Shall We Lunch?

The New York City media world owes something to Quantum Theory in the sense that all trends about the New York Media world are true, until one of them is observed and written about. At which point that trend ceases to be true, leaving only all the other trends.

This thought occurred to me anew while reading John Koblin’s Styles piece today on the death of the Power Lunch among the younger New York mediaset. John interviewed me for the story, and included a quote of mine that I’m immensely proud of: “Just walking down the street to go to Pain Quotidien is considered a massive, impressive lunch move.”

Whether or not this is entirely accurate is a measure of some dispute, but let’s take stock of the larger issue here. If lunches are OUT, what are we to make of this Styles piece from 2007 that declared that, among the young movers, power breakfasts are most definitely IN? I’ll let the me of back then make the case from a Balthazar banquette:

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New York media and Quantum Theory being what they are, I expect to be around and be quoted in 2021 when the Styles section declares afternoon snacking either absolutely IN or deeply, completely OUT.

The Verge’s Super Bowl Ad: It’s About The Future

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Moments after my flight from Munich touched down at JFK at 3:30pm yesterday, my phone lit up with text messages from friends. One, from a usually incredulous friend, read: “You guys are running a Super Bowl ad? Amazing.”

At this point, it was about an hour since The Verge had published, then unpublished, a post with the headline “DNP Verge Super Bowl ad” and some brief dummy copy by Nilay about how this space would be filled in before publication of the post on Super Bowl Sunday, February 1. Verge fanboys being Verge fanboys, many read the site via RSS, so the rogue post remained in their feeds and they immediately started chatting about the post on Twitter. It wasn’t long before several media organizations jumped on the story, and our CEO took to Twitter to confirm the commercial and release it to the world:

By now, Vox was fielding inquiries from the likes of the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, both of whom quickly published their own stories on the news. After all, the story of a venture-capital backed online publisher, which happened to have just raised a $45 million round of financing, dropping $4.5 million of it on a Super Bowl commercial of all things, was irresistible. (A Twitter user superimposed the Pets.com sock puppet over a photo of The Verge staff.)

Which was all well and good until we let the cat out of the bag an hour later: The Verge was indeed airing a Super Bowl commercial during the game — but only in the local market of Helena, Montana, where to reach an audience of 30,000 we’d agreed to pay the going local rate of $700 per 30 second spot. This led to a round of revisions in the original media reports, and a wonderful new New York Times headline:

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I’ll leave it to the masterminds behind the troll — Nilay Patel and Jonathan Hunt — to write the full tick-tock of the matter, but suffice to say that I adore a good media stunt, and this one worked out about as well as one could have ever dreamed. (The team, naturally, took the greatest delight in having roped in Sam Biddle, although the local Helena media reporting on the story also proved particularly LOLworthy.)

The story isn’t over yet. Might The Verge send someone to cozy Helena, Montana, on Super Bowl Sunday? Do stay tuned. But for now, the final word to the CEO of T-Mobile, John Legere:

DLD in Munich

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I spent the Martin Luther King Day weekend in Munich, Germany, at the DLD15 conference. It was my first time at DLD, a conference that serves as something of a staging pad for those on their way to Davos. The mix of people, although heavy on media, is interesting. I ended up in a great conversation with a founder of a global clean water initiative; gave an interview about Vox Media to an Austrian outlet, which is likely to have a major impact on our global mindshare; and advised a young German journalist on whether he should start a site in the spirit of Vox.com for his country (of course!). And, natch, I spoke on a panel that included Kate Lewis from Hearst and MailOnline publisher Martin Clarke. We were fiesty and fun.

That this panel was held at 9:05am on Monday morning, after I’d stayed up watching the Patriots dispatch the Colts — a game that wrapped just before 4am Munich time — and that I looked so fresh-faced, as evidenced in the photograph above — is a testament to the excellent meats and beers of this fine city. I’d last visited Munich on a summertime Eurorail trip through Eastern Europe in 1993; my friend Sesh and I had dipped into Munich after exploring the Czech Republic because we had a friend living in the city for the summer. My lasting memory is the group of us openly urinating in the street sometime on the other side of midnight.

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This time around, no such luck, although I did get some good eating in. Sunday night, I snuck out of the kickoff dinner and met Felix and Michelle at Brenner. I approached the restaurant, above, across an open square, and was delighted but unsurprised when I found out that’s where we were dining. It’s a mediterranean menu in a big open mod-Bavarian space; I had an excellent steak. A group of journalists including John Gapper, Marcus Brauchli, and the entire senior Fusion team joined our table which led to a massively hilarious meal and the self-satisfied feeling that I was at last networking appropriately.

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Two other straight-up Bavarian meals of note: Monday lunch with Kate at Zum Franziskaner (two giant, crackling pig ribs); and dinner with a different iteration of Felix’s crew at Zum Dürnbräu (a perfect viener schnitzel and table tastings of this craziness.)

Davos invite lost in mail, so it’s back to America today.

Traffic Bonuses

As part of his promised return to blogging in the new year, Nick Denton said something somewhat shocking last week — that Gawker Media, which pioneered the practice of paid traffic bonuses for bloggers, will no longer dole out rewards based on traffic in 2015.

It’s about time. Or perhaps, long past time: as Nick acknowledged in his epic year-end memo, Gawker’s traffic bonuses clearly led to unintended consequences: “Editorial traffic was lifted but often by viral stories that we would rather mock. We — the freest journalists on the planet — were slaves to the Facebook algorithm.” (Great line, btw.)

So how did Gawker end up there, at the end of such a long but seemingly obvious road?

Recall that a decade back, Gawker sites were written by a single blogger paid a monthly stipend. The company, like many young companies, ran on a shoestring. And so to both find ways to pay people a bit more money if they succeeded, Gawker implemented traffic bonuses. Made a lot of sense. Then, as the sites started to grow in staffing size, and the concept of virality (then, hilariously, what we termed “spikes”) first emerged, it became clear that traffic bonuses based on each month’s traffic didn’t make sense; one big hit could warp the math. So Gawker — by this point I was working there and helping to engineer these changes — moved to a quarterly bonus system in which three-month goals were set for pageview growth, and site leads were empowered to divide any bonus amongst their teams as they saw fit if they were successful in hitting bonus over an individual quarter.

This quarterly plan corrected for short-term hiccups, rewarding longer-term growth. But giving site leads discretion on how much money to give to who caused a new set of headaches. Complete subjectivity, and money, aren’t a great mix.

So when I shifted to running Curbed full-time, I took part of the Gawker formula — the quarterly structure — but changed the reward portion such that each team member had a bonus number they could achieve, or fail to achieve, together. (This plan was of course imperfect in its own ways too, namely that a strong team member could carry a weak team member, but I figured we had other ways of sussing out weak team members.) Given the relatively small size of Curbed’s editorial teams, this worked all the way through 2013.

Vox CEO Jim Bankoff takes a different view of traffic bonuses: that they’re asinine. Well, maybe not asinine, but that they encourage the wrong kind of behavior. And, moreover, that they’re perverse in the sense that, as Jim put it, “If we’re hiring the best people, why would we expect less than their best on any given day?”

So when we joined up with Vox Media, we did away with traffic bonuses for 2014, and never looked back. Result? Traffic across the Curbed/Eater/Racked group of sites grew 4x-10x in 2014.

In fact, traffic growth across all the Vox Media properties in 2014 was strong: the company finished the year with an audience size more than double that at the start of the year, which is remarkable considering the size of the audience we’re talking about. We did that in part with aggressive goal setting. And so we’re starting 2015 with a fresh set of goals, split across three buckets: traffic, social traffic, and video. (I won’t go into the way we break these buckets down more granularly, but rest assured, it’s pretty granular.) What do the goals serve, in the absence of a paid bonus structure? The ability to make sure all parts of the company are on the same page about what we need to achieve this year to be successful, and goals to strive for, for success’s sake. With a deeply motivated group of people, that’s more than enough.

Meantime, what now for Gawker? Denton, again: “Stories that generate attention will be noted and rewarded, but only those that Tommy Craggs and his colleagues deem worthy of that attention. A layer of subjective editorial judgment will return. Newspaper traditionalists will no doubt see this as vindication.” Putting aside the hilarity of that last line, I wonder about the “noted and rewarded” bit. If that’s a return to bonuses for work being decided on a totally subjective basis — well, that’ll be a lot of fun for all involved.

Me, I’m glad to be out of the traffic bonus game, no matter how happy that makes those vindicated Newspaper Men.

Flood the #DawnWall

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Yesterday, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson finished their historic free climb of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite Natonal Park. It’s a story that I got sucked into following almost exclusively via The New York Times, about which, a few thoughts.

I first encountered the story when the Times ran this piece about the quest on the bottom of A1 on Monday, January 5. At this point, the expedition had been on the wall for about a week, having arrived at the toughest part of the climb. It felt like a good, quirky choice for an A1 story: the right mix of quixotic quest with heroic sheen. I followed the climbers on Instagram and Twitter, figuring this would be about the last I’d read of the quest in the Times, or any mainstream media.

Wrong. From there out, the Times went full court crazy on the story of Caldwell and Jorgenson. Tuesday, January 6, a detailed piece on the front page of the sports section. Thursday, January 8, back on A1 (the story that birthed the famous “Kyrgyzstan, not Kyrzbekistan” correction). Friday, January 9, an op-ed on “Climbing and Tweeting.”

On Saturday, January 10, the print edition of the Times sports section gave over nearly the entire front page to a graphic of the Dawn Wall, and the pair’s route up it. Here’s when the digital side of the Times really dove into the story, creating an interactive graphic of the Dawn Wall, complete with scrollable photo illustrations. Yesterday, the interactive team was at it again, creating a zoomable photo of the Dawn Wall to track the climb’s progress. And twice more this week, the story would wind up back on A1, including a photo today of the successful climbers summiting the ridge.

Now, I’m probably one of the few people left who reads the Times in print every day, but the frequency with which this very soft news story hit A1 blew my mind. Howell Raines, the Executive Editor who popularized the phrase “flooding the zone” — a concept we used liberally at Curbed, and still teach to our editors — would be proud. Yeah, don’t get me wrong: I completely support and encourage good zone flooding in general, and think the Times nailed it here. I got sucked into a story I wouldn’t otherwise care about as it carried along for two weeks.

Also of note is the exceptional work of the Times interactive team, which I think sets the bar on the web right now for interactive storytelling experiences. That the organization can get zone-flood buy-in across print and digital is impressive. Makes me think about how we can flood the zone even harder on the stories that matter to us at Vox.

The National 38

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Yesterday, while my plane from Vegas was somewhere over the Great Plains, the first-ever National 38 debuted on Eater. This is a big deal: it’s the first time that Eater has endeavored to name a best-of list for the whole country, and the culmination of several years of thinking about how best to do that.

The idea of a roving critic for Eater first came to Amanda Kludt and me during a trip to the Pacific Northwest in September 2012. We were dining at Canlis, arguably Seattle’s best fine dining restaurant, and the Canlis brothers joined our table, where talked turned to the lack of professional restaurant coverage in their city. What if, Amanda and I wondered, Eater could employ a critic to roam around the country, essentially doing for the best restaurants in America what Pete Wells does for New York City at the Times?

The idea, of course, required big resources — much bigger resources than Eater had at that time. A year later, though, when the company was acquired by Vox Media, we suddenly had a mandate from Vox CEO Jim Bankoff to think larger about what Eater could accomplish. Our thoughts returned to the roving critic idea. We’d need not just a well salaried position, but a travel and dining budget to match the ambitions. And then we’d need to find someone crazy enough to spend 40 weeks on the road, eating everywhere and anywhere the burgeoning restaurant world took them.

We found that man in Atlanta, in Bill Addison. Bill started at Eater in April, and from then through year-end 2014, by his own math, ate 263 on-the-clock meals in 29 cities during 147 days in the field. I’m not sure there’s ever been a dining binge of this magnitude, at least not one chronicled in realtime as Bill did with The Road to the 38.

When the road work was finished, it was time for the final summation. We didn’t want the National 38 to be a list just of fancy tasting menu places, as the Pellegrino 50 Best list largely is. We also didn’t want to rank the restaurants in order, because all Eater 38s are unordered. I think Bill did a brilliant job threading that needle in compiling the final list, including restaurants from Alinea in Chicago to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, broken into several useful categories.

It’s the definitive dining roadmap to 2015. Get after it.

Charlie & Houellebecq

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I pay my deepest respects to the staff at Charlie Hebdo. In the same breath, I mock the cowardice of the gunmen that gunned them down. The free press is everything, satire first and foremost.

Roped loosely into the conversation around the killings is the new novel by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, released in France on the same day as the attack. The cover of Charlie Hebdo this week satirizes Houellebecq himself, caricatured, declaring, “In 2015, I lose my teeth. In 2022, I will do Ramadan.” The premise of Houellebecq’s new novel has a moderate Muslim politician winning election as France’s president in 2022 and, with monetary backing from the Gulf States, transforming French culture in that image — women completing their education at age 11, readying to serve their household; polygamy becoming legal; and society itself becoming economically successful as it absorbs and internalizes these cultural transformations.

I can’t speak to Houellebecq’s new novel, which is titled Submission. I assume it will take a year or so until it is published in English, in translation. But I’m a completist of his work until now. I read — I think we all read, back then? — The Elementary Particles, in the late 1990s. The themes of that book, his first novel, inform Houellebecq’s fiction in general. It was his second book, Platform (2001), that made me think this might be the writer of our age. Two of his more recent novels, The Possibility of an Island (2005) and The Map and the Territory (2010) deal with issues of cults and belief (Island) and art and fame (Territory) — though those brief summaries do no justice to the novels themselves, even as I found the latter to be a vital accompaniment to The Goldfinch, which I pushed myself through around the same time a year or two ago.

If you’ve never read any Houellebecq, I’d break with the conventional wisdom and suggest starting with The Map and The Territory, then moving on to Platform. Maybe. All of Houellebecq’s novels are raw, misogynist, and brutal to digest. But as the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris remind us, so is life itself.

CES Past and Present

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[Verge trailer at CES in this afternoon's fading sunlight.]

I attended my first Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 1997. Six months earlier, fresh out of college, I’d started a job as an associate editor at a new consumer electronics magazine called Wideband. Our boss, an industry legend named Richard Ekstract, had created and sold a number of trade magazines, and Wideband was his latest effort. With an eye towards differentiating it from the other tired trade magazines in the space, he staffed it exclusively with 20-somethings.

The merits and pitfalls of this staffing strategy were never more evident than when Richard announced that, en masse, the staff would be heading to Las Vegas to cover the Consumer Electronics Show. We stayed at The Aladdin, a hotel that would promptly be imploded after we checked out. (It’s where Planet Hollywood stands now.) I had no idea what I was doing, so I scheduled interviews with company executives in different convention halls, leaving myself 10 minutes between appointments that in actuality took more like an hour to navigate. I sweated like crazy, filled tiny notebooks with notes, and even got some stories. Then each night, after walking all day, our Wideband crew would hit the town, gamble and drink until dawn, then crash and repeat the cycle. It was one of the most memorable weeks of my life.

All of which might explain my fondness for the Consumer Electronics Show — and Las Vegas in general — that others seem to lack. By my math, this is my eleventh CES. I’ve moved to that place in my career where I’m really just here for the schmoozing, but The Verge has an entire trailer and most of the staff on site and they’re reporting hundreds of stories a day and creating a ton of amazing video. (I’m typing these words from inside The Verge trailer. It has an unforgettable odor.) If you want to read one good thing about what’s up at this year’s show, I’d recommend this one by Verge editor in chief Nilay Patel: Gadgets are Back.

Speaking of Nilay, a few minutes ago, I was standing outside The Verge trailer talking on my phone when I spotted Nilay approaching. He was stopped by a fanboy for a selfie, which he obliged. Then he ambled up to me, backpack over his back, plastic container holding a hamburger in one hand. “This week is fucking weird, man.”

True. But also kind of the best.

The Year in Eater

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[The garden at Narcissa. Photo: LS.com]

Every year, Eater asks its colleagues and friends to sum up the year that was in New York City dining, and publishes the results in the week leading into the new year. Here now, my selected responses excerpted from the full shebang:

Top Restaurant Newcomer
I tend to binge on restaurants when they open, which is what I did this summer at Bar Primi and Claudette, and this fall at Dirty French and Marta. Love all those spots, but my newcomer of 2014 is the restaurant I wish I’d dined at way more often: Narcissa. I first ate at John Fraser’s reinvention of the haunted Standard East Village restaurant space in January, right after it opened, and was blown away. I dined there again early in the summer, and then outside, tucked into the garden, in early September. Each meal was among the best I had all year. Three times just didn’t cut it; I’m doubling down on Narcissa in 2015.

Top Restaurant Standbys
My lunch standbys rarely change from year to year — Lure and Rosemarys, now and forever — but my wife and I did discover a new dinner standby in 2014, right under our noses: Mark Joseph Steakhouse, on Water Street in the South Street Seaport. Living in the neighborhood, we’ve long been fans of Mark Joseph, a chophouse cast unapologetically in the Luger tradition (albeit with better wine and drinks). But we’d never made a go-to move of dining at the bar at Mark Joseph as often as we did this past year. Becoming a regular at a steakhouse is a strange and wonderful thing, good for the soul if not necessarily the diet, but I expect us to be perched there as often next year as we were this year past.

Best Dining Neighborhood
Midtown West. When Eater HQ relocated from its longtime perch near Astor Place to the Vox Media offices on West 40th Street near Bryant Park last spring, let’s be honest: we feared for our stomachs. First we sussed out Culture and Cafe Grumpy, two real solid coffee shops. The sandwiches and salads from Maison Kayser almost made us forget Il Buco Alimentari. (Almost.) Then someone figured out that Szechuan Gourmet delivers, a fact which changed the life of Eater’s head of product, Eliot Shepard, and everyone on the 10th Floor forever. Toss in this fall’s opening of the Midtown outpost of sandwich shop Alidoro, and well, dude, it’s all happening in Midtown West.

Single Best Meal of the Year
A year of eating across the country and the globe proved again that we’ve got the best of it in New York City. My meal of the year came unexpectedly in November, when a group of old friends gathered for a new monthly tradition of enjoying dinner at a restaurant deemed special by one member of the group. Our first month’s organizer deemed that we’d dine at the original Blue Ribbon on Sullivan Street, for all the reasons that are obvious to anyone who’s ever dined there. They gave us the big circular booth near the front of the room, and oysters, and from there it unfolded into the kind of night that confirms why we dine out so often in this crazy, beautiful city.

A few additional notes that didn’t make it onto Eater: I haven’t dined at Bâtard, Drew Nieporent’s upscale Tribeca addition to the New York City dining scene, but it topped Pete Wells’ list of the 10 best restaurants of the year and, back in November, won the Eater Award for NYC Restaurant of the Year. I’m pissed I haven’t made it to Bâtard yet; Drew Nieporent is pretty much the fucking greatest.

That said, it’s now clear that the NYC Restaurant of the Year is Cosme. That it didn’t open until September cost it from consideration in the Eater Awards, and Wells hasn’t even filed his review. I didn’t make it in for my first proper meal until early December, when Ben Leventhal invited me to join him and Charlie Bird impressario Robert Bohr at Cosme for dinner. We ate practically the entire menu, hit after hit. This is Mexican cuisine like I’ve never tasted in this city, which explains why this has become one of the toughest reservations in New York recent memory. The move: the bar, of course, which recently started serving the full menu. When we showed up at 8:45pm for our 9pm reservation, we easily grabbed two bar seats.

(You know this, but the restaurant of Winter 2015 is the new Mission Chinese on East Broadway. Haven’t been yet. Who’s in?)

My top meal of the year regardless of locale was, yeah, Noma. Other nights that register strong in the memory in the five boroughs: a January night at Blanca, the tasting restaurant behind Roberta’s; my first meal at River Cafe since Sandy, with ice floes floating by on the East River; an ribeye large format at Momofuku Ssam Bar with a big fun group in the spring; and the string of meals at Dirty French in September and October when I almost made good on my plan to dine there 93 consecutive nights.

Beyond NYC, I remember sushi omakases in Los Angeles at Sushi Zo and Sushi Park that reminded me why it’s almost not worth it to bother with serious sushi omakases on the east coast; my two meals at April Bloomfield’s Tosca Cafe in San Francisco, which might be the most perfect dining room in the country; the fascinatingly odd dinner at Odd Duck in Austin (Eater’s restaurant of the year); every meal ever at Hominy Grill in Charleston, the best pure southern restaurant in the south, for my money; a summer-finishing meal at Portland, ME’s new standout, Central Provisions; and everything in Nashville.

(Final bonus/new year thing: I contributed a thought to Doree’s What People in Media are Excited About in 2015. Now, enough recapping and predicting; on with it.)

Welcome 2015

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Last night, the wife and I rang in the new year at Kate Lee and Zach Seward‘s wedding at Liberty Warehouse in Red Hook. I’d never been to a New Year’s wedding before, but it turned out to be a perfect way to spend a night that’s all about endings and beginnings.

The night was also a great opportunity for various friends to hassle me about the status of this blog — something that came up the night before at Tom & Jerry’s, when Harryh asked me, “How many blog posts do you think you’ll have written by the middle of 2015?” “I dunno, about 100?” I answered. Harry and Rex both cracked up. “Give us a number we can at least take seriously!”

This daily blogging thing: it’s harder than it looks. But it’s really not that hard; it just has to get done, the way so many other things also have to get done. So, on this first day of 2015, I’m diving back in. As mantras for 2015 go, I could do worse than Just Do It.