I sometimes don’t let go. It sticks on to me even if it’s not a necessary part of me. I’d be alright if I go without it for some distance, or even forever. For instance, the world won’t end if I don’t think about work for a week, or if leave my fears behind. I’ll be ok, I try to tell myself, if I shed some of the instincts that I’ve picked up along the way. The best part about really traveling light is the stuff you can pick up while you’re on the road, like new memories and perspectives. But there must be space for them.


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Evolution of News: Phase 2

Phase 2: The Rise of the Times

The New York World, revived by Joseph Pulitzer in 1883, and the New York Journal, bought by William Hearst in 1895, were the two largest newspapers of the late nineteenth century. In their age, these newspapers faced the same moral opposition from their contemporaries such as the Herald and the Tribune, which had themselves been its target five decades ago.

Growth of Advertising

Still selling at a penny a copy, Pulitzer invented the practice of selling ads on the basis of circulation. The ratio of ad-space to content quickly shifted from 30-70 to 50-50. Ads accounted for 44% of revenue in 1880, and grew to 55% by 1900. This was timely; as manufacturing output as well as consumption grew, so did advertising. Pultizer’s move transformed ad-space into a commodity that could be bought and sold by advertising agents that managed their clients’ ad spend. Instead of judging their advertisers, newspapers were now subject to scrutiny from them.

In setting the paper’s tone, Pulitzer repeatedly appealed to “the people”, and frequently resorted to a crusade with attention-grabbing headlines and exposes. Yet, his sensationalism had more to do with style than substance. The use of illustrations, larger headlines, articles that brazenly self-advertised the newspaper’s circulation, and the attention the newspaper received from reputable figures formed the elements of the World’s sensational stories. In contrast to the 1830s when the penny papers discovered that everything, including ads could be news, in the 1880s, newspapers discovered that everything including news could be an advertisement for themselves.

The Times They Are A Changin’

Yet, it was the New York Times that was to define the highbrow standard of newspaper reporting in the forthcoming decades. Bought by Adolph Ochs in 1896, it had a daily circulation of just 9,000 copies compared to the World’s 600,000 and the Journal’s 430,000. “All the News That’s Fit to Print” first appeared on the editorial page two months after the takeover, emphasizing decency and accuracy of information. In Oct 1898, the Times lowered its price from three cents to a penny. Circulation climbed from 25,000 (1898), to 75,000 (1899), 82,000 (1900), 121,000 (1895), 192,000 (1910), 343,000 (1920). Ochs’ explanation was that people bought the World and the Journal because they were cheap, not because they were sensational. Given an alternative of “a clean newspaper of high and honorable aims, which prints all the news that is fit to print, and expresses its editorial opinions with sincere conviction and independence,” they would much prefer it to base sensationalism.

Garet Garett, an editor of the Times, wrote about Ochs in his diary, “His ambition is to produce a highbrow newspaper for intellectuals,” but noticed:

“Intellectually he is the inferior of any man at the council table… I am aware, however, that the presence of Mr. O. gives our thoughts and expressions an elasticity that they did not have in his absence. None values his mental processes highly, and yet, he has a way of seeing always the other side that stimulates discussion, statement and restatement, and leaves a better product altogether than is approached in his absence.”

Turns out that Ochs had a better understanding of the crowd’s emotions, and could anticipate its reactions better than others at the table could.

Still, it is not clear what made the Times more respectable. Was it the people who read it? Was it the “information-driven” and orderly view of the world that appealed to the educated and wealthy classes, compared to the “entertainment-driven” and chaotic view of the World that appealed to the newly literate and aspiring? Was the Times for the rational person, compared to the World which was for the masses for whom things were unusual or unpredictable?

The Times certainly delivered more detailed financial information, and political views that matched the affluent class conservatism. It sensed the need for differentiation through decency, and transformed news from an angry crusade or a guilty pleasure into an intellectual necessity.

Yet, nothing about newspaper journalism suggested a need for objectivity. World War I was yet to break the bubble of bounded rationality, and skepticism was yet to enter the collective conscience.

Next – Phase 3: The Ideal of Objectivity

Previous – Phase 1: The Penny Papers

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Evolution of News: Phase 1

After a week in India, I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Forcibly ejected from the media circus that fans the country’s collective temper, I found brief redemption in history this evening. Drawing from the Discovery of News, in the next few posts, I explore the idea of journalism through its evolution, occasionally finding comfort in familiarity. I leave the reader to draw her own parallels with the characters, events, and trends today.

This series of posts also helps me think about how news is delivered and consumed in the U.S. today. I’m a fan of Twitter, and have thoughts about the product’s strengths and weaknesses, but first, some legwork…

Phase 1: The Penny Papers

Humble Beginnings

The first penny paper, the New York Sun, was first published on September 3, 1833. It grew to command the largest circulation in the city within a few months. By January 1834, it claimed a circulation of 5,000. Within two years, it was selling 15,000 copies a day. James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, followed on May 6, 1835. By June 1835, the combined circulation of the top three penny papers was 44,000. Before the Sun began, the combined circulation of all the city’s dailies had been 26,500.

A New Business Model

Every penny paper sought a large circulation, and the advertising it attracted, instead of relying on subscription fees and subsidies from political parties. Funding from social and political affiliations was replaced by market-driven income from advertising and sales.

The penny press established equal rights for all advertisers, including abortion nurses and betting agents, to employ the public press as long as the advertiser paid up.  The penny papers self-righteously defended this position of “passing no moral judgment” in advertising as consistent with their self-interest. As such, only the penny press could be free press because it was subservient to none of its readers, who were anonymous as far as it was concerned.

A New Product

Until the 1830s, newspapers had been the mouthpiece of political parties or provided information to the shipping and mercantile classes, and sold for six pennies a copy. These incumbents responded to the new penny papers with charges of sensationalism. In this case, it was a matter of substance, not style, which included no sensational photos, cartoons or large headlines. Their objection was towards the printing of material that we understand as “news” today. It was common for penny papers to cover a murder trial by printing the verbatim transcript of the trial on its front page. The six-penny papers resented the “morality” of reporting the murder trial at all.

The penny papers didn’t just print the news, they sought out the news, employing paid correspondents as far as Europe to collect and deliver it faster. The notion of paid reporting, in fact, was a shocking development to some. Till the late 1820s, members of the Congress occasionally wrote for their home papers. Former President, John Adams, wrote with disgust in his diary in 1842 that President Tyler’s sons had divulged his cabinet’s secrets to hired men from the Herald.

Advertising too became more timely and efficient. Starting Jan 1, 1848, all ads in the Herald were required to be resubmitted every day. Frederic Hudson, Bennett’s managing editor, wrote, “…advertisements form the most interesting and practical city news. They are the hopes, the thoughts, the joys, the plans, the shames, the losses, the mishaps, the fortunes of the people. Each advertiser is therefore a reporter… What a picture of the metropolis one day’s advertisements in the Herald presents to mankind!”

The penny-papers not only invented attributes such as timeliness, they created a genre that developed the momentous sense of everyday life. In reporting the local every day incidents, they made the familiar look extraordinary, and in writing about the social elite, they made the exotic look achievable.

The Timing

The New York Stock Exchange, founded in 1817, signified the democratization of economic interest. Economic development was distributed among many rather than a few. The Western Railroad in Massachusetts was financed in 1835 by 2,800 individual stockholders; the largest shareholder held just 200 shares, and the top 100 shareholders held less than 40% of the stock. This distributed creation of wealth led to growing consumption of manufactured goods and services, which could now be purchased affordably instead of being made at home. The penny papers extended these markets through advertisements, and through their own pricing, brought themselves within reach of a large section of the growing middle class.

Property qualification for voting died out by the late 1820s, and brought all white men within the fold of political patronage, engaging many in the political party machinery. Political awareness and economic prosperity did not lift the common mason or immigrant out of poverty, but it provided mobility to the skilled professionals as well as small and large merchants who developed new institutions and a new consciousness that would require scaling of information networks.

Competition and Differentiation

As the crop of penny papers grew, Bennett developed a middle road for the Herald, more professional and responsible than the penny press, and more lively than the Wall Street papers. It published a series of articles on the “History of Banking”, representing the interests of the wealthy, repeating what it had done with its coverage of Washington politics – turning facts into an analysis of events.

In the 1860s, coverage of the Civil War allowed newspapers to record battles, and enter national consciousness like never before, although the age of the reporter was yet to dawn. As their incomes rose through the 1880s, reporters began to develop a sense of calling that translated into popular personal styles and story-telling. This idea of telling a story instead of delivering a pile of facts set the stage for the next round of “sensationalism”.

Next – Phase 2: The Rise of the Times

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Just Give Me The Internet

“My wallet is gone!” are words I would dread anywhere in the world. The last time it had happened, I had chased the stealer down the streets, very nearly into a deserted parking lot. This time, I was staring into the eyes of the victim, a stocky American in his fifties, who might have taken me by the collar if I weren’t a woman. It took me a few seconds to realize this. Pushed into the morning rush on the metro, I had been feeling my own pockets for valuables. “I didn’t take it. You can search me if you want,” I said shakily, as if I didn’t expect him to believe me. It was my first day in Italy, and the metro was pulling out of Roma Termini. Being a tourist is rough business. I couldn’t lock eyes with the American again for the rest of the journey, and pondered whether the thief was still around us.

Planned for that morning was a tour of the Vatican. Our guide kept the religion out of the art, but the art refused to stay out of religion. Overwhelming in ambition and symbolism, grasping its intention was not the hard part. In the 16th century, this might have been the local comic book. But I didn’t know anything about the Genesis of Man, and there was no way to look it up. Leave your brain at home, along with your wallet, I told myself. Enjoy the comic.

The next day, we planned to head to Naples. Confidently navigating through ticketing and station chaos, more aware of pickpockets than ever, we found the platform and the train. Ten minutes into the journey, deep in the Italian countryside, the ticket checker cheerfully informs us, “Train to Firenze”. The train was to Florence. Right then. Five minutes in Florence, and we were giving directions to a bunch of lost tourists. You see, we had taken pictures of the city map at the Firenze station. Turns out offline maps were better than no maps. As we made our way to the Cathederal, we stumbled upon the Palazzo Strozzi. It had wifi! It was hosting an exhibition on Divine Beauty – we bought tickets to it in sheer gratitude. Sedated, I actually enjoyed the various interpretations of Madonna, and was particularly moved by this erotic interpretation of prayer.

After we’d had enough comics and pasta heaped on us for five days, we took the remaining half of our vacation to London, where a Starbucks was never far. The coffee was burnt, but the wifi was always there. The creamy lattes of Rome and Michelangelo’s genius didn’t hold a candle to the small pleasures of internet. It was quite another matter that everyone on the London tube read the ‘complimentary’ newspapers instead of infinitely better stuff on their phones.


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The Product Manager Survival Guide

Everyone has an opinion about the product. Shareholders, suppliers, journalists, your neighbors and your tennis buddies.

But you are the product manager, and are called upon to think like a CEO. After all, all CEOs do is think about the product, right?

Fortunately, CEOs don’t just think about the product, and neither do product managers. Both are generalist roles, and in fact, the more information they keep and connect in their heads, the quicker they get to a working model, an MVP, whether it is a company or a product they’re building. Few people can actually connect all the information from various channels and draw the signal from the noise. Along with a sense of ownership and a bias for action, these are table stakes for CEOs and product managers. When you can think through all the dependencies, own the execution across them all, and affect the required changes, you’re in business.

Unlike the CEO, however, the product manager has to argue her case with others in the company, all the way up to the CEO. Data is usually a prop, not the story. No numbers game survives battle in the marketplace, but a logical story stands the test of time as long as its assumptions stay consistent. As Jeff Bezos says, base your story on things that don’t change.

Sometimes, though, your story must go against what the data says. You must go against what you know to be true, and this brings me to the final survival trait of a product manager: courage. When the data doesn’t add up with the signals you’ve learned to not ignore, you are in the unique position of making a difference. Before Flipkart, no one believed e-commerce was a serious business in India. There were no product managers, only “businessmen” and “managers”, both of who thrive on conventional wisdom.

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