Ms. Geek Speaks: Letter to John Oliver

Until recently, I was writing several columns for Examiner.com. In some cases such as my column about dogs, it was a labor of love. Last year, remember thinking how wonderful the attention given to “Spotlight” was although I was rooting for “The Big Short.”

“Spotlight” was inspiring for journalists. It made me think what I was doing was worthwhile. I even tried to think of ways to increase my readership. Yet the highest readership on Examiner.com went to people who were basically re-packaging the works of other news sources, going for the heart strings of America or for the gossip mongering crowd.

Real research wasn’t encouraged. I learned that the hard way.

When I went to graduate school, I was leaving an abusive marriage and effectively in hiding while attending graduate school and accruing major student loan debt. Before we went in front of the judge  to finalize our divorce, my soon-to-be-ex-husband tried to convince my attorney to force me to reveal my school schedule. Worse, I learned my attorney bought his lies. She wanted me to divulge all the details of my time on USC campus and was disappointed and frustrated that I would not.

Her tune changed when I sent her written proof that he had lied (he claimed he was taking classes at the same university but I had proof he never even applied) and she learned he had no reason to be on the USC campus but it was already too late.  I chose the wrong attorney who didn’t believe I was being stalked and threatened and I gambled my future on an expensive print journalism degree.

The prediction made by the journalism program at the time was that the internet would make our lives easier; we would be able to work at home. Online journalism was the future.  I entered the dot-com world, working at the Pasadena-based Overture first as a temp (which is how many dot-coms build themselves up) and finally as a full-time regular employee of what would eventually become Yahoo Search Marketing. In the aftermath of a failed project called Panama, I was permanently partially disabled and then moved into a position that would be eliminated in two months.

Overture/Yahoo Search Marketing is all about the click and also about cheap labor. It might not be able to justify having a predominately contingency worker labor force in the U.S., but it can if it uses new technology to send most of the work to India.

Like many dot-coms, some of what Yahoo did wasn’t totally legal or ethical.  I had actually been trying to get a response from the HR department for 30 days because duties of the new position caused my condition to worsen.  Even after I stayed home on doctor’s orders, the company did not contact me. Finally, 12 days after I left work, I was called at home, on the day I was going to see my doctor and told about my termination as part of a company-wide layoff.

If you’re desperate you sign the separation package which includes a bonus for signing a non-disparagement agreement. I did not take that bonus. The actions of Yahoo and the workers compensation insurance company totally depleted my savings. Last year, the insurance company on the advice of their attorney refused to acknowledge my request to use the remainder of my retraining monies. I only got that information when I asked on Twitter.

Having worked for Overture/Yahoo Search Marketing, I know something about pay-per-click and search optimization. I also know about the kind of techno-babble that appropriates common words and gives them new meanings to make processes sound better in a fluffy cybercloud clownishness. With Panama, ads were suddenly called creatives. As listing editors or search enhancement specialists or whatever we were being called at the time, we were required to memorize a page worth of new word associations.

Why waste time calling ads or ad campaigns creatives and force your employees to talk gibberish to your customers? In Japan, the Japanese philosophy is supposedly to speak the language of your customers rather than force your customers to learn your language or, in Yahoo’s case, force your customers to learn your new code words.

Tronc seems to have fallen into this ideating idiocy. Forming idiosyncratic dialects may work for science fiction worlds, but not necessarily for business. X probably does mean nothing or perhaps it means Generation X doesn’t feel the need to explain the process.

Either way, John Oliver, you are right. “The newspaper industry today is in big trouble.” Examiner.com began with a good idea–find local experts and reawaken local news, but Examiner.com had no clear economic or editorial model. Eventually, writers were hired to write about the same things. Writers plagiarized. Writers began to understand that re-packaging was an easy way to create new articles. The payment algorithm started out as a penny-per-click and changed over and over again into a mysterious hidden formula. Examiner.com also became known for pop-up and pop-under ads, things that as a former search enhancement specialist I knew annoyed people and dissuaded users. Where once one could contact an editor, finding out who your editor was became increasingly difficult.

I did do several investigative pieces. One was about an animal rescue organization, The Arrow Fund, that had some questionable practices. Searching through online documents, I learned the organization skipped over the usual federal process of waiting and turning over tax returns to receive its tax-exempt status. Instead it used a defunct non-profit, Neutertown, held by an administrator for the regional HSUS who was also an Arrow Fund board member. The Arrow Fund piggybacked by just filing a name change, but not a charter change. The mission statement had nothing to do with its current activities.

The organization lied about not knowing the cost of the medical procedures a dog required and knowing how much money was being raised. Tax records indicate that the campaign I looked at was a great financial and promotional boost for this organization. On its board, the organization had a lawyer who called up Examiner.com. Although there was no legal reason, Examiner.com removed all the articles. Any threat of legal action was too costly for Examiner.com, even from a small non-profit organization.  The editor could not see what was problematic in that article about BluePearl but the attorney insisted that article be removed.

I wasn’t the only person who realized there was a problem. I wasn’t the only person threatened and slandered by this organization. The articles were republished on my blog. We do need something more than “multiplatform content generation distribution network” like Examiner.com; we need newspapers that are fearless and fair.

The Huffpost which your report called “Arianna Huffington’s Blockquote Junction and Book Excerpt Clearinghouse” discriminates against Asian Americans. Notice that it has special Voices landing pages for Black Voices, Latino Voices, Fifty, Women, Religion, Queer Voices, Teen and College, but it doesn’t have a similar category of Asian Pacific Islanders. So while the Huffpost did produce videos for Black Heritage Month and has an active Latino Voices and Black Voices Twitter account, it has nothing similar for Asian Pacific Americans, something I have pointed out to them repeatedly, first in a letter to the editor and then subsequently in comments.

While investigating Airbnb and Uber, I noticed that the New York Times had failed to report on the rape of two American women in 2011 by an Airbnb host in Barcelona, Spain. It did report on the case of a white American male (Mike Silverman) being bitten by a dog in Salta, Argentina and a Latino American male (Jacob Lopez) being raped by a transgender host in Madrid, Spain. Even though both rapes happened in Spain, the reporter doesn’t even mention the 2011 case that had just reached sentencing. I was able to publish this on Examiner.com because no one cared.

As a writer, most of the positions I aspired to have been downsized and regular employees have become freelancers with no benefits. Some of the local paper no longer review movies or theater and, as you noted, did not review “Spotlight.” Why is that important? Sometimes important issues become part of the cultural memory through film and theater. Integrity matters. Understanding the law matters.

I also investigating Yelp and found a fake review where several Elite Yelpers wrote up soft-serve porn. The problem was reportedly pointed out to the local Yelp manager, and I reported it was well, but the review wasn’t taken down until I brought it to the attention of the Yelp press relations department. I’ve also challenged the legal knowledge of the Yelp managers to have a review re-instated. The Yelp managers don’t have the concept of integrity nor the education in legal matters to make these decision and not everyone understand the legal statues well enough to contest them.

Good reporters are obsessive and compulsive. They work for the good of the community, but too often it is a community that is not interested. Watching “Spotlight” reminded me that journalists provide a service, but no one really supported my investigations. Most people can’t afford to take a vow of poverty for social justice. Many journalists, like me, have student loans to repay. How that will be done is hard to say.

Examiner.com officially closed in July. Your recent report on journalism was timely and encouraged me to actually continue this blog and buy a URL to make it more professional. What is the future for reviewers and investigative journalists? I don’t know, but change is in the air and Buddhist will tell you the nature of this world is constant change. Thank you John Oliver for this piece.

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