The digital media companies that once seemed to have a lock on the future are making plans to get bigger and pay back their investors.
Edmund Lee and
Not so long ago, when newspapers and magazines were going out of business all across the country, BuzzFeed and a few other fast-growing web publications seemed like the future of the news business.
Investors poured billions into Vox Media, Vice Media, Group Nine and other upstart companies that employed writers fully at ease with the new digital culture and the increased velocity of online journalism. Valuations shot skyward, and the companies’ founders did victory laps with each round of funding.
The exuberance was based on what seemed like a surefire business model: Give readers web-native content free of charge and watch the money roll in from advertisers eager to connect with a young audience.
Now things have turned upside down.
The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have flourished, thanks to an emphasis on digital journalism and a strategy of charging readers for online access. A number of leading web journalists have decamped for these century-old institutions, while investors are demanding returns on the money they plowed into the digital companies when they were all the rage.
In an effort to regain their stature and compete against the much larger Facebook and Google, which take huge chunks of online ad revenue, BuzzFeed, Vox Media, Vice Media and Group Nine have gotten bigger in recent years through mergers and acquisitions.
Vox Media bought New York Media, the parent company of New York magazine and its clutch of websites. Vice Media bought Refinery29. Group Nine added PopSugar to a stable that included The Dodo and Thrillist and created a special purpose acquisition company (or SPAC) with the aim of going public. BuzzFeed bought HuffPost and said it would acquire another publisher, Complex, as part of its plan to go public through a SPAC transaction of its own.
Those deals were just the start.
Vice Media, previously on the hook for big payments to one of its investors, the private equity giant TPG, is circling a plan to go public, according to three people with knowledge of Vice Media. Vox Media is considering several offers that would take it public through a SPAC, two people familiar with the business said. And Axios, a news site based in Washington that started in 2017, has had talks with the German publishing giant Axel Springer about a possible merger, according to three people with knowledge of the negotiations.
All eight people spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal matters.
The wheeling and dealing has come as media investors have lost some of their enthusiasm for ad-supported sites filled with free content. Substack, a digital newsletter platform that relies on subscriptions, is now in vogue. Puck, a newsletter founded by a former Vanity Fair editor, recently started up with millions of dollars in funding. News sites with strict paywalls, including The Information and Insider, are growing.
The media industry has turned into a barbell. On one end, there are The Post (3.2 million print and digital news subscribers), The Journal (3.4 million) and The Times (six million) — large news operations that rely on their prestige, breadth and experience to attract subscribers. At the other end are The Information, Insider, Axios and others that provide hyper-focused reporting on subjects of special interest to smaller but intensely loyal audiences.
It gets murky between the two extremes. BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox and Group Nine find themselves in a difficult competition with the legacy publications for general readers and with Facebook and Google for ad dollars.
“You either need huge scale, or niche or specific market dominance,” Jim VandeHei, the chief executive of Axios, said in an email. “The middle has always been the resting place for roadkill.”
Axios, which brings in most of its revenue through sponsorship deals, had an 80 percent jump in ad sales during the first half of this year, according to two people familiar with the company; they estimated that 2021 revenue could top $85 million.
Mr. VandeHei credits the company’s laser focus on what its audience wants, as opposed to an editorial strategy of trying to be all things to all readers.
“The silly companies and ideas washed away, and rightly so,” he said in the email, without referring to any specific businesses, “and it’s now clear the advertising and subscription markets are there AND growing if you deliver a quality product for a specific, identifiable audience.”
Axios has fielded a takeover offer from Axel Springer in a deal that could top $400 million, the two people with knowledge of the company said. Mr. VandeHei and Axel Springer declined to comment on the matter. (The Information reported on the talks.)
SPACs are at the center of many digital companies’ plans to reposition themselves. Also known as “blank check” firms, these are shell corporations that list on a stock exchange with the goal of buying a private business and taking it public without the regulatory hassles that go with an initial public offering.
Digital publishers see this once-arcane Wall Street maneuver as a way to raise money at valuations that could match funding rounds in more buoyant conditions. In the 38-page prospectus published when it announced its SPAC plan, BuzzFeed projected a revenue surge, from $521 million in 2021 to over $1 billion by 2024. BuzzFeed also agreed to cut a quarter of its valuation for the transaction, setting a bad precedent for rivals now seeking to go public.
Blank check deals have become harder to pull off. In April, the Securities and Exchange Commission said it planned to inspect SPAC mergers more closely and could issue new rules, holding these transactions to the same standards of a traditional I.P.O.
Although the S.E.C.’s statement has slowed the financing market for SPACs, Vice Media is working with the blank check firm 7GC, according to the three people with knowledge of the company. Vice and 7GC recently completed the due diligence stage of the deal, the people said, and Vice is reaching out to investors to raise money to complete the transaction.
The deal could come at a huge cost. Like BuzzFeed, Vice might lower its valuation, the people said, adding that it could fall below $3 billion from $5.7 billion.
Vice had been staring down big cash payments to TPG as part of a $450 million investment that the private equity firm made a few years ago. Vice has since renegotiated those terms to principally include stock, two of the people said. A SPAC merger could clean up its ownership structure. Vice declined to comment.
Of all the digital publishers currently pursued by Wall Street, Vox Media could reverse the trend of reducing a company’s value to go public. It anticipates around $400 million in revenue this year, growing at a rate of more than 25 percent, two people with knowledge of the company said.
Perhaps more noteworthy: This year, Vox Media is likely to hit a financial metric known as cash flow positive, the people said. That means the company’s operations have more cash coming in than going out, which makes it easier to expand or even pay dividends to its investors. It also makes going public less urgent.
“For us, it’s a question of ambition and opportunity, and we are ambitious,” said Jim Bankoff, Vox Media’s chief executive. “We are going to evaluate our options, but we’re going to do it from a position of strength.” He would not comment on financial details or any potential deals.
Group Nine had talks with major publishers, including Vox Media, about a possible merger for its own SPAC listing, but so far none have materialized, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. Ben Lerer, the head of Group Nine, said in an interview that the company was “in an enviable position” given its recent sales growth.
“The SPAC obviously allows us to be even more ambitious,” he said.
An option for Group Nine would be a deal with one of its largest backers: Discovery Inc. The media giant recently orchestrated a daring takeover of WarnerMedia in an effort to better compete in streaming. Group Nine’s properties have helped drive hundreds of thousands of new customers to Discovery’s streaming platform through content partnerships, making it an attractive takeover target.
The digital ad market thrived during the pandemic, as people started spending more online; BuzzFeed, Vox Media and Group Nine all benefited. Still, their gains were nothing compared with the amounts brought in by the digital giants.
“Facebook, Google and Amazon’s crumbs are Vox, Group Nine and Buzzfeed’s cake,” said Brian Wieser, the lead analyst at GroupM, the media investing arm of the ad company WPP.
That disparity underlines the need of the ad-driven publishers to keep getting bigger.
BuzzFeed’s entry into the public markets is likely to give it an advantage. In addition to cash, it will be able to use its stock as currency to make another deal along the lines of its HuffPost purchase.
“We’ll have opportunities to pursue more acquisitions, and there are more exciting companies out there that we want to pursue,” Jonah Peretti, a BuzzFeed co-founder and the chief executive, said last month.
When asked if BuzzFeed would consider entering the subscription business, he said in a recent interview: “Sure, we’d consider it. Why not?”
Apple’s automotive ambitions dealt blow as car chief joins Ford
Doug Field is fourth senior member of the iPhone maker’s car team to leave since February
Last modified on Wed 8 Sep 2021 07.20 EDT
Apple has lost the executive in charge of its below-the-radar car project to Ford, dealing a further blow to the iPhone maker’s automotive ambitions.
Doug Field, Apple’s vice-president of special projects, had also worked on Tesla’s Model 3 vehicle under Elon Musk. Field, who rejoined Apple in 2018 after a previous stint at the business, is the fourth senior member of the company’s car team to leave since February.
He will become Ford’s chief advanced technology and embedded systems officer with immediate effect, a critical post as the auto industry moves to adopt vehicles powered by electricity and guided by computers. This year Ford signed a six-year deal with Google that includes using Android software in the Michigan carmaker’s vehicles.
“I’m thrilled to be joining Ford as it embraces a transition to a new, complex and fascinating period in the auto industry,” Field said. “It will be a privilege to help Ford deliver a new generation of experiences built on the shift to electrification, software and digital experiences, and autonomy.”
Field will also oversee the integration of Ford products with other pieces of technology, such as a smartphone or watch.
Apple has been working on its own car project – known as Project Titan – since 2014 but few details have emerged of the venture, with executive appointments and departures largely used as a proxy for its progress. However, in 2015 the Guardian revealed that Apple was working on a self-driving vehicle and was scouting secure locations in the San Francisco Bay Area for testing.
Responding to Field’s departure, Apple said: “We’re grateful for the contributions Doug has made to Apple and we wish him all the best in this next chapter.”
The latest upheaval at Apple’s car project comes as the firm based in Cupertino, California, prepares to unveil its latest iPhone and Apple Watch on Tuesday 14 September at 10am Pacific time, or 6pm in the UK.
According to the website MacRumors, the iPhone 13 lineup will bear similarities to its immediate predecessor, with four phones in sizes that include 5.4in, 6.1in, and 6.7in. Two phones will be at the higher-end “pro” range, with the other two at a lower, comparatively more affordable price range. The most notable improvements in the iPhone 13 are expected to be the camera lens and battery capacity.
Biden’s Electric Car Plans Hinge on Having Enough Chargers
The United States has about 100,000 public chargers, far fewer than Europe and China. It needs 10 times as many, auto experts say, to complete the switch from combustion engine vehicles.
Over the past year, the electric vehicle charging industry has been swept up in a Wall Street gold rush because of growing optimism about electric cars and trucks.Credit…Kelsey McClellan for The New York Times
Niraj Chokshi, Matthew Goldstein and
In President Biden’s vision of a green future, half of all new cars sold in 2030 will be electric. But something really basic is standing in the way of that plan: enough outlets to plug in all those cars and trucks.
The country has tens of thousands of public charging stations — the electric car equivalent of gas pumps — with about 110,000 chargers. But energy and auto experts say that number needs to be at least five to 10 times as big to achieve the president’s goal. Building that many will cost tens of billions of dollars, far more than the $7.5 billion that lawmakers have set aside in the infrastructure bill.
Private investors are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into building chargers, but the business suffers from a chicken-and-egg problem: Sales of electric cars are not growing fast enough to make charging profitable. It could be years before most charging companies break even, let alone mint big profits like Exxon Mobil and Chevron.
Fast chargers — ones that can fill up an electric car battery in 20 to 40 minutes — cost tens of thousands of dollars but are typically used less than humdrum gas pumps. Yet the auto and energy industries need to build them to reassure people that they won’t be stranded in an electric car with no plug in sight.
“E.V. charging infrastructure is the single biggest barrier to E.V. adoption,” said Asad Hussain, a senior analyst at PitchBook, a research firm. “You talk to anyone who’s on the fence about buying an E.V. and the No. 1 concern that comes to mind is range anxiety.”
The European Union, which is further along in electrifying cars, had nearly 200,000 public charging points last year. China, where electric cars are even more common than in Europe, had more than 800,000 in 2020.
European and Chinese officials have offered better incentives and imposed tougher regulations in part because they want to win a global race to build the cars and trucks of the future. U.S. policies, including the infrastructure bill, have been more modest because most Republicans and some Democrats oppose the regulation and spending needed to quickly ditch fossil fuels.
Soon, even $7.5 billion won’t be enough to lay the groundwork for the electric age, Nick Nigro, founder of Atlas Public Policy, a consulting and research firm based in Washington, said about the proposed federal spending on charging stations.
“Is it sufficient? No,” he said. “But it gets things going.”
Most drivers today plug in their electric cars at home, and only occasionally use public charging stations. But those stations will be crucial, especially to those who live in apartments and people who drive long distances.
For years, start-ups, automakers and other companies have been slowly building chargers, mainly in California and other coastal states where most electric cars are sold. These businesses use different strategies to make money, and auto experts say it is not clear which will succeed. The company with the most stations, ChargePoint, sells chargers to individuals, workplaces, stores, condo and apartment buildings, and businesses with fleets of electric vehicles. It collects subscription fees for software that manages the chargers. Tesla offers charging mainly to get people to buy its cars. And others make money by selling electricity to drivers.
Once the poor cousin to the hip business of making sleek electric cars, the charging industry has been swept up in its own gold rush. Venture capital firms poured nearly $1 billion into charging companies last year, more than the five previous years combined, according to PitchBook. So far in 2021, venture capital investments are up to more than $550 million.
On Wall Street, publicly traded special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, have struck deals to buy eight charging companies out of 26 deals involving electric vehicle and related businesses, according to Dealogic, a research firm. The deals typically include an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars from big investors like BlackRock.
“It’s early, and folks are trying to wrap their heads around what does the potential look like,” said Gabe Daoud Jr., a managing director and analyst at Cowen, an investment bank.
These businesses could benefit from the infrastructure bill, but it is not clear how the Biden administration would distribute money for charging stations.
Another unanswered question is who will be the Exxon Mobil of the electric car age. It might well be automakers.
Tesla, which makes about two-thirds of the electric cars sold in the United States, has built thousands of chargers, which it made free for early customers. The company could open its network to vehicles made by other automakers by the end of the year, its chief executive, Elon Musk, said in July.
Volkswagen also owns a charging network, Electrify America, which is already available to all makes of cars. In Europe, Volkswagen, BMW, Ford Motor, Daimler and other automakers jointly own a charging company called Ionity. Drivers pay fees to charge in both cases, but some automakers offer free charging for a few years to entice car buyers.
Energy giants like BP and Royal Dutch Shell have gotten into the business, too, by buying charging companies in Europe and the United States.
And 14 electric utilities from Maine to Texas have formed the Electric Highway Coalition to build stations at intervals of 100 miles or less. Utilities elsewhere are also building chargers, as are cities like Los Angeles and New York.
They are all competing in a tiny market: Less than 4 percent of new car sales and less than 1 percent of vehicles on U.S. roads are electric.
Charging companies claim they can succeed even if it takes years for electric vehicles to take over. Some businesses like ChargePoint have been around for more than a decade, while others raising money don’t have much of a track record.
The chief executive of ChargePoint, Pasquale Romano, says his company avoids some costs by using contract manufacturers to build equipment and selling stations to employers who own electric vehicle fleets, retailers and others, who also buy software and maintenance subscriptions.
“Everyone thinks this can go fast, and it can’t,” Mr. Romano said. “You have to get in and start pedaling to help shape what it looks like.”
Volta, a smaller charging company, places chargers near the entrances of retailers like Whole Foods Market and Walgreens. The chargers show ads, generating revenue, and the stations pay for themselves within a few years, said the company’s president and a co-founder, Chris Wendel. “It’s a sponsored service brought to you by brands that care about what you’re doing.”
But some companies have stumbled. In December, TPG Pace Beneficial Finance, a SPAC backed partly by TPG, the private equity firm, announced that it would buy EVBox, an Amsterdam-based maker of charging equipment, valuing the company at $1.4 billion.
In January, Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC’s “Mad Money,” said EVBox was his favorite charging company because it is an established player in Europe. Shares of TPG Pace Beneficial climbed to $31 in February, from around $10.
But this month, the companies delayed the merger’s closing because EVBox has not yet released its audited financial statements for 2020. TPG Pace said in a regulatory filing that there was “significant uncertainty” about the deal’s completion, and its shares have fallen back to about $10.
A spokeswoman for EVBox declined to comment.
Mr. Cramer no longer stands by the EVBox pick. “I suppose we put too much faith in the financials as presented to investors at the time,” he said in an email.
Since the start of 2020, 16 proposed SPAC mergers have been canceled or withdrawn. And investors and regulators have raised questions about the optimistic claims made by executives and promoters of SPACs.
Yet investors continue to pour money into charging. One charging company, EVgo, completed a SPAC deal and started trading in July. Trading in Volta started last month. Several other deals have been announced in recent months, including for Tritium, which makes fast chargers; Wallbox, which sells charging equipment, software and related services; and Allego, which operates a large charging network in Europe.
Some investors think that charging cars might not be the best approach.
Last month, Ample, which aims to build stations where drained E.V. batteries are replaced with charged ones, raised $160 million. Raed Masri, founder of Transform VC, an investor in Ample, said battery swapping would be better for people without a place to plug in their cars because it is much faster.
“They need a quick energy delivery system, and only swapping provides that,” Mr. Masri said.
Other investors are making lots of bets. Energy Impact Partners, a private equity firm based in New York, has invested in several charging networks, a repair app for charging stations and an app that optimizes charging.
Cassie Bowe, a principal at the firm, said that with electric vehicle sales growing fast, it was urgent to build a network to support them. “There’s no more time,” she said. “We need this infrastructure fast.”
Ghost of Tsushima: Directors’ Cut review – rich treasures on a new island
(Sucker Punch Productions; Sony; PS4, PS5)
This expansion of last year’s hit offers a wider range of missions and side quests to its samurai warfare
Last modified on Sun 5 Sep 2021 06.39 EDT
The Japanese island of Tsushima was, until last year’s Ghost of Tsushima, part of an obscure archipelago that few could pinpoint on a map. So much has the video game raised the island’s profile, through the story of how its 13th-century inhabitants resisted the invading Mongols, that the island’s mayor has made its developers permanent ambassadors of tourism for Tsushima. Now, an update, The Director’s Cut, may do the same for an even smaller neighbouring island in the Tsushima strait, Iki, where this expansive, newly released chapter takes place.
Having all but driven the Mongols from Tsushima, our hero, Jin, arrives on Iki with a similar aim. Iki’s residents, however, are less accepting; decades earlier, the samurai’s father invaded the island and subjugated its citizens. Memories remain brightly painful, and the islanders’ hostility is tempered only by virtue of a common enemy.
Last year’s epic was exquisitely rendered but repetitive and somewhat limited in its range of interactive possibility. And despite the tasteful rendering of the world – all whispering reeds and cherry blossom sunsets – you played as a sort of samurai Rambo, single-bladedly repelling the invader army. Here, you’re an important cog in a more complex, multifaceted drama. While the island is geographically small, it is rich and densely packed with missions and distractions: archery ranges to master, animal sanctuaries to establish and ancient riddles to solve.
The update makes elegant use of the PlayStation 5’s controller’s quasi-magical properties. Tilt the controller to guide a note along a musical stave and play a mournful lament on the flute. Wearing the appropriate outfit, haptic buzzes will guide you toward hidden valuables, the force of the pulse quickening the closer you are to the treasure. Despite the intermittent violence, this is a beautiful world to explore, lovingly crafted and compellingly framed.
Microsoft Delays Return to Office Indefinitely
Microsoft delayed its office return indefinitely, it said in a blog post on Thursday. The company had pushed the full reopening of its U.S. offices to no earlier than Oct. 4., but revised those plans because of the threat of the Delta variant of the coronavirus. “It’s a stark reminder that this is the new normal,” wrote Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for modern work. “Our ability to come together will ebb and flow.” The company has said it will require proof of vaccination for all employees, vendors and guests to enter its offices.
UPS said on Thursday that it planned to hire more than 100,000 employees to help manage the annual influx of packages during the holiday season, from October through January. The company said that many individuals who apply will receive an offer within 30 minutes and that, in the past, about a third of those hired during the holiday season received a permanent position with the company.
‘The point is ambition’: are we ready to follow Netflix into space?
The ambitious new look at SpaceX’s first all-civilian flight, the streaming platform’s first real-time docuseries, takes reality television to space
Last modified on Tue 7 Sep 2021 12.47 EDT
The rise of commercial space travel is here, and for the vast majority who cannot afford its millions-plus price tag, streaming platforms are here to capture it. Starting this week, Netflix will air the first two installments of Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, its first docuseries to cover an event – SpaceX’s launch of its first all-civilian crew on a three-day trip circling Earth – in “near real time”. Subsequent episodes will document the four astronauts’ preparation for the 15 September launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Episodes three and four will air just two days prior; a feature-length finale film of the mission itself will air in late September.
The series, directed by veteran sports documentarian Jason Hehir, best known for The Last Dance, promises to take audiences behind the scenes of the Inspiration4 mission, from the astronaut selection to the training and eventual takeoff. Netflix, as well as the passengers and SpaceX figures introduced in the first two episodes, are billing the trip as a paradigm shift in space exploration: an aperture in commercial space travel, a small but significant advancement toward the proliferation of rocket transportation, and a new frontier for reality television.
“Inspiration4 is just a really small step along that journey toward a Jetsons world where everyone’s going to jump in their spacecraft and journey in the worlds beyond ours,” Jared Isaacman, the 38-year-old billionaire chief executive of Shift4 Payments and longtime flight enthusiast who will be the mission’s commander, told the Guardian. “I don’t think it’s just going to be a few people for a long time,” he added, comparing space travel now, executed by private companies such as Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic with exorbitant price tags, to the early days of experimental aviation. “This is starting with a few, for sure, but this going to open up to the many.”
Until then, commercial space travel remains an ultra-expensive, ultra-exclusive club predominantly spurred by the mega-rich, with live streams for everyone else. In July, Blue Origin livestreamed its launch of Jeff Bezos on a 11-minute suborbital space journey on its YouTube channel and on Amazon Prime; Virgin Galactic also streamed founder Richard Branson’s 59-minute space flight on YouTube, and recruited a popular science TikTok star for a future trip. It’s a given, as the environmentally questionable business of space tourism continues to expand, that reality TV will ride along – in April, Nasa signed a Space Act Agreement with the production company “Space Hero” to “[facilitate] initial cooperation and information sharing” for a competition show that would send the winner on an expensive trip to the International Space Station as early as 2023.
There’s a gameshow undercurrent to Countdown, the Netflix series, whose first two episodes predominantly serve to introduce viewers to the civilian astronauts, selected by a Willy Wonka-like arbitrary process tied to four core mission values.
Besides Isaacman (“Leadership”), who declined to specify the amount paid to participate in the mission (but did say proceeds raised for the pediatric cancer specialists at St Jude’s children’s research hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, would exceed the cost of the mission), the group includes Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old pediatric cancer survivor and physician assistant at St Jude’s, which nominated her to symbolize the value of “Hope”; Sian Proctor, 51, of Phoenix, Arizona, a geology professor who won a spot on Inspiration4 through a competition assessing entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to go semi-viral (“Prosperity”); and Chris Sembrowski, 42, a data engineer and air force veteran from Everett, Washington, selected off a list of donors to St Jude’s as part of Inspiration4’s Superbowl campaign (“Generosity”).
All are new to astrodynamics, ordinary figures unused to cameras and spotlight. It’s a far cry from Hehir’s mission on The Last Dance, in which his team endeavored to “de-iconize” a celebrity as ubiquitous and iconic as Michael Jordan. Though Countdown will build, in real time, the iconography of Inspiration4, Hehir assures that the project is not acting as gauzy PR for the company – “I didn’t see it as our role to aggrandize SpaceX,” he told the Guardian. “I thought it was necessary to outline what their mission is, why are we doing this – because one of the first questions is always that it’s another billionaire going to space, what’s the point? The point is ambition, seeing what else is out there, and the point in a charitable sense is raising $200m for St Jude’s.”
This is the most common criticism levied at SpaceX, and private space travel in general, one Hehir floats midway through the first episode – why send, or care about, billionaires going to space when there’s an abundance of earthbound issues that need addressing, most pressingly the climate emergency. Asked his response to such backlash, Isaacman echoed his answer in the first episode of the series: “We absolutely believe in balance here,” he said. “It’s been right from the start, from the creation of Inspiration4, that we’ve said: ‘we have to address some of the problems of today to earn the right to make progress for tomorrow,’” pointing to the fundraising effort for St Jude’s.
SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, appears in the first episode for brief overviews on the mission of Inspiration4 (civilian orbital space flight) and the company at large (colonization of Mars). It was “necessary to have [Musk] in it,” Hehir said, “because he is the face of that company and I felt that we owe it to our viewers for him to do two things. One, to articulate what the company’s mission is, and then two, to address the criticism that is so pervasive these days, of billionaires going into space and the privilege of wealth.” (Musk’s answer to the billionaire-critique is that “99%-plus of our economy should be dedicated to solving problems on Earth” but a multi-planet, space-bearing civilization is an “exciting, inspiring future”.)
“I had no interest in mythologizing that company or making it out that they’re saviors of the world,” Hehir said. “But I do think it’s important if you’re going to understand the ambition of the mission, to understand the ambition of the company itself.”
If all goes according to plan, the final episode, turned around on a snap days-long production timeline, will capture the Inspiration4’s crew successful return to Earth. The first two episodes find each weighing the inherent risk of space travel; Proctor, in particular, remembers watching the Challenger disaster when a shuttle exploded on live television in 1986, killing all seven crew on board (captured on camera: the shock and grief of Grace and Edward Corrigan, whose daughter Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire, was to be the first American civilian in space).
“I understand what calculated risk is and what the reward is,” she told the Guardian, “and the reward of human space flight far exceeds the risk.”
Proctor, who was born in Guam, where her father worked for Nasa at an Apollo tracking station, will be only the fourth black American woman ever to travel to space (to date, only about 600 people have made the journey). Bubbling with a Ms Frizzle-esque enthusiasm for space exploration, Proctor is using to her spot aboard Inspiration4 to highlight black women’s long-overlooked role in American space travel. “We’re opening up the door for people who normally would have thought of being an astronaut or going to space, giving them the insight into how we’re doing it, and how times are changing,” she said of participating in the first all-civilian space flight.
“Old space was exclusive and you had to be the best of the best, you had to fit certain criteria. This is new space that’s emerging, that enables us to open up who gets to go and participate and write the narrative of human space flight,” she added, mapping out what she called a “Jedi” space — Just, Equitable, Diverse and Inclusive.
It remains to be seen if that narrative of a more democratic space will come to pass – and if Inspiration4 will push past skepticism of ultra-expensive, privately funded space flight. Regardless, the mission, and the messaging attached to it, will be televised, bringing the vast frontier to your personal screen.
Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space starts 7 September on Netflix
California Bill Could Alter Amazon Labor Practices
The bill would rein in production quotas at warehouses that critics say are excessive and force workers to forgo bathroom breaks.
Among the pandemic’s biggest economic winners is Amazon, which nearly doubled its annual profit last year to $21 billion and is on pace to far exceed that total this year.
The profits flowed from the millions of Americans who value the convenience of quick home delivery, but critics complain that the arrangement comes at a large cost to workers, whom they say the company pushes to physical extremes.
That labor model could begin to change under a California bill that would require warehouse employers like Amazon to disclose productivity quotas for workers, whose progress they often track using algorithms.
“The supervisory function is being taken over by computers,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s author. “But they’re not taking into account the human factor.”
The bill, which the Assembly passed in May and the State Senate is expected to vote on this week, would prohibit any quota that prevents workers from taking state-mandated breaks or using the bathroom when needed, or that keeps employers from complying with health and safety laws.
The legislation has drawn intense opposition from business groups, which argue that it would lead to an explosion of costly litigation and that it punishes a whole industry for the perceived excesses of a single employer.
“They’re going after one company, but at the same time they’re pulling everyone else in the supply chain under this umbrella,” said Rachel Michelin, the president of the California Retailers Association, on whose board Amazon sits.
California plays an outsize role in the e-commerce and distribution industry, both because of its huge economy and status as a tech hub and because it is home to the ports through which much of Amazon’s imported inventory arrives. The Inland Empire region, east of Los Angeles, has one of the highest concentrations of Amazon fulfillment centers in the country.
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, declined to comment on the bill but said in a statement that “performance targets are determined based on actual employee performance over a period of time” and that they take into account the employee’s experience as well as health and safety considerations.
“Terminations for performance issues are rare — less than 1 percent,” Ms. Nantel added.
The company faces growing scrutiny of its treatment of workers, including an expected ruling from a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that it unlawfully interfered in a union vote at an Alabama warehouse. The finding could prompt a new election there, though Amazon has said it would appeal to preserve the original vote, in which it prevailed.
In June, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters passed a resolution committing the union to provide “all resources necessary” to organize Amazon workers, partly by pressuring the company through political channels. Teamsters officials have taken part in successful efforts to deny Amazon a tax abatement in Indiana and approval for a facility in Colorado and are backers of the California legislation.
Both sides appear to regard the fight over Amazon’s quotas as having high stakes. “We know that the future of work is falling into this algorithm, A.I. kind of aspect,” said Ms. Gonzalez, the bill’s author. “If we don’t intervene now, other companies will be the next stage.”
Ms. Michelin, the retail association president, emphasized that the data was “proprietary information” and said the bill’s proponents “want that data because it helps unionize distribution centers.”
A report by the Strategic Organizing Center, a group backed by four labor unions, shows that Amazon’s serious-injury rate nationally was almost double that of the rest of the warehousing industry in 2020 and more than twice that of warehouses at Walmart, a top competitor.
Asked about the findings, Ms. Nantel, the Amazon spokeswoman, did not directly address them but said that the company recently entered into a partnership with a nonprofit safety advocacy group to develop ways of preventing musculoskeletal injuries. She also said that Amazon had invested over $300 million this year in safety measures, like redesigning workstations.
Amazon employees have frequently complained that supervisors push them to work at speeds that wear them down physically.
“There were a lot of grandmothers,” one worker said in a study underwritten by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, another backer of the California bill. Managers would “come to these older women, and say, ‘Hey, I need you to speed up,’ and then you could see in her face she almost wants to cry. She’s like, ‘This is the fastest my body can literally go.’”
Yesenia Barrera, a former Amazon worker in California, said that managers told her she needed to pull 200 items an hour from a conveyor belt, unbox them and scan them. She said she was usually able to reach this target only by minimizing her bathroom use.
“That would be me ignoring using restroom-type things to be able to make it,” Ms. Barrera said in an interview for this article. “When the bell would ring for a break, I felt like I had to do a few more items before I took off.”
Edward Flores, faculty director of the Community and Labor Center at the University of California, Merced, says repetitive strain injuries have been a particular problem in the warehousing industry as companies have automated their operations.
“You’re responding to the speed at which a machine is moving,” said Dr. Flores, who has studied injuries in the industry. “The greater reliance on robotics, the higher incidence of repetitive motions and thus repetitive injuries.” Amazon has been a leader in adopting warehouse robotics.
Ms. Gonzalez said that when she met with Amazon officials after introducing a similar bill last year, they denied using quotas, saying that they relied instead on goals and that workers were not punished for failing to meet them.
During a meeting a few days before the Assembly passed this year’s bill, she said, Amazon officials acknowledged that they could do more to promote the health and safety of their workers but did not offer specific proposals beyond coaching employees on how to be more productive.
At one point during the more recent meeting, Ms. Gonzalez recalled, an Amazon official raised concerns that some employees would abuse more generous allotments of time for using the bathroom before another official weighed in to de-emphasize the point.
“Someone else tried to walk it back,” she said. “It’s often said quietly. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it.”
The bill’s path has always appeared rockier in the State Senate, where amendments have weakened it. The bill no longer directs the state’s occupational safety and health agency to develop a rule preventing warehouse injuries that result from overwork or other physical stress.
Instead, it gives the state labor commissioner’s office access to data about quotas and injuries so it can step up enforcement. Workers would also be able to sue employers to eliminate overly strict quotas.
Ms. Gonzalez said she felt confident about the Senate vote, which must come by the close of the legislative session on Friday, but business groups are still working hard to derail it.
Ms. Michelin, the retailer group president, said that the Senate committees’ changes had made the bill more palatable and that her members might support a measure that gave more resources to regulators to enforce health and safety rules. But she said they had serious concerns about the way the bill empowers workers to sue their employers.
As long as that provision remains in the bill, she said, “we will never support it.”
Study finds growing government use of sensitive data to ‘nudge’ behaviour
Exclusive: National and local governments using targeted ads on search engines and social media
Last modified on Wed 8 Sep 2021 03.19 EDT
A new form of “influence government”, which uses sensitive personal data to craft campaigns aimed at altering behaviour has been “supercharged” by the rise of big tech firms, researchers have warned.
National and local governments have turned to targeted advertisements on search engines and social media platforms to try to “nudge” the behaviour of the country at large, the academics found.
The shift to this new brand of governance stems from a marriage between the introduction of nudge theory in policymaking and an online advertising infrastructure that provides unforeseen opportunities to run behavioural adjustment campaigns.
Some of the examples found by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) range from a Prevent-style scheme to deter young people from becoming online fraudsters to tips on how to light a candle properly. While targeted advertising is common across business, one researcher argues that the government using it to drive behavioural change could create a perfect feedback loop.
“With the government, you’ve got access to all this data where you can see pretty much in real time who you need to talk to demographically, and then on the other end you can actually see, well, ‘did this make a difference?’,” said Ben Collier, of the University of Edinburgh. “The government doing this supercharges the ability of it to actually work.”
The British government’s fondness for minor behavioural modification tactics began in the David Cameron era. Since the foundation of the Behavioural Insight Team – or “nudge unit” – at No 10, ministers eagerly looked for tweaks to help people pay car tax or encourage people to buy loft insulation.
The examples of influence government uncovered by the SCCJR range from deeply serious to almost endearingly silly. At one end of the spectrum is the National Crime Agency’s “Cyber-Prevent” programme, which involves identifying young people at risk of becoming involved in cybercrime.
Some arms of the programme, which is modelled on the anti-radicalisation Prevent scheme, involve traditional “knock and talk” visits, where NCA officers make a home visit to try to work with the young person’s parents to steer them to a different life path.
But that part of the programme also involves the NCA collecting a substantial amount of data about the young people it visits, which can be used to craft profiles of the typical “at-risk” teen. Those profiles can then be used to run an “influence policing” campaign, using targeted advertising aimed at UK teens with an interest in gaming who search for particular cybercrime services on Google.
“Beginning as simple text-based adverts, the NCA developed them across a six-month campaign in consultation with behavioural psychologists and using the data they were collecting from their operational work,” the researchers write. The adverts were also linked to major gaming conventions, and advertorials were bought on gaming websites.
At the other end of the spectrum, a fire safety campaign decided to go for the most obvious possible targeting route, said Collier. “The Home Office were essentially boasting about their use of people’s purchasing data via Amazon targeting categories. They’d basically scooped it up so that if you bought candles or matches, that would be used to target you with audio adverts over your Amazon Alexa with fire safety tips. So you buy the candles when you’re out, you come home and your Amazon Alexa starts giving you fire safety advice.”
While it’s usually good for the government to achieve goals like reducing house fires or preventing cybercrime, Collier and his colleagues warn that the rise of “influence government” could cause harm. Not only does it encourage departments to play fast and loose with personal data – using notes from an interview under caution to build a profile of a typical cybercriminal, for instance – it can also focus negative attention on vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in ways that could be counterproductive.
One set of anti-knife crime adverts, for instance, was targeted at fans of drill music on YouTube. The researchers warn that being followed around the internet by mentions of knife crime could make young people more likely to think that knife-carrying was common, ultimately helping convince them to carry a weapon.
Frequently, such campaigns are outsourced to third-party marketing agencies, a practice the researchers argue must stop. “They are frontline policy interventions and need to be seen as such, and subjected to the same public debate, scrutiny and accountability as other such policies,” they argue, because they ultimately have the “dual effect of opening up the intimate spaces of citizen lives to state control on one hand and expanding the sources of data used by the government to target policy on the other”.
The Cabinet Office has been contacted for comment.
This article was amended on 8 September 2021 to correct the name of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR).
Why It's Not The Weekend Until @CraigWeekend Says So
The 18-year-old behind the viral Twitter account @CraigWeekend has offered people a routine reminder to take a load off.
Kellen Browning and
In a scene from “Saturday Night Live,” the English actor Daniel Craig stares into the camera and flops his arms halfheartedly, as if he meant to raise them above his head but got tired halfway.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Weeknd,” he says, announcing the episode’s musical guest: the Canadian pop star Abel Tesfaye. The studio audience begins to cheer.
These four seconds of footage, notable if only for Mr. Craig’s ambiguous tone (was he exasperated? dubious? expectant? neutral?), were surely forgotten by most viewers after the episode was broadcast on March 7, 2020. But not by Miles Riehle.
Watching Mr. Craig on “S.N.L.,” he was amused by what he saw as a double entendre. “It sounds like he’s welcoming in the weekend, as in Saturday or Sunday,” said Mr. Riehle, 18. “I was like, ‘Man, that’s really funny.’”
Following in the footsteps of Twitter accounts that tweet only on specific dates — think “Mean Girls” and Oct. 3 — Mr. Riehle claimed the handle @CraigWeekend and started tweeting the clip every Friday afternoon.
When the account took off months later, in November, “I was excited to have so many people following something that I was doing,” Mr. Riehle said. Soon, interview requests started rolling in.
The extra attention, while thrilling, was also daunting, he said, “because now I have to make sure I keep all these people entertained.”
That said, he seems to be sustaining the interest of his more than 450,000 followers, who Friday after Friday await his announcement that the workweek has come to an end. Some people message him when they feel he has not delivered his proclamation early enough.
Mr. Riehle thinks the account’s appeal can be chalked up to its positive and predictable messages during a period marked by fear and uncertainty.
“Given how much stress there was going on in the world, for a lot of people it was extra potent, being able to embrace the weekend and get excited for it,” he said. Fans of the account, he said, have developed “a community of good vibes.”
“It always seems like people are nice to each other in the replies and the comments and the quote-tweets,” Mr. Riehle said. “I think that’s sort of rare on the internet.”
He usually posts between 3:45 p.m. and 4:20 p.m. Pacific time, but never on the hour. “I kind of want to keep people on their toes,” he said.
Indeed, that his followers know something is coming — but not exactly when — could be key to keeping them engaged, said John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University.
The predictability “is very reassuring to people, especially during a pandemic when people have little else to do on a Friday and everything else in life seems so unpredictable,” Dr. Suler said. “But then, he does mix in a bit of unpredictable reinforcement by posting at different times of the night.”
Josh Varela, a fellow at Lead for America, a local government leadership program for recent college graduates, from Ventura, Calif., has notifications turned on for the account so he and his roommate know it’s time to put aside their responsibilities for the week.
“Whenever @CraigWeekend tweets, we see it as the time we’ll crack open a beer and hang out,” Mr. Varela, 23, said.
Derek Milton, a 34-year-old film director from Los Angeles, said that “any anxieties, any worries, any hardships that have accumulated over the past five days are relieved by a four-second clip.” He and his friends love the video so much that they recorded a parody version of their own while on the set of a photo shoot with none other than the Weeknd.
Mr. Craig was not available to comment on the “S.N.L.” clip, but the Weeknd appears to be in on the joke. In May, he tweeted, “ladies and gentlemen, the …”
It wasn’t hard for Mr. Riehle to fill in the blank.
“I consider that to be a call-out tweet to me personally,” he said. “I think he likes it.”
Mr. Riehle starts college this fall at the University of California, Davis, where he plans to study environmental policy and planning. He intends to keep running the account while in school.
“I don’t know when it will end or if it will end,” he said. “Obviously if it gets to a point to where it’s harming my relationship with the internet, then I might get rid of it, but I have no plans right now to ever stop doing it.”
For all the relief his account gives the weekday 9-to-5 crowd, Mr. Riehle knows that, for some workers, the tweet could also be a dispiriting reminder of impending duties. He himself works as an ambassador for Orange County’s public transit service — on the weekend.
“It is kind of ironic,” he said.
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