(This is chapter 18 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
We welcomed the new year 1998 at Walt Disney World, a rare moment in which I stopped working long enough to take a real vacation. It was wonderful to spend many uninterrupted days with my family, and it made me angry that I could not do this more often (though I knew it wasn’t just capitalism and the Man to blame; I was clearly a workaholic).
Whenever I felt sorry for myself during these years, I would realize how lucky I was to be the father of my three kids, each so vital and unique. Elizabeth, bright and sophisticated, was into Titanic, Offspring, Green Day and Alanis Morisette in 1998. Daniel, creative and intense, was into Pokemon, causing me to spend lots of money on rare Charizard, Graveler or Gengar cards. Abigail, peaceful and contemplative, was into Teletubbies. Meg and I, meanwhile, had developed increasingly incompatible musical tastes: I was alternating between jam bands and hip-hop, while she had become obsessed with German industrial bands like Einsturzende Neubauten. The only band we liked equally was 4 Non Blondes, who broke up after one great record.
I often felt like I was going crazy during these months. Not literally crazy like I might start flapping my arms and telling people the telephone was on fire, but crazy like pent-up, pissed off, desperate and voiceless. I didn’t know any more where I was going with Literary Kicks and the whole web writing scene. Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web was the best idea I’d had, and that ended up a washout. I had enlisted my friend Phil Zampino to act out scenes from Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, but I had only the vaguest plans for how I would use the bewitching video we were capturing, and I knew that my descent into Dostoevsky’s deeply alienating work was an expression of my own troubled feelings at that time.
And I was frustrated and embarrassed because I’d been passed over for a big promotion at Time Inc. New Media. Mike Stoeckel had just been named the new Director of Business Technology, a job I thought I was qualified for. I had seniority over Mike, and in fact I had originally hired him, but the sad truth was that I knew he was the better choice. We both had the management and technical skills for the job, but Mike was seen as a stable and dependable personality around the office, while I was known to be emotional and argumentative. Also, I had spent my time at Time Warner working on Literary Kicks, putting up Queensboro Ballads, building a website for Bob Dylan, editing a literary anthology and planning a digital movie based on a Dostoevsky novel. Mike, meanwhile, had spent these years working on Pathfinder.
So the choice of Mike over me was apparently a no-brainer for everyone concerned, and that only made it sting more. What had happened to me? I had once been on a “hot” career path, and what had I traded it in for? And, if I wasn’t moving up in the organization, didn’t that mean I was moving down? As sole provider for a family of five, I felt a strong responsibility to stay on top of my career, and at this point I felt everything slipping away.
At least I had plenty of company in my turmoil at work. The elite consulting firm McKinsey and Company had lately been “evaluating” the Pathfinder staff, and few people felt secure. I got taken to lunch and interviewed by a McKinsey consultant named Larry Merman. He spoke with an accusing snarl, and his sharp collar and severe crewcut made me think of Watergate conspirator H. R. Haldeman. But it was a fun lunch, and I guess I did okay, because I got to keep my job.
After technology director Vicki Zilaitis suddenly resigned, following some conflicts I never understood, I hoped application development manager Dan Woods would get her job. I didn’t always agree with Dan’s gung-ho attitude towards technology, but I knew he was a great manager and an even better talker and rainmaker, and his team of talented Java and Perl developers was the best asset Time Inc. New Media had. But word came along that Dan wouldn’t get the job. Management wanted to hire from outside.
A new editor-in-chief named Daniel Okrent had also come from outside (or, technically, from Life magazine, which had existed in its own orbit the last few years). I liked him instantly. Our new President Linda McCutcheon introduced him during a company town hall, and he explained that Pathfinder’s new strategy would focus on five core strengths: news, entertainment, sports, business and lifestyle. He said “We’re going to stop being everything to everyone, and just try to do a few things well. In the past, our motto was ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. This is our new motto: five fucking flowers.”
We finally had a public voice with a sense of humor. I appreciated this again in April when we hosted an online poll to choose People Magazine’s most beautiful person in the world. Howard Stern rallied his troops to hit our website and vote for Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf, and the swarm of Howard Stern listeners who voted not only won the poll but also crashed our servers for a solid two days. It was a typical Pathfinder mess, but when a New York Times business reporter asked Dan Okrent what Pathfinder planned to do about this, he said “we are going to stand by and look bemused.” I thought this was the best answer anybody could have come up with.
The new Dan Okrent/Linda McCutcheon management team brought some good vibes to the offfice, but the fact was that they still held an embattled and nearly impossible position within the corporation. Time Warner was incapable of getting behind a single New Media division. The Time Inc. magazines remained jealous of new media’s potential and protective about their best content. The CNN websites, ably led by Sam Gassel and Chad Dickerson in Atlanta, got much better traffic than ours and, we knew, probably laughed at our problems behind our back. So did the HBO web operations, managed six blocks down the street by the capable and sensible Bruce Probst. The Warner Bros. movie/television website operations in Hollywood barely knew we existed, and didn’t work with us at all. Dan and Linda were determined to create a new Pathfinder to represent all of Time Warner, but they entered this game way behind in the count.
In 1998 management moved us from the basement of the Exxon Building to the 5th floor of the Time-Life Building, and I deeply enjoyed working in this legendary building. I got to know several new staffers, including Matt Urbania, Allan Bennett, Diane King, Ken Gerstein, Ayo Aluko and Cliff Larsen on the tech team. I also became good friends with a member of the editorial team, Noah Robischon, who worked with Josh Quittner on the single only property on the Pathfinder network that I thought was halfway good: Netly News.
Netly News was a proto-blog, a once-a-day chronicle of Internet culture similar to later sites like Wired.com, CNet.com, Slashdot.org and BoingBoing.net (but it wasn’t wholly original — Netly News had clearly been influenced by Carl Steadman’s Suck.com from the other coast).
I liked Netly News, and when Noah confided in me that the numbers were down and the entire site in danger of being cut, we began a series of brainstorming sessions that culminated in a list of ideas that we planned to present to Josh Quittner and, with Josh’s blessing, Dan Okrent.
Noah and I had a good time drawing lots of circles on whiteboards for a while, but when we presented our list of ideas to Josh Quittner he didn’t seem blown away, and when the three of us presented the same ideas to Dan Okrent he gently shoved them aside after a quick glance. It was pretty aggravating. My first attempt at doing something, doing anything on the editorial side of Pathfinder had been a complete flop (and Netly News would gradually dwindle away to nothing, a sad but little-remembered loss).
Noah eventually became a writer for Entertainment Weekly and then the managing editor of Gawker.com. I was surprised when he ended up at Gawker, because Gawker has a reputation for nasty attitude, and Noah was one of the nicer and more polite people at Pathfinder. The same is true of another friend I made at Pathfinder, an ambitious young guy named Greg Lindsay who now blogs for Mediabistro’s Fishbowl NY.
We had a new “community team” at Pathfinder in 1998. Nobody knew what they did, but they were headed by Molly Ker along with Maura Johnston (who now blogs for Idolator) and a young bald kid named Lev Grossman, who I talked to sometimes because we both had books out. His was a novel called Warp, a Star-Trek themed gentle slacker love story, published by St. Martin’s Press. We traded copies, and I thought the book was okay in a sort of nerd-version of Jay McInerney way. But I never quite clicked with Lev Grossman, who was slender and handsome and young and hip and often wore a knitted cap over his bald head. I thought this kid had a lot to be happy about, but he always had an expression on his face like he was sucking on a lemon. I was astounded, a few years later, when I learned that Lev Grossman had become Time Magazine’s chief book critic. He certainly never seemed to me to have the force of personality to attain such a role, but I must have missed something that others saw.
My favorite new arrival was a brilliant young smart-ass from Harvard University named Nathaniel Wice, who had co-authored a book called Alt.Culture and somehow sold a concept based on this book to Pathfinder (who seemed to be having another of their occasional bouts of trying to be hip when they made this deal). Nathaniel and I hit it off immediately when he arrived, but I had to strain not to tell him how dysfunctional Pathfinder was. He seemed to have high hopes for his relationship with Time Warner, and his enthusiasm made me realize that maybe a fresh start could be possible for our fractured operation. He and his team worked hard on Alt.Culture and eventually turned it into one of the best destinations on Pathfinder.com.
I often went to readings and events in Greenwich Village, and would sometimes hang out before or after at Nathaniel’s apartment on 12th Street. Lev Grossman also sometimes dropped by Nathaniel’s place, and I remember one evening when we both dropped by on the same night and all three tried to hang out together. But I wanted to walk to Washington Square and get some fresh air, while Lev wanted to play video games, so we all ended up going home.
I went to Ad:Tech, a large conference on Internet advertising technology, in Los Angeles in early January 1998, not long after returning from Walt Disney World in Florida. Many good connections for my future were made at this conference. I also enjoyed a casual dinner with many major players in the advertising scene including Kevin O’Connor of DoubleClick and Tony Perkins, founder and editor of Red Herring Magazine, the major magazine for the Silicon Valley investment community, who gave me some good advice I’ll always remember. I asked him what advice he had for somebody who wanted to start a new media publication. He said “First, find an advertising marketplace. Then build a publication to get those ads.” Blunt advice, but it obviously worked for him.
The Ad:Tech conference filled me with ideas, and upon my return I asked Noah Robischon if I could write an article for Netly News about the state of Internet advertising in 1998.
Noah showed my first draft to Josh, who agreed to run it. It was a small feat, but I was excited to see my own words running on the Pathfinder web servers. Once the article was accepted I asked Noah if I could appear as Levi Asher instead of Marc Stein. This was the only name I had on the Internet, I said. I didn’t think Noah and Josh would agree, but they did, and that’s the byline the article got. Maybe the confusion over the names is their excuse for the fact that I never got paid.
My co-workers in tech were impressed to see me show up on the site. My first “business piece” felt like a nice moment of closure after my earlier run-in with Netly News, and after my rocky past year at Time Inc. New Media.
I didn’t mention it in the article, but I’d also been impressed by a panel discussion at the Ad:Tech conference featuring Candice Carpenter, the brash and fiery CEO of a women’s site called iVillage.com. I liked the conviction and commitment in her voice, and I remember thinking “I want to work for her company, instead of this lame operation.”
I would eventually get my wish, and those chapters will be coming soon.