New York Times “oppresses” workers worse than Apple

Today’s Sunday New York Times used two and a quarter pages of its front section — including the top-left quarter of its vaunted front page — to blast Apple for oppressing its workers. Which is ironic, because the New York Times Group is even worse to its employees, using the paper’s own metrics.

As it often does, the Times launches its attack on the most successful company in the world by focusing on how much revenue it takes in:

Worldwide, its stores sold $16 billion in merchandise.

But most of Apple’s employees enjoyed little of that wealth. While consumers tend to think of Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., as the company’s heart and soul, a majority of its workers in the United States are not engineers or executives with hefty salaries and bonuses but rather hourly wage earners selling iPhones and MacBooks.

But the most interesting twist in this particular harangue is the use of a blunt-instrument metric, revenue per employee, to show how unfairly Apple treats its workers. According to the story, Apple took in $473,000 per Apple Store employee. When you consider that Store employees only take in about $25,000 a year, the conclusion is inescapable: oppression. Amirite?

Glass houses, New York Times. Glass frakkin’ houses. Turns out that according to its own reported numbers (from its 2011 Form 10-K), the New York Times Media Group had 3,056 serfs employees toiling for it in 2011 and made $1.554 billion that year. Yes, with a b. Whipping out my favorite iProduct (note my obvious fanboy bias), that works out to to a revenue-per-employee figure of $508,507.85. Oh, the humanity!

(Curiously, the David Segal article quotes Apple blogger Horace Dediu, who has written about these metrics before. Dediu says that revenue-per-employee ratio is like that of a consulting company. Given how incredibly reasonable and intelligent Dediu’s writing is, I have to think that his quote is taken out of context.) (Update: Read Horace’s excellent piece explaining the job growth at Apple stores.)

The truth is that no one goes to work for the Times or for Apple for the money. (Yes, I realize that Times CEO Janet Robinson got a $23 million severance package late last year, but that’s for leaving her job. Totally different.) People work at these two institutions to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The Times used to be the most respected newspaper in the country. (Sorry. Too soon?) And Apple keeps changing entire industries. Even Segal’s article recognizes that an hourly wage is not what makes people work in Apple Stores:

But Apple’s success, it turns out, rests on a set of intangibles; foremost among them is a built-in fan base that ensures a steady supply of eager applicants and an employee culture that tries to turn every job into an exalted mission.

“When you’re working for Apple you feel like you’re working for this greater good,” says a former salesman who asked for anonymity because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. “That’s why they don’t have a revolution on their hands.”


Writers need to write more, faster

In a front-page story with a bizarre exclamation mark in the title, the Sunday New York Times explains that the growth of the e-book market is forcing writers to churn out more books and stories faster. This of course makes me wish I’d learned how to type properly.

But some authors said that even though they are beginning to accept them as one of the necessary requirements of book marketing, they still find them taxing to produce.

“I have been known to be a little grumpy on the subject sometimes,” said Steve Berry, a popular thriller writer who writes short stories that are released between books. “It does sap away some of your energy. You don’t ever want to get into a situation where your worth is being judged by the amount of your productivity.”

Maybe that’s why writers don’t bill by the hour. Writers know that their value isn’t based on the time spent writing. Instead, it comes from the messages that their words deliver. Of course, you can say the same thing about lawyers. Huh …

Airlines struggle with cuisine, common sense

Interesting piece on airlines’ attempts to improve the quality of inflight dining. The article, by Jad Mouawad in Sunday’s New York Times, showed the efforts and difficulties of making food suck less while you’re trapped in a metal cylinder six miles above the ground. And I’m happy to give the airlines credit for trying to make the food better.

But one thing jumped out at me: the airlines’ focus on cutting costs. For example, Delta carefully tracks how much money it can save by diminishing its culinary offerings:

A decision a few years ago to shave one ounce from its steaks, for example, saved the airline $250,000 a year….

Delta also calculated that by removing a single strawberry from salads served in first class on domestic routes, it would save $210,000 a year.

I appreciate that the airlines have struggled financially since 9/11. But for every nickel saved on removing a passenger’s strawberry (who puts strawberries in a salad, anyway?) or fifty cents saved on offering an ounce less steak, there is a passenger whose experience on a long and expensive flight just got a little bit worse. Delta and the other airlines would do better to focus on improving their customers’ experiences, and then add 55 cents to the price of the ticket to cover the strawberry and extra steak. I’d pay it. Wouldn’t you?

Encouraging social media at work

In the March 11 Sunday New York Times column “Corner Office,” Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, tells how his company’s open culture includes using an internal social-media platform (the “Memo List”) to allow employees to be heard:

Engaging people in how decisions are getting made means it can take forever to get decisions made. But once you make a decision, you get flawless execution because everybody’s engaged. They know what you’re doing and they know why you’re doing it.

Hurst says that three-quarters of his 4,000 employees spend time on the forum every day. Most companies would worry about employees’ spending too much time online. Red Hat encourages it, and then enjoys the benefits from having engaged employees.

Simplicity at Reader’s Digest

Here’s Dan Lagani, the (relatively) young (he’s 48) president of Reader’s Digest North America on how he learned how to keep management simple. From the excellent Sunday New York Times column “The Boss.”

I feel as if I’ve spent the last 25 years getting ready for what I’m doing now. During that time, I’ve found that simplicity is crucial in running a business, from keeping your mind open to ideas that present themselves in everyday life to ensuring that your processes are straightforward. It’s a matter of paring complex problems to the essentials.

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