Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Are scientists more like journalists than we care to admit?

In the midst of a Felix Salmon think piece on Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon) and his purchase of The Washington Post, a terribly interesting description of newspaper journalists and where greatness in newspapers comes from:
...Amazon, by contrast, is all about efficiency. It has a relatively small number of executives at its headquarters, who are paid overwhelmingly in stock; if the stock does well, they do well. It also employs, mostly indirectly, thousands of workers in warehouses around the world, picking and packaging the goods it sells; those workers are treated badly, and enjoy effectively zero slack in their working lives. What Amazon doesn’t have is paternalism, or a culture which in any way tolerates any unnecessary increase in labor costs. Its employees are cogs in the corporate machine, and they are expected to work as efficiently as possible. 
The Grahams (or the Sulzbergers, or the Newhouses, or the Chandlers, or the Bancrofts) never thought of their journalists and editors that way. And the fact is that while you can achieve better profits by cutting here and maximizing there, you can never achieve long-term greatness that way. Greatness emerges mysteriously from the slack in the system, from source lunches and newsroom cross-pollination and expensive editorial whims. It emerges, ultimately, from the ability to give people time and space and money, in the certain knowledge that most of that time and space and money will end up being wasted, and embracing that waste as a good and ultimately necessary thing. 
The Washington Post has not had the luxury of being able to waste time and space and money, not in many years — and as a result it is no longer a great newspaper. Maybe no newspaper can ever be great again, in that sense: the economics just don’t support it any more. But the fact is that Jeff Bezos is now an employer of journalists, and as such he is in charge of hiring and firing and paying a group of employees quite unlike any he has hired in the past. They’re not always rational, they’re not always efficient, and as a group they tend towards the skeptical and cantankerous. On top of that, they’re not entirely motivated by money.
I found this to be a pretty good viewpoint about scientists (cantankerous, skeptical, not entirely motivated by money.) I also suspect that the best way to get truly innovative results from scientists is to give them time and space and money, and be willing to live with a little bit (or a lot) of waste.* But then again, I am a scientist, so I would say that.

*The problem, of course, is that shareholders (and their Wall Street advisers) may not be willing to live with that level of waste, especially when revenues and profits trend downward. 

6 comments:

  1. "The problem, of course, is that shareholders (and their Wall Street advisors) may not be willing to live with that level of waste, especially when profits and revenues trend downward."

    1) Eating someone else's seed corn is always profitable.

    2) Having products is generally a requirement for making money - if you are unwilling to invest in products, you either shouldn't be in the business, are [insert deity here] and so have no need of money, or are hoping to loot and run. Which fits current business models most accurately?

    3) I would have thought that sooner or later, the lots of people who have no chance at doing anything fulfilling or useful, much less attaining the American Dream, might have something to say as to whether Bezos's model (and many other people's) is sustainable. The "you're commie pinko liberal fascists for actually wanting to get paid rather than our bankers" line only works so long - "rabbits have teeth, and sometimes the rabbits get lucky." And when there are lots of rabbits and few others, well...

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    1. "1) Eating someone else's seed corn is always profitable."

      Not if they're bigger than you and take it back, and then some.

      2) Not certain to what you refer, but certainly AMZN has great products (its supply/delivery capabilities, above the products it sells).

      3) "The "you're commie pinko liberal fascists for actually wanting to get paid rather than our bankers" line only works so long"

      Nice idea, but the only way that's going to fundamentally change is if US society radically changes. While this may well be for the best overall, good luck with it happening in your or your grandkids lifetimes. Even in comparaitvely socialist places like Canada, bankers still make a lot more than Johnny Six Pack of Labatt's

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  2. It's a question of how much. There was a time when even shareholders were tolerating waste and giving companies the time they needed to come up with innovative technologies and discoveries. What we are seeing right now is a serious lack of delayed gratification among and an obsession with short-termism. It's the enduring tale of the goose and the golden eggs; today's shareholders want all the eggs in the next quarter, blissfully unaware or oblivious that they're killing the goose forever in the process.

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  3. I remember reading an article by a journalist who took a job in an amazon warehouse. Didn't seem fun at all.

    You can also argue that scientists are more like amazon warehouse workers than we care to admit. You have the few privileged bosses (PI in academia or boss in industry) with many scientists working hard for not much pay.

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    1. This one? http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor?page=1

      Yes, life as an Amazon picker pretty much sucks.

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  4. " There was a time when even shareholders were tolerating waste and giving companies the time they needed to come up with innovative technologies and discoveries"

    I don't agree that there was ever a time when shareholders tolerated waste. Do you have an example? I do agree that Wall St.'s timeframe has become, perhaps, too short-sighted. Unfortunately, "shareholders" is not some ethereal concept like the 'they' in 'they say': shareholders are anyone who has a 401k, a pension, or an IRA. Like democracy in which the electorate gets the government it serves, so too do investors get the corporations they deserve.

    Giving "people time and space and money, in the certain knowledge that most of that time and space and money will end up being wasted, and embracing that waste as a good and ultimately necessary thing." sounds like a fun job but, as the example of newspapers shows, it's not a way to run a business.

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