The Death of a Friend

Under ordinary circumstances, a belief that the TV or radio is aiming messages specifically at you is a symptom of schizophrenia. When I worked in a psychiatric hospital, I knew a number of patients who had that belief, and while I treated them with respect, I never really understood how someone could have that sort of delusion.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was visiting my mom’s house in upstate New York and the TV sent such a message to me.

I was channel-surfing on Friday morning, August 17, and had paused on CNNfn for only two minutes when the announcer said, “In other news is the collapse of this magazine” — and he held up a copy of The Industry Standard. “Sources say the magazine’s parent company, International Data Group, has decided to stop funding the magazine, which benefited enormously from the boom in dot-com advertising but has suffered from the recent slump. Calls to staffers’ phones reached voice-mail messages saying employees were on a company-wide vacation.”

He moved on to the next story, but I don’t know what it was.

A jolt had gone through me as he spoke, but someone watching me through the window would likely have noticed nothing. I did not yell, did not curse, did not do any of the things I might have thought I would do.

In part, my calmness stemmed from disbelief. I did not trust what I had just heard. I worked for The Standard, and the staff really was on a company-wide vacation; that’s why I was in upstate New York. I wondered if CNNfn had called our offices for some unrelated reason, happened to hear an ominous voice-mail message, and then drew an inappropriate conclusion without checking it.

I called my supervisor.

“Bill,” he said.

“Darren,” I said.

“What’s going on?”

“Not much, man. Hey, Darren, has something happened to The Standard?”

“Yeah, man, a lot has. We went under.”

He told me that the board decided three days earlier to cut us off. The Wall Street Journal got the story on Wednesday afternoon, and the Standard’s managers started trying to reach us to tell us the news before we read it in the papers. Unfortunately, most of us had gone away, so many people learned about it the way I did.

Mandatory vacation

The company’s management told us that we needed to save money, so we shut down from August 13-17, a week during which we had not planned to publish a magazine anyway. People who had accumulated enough vacation time would be paid for that week; people who had not, would not.

Because we cover a number of technology businesses, most of us knew that a number of companies this year had opted for such mandatory time off. It certainly wasn’t a good sign, but it was a sensible week to choose – and they picked it a few weeks in advance, so it didn’t feel like a fiscal emergency. At least, it didn’t feel like the kind of emergency that becomes clear to employees only when they arrive at work to find the door padlocked.

There are people who worked at The Standard who now believe that our leaders sent us away that week on purpose — that they didn’t want us around when the news broke. A number of newspapers reported the story this way.

I have no proof one way or the other — few of us do — but I do not believe that hypothesis. I’ve worked at The Standard for more than three years, and I just don’t believe our managers saw this coming.

Other former staffers are angry for other reasons. Many are looking for someone to blame — irresponsible spending (of which there was plenty), a bottom-line-obsessed board of directors (but show me one that isn’t), and so on.

I’m sure that the responsibility for our downfall can be traced to both of those things, to some extent. And then there were the factors no one could control.

The number of ads a magazine sells is one traditional measure of success, and last year The Standard set an all-time record. Despite a precipitous drop at the end of the year, we ended up selling more ad pages than any other magazine had ever sold. This year, the number of pages we sold dropped more than 70%, and the moves we had made when times were good ended up killing us. We couldn’t even make it to September.

That rapid boom and bust made us an interesting story – but so did our journalism, which was first-rate. So the press has been kind to us in our demise — even as it continues to pore over the wreckage to see what our leaders could have done differently.

I’m sure they’ll find a few things, and I’ll probably read them and shake my head.

The grand run is over

But whatever they find will be too late to help us. Our grand run is over. And my dominant emotion is sadness.

This was a damn good group of people. They were sharp, energetic, witty and friendly. John Battelle, our founder, and Jonathan Weber, our editor in chief, fostered an environment of equal parts fun and hard work. And we did very good work, and had a lot of fun together.

When our fortunes were good, the management treated its underlings extremely well — better than anyplace else I’ve ever worked. They brought in massage therapists to rub our backs in the office every week — something I’m sure I’ll never see again.

A few journalists have used our massages as a “telling detail” — a cheap shot, an easy example of the excessive spending that brought us down. But you know what? As opposed to many of the dot-coms we covered and have often been lumped in with, we used to have excessive income, too. Buckets of it. And I’ve worked at other places that had buckets of income, but they rarely shared those buckets with their employees. Hell, I waited tables at one extremely profitable restaurant that charged its employees for drinks at the lone holiday party.

The atmosphere at The Standard was consistently generous, but it was good for other reasons. Beyond massages, regular parties and free sodas, one of the biggest reasons that the atmosphere stayed good was that Battelle and Weber tolerated an unusual amount of dissent.

Deputy Managing Editor Diane Anderson, who would later graciously give birth to my godchild, gave birth first to a subversive publication called the SubStandard, not long after the magazine itself was born. In the Subbie, anonymous writers felt free to take potshots at the company’s management, all the way up to the top.

Most of the submissions were funny, but some could be downright cold. Few bosses I have had would have allowed such a publication. Most would cite advice from their legal or human resources departments as an excuse to shut it down.

Battelle and Weber not only allowed the SubStandard to live — they encouraged it. At public meetings, they would refer to questions raised in the SubStandard, and answer them if they were able. And when an issue was particularly funny, they laughed with everyone else.

That cannot have been easy, because Battelle and Weber were often the targets of personal barbs, some of which must have stung. They took them well — certainly better than I think I would have. Because they showed such class, the rest of us felt better about being there. We had a place to air our anger and our desires — and to use writing talents that didn’t quite fit the business ethos – and our leaders heard us. Some of the younger employees at The Standard may not have realized just how rare an experience that is. They will.

But I’d worked at a few places, and I could hardly believe what this one was like. That’s largely why I stayed as things started to slide.

Dropping fast

It first became clear last November that our ad revenues were dropping fast. Many of our advertisers had gone out of business, and their surviving competitors were slashing their marketing budgets.

The revenues never did come back. From November onward, the gossip within and without our company intensified, and all of the news was bad. “Grok,” a spinoff magazine, was shut down. The first round of layoffs came in January, and the second round came barely one month later. Those big rounds were followed by smaller, quieter layoffs, as the company sought to reduce its bad press. Then the board killed The Industry Standard Europe — 55 jobs, some of our best people, gone just like that. More layoffs in America followed. And rumors of potentially fatal problems began to swirl.

On Monday, August 20, three days after CNNfn announced our demise, Battelle came to The Standard’s SoHo office. That day, 160 or so of the 180 employees remaining – at a company that had recently employed 400 – were being laid off. The Standard would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A skeletal crew would remain to mop up, and to maintain a bare-bones version of the Web site in order to show potential buyers what they’d be getting.

John told us his version of what had gone wrong. No one from our parent company, International Data Group, bothered to add anything. They didn’t even say goodbye to us over a speaker phone; they didn’t say anything at all.

Apparently, IDG had nothing to say to these hard-working, bright, good people who had done so well for them — made them look so brilliant – just 10 months earlier.

John taped an interview for the Jim Lehrer NewsHour, then came back and bought drinks for the office at a nearby bar. We talked and laughed and felt lousy. Afterwards, John walked out into a fierce rain, and eventually the rest of us did, too.

Originally published by The Guy Code, August 27, 2001.

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