It was a week when massive political news was followed by, among other things, all sorts of journalistic recriminations, with many arguing just how much the press abetted, or reduced, the pathology of the election just past. So in that spirit of circularity—journalists talking about journalists talking about journalists—let's begin with a (business) article about the media.
When rich outsiders attempt to buy media entities, spectacle often ensues. Think of it as the place where the hubris and vanity of some entrepreneurs encounters the lacerating cynicism of actual journalists (some of whom proudly view part of their roles as impeding the revenue generation of the companies they work for). What used to be known as the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, now memorably renamed “Tronc” to much derision, provides the fodder for a romp in BloombergBusinessWeek entitled “Tronc If You Want To Save Journalism.” In the role of deluded self-anointed media savior is one Michael Ferro, with his company moniker and ambitions described this way: “His corporate renaming ignited extended spasms of #tronc mockery on social media. Sample tweet: ‘WHAT YOU GONNA DO WITH ALL THAT JONC ALL THAT JONC INSIDE YOUR TRONC.’ And yet, until recently, Ferro was on the verge of laughing all the way to the bonc, as it were.” I'll be fronc: You'll enjoy reading it.
The Desperation of Venezuela
The New Yorker has a twofer of smart features this week, both of which skirt around the edges of business. "Venezuela, A Failing State," examines what happens when you combine the resource curse, kleptocracy, the death of a charismatic leader, and a drastic fall in the price of that key resource (oil, in this case). The results are dire. This passage captures some of the bleakness, including a line that seems like black humor...which morphs two sentences later into vivid, desperate reality.
In 2008, when the global financial crisis battered the oil price, Venezuela got a foretaste of the current crisis. The Army was put in charge of food distribution. Soldiers are not trained to understand the global supply chain. Supermarkets emptied, people went hungry, and food ended up on the black market. Later, a hundred thousand tons of food was found rotting in warehouses at the ports. Today, there is a brigadier general in charge of cooking oil; another is assigned to laundry soap, body soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorant.
The Door Revolves
The New Yorker also has a second article, a co-production with ProPublica, entitled "The Political Scene: Friends in High Places." It's a deeply nuanced exploration of what is now known as the "revolving door" in Washington, but which was once seen as a noble form of public service back when Wall Street lions like John McCloy and Averill Harriman took important roles in government. The article explores the phenomenon today through the career of Thomas Nides, who played a role in the Bill Clinton administration and later went on to important positions at Morgan Stanley and elsewhere. It's fascinating. But I read it the evening before Election Day, when the subtleties of influence in a Democratic administration seemed crucial. Today, you'll experience through an entirely different prism.
Zuckerberg, the Manager
I would be derelict not to mention Fortune's cover story this week, "The Unexpected Management Genius of Mark Zuckerberg," by Adam Lashinsky. The article, which anoints Zuckerberg as Fortune's "Businessperson of the Year" is the most insightful piece on the Facebook founder that I've read in years because it takes itself beyond the standard paradigm—Zuckerberg as a software and product visionary—and deems him a "grinder" (a compliment in this instance) who excels at the less glamorous role of managing:
Zuckerberg is rightly recognized for his outsize success. Nevertheless, he is surprisingly underappreciated for his business acumen. Yes, he has delegated the commercial aspects of Facebook to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s polished chief operating officer, a Harvard MBA who is 15 years Zuckerberg’s senior. Sandberg’s presence has fostered an “adult supervision” narrative familiar to the Valley. But unlike, say, the Google founders, who turned over the CEO job to Eric Schmidt for a decade before Larry Page stepped back into the position in 2011, Zuckerberg has remained chief executive throughout Facebook’s 12-year sprint to greatness. Despite repeated doubts—when Facebook missed the shift to smartphones, when Facebook was thought to have botched its IPO, when Facebook was seen as losing its luster with young people—Zuckerberg has remained the company’s chief product visionary and business strategist. Through bold acquisitions and the articulation of a remarkably constant mission, Zuckerberg has kept Facebook on track in the face of full-frontal assaults from the likes of Google, Twitter, Snapchat, and others.
Microsoft's Traveling Revival Show
Finally, Fortune's profile of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is a fascinating portrait of a much different stripe. If the Zuckerberg article is all about fresh and surprising analysis, this one, by Andrew Nusca, is built around scenes of the CEO in action. "The Man Who Is Transforming Microsoft" is an apt title to describe a person leading a rare and striking comeback at a giant tech company. It's filled with vivid moments and telling quotes from a recent Nadella trip to Europe. ("What does a CEO get to do? You’ve got to pass judgment on an uncertain future and curate culture,” he says. “For both, I feel, I learn a lot from these trips.”) It also expertly ties together a series of strands together: Nadella's youth in India at a time of violent resistance and how that shaped a non-confrontational approach that helped him rise inside the sharp-elbowed Microsoft culture. Plus, you get to see him hanging out with 10-year-olds (in Dublin) and few things are more revealing than seeing a person interact with kids.