Uber Tensions at Cannes

#voxmediaroseprogram #CannesLions

A photo posted by Lockhart Steele (@lock) on

I’ve been in Cannes, France since last weekend with a great cast of colleagues. This is the week each year when the advertising and media industries descend on this town for Cannes Lions, an advertising awards/conference/thing that’s really an excuse for taking one thousand meetings and drinking one thousand glassies of rosé. (Current personal tally: 882, with 18 hours to go.) It’s a beautiful place to be, we’ve had a ton of great meetings, and we hosted a dinner with Gawker Media last night at Da Mimmo. As the week begins to wind down, all we have left to worry about is getting our heads beaten in by rage-filled taxicab drivers.

Cannes is one of seven French cities where Uber is currently up and operational; predictably, it works perfectly. Riding in an Uber a few nights ago, I struck up conversation with the driver. He proceeded to do what Uber drivers do everywhere: bitch about Uber. What used to be a 100 euro trip from the airport to Cannes is now just 45 euro trip, we learned, which seems like a decent consumer benefit? In any case, what upset our (Uber Black) driver even more than Uber’s pricing is the existence of UberPOP, which is what UberX is called in Europe. As a licensed black car driver, he thinks only licensed drivers should be allowed on the Uber platform. Uber, of course, disagrees.

The French cab drivers are also upset about the existence of UberPOP, and to make that clear to the world, they’ve decided today to burn the country to the ground. Having lived in Paris in the late 1990′s, I’m familiar with the French predilection to faire une greve; I even fondly recall a dairy farmer strike that filled the streets of Paris with cows one day. Today, though, the French cabbies are taking things a little further.

Driving into Cannes this morning from the Vox Manor on the edge of town, we hit a roadblock of cabbies and police officers in a roundabout. UberSTOP stickers adorned the backs of idle taxis. Jonathan Hunt expertly navigated past the roadblock, which had only managed to curtail traffic coming from the other direction; there was much shouting. Evidently we faired better than Courtney Love, whose car got smashed at a Paris airport while cops looked on. “Is it legal for your people to attack visitors?” she asked on Twitter. (Excellent question.) I haven’t witnessed any violence, though a guest at our Vox BBQ this afternoon told me she’d seen an UberPOP driver pulled from his car and beaten on the other side of town. Um, Jesus.

I’m writing these words looking out over the bright blue Mediterranean, and the cognitive dissonance is a strong as the breeze.

Prayers for The Holy City

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[Flickr from first trip to Charleston, May 2011]

Awoke to the horrible news out of Charleston; cried in the shower. Now watching coverage on CNN.

Charleston is a city I’ve fallen in love with since my first visit there in 2011 — a city where Linds and I now own a house, a short walk across the peninsula from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where the shooting took place. Charleston is known as The Holy City, supposedly because it houses the greatest concentration of churches of any American city. Whether or not that’s factually true, it’s impossible to point a camera at the skyline and not include a steeple, as in the photo above from our rooftop during my first visit to the city. It is a holy place, not deserving of this.

The black community deserves better. Charleston deserves better. We deserve better.

Welcome to The Dark Side

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I remember waking up the Monday morning after the AFC Championship Game this past January and feeling great and going on Twitter and — Deflategate. (“Also sometimes known as Ballghazi,” notes Wikipedia, correctly, as it’s still the better name.) The Patriots had just destroyed the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, to advance to the Super Bowl, but it was immediately obvious to me that we had another Patriots Cheated narrative on our hands and that no matter what resolution came of the matter, the dominant narrative of The Patriots Cheated would be cemented, forever and ever. And ever.

The narrative started with Spygate back in 2007. What was Spygate? If you’re like most casual followers of NFL pop culture, you’ll tell me it was about the Patriots secretly videotaping the practice sessions of other teams. Not so. What Spygate was, in total, was the Patriots videotaping an assistant coach of the New York Jets on the sidelines during an actual NFL game. Why is this a problem? Again per Wikipedia: “Videotaping opposing coaches is not illegal in the NFL but there are designated areas allowed by the league to do such taping. The Patriots were videotaping the Jets’ coaches from their own sideline which is not allowed.”

So the Patriots videotaped an opposing assistant coach from the wrong place in the stadium, during a game in front of a crowd of 60,000 people, all of whom could also presumably see and/or videotape the same assistant coach. Quelle scandal.

The obvious point being: the details of Spygate itself didn’t matter, and still don’t. In the minds of everyone who’re not Patriots fans, The Patriots Cheated. So when it became clear that something had happened with the footballs on January 18, 2015, the details didn’t matter either. The Patriots Cheated.

People — friends! — throw these lines in the face of New England sports fans. Heard it for years, will be hearing it for years to come. Here’s the thing: we don’t care. I believe there is some mechanism in the part of the brain that deals with sports fandom that simply suppresses these inconvenient details. It’s only sports, we remind ourselves. And the good guys won. (At least, our good guys.)

In the wake of Deflategate, I’m willing to go further. I now fully embrace the Dark Side. If you’d told me in the 1980′s, when the Patriots were a perennial fourth-place team playing at a run-down dump in Foxboro, MA where all the seating was metal benches perfect for a 28-degree day in December — a shithole the team was still playing in during the Tuck Rule Game in 2002 — that in the next century the Patriots would morph into a team so monstrous they would win four Super Bowls while assuming the mantle of League Villain, I would have welcomed it with glee. So hey: here we are! It’s actually pretty fun here. (By the way, Tom Brady obviously cheated. I’m fine with it.)

Which brings me to the St. Louis Cardinals, a baseball team which stands accused of doing things far worse than the Patriots ever did. Will Leitch, an avid Cardinals fan, bravely confronted the topic yesterday, asking and answering questions about the burgeoning scandal. This bit really got me:

Does this, if true, devalue the past decade-plus of success the Cardinals have had? Well, remember whom you’re talking to right now … but no, obviously not.

Will, let me welcome you to the Dark Side, because that is where you now reside. Whether or not Cards fans realize it yet, in the minds of many (most!), the hacking scandal absolutely will devalue the past decade of success, or a least the past five years or so of it. And so the Cardinals and their fans — an organization and group historically bathed in sunlight and respected as the best of their kind — will have to learn a new way to be.

A darker way to be.

Welcome to the Dark Side. It really is pretty fun over here, once you get used to it.

Philly Part II: Zahav!

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[Hummus at Zahav, sooooo good.]

One other really cool thing happened at VAX last week: all the senior editorial leaders of Vox Media got together for the first time since the Recode acquisition. To make it a little more interesting, we did so at a Philadelphia restaurant that I’ve wanted to eat at since forever: Zahav. (Credit Amanda Kludt for making it all happen.)

Eater’s roving critic Bill Addison dropped by Zahav last summer and said the restaurant “defines Israeli cuisine in America.” We didn’t get as pure a Zahav experience as Bill did, given that we had a set menu for our 20-person group, but everything that came out of the kitchen amazed, starting with what Bill terms the “ubiquitous” hummus, which was anything but. Plates of mezze followed — carrots, beets, eggplant, more — and then skewers of deliciousness. That lamb!

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I only managed these two photos of the food amidst the merriment and chaos of the moment (Bill’s review has more shots). Chaos? Yeah so it was while the Verge and Recode teams were on the train to Philly from NYC that the news dropped about Dick Costolo stepping down as Twitter’s CEO. Which meant that when I walked into the private dining room at Zahav, there was Kara Swisher sitting on the floor against the far wall, madly typing and waiting for the call from Dick that resulted in this story. There was Peter Kafka, in a vestibule off the dining room, typing away on a glowing screen in the fading light of the day. And at the dining table, Ed Lee and Kenneth Li had both set up workstations where they were editing and publishing updates while the rest of us sipped our first cocktails.

My takeaway: These people are going to be a lot of fun to work with. (Also: go to Zahav.)

Vax Editlead dinner. Buttoned up but loose.

A photo posted by Lockhart Steele (@lock) on

Philadelphia and #VAX2015

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[Some members of our awesome VAX team: Brian Anderson, Joe Alicata, Dylan Lathrop, and Trei Brundrett at whiteboard.]

VAX, the Vox Media Product team’s annual hackathon, went down last week in Philadelphia. I tweeted at its close on Friday that VAX is one of the very best Vox things, and it is: four days of pure creativity as 75-ish Vox Product team members put aside their normal work for a week, form up into impromptu small teams, and build some really cool shit. The Vox Product blog will summarize all the projects soon, but this gives a taste of affairs at #VAX2015. (VAX = “Vox hacks,” somehow.)

This year, for the first time, I joined a VAX team: our Chief Product Officer Trei Brundrett‘s Notifications project. You know, notifications: the messages that appear on the lock screen of your iPhone, or slide in and out of the upper right corner of your Macbook screen from news apps like Circa, news sites like NYTimes, or, you know, your friends. The right notifications are great, but the number of apps that I’ve revoked notifications on is even greater. Unless you’re a straight communications app, making the case for turning on and keeping on notifications is tricky.

Notifications haven’t been something we’ve done at Vox Media, and Trei wanted us to consider whether we should. In his words: “I want us to take a thoughtful approach to why we’d even do push notifications and what value they would provide to our users/readers. Is it for news? Or about activity around their engagement on the site? Is this an editorial tool or something that is automated? Is it both? How do we make our users LOVE our notifications and take screenshots of how awesome they are instead of just trying to push people to our site?”

Our team spent the first day at VAX whiteboarding answers to these questions. Along the way, Trei proposed a fundamentally cool vision that framed our thinking that followed: that rather than notifications getting pushed to users who’d read them and then delete them, we should think of notifications as the start of a conversation. Like the way you can now respond to a text message on your lock screen without ever leaving the lock screen — what if Vox notifications could compel that kind of user engagement? And what if the conversation let us better tailor what kind of future notifications we should send you? (Never mind the fact that we can’t quite pull this off on an iPhone, yet. The future is vast.)

The second day of VAX saw the team get down to serious designing and hacking. Having ahem limited skills at either, I brought my serious cheerleader game, and caught up on email. And by Friday morning, we had a logo, a working demo (well, almost), and a bunch of concrete conclusions about how we’re going to use notifications across our sites. Really great work that may turn into something meaningful for our business.

Then we sat back and listened to the VAX presentations from twenty-four other teams. My personal favorite was the group that took the assets from Eater’s night at Kachka and reworked it into an interactive virtual reality tour of the place on Oculus Rift. Here is Eater managing editor Sonia Chopra having her mind blown by the experience:

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The future of storytelling is real, friends. As are my dance moves, as became evident when Brian Anderson drafted me to demo a VAX app that rates dancing skill. (Not all VAX projects are serious, strictly speaking.) It’s obvious from the video, but my dancing to vintage Britney rated a perfect 10/10 score.

.@lock demoing an app that reviews your dance moves at #vax15

A video posted by Eden Rohatensky (@edenthecat) on

tyvm.

Los Angeles and #eyg15

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On Monday, Eater hosted its annual Young Guns event at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, CA. This created a reasonable excuse for me to spend the weekend in Los Angeles, which I did.

Los Angeles is always great, but I’m over Abbott Kinney. This kills me, given the amount of time I’ve spent on Venice’s main drag over the past decade-plus, starting with a night sometime around Y2K at The Brig, when it was pretty much the only establishment on upper AK (or at least felt that way). Add in two dozen lunches at Gjelina, great dinners at The Tasting Room, and endless nights finished with MOP at Hal’s, and, well, I feel like I grew up in LA alongside Abbott Kinney.

But now Hal’s has shuttered (seriously, wtf) and walking down Abbott Kinney on Saturday afternoon, the sheer mass of humanity felt as dense and annoying as pushing through the crowds on 41st Street. There’s a Vince about to open, too, not too far from that giant Intelligencia.

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Though AK may have passed into its precitable adulthood, much of the rest of Venice is still growing up. I bedded down for the weekend at a friends’ place north and east of Abbott Kinney, a short walk from the year-old Superba Food & Bread. I walked in there Friday afternoon for a late lunch to find Alex Blagg and Neel Shah in a corner, writing, natch. Ordered the soft shell crab sandwich, above — a far more manageable take on Lafayette’s massive entire-crab-sticking-out beast — indeed, Superba’s is perhaps the perfect take on this dish. I dig Superba so much that I lunched there Saturday and Sunday too. This wasn’t a restaurant-checklist kind of trip, for whatever reason. (Sanity.)

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Stuck around Venice for dinner on Friday night, dining at the nearly-empty back counter at Gjusta. Dinner is a new offering at this uberhyped Gjelina spinoff, and no one knows about it so the crowds that haunt this hall in the mornings and at lunch are nowhere to be seen at night. Food-wise, the seafood stew (above) is fantastic, and the salads, chicken liver pate, and the like that Mimi and I shared were all spot-on. No liquor license as yet, though they’re gathering signatures at the register; NB dinner ends at 9pm.

I’d be thrilled to have Gjusta right near home, but not everyone is. LA Weekly food critic Besha Roddel hit upon this in her review of the place last week, which echoes my feelings on the hood: “Gjusta’s sister restaurant Gjelina is in some ways a symbol of the vast difference between Abbot Kinney now and the Abbot Kinney of an older, weirder Venice, and so to some residents Gjusta feels like the beginning of the end, the bringer of yuppies and even higher rents… It may or may not become a full-fledged restaurant. Either way, Venice’s gentrified future marches on, and this particular future tastes better than many of the alternatives.” The woman is not wrong.

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The rest of the weekend? Saturday night dinner at Sushi Zo downtown with the Webber; it’s pretty much the perfect omakase if the price can be stomached. Sunday hiking in Malibu with Mere and new friend Wyatt, followed by early evening oysters and beer at Blue Plate Oysterette on Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica (above). Sunday later-evening dinner found Team Eater at the reliable Rustic Canyon Wine Bar up Wilshire.

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The trip wrapped with its highlight, Eater Young Guns, aka #eyg15. Enough ink has been spilled on Eater not to spill more here (though do check out Eater’s package about the worthy 2015 winners). So, final bits: this was the most delicious thing I ate all night (and perhaps all year), the chefs were all amazing, and the afterparty hang down the street from the Viceroy at oldschool Santa Monica bar Chez Jay (above) was the perfect capper.

Until next year.

Recently at Vox Media

Hey homies, it’s been a little while since I rapped at ya, and some BIG THINGS have been going down in the halls of Vox Media. What sorts of things? Here are three.

1) We acquired Re/Code, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg’s website of record for Silicon Valley and all things digital. The smart way that Vox Media managed the Curbed merger can be summed up as “slowly and carefully.” That’s the approach that’ll be used with Re/Code as well, as Jim explained to our team. Alyson Shontell at Business Insider wrote the best tick-tock on how and why the deal went down, if you’re into that kind of thing. New colleagues! Very exciting.

2) Check out this incredible Day-in-the-Life feature collaboration between Team Eater and Vox Product. The good people at Kachka, the scorching hot, year-old Portland, OR restaurant, gave Eater’s journalists and videographers access to every component of how they do what they do in the course of one night. Right down to the final tally of the number of vodka shots consumed in the course of the night, this is web-based visual storytelling at its best — which means storytelling at its best. Have you ever seen anything on the web that looks quite like this? I had not. Very exciting.

3) And somehow in the midst of buying a company and kicking out work like this on the regular, the Vox.com team debuted the ability to embed their signature cardstacks on any website, as seen at the top of this post. As Ezra, Melissa, and Matt explained, the cardstacks are designed to look great on any device; they’re particularly great on mobile, where a simple swipe navigates from card to card. I think the cardstack format will prove particularly useful during the 2016 election and that we’ll see embeds on sites ranging from non-profits to personal blogs to, hey, McClatchy newspapers, and yes, even #brands. Once more, with emphasis: Very exciting.

#carolinaconquest: Asheville, NC

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[Fried chicken at Table in Asheville, NC.]

Wonderful things about Asheville, NC: (1) It’s the most charming little hill town in eastern North Carolina, a corner of the world I’ve never been; (2) Spring is old news here; the thought now is summer, with rhododendrons in full bloom, and temperatures floating in the 70s; (3) The Mast General Store, the place for homemade condiments and cleaning products; (4) Views to the mountains surrounding us on all sides — sublime; (5) THE EATS.

Traditionally, every spring Eater’s Amanda Kludt and I hit the road for a roadtrip designed to let us plot the the future of Eater and eat a ton of delicious things somewhere in America. Several years ago, the jaunt took us through Texas; last year, we spent a few days in Nashville before heading east across Tennessee to Blackberry Farm. This year, we’ve embarked on a #carolinaconquest, starting with two days in Asheville then moving east to Lexington and Greensboro through the first of two distinct Carolina barbecue territories that we’re going to experience on this trip before docking in Raleigh for the night tonight and continuing farther east tomorrow.

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[Pizza with house-made burrata at Cucina 24.]

The big difference this year: Amanda and I are joined on our journey by Eater’s roving national food critic, Bill Addison. Bill’s based out of Atlanta, so he knows this part of the country cold, and his knowledge is already paying off bigtime.

At the tail end of last year’s trip, a massive banks of thunderstorms up the entire East Coast trapped me unexpectedly in Knoxville, TN for the night. Knoxville was kind of cool, but Asheville — with a similar vibe of old-town main streets — is way cooler. It’s an incredible charming place awash in mountain air and, from what I can tell so far, fantastic restaurants. I’m not going to go into detail about what we’re eating, because Bill will do that in due time on Eater, but we’ve had meals at Cúrate, Nightbell, Cucina 24, Table, and Rhubarb here in town and none have disappointed. (To my mind, Cucina 24 and Table would stand apart anywhere, but let’s see what Bill has to say.)

Yesterday also took us on an hour-long drive further up the hills to the remote hamlet of Spruce Pine, NC. There, something very unexpected and wonderful happened to our little group. But that, too, is a story for another day so as not to spoil the forthcoming reveal on Eater.

Enough words for now. Back on the road. The #carolinaconquest continues.

On Media Rivalry

When the news of the death of Josh Ozersky came across Twitter on Monday night, this tweet encapsulated the place my mind went: to the pleasure of having a good rival in media. In memory and honor of Josh, some thoughts on that era, and the value our rivalry created for all of us.

At Eater, we knew Grub Street was coming long before it was called Grub Street. Or even existed. That’s because New York Magazine had signaled its intention in the space by making an offer to buy Curbed and Eater early in 2006. It was incredibly flattering but not the right fit at the time — a story for another day — but we understood that Adam Moss and his team saw the value in restaurant blogging and that they would likely pursue it regardless of whether they bought Eater. And so for Ben Leventhal and I it became a parlor game, to ferret out whatever information we could about what they were working on at NYMag.

One day Ben came up with the scoop. “They’ve hired Cutlets. Mr. Cutlets!” I didn’t know who that was, but Ben did: Mr. Cutlets was Josh Ozersky, a meat expert and sort-of-known food writer who went by that handle. We girded for battle, and then it came. Grub Street launched on September 18, 2006.

Except we didn’t refer to it as Grub Street on Eater. Ever. We called it Cutlets. Like, “Cutlets has the word that…” or “According to Cutlets…” This amused us to no end. “I remember it was very obvious that we were going to nickname it Cutlets — and would have continued calling it that long after his departure if Ben Williams didn’t make a personal appeal to us to call it Grub Street,” Ben recalled to me earlier today via GChat.

Ben also reminded me that on Grubz’ launch day, Cutlets promised posts ON THE HOUR. Given Eater’s semi-leisurely pace at this point in September 2006, this scared the shit out of us — but also gave Leventhal the fuel to do what he does so well. “BREAKING: Cutlets Misses Noon Post, 1 PM in Question,” screamed an Eater headline. “Other NYM servers appear to be stable. If anyone has info as to Cutlets’ whereabouts, and if he’s hurt in any way, please let us know and/or call the authorities.”

Man. The things rivalries drive you to do. (This still makes me laugh hysterically, btw.)

It’s often talked about how having rivals pushes you to a higher level, certainly in sports, but yes, for sure in media too. Students of Nick Denton’s memos over the years can trace the way with which he cannily sets new rivals as a way to motivate his troops. (It’s flattering that Vox Media was positioned with Buzzfeed as Gawker’s top rivals in his December 2014 “Back to Blogging” screed.)

But let’s be real: the marketplace clearly has room for Buzzfeed and Vox Media and Gawker Media, as well a bunch of other big digital media properties that have reached scale. We’re still going to fight tooth-and-nail, of course, because we are better than the next company on this list. (Fact.) But when rivalry is at its most intense is when it appears that the marketplace may not have room for more than one winner. When failure is an option, and maybe the more likely one. When it’s you or them.

Which is why Grub Street’s launch led us to up Eater’s game. I know from conversations long after the fact with Ozersky that this was probably harder on him than it was on us: Ben and I loved cranking out short hits, while Josh’s style was longer-form; getting used to the blogging grind is really hard. But for better or worse, for the next couple years, our metabolism soared as we worked liked crazy to get every scoop onto Eater as quickly as possible to beat the other guy. Every minute mattered. Hell, every second mattered.

“In that frame,” Ben continues, “I will say that 100% were it not for the arrival of Cutlets on the scene, I would have been much more lax about Eater’s pace. We needed Cutlets to, as I put it in an email to Peter Meehan, dated 12/4/06, ‘Get the blood flowing.’”

In the end, both Eater and Grub Street found their place in the ecosystem, and both thrived. But it’s a telling point about the power of rivalries that I can’t tweet a Grub Street link to this day.

The Grub Street-Eater rivalry never ended for Ozersky, either. Just a few weeks ago, after reading my interview with Lucky Peach in which I bragged about how Eater had beaten Grub Street on the opening of The Dutch in summer 2010, he couldn’t resist tweeting back at me:

Great rivalries never die. But great competitors, unfortunately, do. RIP, Josh Ozersky.

UPDATE: Here’s a great bookend to my story, on the early days of Ozersky and Grub Street as seen from the opposite trenches, by Daniel Maurer. And there you have it: I have linked to Grub Street.

Voxfronts

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[Brands on brands in the lobby of the Paley Center.]

As teased here earlier this week, yesterday Vox Media presented at newfronts (technically, upfronts; more pleasingly, Voxfronts) at the Paley Center for Media on West 52nd Street. This was Vox’s first time tackling an event of this size, which ran for about an hour and featured half a dozen members of the Vox Media team talking to an audience of several hundred brand representatives, sales people, and media about what’s next for our company. Big themes: the growth of our video program (which topped 100m cumulative monthly views in March for the first time ever), and the launch of Chorus for Advertisers.

Coverage of Vox Media and coverage of Chorus typically go hand-in-hand, and yesterday’s event proved no exception to that rule. I love this, from Capital NY reporter Jememy Barr:

CEO Jim Bankoff announced “Chorus for Advertisers,” the company’s first deal in which Chorus will be used on behalf of corporate advertisers… The crowd seemed to respond to the news, as cheers of “woo!” and “yeah!” were audible.

Man, that’s almost obnoxious. But, as Ad Age observes in its piece about the Voxfronts, “Talk of content management systems is usually boring, but Chorus is sort of famous.” Ha!

The very best part of the Voxfront might have been the food served after the event, from Andrew Carmellini, Michael Oliver, and the team at Lafayette. Know this, if you’re thinking of attending a future Voxfront: come for Chorus, stay for the Spring Lamb with Frisée.