Sunday, March 11, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #13: Magazine Man--Year One

(Part III)

No doubt about it, getting to travel was just about the single best perk of working for ASS Magazine. The system for deciding who got to travel was very simple: whoever was writing the cover story (always about some interesting security installation or application of security methods at an unusual location) got to travel to the location of the story and direct the photo shoot. The cover story was picked based on whoever had the most interesting and visually compelling idea for a story. And I got to be very good very quickly at pitching colorful story ideas. Which meant I got to travel about once every six weeks.

And oh, the places I went! There was Austin, Texas, where I got to spend my days learning about security at a large manufacturer of international business machines, and my nights listening to great music and gorging myself on BBQ. There was--oh boy!--Detroit, where I got to tour a brand-new prison and ended up spending quality time in one of the brand-new cells because the lockdown sequence accidentally tripped while they were trying to show off the security system to me. There was Las Vegas where I got to lose lots of money playing blackjack, but then got our publisher to show me how to expense all of it. There was--wahoo!--Topeka, Kansas, where I spent a hot afternoon in a vast railyard learning how a certain railroad company was preventing thieves from stealing the contents of their box cars and even the box cars themselves. "Really?" I asked the dour security director. "Who would steal a box car? How? Somebody hook it to their pick-up and turn it up a dirt road?" The director just stared at me. "It's happened. I can't tell you how. I can only tell you it won't happen again."

But I often got peach assignments too. I went out to California twice--once to ride a chase boat in the America's Cup race. I went to Florida three times--all in the dead of winter, and all for assignments that took no more than a few hours to complete, leaving me with an entire weekend (to save costs, we always reserved flights with a Saturday stayover) to play tourist or lay on a beach, soaking in the sun on the company dime.

My trip to the Oscars--my second visit to California--was another such trip. Of course, it wasn't to the actual Oscars, but I did get to sit in on a rehearsal, where I got to see a good many stars, although I can't remember them all now. Almost no presenters actually showed up to rehearse their presentations, which didn't surprise me, but Billy Crystal was there (he was the emcee that year) and Jack Palance was too (that was the year he did his one-handed push-ups on stage, something he didn't rehearse, at least not at the rehearsal I sat through). Afterwards, I got to interview the head of the security team that was guarding the show. That was the shortest part of the day, since it mostly consisted of me asking questions, and him saying, in a practiced monotone, "I can't answer that."

Security guys were always answering questions that way, which made it great reporting and writing practice for a young pup like me. After all, how do you write a few thousand words about a security installation when the people you interview aren't allowed to tell you anything?

I'll tell you how: you write a lot about the equipment they use, which is all a matter of public record. At least the specs of the equipment are. And of course, that was how ASS made its money--we wrote stories that were essentially multi-page ads touting the virtues of security equipment.

See, in the magazine world there are your consumer magazines--magazines written for everyday folk about a broad range of everyday interests--and then there are trade magazines. In some circles they are known as controlled-circulation magazines, or B2B (business to business) magazines, or niche publications. But it all boils down to the same thing: Trade magazines are written for a very specific reader, and usually that reader gets the magazine for free. Why? Because no person in their right mind would voluntarily pay for such a magazine, of course. But the bigger answer is: we give the magazine away to qualified readers (in the case of ASS, security professionals who managed mid- to large-sized installations and who, most importantly, had purchasing power over security gear) because we promise advertisers that they have a direct route--a captive audience, if you will--to the readers who are most likely to buy what the advertisers sell.

Which meant my salary was paid entirely by advertisers, not by newsstand purchases (you couldn't find ASS on a newsstand no matter how hard you looked) and certainly not by paid subscribers, since there were none.

Those of you who are still awake at this point may realize that I was on the horns of an ethical dilemma: If advertising paid the bills--and my rent--then wasn't there pressure to write stories that featured the companies who advertised in the magazine? My answer is: No, there was no pressure at all. It was simply understood from Day One that we would seek out stories that featured the products and systems made by our advertisers. In fact, nine times out of ten, we got the leads for the stories we did because the PR for the advertisers would call us up and hand us the stories.

For my entire time at the magazine, I tried to convince myself that I could maintain a certain ethical remove from this situation, that I could write compelling stories for our readers without clogging every other paragraph with several dozen lines of technical gobbledygook about the pan/tilt radius of the new Sony camera or the infrared threshold of the new passive intruder alarm system put out by BeamBoy or whoever. But of course, we all know I was kidding myself.

My boss, Mr. Z, in his usual contradictory style, encouraged us to be journalists, to tell true stories about the places we visited, but if we didn't write enough about the products in the places we visited, he was the first to add them into our copy. He was also the first to volunteer his editors to accompany the publisher's regional managers on sales calls, easily the most unpleasant part of my job, even more than having to deal with Z. Because when you were on a sales call, all pretenses were dropped. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that you were there to offer free, friendly editorial to whoever you visited, which gave the sales manager some leverage in securing a purchase order for ads in the magazine. It was a pretty simple--if ethically shaky--gig.

Oh my, but even I managed to screw that up. On one trip to California, I ended up spending a day with the West Coast sales rep as we made the rounds to various companies. The manager had set up several appointments for us that day, but I was amazed at how many people blew us off. In the course of 10 stops, we only met people at about three companies. One of them was a small manufacturer of really nice color cameras such as were installed at banks. The company was also developing a camera system for use at ATMs. One of their early set-ups had been used at an ATM in New York, where there had been a notorious robbery, all captured by this company's camera system. I thought it would make a great story and I asked one of the company's manager's about the case. Unlike so many security professionals, the guy was friendly and candid and I recorded the exchange and took copious notes as he talked to me about the case. At the end of the visit, we were all happy: I had a story with an actual news hook; the company got positive coverage; and the sales manager thought he'd get a sale out of the visit.

But then my story actually appeared in the magazine and the head of the company hit the roof. Apparently, there was a pending lawsuit against the company because of this particular ATM crime (don't ask me the details, because I honestly don't remember them), and all company employees were under a gag order to discuss the situation. So the head of the company went to the manager who had spoken to me and he did what probably anyone would do in his situation: He covered his ass. He said he'd made it clear the information wasn't for publication (he hadn't) and that furthermore I had taken liberties with what few quotes he gave me (I most certainly fucking hadn't).

Thus it was that a week or so after my story saw print, I got copied on a bitchy letter that was sent to my publisher, Mr. Z, and the head of the publishing company we all worked for. The letter, written by the corporate communications manager for the camera company, accused me of "fabricating" a story, and misquoting the manager in such a way that he "felt he'd been made to sound like a bumbling idiot."

The upshot was that we had to promise them a full retraction, all kinds of free ad space, and I personally had to write a letter of apology.

It was that last condition that stuck in my craw. I admit that I've always been prone to exaggeration, but such was not the case at this job. After all, I had recorded my interview with the manager, plus I had our own sales guy as witness to back me up on what had really happened. But the sales guy didn't want to lose a client and so rather than stand up for me, he simply suggested I get with the program and write my letter of apology.

Here's what I wrote, more or less verbatim:

Dear Corporate Communications Manager,

Thanks ever so much for your recent and shrill letter, explaining your concerns about my story of the latest issue of ASS. You weren't present at the meeting that took place between myself and your manager. However, I was, and so was a member of our sales team. Oh, and so was my tape recorder, which captured everything your manager said. It is from those recordings that I compiled my story. So let me clarify a few details for you:

At no time were any quotes "fabricated" nor was it revealed to me at any time that the quotes were not for publication. It had been made very clear that we were there to do a story about your company. Believe me, I would never have visited otherwise.

As for your manager feeling that he had been made to sound like a "bumbling idiot," I can only reiterate that I drew his quotes verbatim from the recording made of the interview. Any perception he may have of himself as a "bumbling idiot" is, alas, entirely his own.

Nevertheless, at the instruction of my manager, I do offer an apology for any trouble this story may have caused. Thanks again.


I can't imagine why, but for some reason my sincere letter only made the incident worse, and within short order, the company not only refused our offer of free ads, but canceled the one ad they'd promised to buy in the next fiscal year. Word got out about what happened and apparently a few more companies canceled ad contracts too.

I didn't find out about this until a few weeks later, when Z came storming into my office, a copy of my letter in his crumpled hand.

"If you wanted to be fired, MM, all you had to do was come to me and say so!" he boomed...


wh00t, unemployment check!

But wait, he would never actually fire you. Then he'd have one less person to pick on...
There have been one or two apologies I was "suggested" to give that really stuck in my craw, also. However, I ended up outlasting the managers who suggested I give them, in most cases. Looking forward to hearing about the rest of Year One.
I was going to ask if you still had the recording when he came storming in, but realized (by the very nature of the business), he wouldn't care. (As an editor, you must hate that sentence as much as I do.)
There's nothing quite so satisfying as having someone order you to do something while you have both the balls not to do it and a physical record of some sort to back you up. Justified self-righteousness is as good as it gets!
You know what? I would have written a letter like that myself!

I'm proud of you, for not caving in to that company BS!! Good for you!
Good for you! On several occasions I've wanted to write similar letters. But, alas, I'm a 'cover my ass' person, and a 'never burn your bridges' person. So I've written them and never sent them. {sigh}
Oh no! Did you get fired??
You are the Grand Poobah of letter writing!

I almost want to do something rude to you, just so I can receive one of those awesome scathing letters!
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