Helping front office teams grow better

It's pretty specific - #382

Stories are interesting to the degree they are specific. Nothing's less interesting than a social scientist trying to summarize the results of focus groups or survey responses. There's little that tops the interest we give to gossip offered by a person we know about other people we know. There's a corollary in journalism. When reporters get people to use their own names to talk badly about other people, both we and they find it highly interesting.

That's the worst part about the anonymous sources all over the place: they ruin our ability to put ourselves into the story and think about what else has happened to cause these people to talk. It's so much better to have names. The better political journalists have learned this perhaps too well: as a result they've taken up the gossip columnist's approach. Most of what you'll find in the usual places could be grouped under a nice banner of spilling the tea.

As wonderful as reading political news as gossip can be, the degree to which a specific story illustrates anything else becomes all the more tenuous the more specific it is. As a case in point, the New Yorker has a really interesting story about infighting amongst the administrators, staff, teachers, unions, and parents in Amherst, MA. It's the first link below and is an excellent read, not the least because almost everyone in the story is quoted, by name, talking about other people in the story, also by name. The writer attempts to draw wider impacts from the story: should bullies be kicked out of school? Does hiring minorities increase the chances of religion coming into school? But those questions are still pretty specific: you could imagine a larger district being able to move bullies and victims to separate schools and you could imagine HR types being able to hire people who are religious zealots. Amherst's problems may be more about Amherst than anything else.

A similar question comes from Platformer's breathlessly fun, although anonymously-sourced, reporting on former Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer's company and their newly-launched photo-sharing app. I like the journalists, but much like their anonymously-sourced Twitter stories (coming soon as a book!), this piece reads like a person emerging from a rough meeting and spilling the tea, not to their workplace pal, but to a journalist. The scale of the company is more like a family office than anything else: a 20% layoff left it with 15 employees. Aside from seeing how far Meyer has fallen, which is kinda enjoyable, what does the in-fighting and dysfunction of her company tell us? It might be that tech employees get pushed too hard by their manic millionaire bosses and it may very well be the case that working for a Silicon Valley legend is a nightmare, but neither really justifies the story, unless you layer in the gossip columnist angle of airing and absorbing everyone's dirty secrets.

To keep things on theme, I pulled in a story I first heard about by listening to a podcast. An NPR editor took his grievances with his politically progressive managers to the wider world earlier this week. His concerns are probably valid: they've got the political diversity of a liberal arts faculty lounge and, for the past 7 or 8 years, haven't anything to question progressive orthodoxy on a variety of controversial issues. But the internal emails, meeting notes, and CEO brush-offs he shares read less like a conspiracy to silence a whistle-blower and more like a guy who can't quite get his opinion aired and agreed with by his bosses. My guess is that the reaction to his tell-some will be mostly confirmation bias: people who like NPR will call him whiney; people who don't like it will call him a fearless truth-teller. But there's not enough to generalize into an argument compelling enough to change people's minds.

Therein lies the rub: the more specific a story, the more gossipy it is, the more we find it interesting—the more we reward the journalist who wrote it. But unless you can generalize the story into something more, a broader set of facts or a wider argument, there's not enough in gossip journalism to compel you to change your mind.


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