Delivering debate: the NYT’s Amazon story prompted a strong reaction from the media. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
Last week the New York Times dropped a lighted match into the tinderbox of the August story drought with an 11,000-word article describing the wincing workplace norms of online retailer Amazon. Detailing stories of employees being treated callously in the wake of family tragedies and grown-ups weeping at desks, the Times noted that: “Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”
Authors Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld interviewed more than 100 past employees to piece together the distressing picture of data-driven drudgery, but this did not stop accusations that the piece lacked the balance of voices of happy Amazon employees.
A current Amazon employee, Nick Ciubotariu, wrote a rebuttal to the article on, of all places, LinkedIn. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan was clear in her assessment of the piece that more data needed to accompany the many anecdotes, though executive editor Dean Baquet shot back that these types of stories can only be told through powerful personal stories. He said he was particularly proud of the article and that its length and prominence were entirely justified, and perhaps should have been even greater.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and owner of rival news organisation the Washington Post, went on the record with a statement to staff, saying the Amazon depicted in the article was not the workplace he recognised, that anyone suffering such abuses should contact HR or email him personally. The line adopted by both Bezos and his new head of PR, Jay Carney (formerly the White House press secretary) was that it was impossible to imagine any company with such practices surviving yet alone thriving in the highly competitive global marketplace.
Not so, said Dustin Moskowitz, one of the co-founders of Facebook, who wrote a personal piece on Medium saying he recognised the culture of Amazon as being endemic in Silicon Valley and the Pacific north-west and that many companies burnt out their employees at an alarming rate. The New York Times’s article was the most heavily commented on in the news organisation’s history, with more than 5,800 comments, many of them detailing similar experiences in a variety of companies.
The back and forth between Amazon and the Times and the conversation it has generated is a perfect meta-narrative for the tension between technology companies and media companies. The modern newsroom is increasingly a place of measurement, and the more you measure (runs the theory), the better you will be as an organisation. Amazon, by the way, recorded $816,000 per employee in revenue last quarter, versus the New York Times’s $441,000 per employee. It is a matter of opinion as to whether this signals Amazon is a far worse or far better employer than the New York Times. Although this is certainly not what inspired the NYT reporting it is true to say that in most newsrooms there is particular curiosity about the quantified workplace as it becomes an ever closer threat (or amazing opportunity) for journalists themselves.
Last week the founder of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, fielded a question about unionisation within the new news organisation by saying that he didn’t think it necessary if your employees were better paid and treated than elsewhere. Of course traditionally chief executives don’t make the decision whether a union should operate in a workplace or not. However Peretti’s statement was an interesting reflection of how the practices within media companies are converging with the philosophies and customs of Silicon Valley and Pacific north-west companies.
It is entirely appropriate that global news organisations such as the New York Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian (all of which have published critical examinations of Amazon’s work practices in the past two years) dig deeply and critically into the powerhouses of the new economy, particularly as the ties between media and technology companies become ever closer. The impact of the NYT’s reporting, which had depth if arguably not enough context or balance, shows the interest in the subject is as intense as it is divided.