Arrived

Arrived

This post has been a decade in the making. It was ten years ago this past February that I flew in to JFK for what was intended to be a three month American adventure, traveling across the US by plane, train and automobile and trying to blag my way into luxury hotels. If you’ve read The Upgrade, you’ll know what happened next: I fell in love with the country and decided to make it my home.

Ten years ago.

Earlier this afternoon, in the San Francisco mailbox I share with my girlfriend, her two children and our three cats, I found an envelope from the United States Customs and Immigration Service. Inside that envelope was this…

…my green card!

“Welcome to United States”: With those four words it’s official, I am now a lawful permanent resident. I can live where I like, work where I like, travel away and back as I like, and enjoy almost all the same rights and privileges enjoyed by my friends who were lucky enough to be born here. (Almost: Voting is still off the table unless and until I become a naturalized citizen.)

It’s an interesting time to become a permanent resident. My friends certainly seem to think so. Over the past few months, as my final green card interview date neared,  an alarming number of them on both sides of the Atlantic asked me the same question: Are you sure you still want to live in America?

I hardly need to spell out the subtext: Am I sure I want to live in a country in which the President routinely compares immigrants (at least those who don’t look and sound like me) to vermin? A country whose leader acts an awful lot like an FSB asset, determined to isolate it from allies and cozy up with dictators? A country which every day seems to creeps closer to a version of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead?

At a time when every liberal and their dog is threatening to move to Canada, can I possibly be as in love with America as I was ten years ago?

The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. This is absolutely still the same America I fell in love with a decade ago. The people are still the same people, the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats mostly the same. What’s changed is the balance of power.

Ten years ago, the forces of Obama-style liberalism were in the majority and the ~63m Americans who would vote a reality TV star into the White House were thankfully denied that opportunity. Now the forces of Trump brand illiberalism hold the whip hand: The (minority) white nationalists and bigots feel empowered while those of us (the majority) who prize equality and social justice feel marginalized by the electoral college system. But at America’s core it’s still exactly the same country. If anything, it’s even better: According to Gallup, public support for same-sex marriage and immigration are at record highs. Support for Planned Parenthood is at its highest level since 2015 while support for stricter gun control is at its highest level since 1993.

The fact that the Trump administration is trying so hard to pack the Supreme Court with right wing justices is testament to the fact that they know Republicans are in the moral minority on social issues. The bigots know their only hope of reversing the tide is to force through laws that the majority of Americans oppose.  I believe they’ll fail because I believe in the numbers.

None of which is the point of this post.

The point of this post is to share a little about my green card experience, and vent about something that has driven me mad for almost a decade: The absolute idiocy of the immigration “debate” in America.

In particular, I want to talk about “the line.”

You’ve heard about “the line”. You’ve heard about it every time Republicans, and a surprising number of Democrats, blithely insist that DACA recipients and those fleeing persecution in their home countries should get to the back of it. This line, so the rhetoric goes, is the only proper and orderly way for non-Americans to gain lawful residence. They should go to the American embassy in their home country, fill out a form and “join the back of the line.”

Simple.

Except for one problem: The line doesn’t exist. It’s a lie. A trick.

For most would-be immigrants who want to live and work in America – including countless thousands of young people who have spent their entire lives living here without documentation –  there is virtually no way to lawfully gain a green card. For anyone without money and connections, especially non- native English speakers, the process is so unbelievably complex, so constantly in flux, that they might just as easily “join the line” to live on Mars.

I have started multiple companies, raised millions of dollars in venture capital, written more than a dozen published books and countless thousand newspaper and magazine articles. I’m fortunate enough to have access to expensive lawyers, and was able to get letters of recommendation from some of the powerful people on the planet: The kind of rich white men who feature on Fortune billionaire lists and in Time ‘most influential’ issues. And yet, despite all these insane advantages, it still took a decade to get my green card.

The idea that someone who was brought to America as a baby, without documentation, could somehow leave the country and join some imaginary line for permission to remain is so far beyond offensive it’s barely visible with the naked eye.

On undocumented childhood arrivals, American immigration law is clear: If you’re in the United States without legal status for half a year or more (if, say, your parents brought you here as a baby without a visa) and you try to leave to join ‘the line’, you will be automatically barred from re-entering the USA for anywhere between three and ten years.  Automatically. This isn’t a Trump policy: The bars were created under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act. So blame Bill Clinton for that one.

And even after that bar expires – after 3-10 years away from family and friends and in many cases children – there’s still no line to join.

(A quick note on the perennial ‘can’t you just find an American to marry you for a green card?’ question: True, it is marginally easier for someone legitimately married to an American to get approved to apply for a conditional green card, provided their spouse agrees to financially support them and they don’t get divorced. But even if approved, they still have to go through the entire painful process I describe below, with the addition of a so-called Stokes interview — a fun game show where the possible prizes includes jail and deportation.

As for green card marriages, this friendly brochure from ICE says it all…

)

Even for people like me who have always played by American immigration rules, the path to permanent residency is more like a mine field. According to a 2013 study by the Migration Policy Institute, the backlog to process the applications of those who have already been found eligible for a US visa is 19 years.

Reader, I beat the odds! Early last year, after eight years navigating various visas (including several so-called ‘extraordinary ability’ visas), I was finally deemed eligible – by dint of a decade of professional achievements – to apply for my green card. My approval notice for that first stage arrived when Sarah and I were on a plane back from New York. “Welcome home!” wrote my lawyer.

[perfectpullquote align=”left”]This is absolutely still the same America I fell in love with a decade ago.[/perfectpullquote]

The feeling of joy and relief was incredible, and lasted for perhaps ten minutes before it sunk in what came next.

What came next began with a medical: A full examination and barrage of blood tests by a government-certified physician. I was prodded, jabbed, cupped and jabbed again. I was tested for tuberculosis, various strains of syphilis and gonorrhea and even leprosy. Leprosy! The doctor was also required to assess my mental health: Whether I showed any signs of addiction or of posing a danger to myself or others. As the doctor pointed out as he administered the gonorrhea test, “You’ve been here for eight years, if this comes back positive then you got it from an American.” (It didn’t.)

Humiliating? Certainly. But it’s worth reiterating how incredibly lucky I was to even get to that stage: Even once you’ve been approved for a green card, the employment-based immigration system operates on national quotas.  As a Brit, there were sufficient available green cards for my application to continue immediately. According to the (ugh) Cato Institute, a skilled applicant from, say, India might wait up to 150 years for a green card to be available. 150 years before they can even take the STD and psycho tests.

The medical having been completed and the results mailed to USCIS in a sealed envelope (to prevent me, not thieves, from opening it), I was then required to have my fingerprints taken for a full FBI criminal background check. I also had to obtain and submit my full British police record; a so-called subject access request which reveals every crumb of information the British police might hold on me. This includes any arrests, even if no charges resulted, and any expunged cautions, warnings or (of course) convictions. There is no such thing as “expunged” when it comes to US immigration law.

Even with a clean record, US law allows the immigration service to decide that an applicant has ‘admitted’ to a crime, even if they’ve never been formally charged (this is why celebrities who have talked about taking drugs often have problems getting even a temporary visa, let alone a green card.)

Then there’s the question of thought crimes. Late last year, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration will soon start collecting social media posts by immigrants and green card holders.

Green card holders and naturalized citizens will also have their social media information collected, with the data becoming part of their immigration file. It was unclear whether the monitoring would take place only in the application process or could continue afterward.

Never have I been so pleased to have quit Twitter and Facebook.

With the background checks underway, the real waiting began. Months and months of waiting during which time I was barred from traveling outside the country.

That’s another fun quirk of the immigration system, which makes applying for a green card entirely impractical for all but the most hardy applicants (and those with very understanding bosses): Green card applicants already inside the US are banned from traveling overseas while their applications are being adjudicated. Unless they have an existing work visa they are also barred from having a job, even if their employer is sponsoring their green card.  Breaking that rule could result in deportation, and that 3-10 year ban from the US.

I was fortunate to already have an 01 visa which allowed me to keep working, but only for a single named company. I couldn’t write a quick post for Pando, freelance for a newspaper or magazine, or even set up a Patreon without running afoul of immigration law and risking my application being denied.

On travel, the USCIS warnings were clear: No international travel. Even crossing the border into Canada or Mexico would result in my application being considered abandoned and my being forced to start the whole process again.

The good news: Applicants can apply for so-called “advance parole” which allows them to travel while they wait for their interview. They can also request a temporary “employment authorization document.” According to USCIS, these documents are usually issued within 90 days. I applied for both, of course.

The bad news: USCIS is wrong. There is in fact a serious backlog in issuing advance parole and temporary employment authorization cards. Five or six months is more like the norm. And then there’s a printing backlog – as much as a month – for the cards themselves. That’s seven months where applicants are unable to travel, and (in many cases) unable to earn a wage.

Here again I was lucky to have an existing work visa. But in the past twelve months, I’ve had to miss countless important business trips and been absent for numerous huge family milestones back in the UK. Worst of all, late last year, a close family member was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo surgery. My pending green card application barred me from traveling to visit her in hospital (Generously, USCIS would have allowed me to travel on an emergency one-off advance parole had she died. But that would have caused my existing application for parole to be automatically cancelled.)

So I sat, and I waited, and I tried my best to offer love and support via Skype – again incredibly aware of how lucky I was compared to others. I also watched in horror as Trump threatened to make more changes to the immigration system: To restrict the number of skilled immigrants, even to “close up” the entire country. I hoped and prayed that, with an arbitrary stroke of his Sharpie, the President didn’t render me homeless and unemployed just to appease his base. I laughed every time he insisted that he was pro ‘skilled immigration’ and clenched my fists at every new mention of ‘the line.’ This, after all, is the president who in his first week of office issued an illegal order to shut down the border, even to green card holders.

[perfectpullquote align=”right”]A skilled applicant from, say, India might wait up to 150 years for a card to be available.[/perfectpullquote]

Finally, almost twelve months after my initial green card application, having apparently convinced the USCIS that I posed no health or criminal threat to the United States, I was able to progress to stage three: The in-person interview.

It used to be that ‘extraordinary ability’ (EB-1) applicants didn’t need a green card interview. It was assumed that those with extraordinary ability had already been sufficiently vetted and were unlikely to be sleeper terrorists. Interviews were reserved for those applying for their green card after marrying an American, to help detect fake marriages. Then, in August of last year, the Trump administration suddenly changed the rules: From October 2017, every green card applicant would have to undergo an in-person interview, under oath.

You can imagine the pressure this put on an already underfunded system. Almost overnight, average green card processing times skyrocketed.

My interview took place last month in San Francisco at the local USCIS field office. It began with me being sworn in: My answers were all given under oath, under penalty of perjury. One lie, or the appearance of one, and it was off to Guantanamo. Or probably London.

I was asked whether I was or had ever been a communist. Whether I had ever been a drug dealer, or paid for sex. Had I ever been a member of a political group of any kind? The questions went on and on– a string of nos, with just the occasional yes thrown in to make sure I was paying attention. All I could think as the interview progressed was how difficult it would be for someone who didn’t speak native English to answer questions like this one from the standard application questionnaire…

Are you engaged in or, upon your entry into the United States, do you intend to engage in any activity that could have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States?

Could I answer that question in French? Or German? (And, by the way, how would Donald Trump answer it in English? By my reading, pretty much every answer the President gave this week at the Putin press conference would render him inadmissible to the United States.)

The q&a complete, the officer looked over my medical results, and examined my personal and professional history for the hundred and fiftieth time before finally, wonderfully…

…nah. I’m just kidding. More waiting.

The agent explained that she was ready to make a recommendation (she didn’t say what that would be) but it had to be approved by a supervisor. “How long might that take?” I asked as politely as I possibly could.

“It could be a couple days,” the examiner responded. “Or as a much as six months. ” (For what it’s worth, the Internet is full of stories of people who waited a year or more for a final verdict, before finally being denied.)

I should make clear at this point that the officer who interviewed me was incredibly helpful and friendly. I have no idea if my experience would have been so pleasant if I were from, say, Pakistan (the Internet is full of those horror stories too) but in the case of that particular officer at that particular field office I believe it would. In fact everyone in the San Francisco office was unfailingly kind and efficient — a new (almost) immigrant couldn’t wish for a better (potential) welcome. I obviously can’t speak for any of those USCIS workers in San Francisco, but I would guess they’re almost as frustrated as I am at how horrendously inefficient and occasionally cruel the immigration system has become. None of them seemed like someone who enjoyed ruining lives.

In the event, I received my electronic approval notification last week, while I was backstage at a Microsoft event in Seattle: The same day that Donald Trump was trying to alienate the US from its NATO allies and right before he traveled to the UK to destroy the special relationship. The notice said my green card would arrive in the mail in a few days. And so it did.

I’m finally home.

And yet. Even though the past ten years have made me something of an expert in how screwed up the immigration system has become, this is the first time I’ve felt even remotely comfortable writing about it. In that time I’ve written openly about my former alcoholism, my romantic and professional disasters and any number of other things which most people would consider difficult to discuss. But immigration: No way.

That should tell you everything you need to know about how terrifying and uncertain it was to be an alien in Bush or Obama’s America, let alone Trump’s. Even for someone as insanely privileged as me  – white, British, with access to the best lawyers and practically unlimited capital – the risk of drawing the negative attention of USCIS was simply too great. No wonder most immigrants I know who have successfully navigated the system don’t want to talk publicly about how they did it.

Which leaves the debate to politicians and natural born Americans, most of whom will ever have any first hand experience of the policies they’re arguing about. They can talk about joining the back of the line, or the importance of skilled vs unskilled immigration, or the dangers of “chain migration” safe in the knowledge that they will never, ever be affected by the laws they ultimately pass. It’s hard to think of another piece of critical domestic or foreign policy where that’s the case.

This is the point where I’m supposed to offer my solution. The truth is, though, the immigration debate is so divorced from reality right now that it’s hard to believe there’s anything any of us can do or say to fix it. A good first step is to support the work of groups like Define American (and countless others) who are working to improve the lives of immigrants who don’t have the advantages I have. For a longer term fix, I’ve heard good things about voting in the midterms (something I’m still not eligible to do. When it comes to participating in American democracy, I still have roughly the same rights as my cats — and Toodles, Barracuda and Jasmine don’t have to pay taxes.)

Here’s what I do know: It has never been more important to speak out in defense of immigrants, minorities, women’s rights, and a thousand other subjects, not to mention American democracy itself. The next couple of years are going to be absolutely critical for everyone who calls America home.

I’m proud to officially, and finally, count myself among them.

Trop dure, la vie

Trop dure, la vie

Hello from Montego Bay airport, where Sarah and I are waiting to board our flight back to San Francisco, via Miami.

After a week of total isolation on the South side of the island, this airport – engineered, it seems, to cater entirely to the whims of American tourists – is a sharp jolt back to reality. We’re about to have lunch, if only we can choose between the traditional Jamaican delights of Domino’s Pizza, Nathan’s hotdogs and Wendy’s. Yah mon. 

Still, Treasure Beach was an unadulterated joy. Our hotel – Jake’s – was right on the beach, and our room somehow managed to skip the sand entirely and perch right on the ocean. Every morning we awoke to the sound of lapping waves, then strolled out to an hour an a half of vinyasa yoga, before a breakfast of fruit and banana pancakes to fortify us for a few hours of work before lunch, more yoga and dinner.

I say “work,” but it’s hard to describe even the most arduous PowerPoint wrangling and calls with lawyers as “work” when it’s done from a Adirondack chair, crabs nipping at the wage-slave’s toes. Trop dure, la vie as my French tutor put it when I explained why I couldn’t make it to class this week.

Jamaica was precisely as I had always imagined it. The food – especially when we left the hotel to explore local hole-in-the-wall cafes and beachside huts – took me back to my time spent living in South London when I’d regularly hop on the tube to Brixton for jerk chicken, rice and peas. This, I assumed, was everyone else’s imagining of Jamaica too: the food, reggae and dancehall, weed, Yardies…  

Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that Americans seem have a totally different impression of the country. Pretty much everyone we told we were going to Jamaica, including our Lyft driver on the way to SFO, responded in the same way…

 “Oh, nice. Sandals?”

Sure enough, on the flight almost all of our fellow passengers were excitedly clutching their Sandals brochures or, in one case, a wedding dress garment bag imprinted with the thick italicized logo of the historically homophobic resort chain. Kudos, I suppose, to Sandals for successfully rebranding an entire Caribbean nation as a cozy gated community for rich white people. But still.

Learning to escape: Notes from Magic LIVE (Pt II)

Learning to escape: Notes from Magic LIVE (Pt II)

Previously: Part One, Desperately seeking escapism

My first foray into entrepreneurship was at age 15 when I began importing magic tricks and other stage props from America to sell, by mail order, in the UK.

At the peak of my garage empire I had maybe a thousand customers, most of whom would send long letters with their cheques (almost always cheques, this being a million years ago), explaining how they planned to use their new props, and sometimes asking my advice on what they should buy next.

My favourite notes, though, came from the non-professional magicians: Those for whom magic was a hobby, not a job. The teacher who used close-up magic in his high school history classes, the doctor who entertained young cancer patients with bedside illusions, the well-known musician who would hide away on his tour bus, practicing false cuts and complicated coin manipulations while his bandmates partied with groupies.

And then there was Mr O’Doyle. Mr O’Doyle (not his real name, but near enough) was an enigma – which, in a customer base made entirely of magicians, was really saying something. Mr O’Doyle didn’t pay by cheque. Rather, he would send large brown envelopes, stuffed with banknotes. Hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds at a time — sent through regular, unregistered, uninsured mail. And tucked inside this pile of cash was always a handwritten wish list — a list which usually bore no relation to items I had actually advertised for sale. Mr O’Doyle , it seemed, had absolute faith in a) the British postal system b) my ability to obtain the various decks of cards, little wooden boxes and obscure instructional books he required and c) his own ability to estimate the cost of those items.

Given the amount Mr O’Doyle spent every month, I assumed he was a very successful professional performer: Perhaps even a celebrity TV illusionist, buying under a pseudonym. How else to explain his seemingly unlimited budget, and his insatiable hunger for new miracles?

Finally, after about six months of having Mr O’Doyle as a customer I plucked up the courage to call him on the telephone — partly out of curiosity and partly because my bank manager had insisted I find out more about the mysterious Irishman who paid only in cash (again, these were different times.) After about a thousand rings, the phone was answered by a character straight out of Samuel Beckett who, for the next half hour or so, told me the story of his life in magic.

Mr O’Doyle, it turned out, was retired and lived alone in a house miles from anywhere. For him, magic was a way to escape even further from the realities of the world and a way to occupy and challenge his mind, in the same ways others read books or complete crossword puzzles. The more complicated the sleight of hand required, the better. And, like most readers or puzzlers, Mr O’Doyle could see no benefit in performing his hobby on stage. He had literally never performed for an audience.

At the time, I found this revelation astounding: My biggest customer – a man who spent more on magic tricks each week than most other magicians did in a year and who, it became clear, practiced morning noon and night, did so only for the mental challenge. Only for himself.

I lost touch with Mr O’Doyle after I closed my business and went to law school. In the intervening years, I haven’t thought much about him, except when pondering some similar example of obsession: A writer with no ambitions to be published, a gifted singer who performs only in the shower, a comedian who refuses to use Twitter.

But then, this past week, Mr O’Doyle popped back into my brain during my trip to Magic LIVE in Las Vegas.  On Sunday night, I attended a screening of “Gambler’s Balad”, a new short documentary by Penn Jillette and Johnny Thompson. You’ll recognize Penn Jillette’s name, of course, but Johnny Thompson is less well known — a magician’s magician. Although a accomplished performer in his own right, Thompson spends most of his time working as an inventor of tricks and illusions for other magicians (including, of course, Penn and Teller.)

Gambler’s Balad is, essentially, a very long card trick, set to a poem about gambling. The poem was written in 1971 by Milan Bulovic with Thompson fitting the trick to the story after the fact.  I don’t mean to diminish the skill required to perform Gambler’s Ballad when I say it’s not a particularly exciting thing to watch. In fact, if you’re not a magician – and so don’t recognize the incredible sleight of hand employed – you might even find it (gasp) boring. In many ways it’s the card equivalent of Penn and Teller’s famous Principles of Sleight of Hand routine…

Still, the film I watched on Sunday night wasn’t really about the Gambler’s Ballad trick. Rather it was about Penn Jillette’s attempts to learn it, so he could perform it side by side – live on stage – with his dear friend Thompson.

As Jillette explains:

“Johnny Thompson is a guiding force in my professional and personal life. For 40 years he has inspired, conspired, corrected, inflected, improved footnoted, fixed up, calmed down, pumped up, inspected, protected, pushed, culled and validated my attempts in showbiz. In my personal life he’s a role model of integrity, power, strength, joy, loyalty and love. Johnny is always there for me. Johnny helps me get closer to the me I want to be

A couple of years ago I wanted to learn more about Johnny than all I’ve learned from being his friends and coworker. It was time for me to learn something that was pure Johnny.”

Jillette goes on to explain that he’s not a great sleight of hand artist (“Johnny has said I’ve gotten further with three simple magic moves than anyone in showbiz history.”) He knew that learning Gambler’s Ballad would likely take him a long time, and for very little public reward (he can hardly add it to his stage show alongside the bullet catch.) But none of that was the reason Jillette wanted to spend almost a year mastering a not very exciting card trick. He wanted to master it as a tribute to Johnny Thompson; and he wanted to learn it because it was going to be a real challenge.

In my first dispatch from Magic LIVE, I explained that I’d come to the convention to try to find some escape from the craziness of Trump World and the Silicon Valley swamp. It’s hard to imagine a sharper contrast to those worlds than Penn Jillette learning the Gamber’s Ballad: Someone who can (and does) make millions on a public stage deciding instead to sit down and shut up, to look inwards, to challenge himself to do something incredibly difficult, and all in tribute to the loyal friend who taught him lessons in integrity and love. Compare that to a know-nothing reality TV star, screaming his ignorance and hate on Twitter. Or to the Silicon Valley bro willing to sacrifice loyalty, friendship and any semblance of decency in pursuit of a multi-billion dollar payday.

(The fact that Jillette, like so many of those tech bros, is a proud libertarian serves only to underscore the contrast. Ideology doesn’t always have to be an excuse for acting like a selfish asshole.)

What Mr O’Doyle already had figured out by the early 90s has taken me slightly longer to understand: There’s no escapism like learning something new and difficult, just for the satisfaction of mastering it. Moreover, in Trump’s America, the acquisition of knowledge as a way to bring yourself closer to your fellow man isn’t just an act of love, but of resistance.

Desperately seeking escapism: Notes from Magic LIVE (Pt I)

Desperately seeking escapism: Notes from Magic LIVE (Pt I)

Monday. The Orleans Hotel, Las Vegas NV.

It’s a little after 11pm and a white man with a shaved head is reloading his crossbow. Six or seven feet away, a woman dressed in black is holding up a flower, inches from her face. The man takes aim. Several audience members lift their iphones to neck-level, hoping not to be spotted.

About that audience: There are, by my count, at least as many fedoras or other non-baseball hats as there are women. Comfortably three times as many male ponytails as non-white faces.

A couple of guys behind me are talking loudly about a card trick. They know the woman will almost certainly survive. This is, after all, a magicians’ convention — where everyone and everything is always fine in the end.

* * *

I mention all of this – the stark gender and race imbalance, the imperilled leather clad female “assistant” – not to judge, or mock, or even shame, the attendees of this week’s “Magic Live” convention in Vegas. At times like this, it’s important to pick one’s targets carefully, and magicians hardly rank in the top million when it comes to threats to American democracy.

Rather I mention it to explain my own intense discomfort at attending such a dazzlingly white, almost exclusively male event on this of all weeks.

A few months ago, I revisted that old thought experiment about what you or I might have done to stop the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. “Whatever you’re doing today,” I wrote. “That’s what you’d have done.”

While Silicon Valley continues to struggle with the fallout from James Damore’s male supremacist manifesto, and his subsequent embrace by alt-Nazis… As torch-bearing fascists march on American cities and our leaders preach hatred and intolerance and brave protesters are being beaten and mowed down by cars…. I’m in Las Vegas, watching a dude firing a crossbow at a woman, surrounded by members of one of the few industries less diverse than tech.

So, what the David Copperfuck am I doing here?

The direct answer to that question lies a quarter century in my past when, like so many other pre-teenagers with similar chromosomes and melanin levels, I decided to learn magic. On my 11th or 12th birthday, I’d watched awestruck as a street magician made a small pile of coins appear and disappear in front of my eyes. I practiced that trick till I was blue in the fingers, before working my way through most of Mark Wilson’s Complete Course In Magic. Finally, around age 15, I turned my hobby into a bedroom business: Importing special playing cards and other small magical apparatus from America to resell by mail order to magicians in the UK.

It was around about the same time that I discovered Magic Magazine, which was exactly what it sounds like — a monthly glossy magazine for magicians, published in Las Vegas, Nevada (which in those days might as well have been the moon.) I wrote a letter to the publisher, not bothering to mention that I was still a child, and soon became an official UK distributor for the magazine.

Fast forward an entire lifetime and, apart from the odd coin behind the ear miracle for Eli or Evie, my days as a magician are long behind me. But, still, time couldn’t entirely dull the pang of sadness when, a couple of months ago, I noticed a small news item on some media website or other announcing that Magic Magazine, like so many other print magazines, had published its final issue.

And then this kicker: To sign off in style, Magic would be hosting two final installments of its big annual conference — Magic LIVE! — one in 2017 and another in 2018, both in Las Vegas.

So that’s what brought me to the Orleans this week, officially: Nostalgia. Curiosity. A desire to pay my respects to a publication that gave my awkward teenage self his first physical connection to America and, of course, Las Vegas.  Never mind the fact that it also helped him earn the money to buy his first car.

In truth, though, I also came to Magic Live looking for something else. Perhaps even a miracle.

I’ve written before about the devastating effect the tech industry has had on the magic industry. Not just because YouTube has made it easier to expose the method behind a trick, or because miniaturisation has rendered close-up miracles commonplace — but, more fundamentally, because technology like smartphones and apps have provided a better, cooler way for nerdy kids (like I was) to impress their friends. And unlike a career in magic, a career in building cool tech toys can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. I can think of several tech entrepreneurs who used to be magicians — Aaron Levie, Tony Hsieh — but very few who made the journey in the opposite direction.

And yet. What technology still struggles to replace is the pure escapism that magic provides. A good magic trick — that is, a really good magic trick – can transport you, even if just for a second, to a world in which miracles really are possible. One where there are no problems that can’t be solved at the snap of a finger, nothing that is broken that can’t be instantly repaired, nothing lost that can’t be recovered. That sounds cheesy, and it is, but it also stands in stark contrast to the technology industry which seems determined to pursue a path of disruption, destruction and unfiltered, uncensored ugly reality.

Like most people who value their sanity, I’ve spent the past few months desperately trying to balance my obsessive CNN watching and news site reading with… pretty much any kind of healthy escapism. I’ve devoured novels, I’ve binged watched TV shows, I’ve listened to music and I’ve spent hours walking and cycling and trying – in vain – to put as much distance between myself and reality.

And so when I saw that small mention of the Magic Live convention it might as well have been a flashing neon sign: ESCAPISM GUARANTEED.

Of course I knew, even as I paid the $400 registration fee, that I was setting myself up for disappointment. Trying to recover the sense of wonder – of safety and innocence and un-Nazi-ness — I remember from my early teens was always going to be an old fool’s errand. And by the time I landed in Vegas — just hours after the horrific events in Charlottesville — it started to feel like full-blown dereliction of civic duty to be huddled in a Las Vegas casino with a thousand or so white dudes, hiding away from reality, at a time when every one of us should be running towards the fight.

That guilt only intensified as I stood in the registration line, surrounded by the fedoras and the hawaiian shirts and the cellphone holsters; every dorky white male cliche packed into a single conference room. Again, I say that not to judge: I was standing in the exact same line, no less excited by the prospect of seeing slight of hand stars like Johnny Thompson or David Williamson or – be still my teenage heart — Richard Turner.

It’s easy, living in Silicon Valley, or indeed on Twitter, to assume that the entire world has become more sensitive to issues of gender or race. Twenty minutes at Magic Live will assure you that isn’t so. Never mind the jarring dearth of women or people of color, but I’d defy even the most tone-deaf tech worker not to at least raise an eyebrow at the persistent objectification of female “assistants” or the moment one audience member let out an honest-to-god wolf whistle when a rare female attendee was invited on stage to assist with a card trick.

As if the role of women in magic – and the establishment’s blindness to it – weren’t already clear enough. Here’s how conference organizer Stan Allen introduces Magic Live’s official program…

A Note of Awareness:

Just about four months ago, two magicians approached me suggesting we open up a conversation about women in magic at this year’s convention. The two magicians happened to be women in magic, both well known, At first, I listened politely but not at all intrigued. And then everything changed.

One of the ladies casually mentioned that she tries not to go to the Magic Castle by herself. Wait you’re a member. You’re a performing member. Still, when she’s alone she just doesn’t feel comfortable at the clubhouse… at her clubhouse. She added that it was the same at local club meetings and magic conventions.

The more women I talked to, the more it dawned on me that magic, as a community is not quite the welcoming and nurturuing envitronment I thought it was.

Well holy shit, Stan, that’s quite the “note of awareness.”

Recall, this is the man who, for 25 years, served as editor of Magic Magazine. It has apparently taken a quarter century – and direct intervention by two “well known” women – to make him realize something that was glaringly obvious from standing in the registration line, or hearing that first wolf-whistle.

Still, at least Allen got there in the end. At least he was able to add a panel on gender in magic to this year’s conference, right?

Wrong.

There is no such panel; no formal programming whatsoever dealing with gender, race, diversity or any other glaring reason why more than 50% of the population might feel excluded from this already struggling art form and industry.

Instead, Allen simply invites attendees to “Ask women in your local club, or women at this convention. Find out if they do feel uncomfortable, and if so why?”

…because nothing will make a female attendee more comfortable than a dude in a fedora and a hawaiian shirt marching up to her and asking why she feels uncomfortable.

“Next year at MAGIC Live, I will be inviting some women and men to talk about how things have changed over the year.”

That outta fix it.

And yet.

For every moment during those first few hours at Magic Live that made me feel certain I’d made a terrible mistake in coming, there was an equal and opposite moment that sucked me back in. Some of those moments were small…

After collecting my registration badge and official conference t-shirt, I joined my fellow attendees at my first official session — the so called “Close-Up Experience”. Surrounded on three sides by an audience of his peers, a magician by the name of Garrett Thomas reminded me of everything I used to love about watching and performing magic as he made a spectator’s drivers license disappear and then reappear inside his own wallet. Then the wallet itself vanished – seemingly into thin air – leaving behind just the ID. It’s hard to render the impact of that, or any, magic trick in print, suffice to say there were audible gasps, even from the wizened old wizards in the crowd. Similar noises were prompted by South Korea’s Yu Ho-Jin’s stunning playing card manipulations.

Then, a few minutes into the show, another audience volunteer, seated alongside the performer, casually – and without any indication he was making a statement – removed his overshirt to reveal a t-shirt bearing a cartoon of a jailed Donald Trump and the slogan “Lock Him Up.” For a second, on the giant screens magnifying the performance, unreality and reality were captured in a single shot. Escapism vs Donald Trump in a jail cell.

Other moments were more plainly monumental…

Later on Monday afternoon, in the midst of a general programme of presentations about how to get paid better and how to combat YouTube critics (my answer: be glad you’re a magician, dude, and “you suck” is the worst thing anyone will ever say to you on social media), a speaker was introduced by the name of Abbey Goldrake. A promotional video rolled: Goldrake swallowing swords and dancing, and eating fire under her stage name of Viola LaLa Mia. So far, so Magic Live.

But then the video ended and a spotlight illuminated Goldrake, seated downstage in a simple black wheelchair.  Goldrake explained that, two years earlier, while performing a levitation illusion that should not have been in the least bit dangerous, a technical fault sent her plummeting several feet to the ground. The C3 and C4 vertebrae in her neck were broken and doctors insisted she would never breath again without the use of a tube. Just the fact that she was sitting in front of us, clearly breathing and talking, was enough to put every other magic trick at the conference to shame.

For the next thirty minutes, Goldrake told the story of how she proved those doctors wrong. How in a ludicrously short time she not only learned to breathe again, but then to move her toes, then her fingers and finally her legs.

The presentation ended with Goldrake urging the audience not prioritize career over “taking the occasional side road” — before rising to her feet and walking off stage under her own power. The audience rose too, in a sustained standing ovation.  When I was 14 years old, I sat in the front row of Earls Court Arena with my dad and watched David Copperfield fly: Even with the benefit of nostalgia, the moment had absolutely nothing on watching Abbey Goldrake stand up from that chair.

The next presentation was an illusionist who complained that YouTube spoilers were ruining his expensive tricks. “For the cost of this one illusion, I could have bought a pretty nice Tesla,” he joked.

* * * *

I walked out of the crossbow act, before the show had ended. Call me a triggered snowflake but that particular unreality – a leather-clad woman risking her life so a skin-headed man can garner applause from other men – was just a bit too real, a mite too on the nose.

Back in my hotel room, I turned on the television for the first time in almost 24 hours. Donald Trump apparently had finally, grudgingly, pretended to denounce white nationalism. Jeff Sessions was promising a civil rights investigation. Reality as unreality, with too much of both.

There’s no getting around the fact that there are few things less important than Magic Live and few groups less worthy of your attention this week than a thousand dudes swapping tips on how to force cards or palm coins. The escapism offered by Garrett Thomas or even the inspiration of Abbey Goldrake is no match for the horrifying reality of neo nazis on the march. I can talk about escapism, or a search for deeper meaning, but I’m still the guy reviewing a punch and judy show while across town the forces are massing for Kristallnacht.

But if there’s escapism to be found here – some connection to the simplicity of my half-remembered teenage years, before social media and tech bros and President Trump and the alt-right  — I remain determined to find it. Per Rupert Brooke…

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?

And Certainty? and Quiet kind?

Deep meadows yet, for to forget

The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

I’ll have more to share in a couple of days. But now I have to run to the first session of day two: A presentation by a reknowned gambling expert named Darwin Ortiz.

Its title: Creating drama through conflict.

Next: Part II

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part VIII: Jamses

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part VIII: Jamses

Matthew Dupuy, Andrew Mueller, James Kotecki, Leo Whetter: The two weeks around July 17th 2012 saw all of them make their NSFWCORP debut. Some, like James Kotecki, would become regular fixtures on the site. Others… wouldn’t.

I obviously had a good feeling about James, who became “famous” as a college student when he conducted interviews with presidential candidates in his dorm room and by 2012 was hosting a video show on The Daily (Murdoch’s ill-fated tablet tabloid) — because I invited him to come on the July 16th episode of NSFWLIVE to talk about his first piece, “Quit Like Mitt”…

Dear Readers,

First of all, thank you for welcoming me so warmly to the Not Safe For Work Corporation.

Secondly, I hereby announce my future retirement from the Not Safe for Work Corporation, effective today. Be assured I will continue to write articles for this publication and to otherwise discharge all of my duties as a proud member of the NSFWCORP family. But if anyone asks, I was never really here. Furthermore: who are you people? I’ve never seen you before (or since) in my life.

If the above sounds disingenuous at best, fraudulent at worst, please know that it isn’t. In 2002, Bain Capital CEO Mitt Romney retired retroactively from that company, with a stated departure date of February 1999. Romney was thus absolved of responsibility for Bain’s alleged outsourcing practices during the intervening period.

Neat.

With my resignation, I’m pushing the Mitt-velope still further. By announcing my retroactive departure date right off the bat, I’m automatically absolved of everything I do here, including all of the pieces I’m about to write. Pieces like:

  • “Abstinence is FABstinence”
  • “Why I Love ‘Muskrat Love’: The Unironic Truth”
  • “Me and My Hangnail”
  • “This Article Was Outsourced to Cambodian Laborers (Please Pay Us This Time)”
  • “Is America’s Love Affair With Ceilings Finally Over?”

Despite what my byline and financial records may indicate, legally I will be no more responsible for these travesties of journalism than the Republican presumptive presidential nominee is culpable for Bain Capital’s alleged outsourcing of tens of thousands of American jobs to Australia, Asia and Europe.

In a curious twist, Factcheck.org has investigated the outsourcing claims, subsequently repeated by the Obama campaign, and has found no evidence to support them. It appears, then, that Mitt Romney is actually trying to retroactively avoid responsibility for things his company (not his company) did not do while he was running (not running) it. Similarly, my retroactive retirement renders me blameless for the following soon-to-be-widely-reported NSFWCORP scandals of which Factcheck.org will also hopefully be unable to find supporting evidence…

  • Shirtless Thursdays
  • The Cryogenic Incarceration and Accidental Thawing of Editor-in-Chief Paul Carr
  • Goat -gate
  • Talk Like a Xenophobic Muppet Day

Thank you again for this wonderful opportunity. I am extremely excited to join NSFWCORP and simultaneously to avoid all accountability for my actions.

Sincerely,

James Kotecki

Not Safe For Work Corporation 2012 – 2012

PS: For the avoidance of doubt, this resignation letter was absolutely not written by any sweatshop Cambodians. But if it were, NSFWCORP should probably consider giving them a significant raise, lest they decide to tip off Romenesko as to their plight. “I” am just saying.

You can read a transcript of the episode here, or listen to the whole thing below.

The following night we were joined by another James, James Aylett to talk about the imminent London Olympics….

Reading back the transcript of that show, I’m reminded that it rained in Vegas that week. In fact there were particularly exciting lightning storms…

Josh: Yeah. It’s been raining a little bit. It’s mostly just been surly and threatening to rain.

Paul: On Sunday night there was an amazing lightning storm. It was great to see. I was enjoying watching the helicopters still flying around in the lightning waiting for one of them to be dead.

Josh: Yeah. This doesn’t seem like a real good idea.

Paul: It seems like a terrible idea. I don’t understand in any way electricity and lightning or whatever else. All I know is if I rode a helicopter I wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a lightning storm.

Josh: Yeah. That sounds to me, at this advanced stage in my life …

Paul: There are tall buildings here. So they were quite low down. They flew over the building we’re in, one of them, and there was lightning going on. I thought, “Any minute now it’s coming through the window.”

Then on July 20th, right after I’d hopped on yet another plane for yet another meeting in San Francisco, we had our first experience in covering actually breaking (and horrific) news. The morning of July 20th 2012 was the day when a man the world would later know to be James Holmes walked into a Colorado movie theater and started shooting. A few hours later, Jason Heller – live from his home in Colorado – filed a piece that began thus…

Denver is a killer city.

If only it weren’t so. Most cities with penchants for murder at least have the decency to indulge in that bloodlust in a systematic, incremental way. You know, a homeless guy here, an unfaithful girlfriend there.

Denver binges.

This morning at 12:39, a man dressed in black and wearing a gasmask entered a movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” He threw canisters that began to smoke, which some eyewitnesses say they thought was a joke or a publicity stunt.

But it wasn’t a joke, or a Joker. It was sick craven worthless fuck who pulled out a gun and started shooting into the audience.

As of this writing, 12 are confirmed dead. Dozens more have been injured. Seeing as how the film just opened, the theater was packed. There were children in attendance. Some of them dressed as Batman.

You know. Batman. The guy who, as a boy, sees his parents shot and killed in front of him.

It’s safe to assume that any kids who may have witnessed their parent’s death this morning will not grow up to be superheroes. They will not deal with their trauma by putting on a mask and living in a cave.

Or maybe, in their own way, they will.

“The Dark Knight Rises” — indeed, all of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy — is about a city living in fear. What does fear do to us? What does it engender? How is it personified? That city is supposed to be Gotham.

Now it is Denver.

Again.

Denver has been here before. Thirteen years ago, two students at Columbine High School in the nearby suburb of Littleton performed a similar act of sick-craven-worthless-fuck-ism. This morning, I watched Denver’s TV news crews attempt to gather information and make sense of the aftermath. Distraught and exhausted, they did (and are doing) a valiant job. After all, they have experience at this sort of thing.

I make fun of these news crews all the time. Hell, I make fun of Denver all the time. I’ve lived here for almost 30 years, yet I sometimes feel like an outsider. As the product of bitter, cynical, blue-collar New England stock, this sunny, cheery, prosperous mountain town makes me itch.

But I stay here, for a reason. Honestly, it’s a beautiful city. Denverites are among the warmest, most generous, and least pretentious you will ever meet. Believe it or not, it even has a relatively low murder rate.

Later in the day, from my hotel room in San Francisco, as I watched the coverage unfold, I wrote this, my first “real” piece for NSFWCORP

The visual grammar of covering domestic mass-murder is well-established: blonde lady at a desk, authentic-reporter-looking correspondents on the ground, shaken witnesses giving sobbing testimony. Professional reporters and amateur sources, with the former tasked with making sense of the latter.

But not this time. This time, something jarred.

It took watching two or three interviews, with different young witnesses, to realize what the hell was going on. The slickness, the sound bites, the neat closing summary: These people weren’t describing the tragedy, they were reviewing it.

(You can read the whole thing here)

Then on the July 23rd episode of NSFWLIVE (transcript), Jason joined Josh and I to talk more about his piece and Denver’s reaction to the shooting…

Colorado does have the death penalty. It’s interesting, though. On Saturday, I was watching the local news. This isn’t something that you’ve seen on the national news. There was a local newscaster speaking to a local attorney being interviewed about what might come in this case against James Holmes. This attorney was pretty gleefully talking about, “Oh, yes! We absolutely do have the death penalty. This is obviously the type of case that the death penalty would be sought on something like this.”

The thing is, we have not executed anyone in Colorado since 1997, and it’s the only execution that has happened in the State of Colorado since the ’70s, when the death penalty was re-instituted in the state. We’re not like Texas. Here in Colorado, it’s not something that’s done in the dozens at wholesale.

It’s actually going to be very interesting to see how this plays out legally. I really don’t see how they’re not going to push for the death penalty.

Looking back now, apart from being reminded at how powerful Jason’s writing on the subject was, I also see foreshadowing of a later version of NSFWCORP: The Ames-Levine-Dolan era when for days on end we’d drop any semblance of jokes in favor of devastatingly great writing about unimaginably horrific subjects. I guess it was always there, under the surface — but it’s jarring to see it now alongside the much more deliberately funny material from Kotecki and others.

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part VII: July 9th 2012 – 16th 2012

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part VII: July 9th 2012 – 16th 2012

July 9th 2012 – 16th 2012

539.

That’s now many people signed up for paid NSFWCORP subscribers in the first week we were open for business. Given more than 2000 people already had six month sponsored subscriptions that number delighted us. 500 people were willing to trust $3 a month (we had no annual plan) to our weird little comedy magazine. 10% of the 5000 subscribers we needed to be profitable.

It’s impossible to say how much of that initial success was down to the official arrival of Leigh Cowart as a NSFWCORP contributor a few days ealier. Leigh’s first piece was entitled “New Study Finds Breast Size Linked To Bounciness…”

Their findings, which surely must have come as a shock to all involved, concluded that the motion of bare breasts increased significantly with regard to cup size. That’s right, big ole’ ripe-for-motorboatin’ honkers bounce more than those naughty little alt grrrl tits you can fit in your mouth. The study also found that science can effectively predict just how bouncy that naked titty would be based on the overall size of said bosom.

In a tragic twist, this comes more than a decade too late for the seminal bouncy boobie television drama, “Baywatch,” which would have undoubtedly benefited from the knowledge that larger and totally bare mammaries would have more effectively created the dynamic breast kinematics that served as the riveting plot line of each and every episode.

It’s a wonder it took us so long to appoint Leigh our Sex and Science Editor.

July 9th also saw the return of NSFWLIVE. And I quote…

Announcer: It’s Monday, July 9th, 2012, and you’re listening to NSFW Live with Paul Carr.

Paul Carr: We’ve been away a long time, Josh.

Josh: I don’t even remember how this Internet radio thing works.

Paul: [laughs] Fortunately, the rules are still being written, so no one does.

Josh: By the way, I think we need to come up with a really cool … like a personality thing, like on-air personalities. Like radio shows, like morning shows, we can be like P. Carr and the Weasel.

Paul: Dingo and the baby.

Josh: Dingo and the baby. Yeah, exactly. We need to come up with something …

Paul: Sound effects.

Josh: Yeah, really … [laughs] yeah.

Paul: I love that we’re rehashing a “Family Guy” joke at the top of our first proper show. This is great. This is starting really well. We’ll be onto “The Simpsons” by next week, and then quoting Oscar Wilde. All right. So yes, we’re back. This is the first post-launch episode of “Not Safe for Work Live.” This is really exciting.

The July 9th Episode also marked the first NSFWLIVE appearance of Senior Editor Mark Ames…

Transcript

Transcript

Btw, for all the writers we were hiring and the guests calling in to the show, at this point the NSFWCORP office still consisted on me and sometimes Josh (above) and Rosalie. We’d tape the NSFWLIVE shows in the afternoon and then josh would head home to edit them in his home studio for upload early the next morning. NSFWCORP’s news room was still confined to a Yammer account, where writers exchanged jokes, pitches stories and generally went about the business of journalism. At the time I saw no reason why everyone had to be in the same physical space.

That, of course, was just one of the many things I was wrong about.

In the middle of all this madness – July 13th 2012 – I had to get on another fucking plane, this time to LA, for the Elon Musk Pando Monthly. During that trip Sarah and I taped an in-person WITN in which I explained how we ended up using Stripe for our payments. File this under “things I had completely forgotten about NSFWCORP”: As I explain in the video, we built the beta version of our site with Paypal with the intention of moving to Braintree for launch. But during the launch, Sarah suggested we look at Stripe which seemed absolutely too good to be true. Three days later Josh had rebuilt the entire payment system using Stripe, describing it as “the most developer friendly API” he had ever seen.

(The video also reminded me that in the run up to our launch I also had another gigantic distraction: Half of my friends from London descended on Vegas for a seven day party. I was able to attend maybe two of those days, during which the Hard Rock Hotel attempted to charge more $40,000 to my credit card for two diet cokes. Turns out the waitress had tried to enter the card manually but had put part of the card number into the “amount” box.)

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part VI: It’s Alive!

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part VI: It’s Alive!

The pilot issue, published in May 2012, featured contributions from Mark Ames (“You Can’t Handle The Truth”), Jason Heller (“On A Raft With Taft”), Patrick Sauer (“This Is Why They Hate Us”), Sarah Bee and James Aylett (“That We Know Of”) and Nathan Pensky (“Walt Disney’s Head”), illustrations by Molly Crabapple, Hallie Bateman, PJ Perez, Molly Choma and the first ever appearance in NSFWCORP by Brad Jonas…

Most of the articles aren’t online, annoyingly, but there’s an ebook of the whole thing on Amazon.

The response to the pilot was, thank goodness, very positive – both from readers and investors. Mike Arrington sent a nice email (“this is awesome”), as did Tony Hsieh.

And yet. Amongst the positive feedback was plenty of helpful, critical stuff: Pleas for more jokes, an easier to use interface, that kind of stuff. The joke feedback struck a particular chord with me: The writing in the pilot was tremendous, but the overall package still lacked – something. There was nothing that made me think holy shit, I can’t believe I just read that in the way that reading old issues of Spy or Private Eye still does. To be clear: This was entirely on me. The writers and illustrators did exactly what I asked, and in many cases far more so. Thinking back now, I think all the money we had in the bank made me lose my nerve.

So next the real work began: Hiring more writers, tweaking our editorial tone, rebuilding and redesigning our app from the ground up, ensuring we had a viable business model — that kind of thing. But also — finding my own courage, and enabling the courage of our writers, to be funnier, angrier and just plain voicier than in the pilot.

To keep the editorial momentum going while I figured all that out, we continued to publish articles behind the password wall (hidden from subscribers). The idea was that, once NSFWCORP went fully live, we’d have an archive packed with fun stuff like Jason’s Hbo Makes A Star Of George W. Bush’s Decapitated Head and Mark’s Chen Guang Cheng Needs A Makeover . June 26th saw the first appearance of Hallie’s brother, Ben Bateman on NSFWCORP with Tennessee Legislates Against ‘gateway Sexual Behavior’.   

All in all, we published 17 hidden pieces on NSFWCORP in the two months between the pilot and our official launch. You can read them all in the archive. Hopefully you’ll notice the pieces getting steadily funnier and more NSFWCORPy as time progresses. Meanwhile Josh and Roger hustled to build v2 of  NSFWCORP as I hustled to raise more money to keep the wheels on the whole thing.

Fortunately Tony was suitably impressed with the pilot that he agreed to invest an additional (I think) $300k in NSFWCORP (I’m trying to find the term sheet so I can confirm how much, and the dates). What I know for sure is we announced the new round on July 4th. Now NSFWCORP was a real, fully funded company we could actually launch the fucking thing for year.

And so on July 4th 2012, NSFWCORP officially launched and we started letting the sponsored beta subscribers in for real…

 

From: Paul Carr<hello@nsfwcorp.com>
Date: Fri, Jul 6, 2012 at 12:43 PM
Subject: NSFW Corp has launched. You’re in.
To:

Well hello there,

Just a quick note to let you know that Not Safe For Work Corporation
has *finally* launched, and your subscription has been activated.
Huzzah!

You can log in at http://www.nsfwcorp.com using your email address and
the password you entered when you signed up. If you’ve forgotten your
password, there’s a handy reminder link on the front page.

Feedback very welcome, either by email (lettersdesk@nsfwcorp.com) or
http://www.twitter.com/nsfwcorp

Welcome to the future of journalism (with jokes).

Paul

Paul Carr

Editor in Chief, NSFW Corp

 

Here’s the editorial letter I wrote on NSFWCORP, announcing the launch. You’ll note from the opening line that I had found some of my missing courage.

Friends, Romans, Cunts.

So here we go, then, the public launch of Not Safe For Work Corporation. This is the moment when all of our work over the past six months or so comes to glorious fruition or humiliating anticlimax.

Given the transatlantic nature of our 17-strong (!) team, and the “without fear or favour” principles on which this plucky enterprise is founded, when better to launch than on Independence Day? Also, 4th July is the ultimate slow news day in America so unless the New York Times is caught plagiarizing from Playboy or Arianna eats Tim Armstrong, we should pretty much have the cycle to ourselves.

So here, then, are some useful notes to have in hand when the world’s media hacks inevitably beat a path to your door demanding answers about what we’re all doing here. Remember first and foremost: we only ever talk on the record – and “you own your words” as The Well used to say before they sold those same words to a succession of different owners.

The main note is that we don’t really have very much at all to say about what NSFW Corp stands for. Not because we’re dicks (although, to be clear … ). But rather because, as I wrote in the Pilot, we have no interest in making bold mission statements. Better instead to have an actual mission, and to let the fuckers figure out what that is. If they get persistent, just tell them we pay all of our writers. That’ll give them plenty to chew on.

Logistics: our daily publishing schedule begins today, and continues until the last of us is dead. NSFW Live resumes Monday, broadcasting from our sound-and-bullet-proof studio, high above the Las Vegas strip. Today we’re letting in everyone who signed up for the Pilot. From the end of next week, we’ll be admitting subscribers, by invitation. Once invited, everyone – EVERYONE –  pays $3 a month.

The email address for reader correspondence is lettersdesk@nsfwcorp.com, or @nsfwcorp on Twitter. Rosalie will read everything, and we’ll publish the best correspondence as Desk Notes. Subjects of Dispatches have an automatic right to reply. Everyone else: only if they’re funny or interesting.

The front page illustration was created by Hallie Bateman, who observed NSFW Corp HQ with the eye of a courtroom artist. The technology was built by Josh Ellis and the “look and feel” was designed by Roger Erik Tinch. Our editorial co-ordinator is Rosalie Miletich. Editor-at-Large is Mark Ames. Everyone else is credited as we go along.

The scribble dog doesn’t have a name yet. Suggestions welcome.

Okay. That’s it.

Onwards.

 

…and here’s how I explained the difference between the pilot and the final product to Sarah on WITN…

Finally, here’s how Sarah covered the launch on Pando…

As discussed on WITN earlier today, NSFW Corp has finally — FINALLY — launched. Go here now to subscribe. Paul won’t actually let you in for another week, but after that you can read all the NSFW you want. Really, this time.

What’s that you say? You don’t want to risk $3 on unseen content? Here’s a snippet of content by James Aylett about one of Paul’s favorite topics, Julian Assange:

Julian Assange is the diplomatic equivalent of syphilis. The Australians gave him to the Swedes. Then the Brits had him and, in all probability, the Americans will be next. For now, though, he has holed up in Ecuador’s embassy to the UK, presumably after reading a travel advisory from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office warning of an elevated risk of sexual assault in the South American country and thinking, “Oh yes, I’ll fit right in there.”One of Paul’s gripes with the pilot published some two months ago is that it wasn’t as acerbic, funny, or offensive as a typical day hanging out with him. After spending the last four years hanging out with Paul, and my morning reading NSFW, I can easily say mission pretty much accomplished this time around. The trick will be keeping it up.

I also have to say I love the design, the more I read. Once you figure out where to click (Hint: It’s not what appears to be the headline. It’s the text. Confusing, I know. I think it’s some kind of “cool” test. Don’t worry. I failed too.) the page swooshes and moves in nice but not overstated ways. Paul’s developer Josh Ellis rebuilt it from the ground up after the pilot, and he did a great job, along with designer Roger Erik Tinch. And — not surprisingly — I love the illustrations by our own Hallie Bateman.

She also published this Q&A, also with illustrations by Hallie…

Sarah: Why didn’t you raise more — are you one of those lean startup nut cases?

Paul: Yeah, I’m renowned for my financial prudence. No, the simple truth is we didn’t need more. Aside from some design and tech, our major outlay is the writing. (We pay every one of our writers, and I think pretty well.) Unlike hiring brilliant developers, hiring brilliant writers is a reasonably affordable proposition, providing you can find them in the first place. Also, I suppose I like the idea of pseudo bootstrapping the thing: Comedy publications with millions of dollars in the bank are very rarely funny, for some reason. Maybe it’s an underdog thing.

Sarah: How many subscribers do you have to sign up to make the economics work?

Paul: For the first year, none. After that, things go south pretty quickly unless we have at least 10,000. 50,000 would mean we can keep doing this thing for the rest of our natural lives. 100,000 and I’m selling to AOL and handing over the reins to a 12-year-old drunk.
Sarah: Why’d you raise so much from Vegas? Don’t most people go there to lose money?

Paul: It’s not really about taking money from Vegas, it’s about taking money from investors who aren’t scared off by the idea of a crazy Brit wanting to spend their money swearing at politicians and journalists. That’s a short list. It’s basically just Tony Hseih, CrunchFund and Judith Clegg.

That said, Tony was the first investor to encourage me to start the company, and to move to Vegas. Both turned out to be pretty good ideas. I love it here, and I love what’s happening with the regeneration of Downtown. I love the fact that you avoid all of the assumptions people make about a media company being based on the East Coast (or in London) or a tech company on the West Coast. Also: interesting people come to Vegas all the time — I want to have as many talented, funny people in the room at the same time as I can.

SO, given all of the above, when we decided to raise more money, Tony (and Vegas Tech Fund) was the obvious first call. He’s been a model investor: zero interest in influencing editorial, zero attempt at telling us what to do generally (apart from encouraging us to be in Vegas) and willing to offer — in our attorney’s words — “ridiculously generous terms.”

Sarah: How are things going with the whole Downtown Project generally?

Paul: From my point of view, fantastic. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now. The regeneration means there’s always something interesting — a bar, a concert hall, a startup — popping up. The people, as you know, are fascinating. There’s a real entrepreneurial spirit. As for the Downtown Project generally, you’d have to ask Tony but signs point to so-far-so-good. I’ve said before, his biggest challenge will be avoiding the whole thing becoming Zappos Town. Hopefully we can do our bit in helping with that.

Sarah: Back to NSFW — what parts of the original vision are still there; what’s gone?

Paul: The original vision: a paid subscription publication that talks about the week’s news, with jokes, is entirely intact. Most of the specifics have evolved through the pilot period though. For one thing, it’s not weekly any more — we realized (embarrassingly slowly) that grouping stuff together into a weekly package makes zero sense, no matter how much we’d like it to. Also, we’re not on the Apple Newsstand. I actually can’t believe I was willing to entertain the idea of giving anyone — let alone apple — an effective editorial veto on what we could publish. The 30 percent is fine, but the approval process is bullshit. We’re HTML5 all the way, even if the path to purchase is slightly more painful.

That said, we’re publishing our ebooks through Apple and Kindle and Nook because, well, that’s how people buy and read ebooks. Re: my point about editorial approval, we’re already embroiled in a fight with Amazon over our first title, so my HTML5 decision is looking good. On the content side, as I said in this week’s WITN, I realized that we pulled too many punches. I don’t know if it was fear stemming from having raised a bunch of money, or just he fact that I haven’t edited comedy for a while, but too much of the pilot wasn’t funny, it was “humorous”, which is the fucking worst. That’s entirely my fault, by the way. The writers did an amazing job (and they’re all still with us) — I just forced them into a box.

Sarah: Is this the last launch? Will it be published regularly from today on?

Paul: Yes.

Sarah: You love to joke about being a failed entrepreneur, but my sense is you have legitimately learned a lot of lessons from those failures that could help other entrepreneurs. Can you share some with us?

Paul: The number one lesson is to make sure that you are the best in the world at whatever your core offering is. I co-founded a print publishing house in 2005, despite having no experience with books back then (leaving my business partner to do all the heavy lifting). Then I created a social network, despite the fact I hate people. Other lessons: you can be a boss or you can be a drunk, you can’t be both. Trust your gut and retain as much control as you can. You’ll need it.

Sarah: You and I share a Messianic view about saving journalism. What are you trying to bring back that has been lost?

Paul: In the words of Monty Python (and possibly Kara Swisher), I’m not the messiah, I’m a very naughty boy. Yeah, I think we’re both trying to build companies that achieve the (some say) impossible feat of producing genuinely high quality editorial, produced by world-class writers and journalists who are being paid a respectable (maybe even generous) wage for their talents.

The two biggest things that NSFW Corp is trying to bring back are a satirical magazine that readers are excited (and a bit scared) to read every day/week/month (like I was with Private Eye in the UK of my youth, and I guess people had here with Spy) — and from a writer’s point of view, a place to call home. Somewhere where you can write your heart and soul and gut and know that your editor relishes the ensuing fight as much as you do. If this isn’t fun, we might as well kill ourselves, right?

For the first week the LIVE version of NSFWCORP was only available to beta subscribers. At the start of the second, we turned on our payments system for the first time.

In the next post I’ll tell you how many people actually signed up.

 

All photography (unless otherwise credited) by Molly Choma

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part V: Pilot

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part V: Pilot

The final writer for the pilot was Nathan Pensky – Pando’s managing editor – who pitched an amazing idea about Walt Disney’s frozen head. I also commissioned an illustration from Pando’s art director Hallie Bateman. We’d settled on the final name – NSFWCORP – and reverted back to Molly’s absolutely perfect logo…

Publication date of the pilot was set for the second week of May 2012.

The only thing missing was… readers. We already had a few thousand email addresses submitted through our holding page but no real way to convert them to paid subscribers. Given we didn’t know if we’d ever actually publish an issue one, let alone any more issues after that, I wasn’t willing to actually take money from the pilot readers but nor did I want to give the issue away for free and set that the precedent that NSFWCORP was free. So instead I hatched an (ahem) brilliant idea to get companies to pay $2k each to sponsor free subscriptions for several hundred people each.

By pilot day we had enough paid sponsors – Launch Rocket, Cloud Flare and some others I can’t  remember – to allow 2,000 readers through the door.

There were just one thing left to do before hitting publish on the pilot: Make sure we could actually publish this thing. And so the last few days of April / first days of May 2012 was designated our dress rehearsal week. For that entire week we published the pilot issue as if it were a live issue: Every day, behind a password wall, we published a single written piece and the accompanying audio episode. By this point we’d decided that’s how NSFWCORP would work: One piece a day, building up to an entire themed issue by the end of the week. Via our Yammer/Basecamp discussion platform I also commissioned new last minute topic pieces just to ensure the thing was as up to date as possible.

Sarah, Eli and I talked about the process on WITN which also included the world’s first public preview of a tiny corner of NSFWCORP…

During that same week, we finally fired up our recording studio and produced the first five episodes of NSFWLIVE, which Josh providing the voiceover and also serving as co-host. The very first episode featured special guest Patrick Sauer.

Here’s the other four episodes…

(Note, for the pilot, the episodes weren’t actually broadcast live. In fact we wouldn’t figure out that technology until months into NSFWCORP’s regular publishing schedule.)

A week later, on the night before pilot publication, I recorded this Skype video with Sarah to give the world a sneak preview…

Finally, on May 7th 2012, the pilot issue of NSFWCORP went live, with the caveat that “it should not be considered representative of the actual Not Safe For Work Corporation which, at the time of writing, is preparing to launch its regular publishing schedule. It is what it is.”

And so it was what it was.

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part IV: Mark

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part IV: Mark

The second week of April 2012 will go down in history as the week we acquired two things that would stick with NSFWCORP to the very end (and beyond). The first was a pool table, which I boughtfor $500 from a guy who was moving out from the Odgen and spent a week trying to figure out how to move nine floors to apartment 804.

The second thing we acquired that week was Mark Ames. Here’s how Mark remembers that week…

Paul: I want to go back to when you first heard about Not Safe For Work. I think, certainly, I first got introduced to you by Richard Nash, who had published you before.

Mark: Richard Nash published my last book, Going Postal, which is about office and school rage massacres, which is sort of a new American phenomena, a very fun subject. I love Richard because, not only was he a fantastic editor, but I first started on that project in 2001. I moved to Kentucky, I left Russia for the while. I started on it because I thought it was a huge thing, Columbine and all this stuff was a big deal, these rage massacres.

My editor at Grove Atlantic liked the idea a lot. My agent at William Morris at the time really liked it. Then 9/11 happened just as I was putting together my proposal for the publishers. 9/11 happened, and nobody wanted to hear about…

Paul: [laughs]

Mark: Americans killing Americans any more. I was like, “Is that real?” I was like, “Oh, shit.” I moved back to Russia and I had this proposal sitting around. I tried to push it again like a year or two later. It got angrily rejected, boom, boom, boom, one after another.

Paul: [laughs]

Mark: Then Richard Nash went, “I like this.”

Paul: I don’t care about Americans killing Americans. I’m Irish!

Mark: Exactly. I mean, that was the thing. I think being an outsider, he wasn’t as tied to the moment, deeply offended, kind of a little bit of distance. Myself too, I’d been living overseas for so long, you kind of start seeing the culture and the country a little bit as an outsider rather than an insider.

He was a great editor. One day, this was in 2012, late spring I think, 2012, just when I was going through a very…life disruption.

Paul: [laughs]

Mark: I’d rather not get into that, but it was not a particularly good time in my life. This is like that scene in the movie where the champ, except I was never a champ, gets an offer when he’s drunk and living in a card board boxes, that’s how I looked at it.

I got this email from Richard introducing me to you and saying, “This guy is starting up his satirical magazine and he was looking for satire writers and you’re the first person I thought of, actually, because there’s not a lot of satirical writers in this country.”

Paul: I’ve asked him to recommend someone, and he basically said the same thing. He said, “There aren’t, really. Everyone’s awful.” God, I know, we could have hired Alex Pareene. It was that bad.

[laughter]

Mark: They’re like joke tellers or quippers or something, they’re not people with satirical sensibility.

Paul: They don’t have any real anger, they have this fake Internet outrage.

Mark: He told me that you were starting this up. We got in touch. I have to admit, I didn’t believe it. I’m like, “No, this is too…” Maybe he is, but he is like a bunch of other people that would start something up and going to want me to do something. Then never really pay me or offer me 25 bucks and reputational currency.

Paul: Were you writing for Punch at that time or whatever it’s called, The Punch?

Mark: Yes, at that time, Punch. Somebody had bought the rights to an old British Punch magazine and it was making it as an iPad only magazine app.

Paul: Just as the original Punch founders intended.

[laughter]

Mark: At that same time, they asked me to write the first feature story for the new American iPad app. I did something on a movie about Joseph Smith. It was a weird movie about Joseph Smith, who was obviously the founder of modern religion. This was when Romney was becoming a presidential candidate.

I wound up doing it. It was actually not bad a piece. I wound up getting to know the guy who made this movie. He’s like a dissonant Mormon, and part of a whole movement of a clean comedy. [laughs] It’s very weird stuff.

Paul: Now, it’s being headed by James [sp] Casseti?

Mark: Exactly. They had an office here and everything. I knew the editor, old friend of mine. I thought, that one’s going to be definitely viable, Paul Carr have never heard of them. There’s no fucking way…

Paul: I like that there was a decision between me and Marie Shawn. You went, “Marie Shawn sounds trustworthy to be around.”

Mark: I worked for Marie but Marie had already lost it.

Paul: That’s right.

Mark: This is really like Jim, who used to be an editor of Vanity Fair. We knew each other way back.

Paul: I feel that’s bad.

Mark: Marie had already lost it. God Bless Marie.

Paul: Quite so.

Mark: I tried doing both, actually. I did the Punch article, it’s actually a shit ton of work.

Literally for this iPad thing.

I remember why it was such a problem even getting out the first quote on quote issue, because it was almost actually…even though this is the future, the way they had to lay out page by page to make it all very interactive-y and punchy and so on, it was literally like what I did on my high school paper, where you cut and paste in. I don’t know, that was how the technology worked.

Paul: Yes, because it was a fixed screen. It was unreadable, I couldn’t…

Mark: You saw it? I didn’t even have it.

Paul: No, I had the wrong iPad. I had an iPad that wasn’t the exact specs you needed. Every time I tried to open your article in particular, it just crashed. It was like a cosmic joke.

Mark: I remember that was a big problem.

Paul: You were like, “You should take a look at it.” I’m like, “I can’t. I cannot read it.”

Mark: Finally I think they just put the piece out on Alternet, just basic.

Paul: Then, people could actually read it.

Mark: They could actually read it.

Paul: It’s the future.

Mark: To my surprise, I wrote something for you and I was brought in to the…was it Yammer, then?

Paul: Yes. It was Yammer.

Mark: It was Yammer discussions. I was surprised by everybody. First of all, most people seemed like they weren’t Americans. They seemed smart and funny.

Paul: That was basically because I hadn’t hired anyone. I guess everybody had the same thoughts as you had, of, “I don’t know, I don’t trust this thing.” I was still trying to hire Americans, but I knew a bunch of Brits who had written jokes for me before. I staffed it with them and thought, “I’ll just edge them out.”

Mark: I actually liked that, once I saw it. Richard spoke very well of you. I looked you up and saw you looked like an asshole and I thought, “OK, that’s the kind of guy I could work with.”

Paul: Before we get too far ahead, because I want to just mention on the record, Richard sent me an email, which I probably will publish in the book, where he basically said, “You should talk to this guy, Mark Ames. He’s one of the best writers I know. Definitely, he’s what you’re looking for. But just for your information, he’s fucking crazy.”

Mark: [laughs]

Paul: Then he sends a link to the Vanity Fair profile of you and Taibbi. I look at it, and I’m reading this thing about you stirring Adderall into your coffee or speed into your eyeballs or whatever the fuck was in that piece. I thought, “This is going to be interesting.”

I’m reading your stuff. I had heard of “The Exile,” but I hadn’t really pieced together that was you. Then, I read the Vanity Fair thing. It’s, “Yeah, I’m basically obviously hiring a serial killer, who can write. The challenge here will be to just keep him as far away from me as possible, so that he just writes great stuff, I pay him, and he doesn’t kill me.”

We met…I guess you’re in San Francisco for some reason, because we met in some coffee shop or some restaurant.

Mark: Yes.

Paul: We had lunch.

Mark: I came out at that time. I think Punch was already starting to fall apart by then. Fuck, why did I go out there? I think my wife kicked me out again or something.

Paul: For some reason. You were saying you were staying where you have family, or something. Maybe that was what it was.

Mark: Yes, I was staying down in the San Jose area with family, then going up to visit an old buddy of mine from Moscow who was in Marin County, yeah.

Paul: I remember having lunch thinking, “He’s hiding his serial killer really well. It’s like Patrick Bateman.”

Mark: [laughs]

Paul: It took me at least six months of working with you until I finally confronted Nash and was like, “What’s crazy? He’s obviously crazy like we’re all crazy, and angry like we’re all angry, but what am I missing? When’s he going to pull a knife on me?”

He’s like, “Oh, no, he’s not really that crazy.”

Mark: [laughs]

Paul: It’s like, “Fuck you. For six months…”

Mark: Sweating bullets.

Paul: “…Not wanting to turn my back on him in case he stuck a fucking knife between my shoulder blades. You’re like, ‘Oh, no, he’s crazy like we’re crazy.’”

Mark: [laughs]

Paul: I’m like, “Don’t say that in future.” Bear in mind, the baseline for me for crazy is so much higher.

If I was asking about you for a job at a fucking salon or something, then yes, you’re crazy. You’re not milquetoast, like those fuckers. You fit in perfectly well at Not Safe For Work. Even years on I’m still looking for this crazy that doesn’t meaningfully exist.

Mark: I’m a nice guy.

Paul: No, you’re a very nice guy. This is the thing. I remember when Sirota first came out to Vegas. I guess you weren’t in town.

Mark: No, I got sick or something.

Paul: That’s a man who was terrified about a lot of things, but he was genuinely terrified of meeting you. I remember thinking…

Mark: Damn, I wish I was there.

[laughter]

Paul: I know. He was really, “I’ve heard that he eats babies.”

Mark: [laughs]

Paul: I’m like, “Yes. You should watch out for that guy.”

Mark: Keep your baby away from him.

Paul: Anyway, I realized very quickly that you weren’t any bad kind of crazy.

Mark: Depends who you ask.

[laughter]

Paul: The same people would tell you that about me. Don’t worry. I’m trying to remember what the first piece you wrote for us was. It wasn’t the McFaul thing.

Mark: No, it was…I don’t know why I chose this subject, but it had to do with the whole Colonel Jessup mentality and everyone running around telling you, “You can’t handle the truth!” All these…

Paul: That was for the pilot issue.

Mark: …Hardened realists and stuff. What amazed me was, there’s very little outlet for satire here. In fact you really can’t do satire here. You can do very loudly telegraphed parody. Everyone here says, particularly in the business, let’s say, not the audience, says, “I love The Exile, I love satire,” but no one wants to run it. No one wants to do it. They’re all scared of it.

Paul: It’s just Charlie syndrome. “I am Charlie, but I wouldn’t do any of the things that they did, nor do I support any of the things they wrote, nor would I…”

Mark: Exactly. “I would attack you…”

Paul: “…Even acknowledge…”

Mark: “…If you did until you’re dead, and then I’ll be first at your graveside.”

Paul: “But I’m going to use this hashtag. But I do want the credit for acting like I’m a bad ass.”

Mark: Exactly. It took me a couple years to realize that. It turned out just the most effective way to fuck with power was actually doing more straight journalism. Which is all right, but I find it boring as a reader, in a way, too.

Basically, I was surprised, first of all, that I wrote it and you paid me. That’s pretty rare.

Paul: Those two things did happen.

Mark: I know.

Paul: Let the record show, you did write it and I did pay you.

Mark: That was a real serious big moment for me, though. Honest to God, when you said you would pay me x amount, and it was good pay, and “Deliver this,” and you liked it. Then you very coldly, which I also really appreciated…we did the first issue and you solicited audience responses, your own responses, our responses. You really polled everyone in a very properly cold, not ego-y way, and found out what people liked and the problems that people found with it. You confronted that right away. I was really impressed with that.

I just kept thinking, “Wait a minute.” I forgot that it could be done like this after having done The Exile all those years. It was almost too good to be true. I still didn’t really believe it was going to happen. It really took me a few months to really believe that it could happen.

Paul: This is actually a thing.

Mark: That you could be paid. I could believe that somebody could good taste and want to fuck with power and do satire and have a satirical outlook on things, but then I couldn’t match it up with somebody who was actually willing to pay for it rather than screw you over.

Paul: It helped that the whole initiative, our big investor was Tony Hsieh, who knew nothing about media and didn’t really understand what he was getting into. It helped that we had that. At that point, I think we only had a hundred thousand dollars with that, it’s not Omidyar money, by any stretch. Mike Arrington obviously put in like 25, I think.

We had $125,000. It wasn’t by any stretch, we had a lot of money, especially by media standards. But it did seem to me that if we were going to spend money, it should be on the stuff that’s on the page, because everything else doesn’t matter. We didn’t have a huge tech team.

It took me a while before we launched to realize that. I was talking to all these incredibly expensive New York publishing people. We’re sitting in Union Square. The coffee shop place that is over there, I met with about four or five people who are from things like “The New York Times” or worked at various Condé Nast publications, who are serious, big-P publisher people.

I remember one person who wanted to basically head up the commercial side. I was like, “I need a commercial person,” which, arguably ultimately we did need a good commercial person.

Mark: [laughs]

Paul: I remember this person saying, “I have kids in private school,” blah-blah-blah, and “I’m going to need to be making $350,000.” I’m like, “We don’t have that much money at all.” As in, “We don’t have it to pay you,” we don’t have it.

Mark: Is that satire, or is it…

Paul: No, sadly it was…I thought, “OK, I’ll hire that person. Then they’ll have nothing to sell.” Very quickly we were on the other way. It’s like, “Let’s just put as good of stuff on the page, get Josh Ellis to build a bare bones way of getting on the page.” But it never occurred to me that the writers shouldn’t be the best-paid. That was the thing.

It was too good to be true for some people. When I talked to Yasha, he brought this up. He said there was a moment when the initial Not Safe For Work tone changed. We were trying to figure out what it was. He said it was a moment when…because I think if you look at your Jessup piece, it could have been published at the beginning, the middle, or the end. You were the first, really, to identify, even before I did, what Not Safe For Work should be. But if you look at some of the other stuff we published around that time, it was jokey.

Sarah Lacy said not that long ago, “You’ve got to stop saying it was the future of journalism with jokes. It may have been the future of journalism, but there were no jokes, by the end.”

Mark: Definitely.

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part III: October 2011 – April 2012: Laying the groundwork

The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part III: October 2011 – April 2012: Laying the groundwork

Between my meeting with Tony on 18th September 2011, and the arrival of the first $125k checks around October 11th, I had already been hard at work trying to decide what NSFWCORP would actually be. The original pitch seemed so simple – the Economist with jokes. Because it was simple.

It’s faintly ridiculous, then, to look back at my notes for the months of October 2011 and April 2010 and recall how many times I pivoted and re-pivoted the idea before arriving back where I’d already started. Even now I feel terrible how many brainstorming sessions I forced Molly to ensure.

One thing I decided early is the publication would be tablet and e-reader only. No web edition and certainly no print. I’d been watching closely the progress of the Daily – News Corp’s attempt at a tabloid newspaper – and decided that, while their execution was shockingly bad, the idea of a tablet-only publication had merit.

On October 14th I wrote a post on my personal blog, explaining all the other things I’d decided…

In a nut, Not Safe For Work Corporation is a publishing company. In a slightly bigger nut, it’s a magazine publishing company. And in a nut that’s even bigger still, it’s a magazine publishing company specializing in creating wonderful publications for the Kindle, iPad and other tablets and e-reader devices.

A couple of months back, I wrote a post on TechCrunch entitled “Now Can We All Agree That The “High Quality Web Content” Experiment Has Failed?” In it, I talked about the numerous ways in which ad-supported, free-to-access online content has failed readers by elevating PR-driven SEO garbage high above real honest-to-goodness journalism.

But now, thanks to the Kindle, the iPad, the Nook et al, there is another way. Readers on those devices have proved themselves ready, willing and able to pay to read high quality writing. They pay to read the New Yorker on their iPad, they pay to read Byliner‘s long-form journalism on their Kindles. Partly this willingness comes from the fact that tablets and e-readers make reading enjoyable again, but an equal part of the economic viability of those platforms is the fact that there has never been an assumption that content on them would be free. And when writers and publishers are being paid, they do their best work.

But still, for all the potential that e-readers and tablets offer, what we’ve seen is a succession of existing media brands – Wired, Vanity Fair, the Economist – translating their print product on to tablets often with only a few DVD extras to differentiate them from their dead tree parents. The apps themselves are wonderful, but there’s nothing original or fresh about their content. The only significant publication designed from the ground up for tablets is Rupert Murdoch’s ‘The Daily’. But again, the lack of originality is remarkable, and sad — especially given how many talented writers and editors are involved. The Daily is a naked attempt to ensure the future of the traditional newspaper format by creating an iPad newspaper that reads just like any one of Newscorp’s countless print newspapers. Hell, the Daily even tries to break news. (Sorry Rupert, but the future of breaking news remains on free sites, on the Internet.)

For months I’ve been watching the baby steps of tablet-based magazine publishing and imagining what it would look like if a true start-up came along and decided to invent a brand new publication, entirely from scratch. What would that publication cover? Who would its audience be? What form would it take? What frequency? What price? And once all of those questions have been answered, what would the startup’s second title be? And the third?

Not Safe For Work Corporation answers those questions.

Our first publication, launching in January 2012 will be ‘The New Gambit’, a weekly news magazine that’s maybe best described as “the Economist as written by the Daily Show”. In other words, it’ll tell you everything you need to know (and maybe even think) about the week’s events, but it’ll make you laugh your ass off while it’s doing it.

It’ll be available on Kindle, iPad, Nook and every other ereader/tablet device we can publish on. None of the content will be published on the web — to read it, you’ll need to subscribe. It’ll cost 99c an issue, or around $50 per year. Subscribers will also get a bunch of other cool stuff that I’m not ready to talk about quite yet. And if you don’t laugh out loud at least once in every issue, we’ll give you your money back.

So, that’s the skeleton of the idea. But we’ve already started to put meat on those bones. For one thing, as a former struggling freelancer, I’m determined that we’ll respect professional writing, and worship professional writers. Our team will be a mix or staff writers and full time, but even one-off contributors will be paid well, and paid promptly.

We’re working to create a place — both physical and philosophical — where great writers can do their best work. Where reporters (and there will be plenty of real reporting) know that their editors have their back, and where funny people can finally get paid for doing what they’re good at. On a slightly more serious note, our advisory board includes world renowned experts in journalistic ethics who will help us build a new framework for the future of digital reporting. PR freebies and SEO have absolutely no place at NSFW. We’ll decide what’s fit to publish and we’ll pay our way. Our readers, not advertisers, are our customers.

There a limitless amount more to be said about all of this, and I’ll say more about it in due course here on the blog. But first and most pressingly, being out of stealth mode means I’m able to be a lot more open about the kind of people we’re hoping will join this exciting adventure.

First and foremost, if you’re blisteringly funny and able to write topical jokes to order, drop what you’re doing and email me. Likewise if you’re a brilliant but under-appreciated editor or a first rate publisher looking for a new challenge. We’re hiring at all points on the editorial and publishing chain.

Beyond that, consider this an open audition: if any of the above has caused a synapse to fire — if you have ideas for what you’d like to see in your dream ereader/tablet magazine, if you have strong feelings on the future of journalism, or if you just want to tell us what you think of the name ‘The New Gambit’ send me an email. I or someone one degree of separation from me will do my/their best to reply within 24 hours or so. But please be patient — things are more crazy even than this rapid-fire, under-edited post suggests.

One other thing: we are, as I explained here, based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Many of the positions we’re hiring for — particularly the senior ones — will be based here. But if you’re unable to relocate, that need not be a deal breaker. If you’re the funniest man in Belgium, want to hear from you. If you’re the best damn publisher on the East Coast then I’ll fly to see you, or put you on a plane to Vegas for a chat. Again, send me an email and we’ll figure something out.

We’re aiming to have a pilot issue ready by the end of the year, and to begin a regular publishing schedule very early in 2012 so things are operating at top speed. I’m really excited by what we’re building here. Hopefully you are too. Without a hint of hyperbole, it’s going to be the best fucking thing ever.

I later explained the New Gambit name to Alexia Tsotsis at TechCrunch…

Carr says he chose the name The New Gambit because he wanted something that sounded sufficiently pompous, and was inspired by the Simpson’s episode where Homer reads an issue of the The Economist with a “Indonesia’s New Gambit” headline on the cover, asking Marge, “Did you know that Indonesia is in a state of turmoil?” Carr explains,”I’m a strong believer that jokes are even funnier in a grown-up setting … I mean, come on — the Economist and the Simpsons!”

Those posts caused an avalanche of emails. Unsurprisingly many of them came from freelance writers who believed that The New Gambit was the answer to their prayers, and they to ours. Also unsurprisingly many of those writers were in New York.

So in December of 2011 I got on a plane to New York (my first time using the NSFWCORP debit card) and booked into the Nolitan Hotel on Kenmare Street. From there I scurried around Manhattan meeting a half dozen of the more promising prospects, including Starlee Kine whose work had appeared on This American Life. Startlee introduced me to Stephen Sherill who had worked on Michael Moore’s TV nation. Sherill would later introduce me to Michael Jackson, the former head of Channel 4 in the UK.

I also began building an “advisory board” including my old pal (and soon to be Pando editor) Adam Penenberg, ex NY Times design director Khoi Vinh and Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash. To say these people provided valuable insight in the first months of NSFWCORP is a huge understatement.

But it was my meeting with Sherill, and subsequent re-reading of Michael Moore’s Adventure in a TV Nation –  that triggered my first mental pivot as to what “The New Gambit” should be.

I’d first watched TV Nation back in – I guess – 1994, when (a TV first!) it was broadcast simultaneously in both the US and the UK. (During a family vacation in Florida I was once able to watch the episode in Channel 4 in the UK, fly to Florida and catch the US airing shortly after we landed.) What made the show especially exciting was how every episode was presented almost as a campaign – Love Night, Canada Night, War Night – with each segment clustered around that theme.

I decided to steal that idea outright. Rather than being a magazine in any dull traditional sense, the New Gambit would take that same form, with weekly issues built around a theme.

In late December 2011 Molly and I took a trip to London, to celebrate my 32nd birthday and eat Indian food. It was during the latter – in a restaurant in Brick Lane – that I explained to Molly how my meeting with Stephen had altered my thinking.

We spent the next few hours brainstorming what issue one might be. I can’t remember where the idea for “The Elect Dean Cain As President Issue” came from, but here’s the result of our curry house brainstorming…

[IMAGE TK]

A few days later, we flew back to Vegas just in time to see in the New Year (2012) – standing on the Ogden roof, watching fireworks on the Strip – and to make my first really big NSFWCORP purchase: An office. Or rather an apartment in the Ogden to that would serve double duty as an office and a place for me to sleep. Apartment 805…

 

Rent: Somewhere just shy of $3k a month.

I moved in the first week of January and immediately began the important work of setting up the wifi…

And buying a bear filled with cookies…

And assembling about three thousand dollars worth of furniture shipped in from a warehouse in California…

 

Setting up the office and the wifi, and buying a Penguin-shaped dehumidifier called ‘Eleanor Rigby” seemed to take most of January. Or at least the part of January that wasn’t spent filling more and more notebooks with ideas about what might go into the first issue of NSFWCORP and commissioning a revised version of Molly’s logo from Yiying Lu, aka the illustrator of Twitter’s Fail Whale…

[Video TK]

In fact, January was a very video-heavy month. Sarah and I also launched a Skype-based video show for Pando – “Why Isn’t This News” – about our adventures building our respective companies. Episode one was published on January 18th 2012 and ends with Sarah complaining that the show is too long at 22 minutes. Ho ho ho.

My biggest brainwave from that same month was that we’d produce a weekly audio show – what would become NSFWLIVE – with each show divided into five parts to accompany each article in the pilot. Each segment would deal with a different story. (We would briefly consider having authors record audio versions of the actual article, before quickly realizing that would be a gigantic pain in the ass.)

Suddenly it was February and I was still very aware that I didn’t have any writers for the pilot issue, which I’d originally promised would be published in January. I also didn’t have anyone to build this miracle tablet magazine.

Enter Josh and Roger. Roger Tinch was a local designer who had worked with Alamo Drafthouse and immediately understood what NSFWCORP was all about. Which made one of us.  I met Roger in the Beat coffee house next to our office and he agreed to design the pilot issue. He even introduced me to our first illustrator, PJ Perez.

Even then, I still planned to publish The New Gambit through Apple’s newsstand and the Kindle Store. This was, after all, how e-publications were published at that time. It was only after I’d spent weeks trying to figure out the ridiculous cost structure of those 3rd party platforms and the expensive layout software required to publish on them that I realized the error of my ways.

Enter Josh Ellis, a local writer and web developer, who joined NSFWCORP around the same time. I invited Josh to brunch at the V’dara (spare no expense) and almost immediately hired him to build NSFWCORP/The New Gambit as an HTML5 all.

(If ya care, I would later explain more about that HTML5 decision on Pando.)

I shared the exciting news of hiring Josh (who, apparently I was describing as our “CTO”) in the February 6th episode of Why Isn’t This News.

That same episode was the first time I really started to talk publicly about what I’d been up to with NSFWCORP, including our decision to move from tablet native to HTML5. Much of the episode was spent with me showing Sarah the three billion different tablets I had to buy for testing…

WITN 5 from Paul Carr on Vimeo.

So now we had a designer and a developer, but absolutely no editorial content. A tech startup, in other words.

At least by mid February I had settled on a theme for the first issue: Missing, Presumed Dead. The idea (I think) being we would track down celebrities and other people who had vanished from the public eye and somehow build an issue around them. Or maybe it was an extension of the Dean Cain idea from London. These things tend to blur over time.

Fortunately it was at this point that Jason Heller, whose book Taft 2012 had just been published to great acclaim, fell from the sky. His book (which you should buy immediately) told the (satirical) story of what happened when William Howard Taft suddenly reappeared in 2012. I bought a copy at SFO during my trip to San Francisco for the first ever PandoMonthly event.

Then I emailed the Jason. He still has that email, and kindly sent it back to me to include here…

On Mon, Feb 20, 2012 at 12:47 AM, Paul Carr wrote:

Hey Jason,

First up, just finished reading Taft 2012. A spontaneous airport purchase, and a winning one. Great concept, brilliantly executed.

I’ve been slightly fascinated by WH Taft since Christopher Buckley made a joke about him which prompted me to visit the former’s Wikipedia page. (As a British ex-pat now living in the US, wikipedia is how I learn all of my American history.) And now, thanks to you, I feel like I’m an expert on both the fictionalized and non-fictionalized Taft.

Anyway. I’m writing less as a new fan and more as a prospective editor. I’m getting ready to launch a new tablet-and-ereader-based publication which we’re lazily describing as ‘the Economist, as written by the Daily Show’. We’ve raised money from some Silicon Valley folks and our advisory board includes people like Adam Penenberg from NYU (and played by Steve Zahn in the movie Shattered Glass), Khoi Vinh — former design director at the NYT and Richard Nash of Soft Scull [sic] press. We’re reasonably legit, in other words.

Here’s me:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Carr_%28writer%29

And here’s a meaningless holding page for the publication:

http://www.nsfwcorp.com

I assume you’re utterly swamped with work off the back of Taft but I wondered whether you might be interested in writing something for our pilot issue, which will be on the theme of ‘Missing, Presumed Dead’. Obviously that theme chimes neatly with the theme of the book so there’s a natural lead in to a piece from you. I was thinking maybe something on what today’s republican candidates should learn from WHT. Or something on how the disappearance of spats is directly linked to the downfall of society. Either-or.

If you’re interested, in principle, in writing something then let’s talk further. We’re paying $1.50 a word for the pilot and obviously we’d plug the book at the end etc etc.

Thoughts?

Paul

Paul Carr

A couple of things you’ll note from that email:

First, in February 2012 we were planning to pay $1.50 a word for the pilot. I meant what I said that NSFWCORP was going to be a writer’s magazine. We’d pay a good word rate and also – in something that I think was an innovation – we’d pay magazine writers in the same way book publishers pay their authors: Half on contract, half on delivery. That way, writers wouldn’t have to spend weeks working on a piece with no money in the bank.

Second, by now I was using The New Gambit name less and less. I didn’t even mention it in my email to Jason. A few weeks earlier, we’d received a shitty letter from a New Orleans based magazine called The Gambit (or something similar) threatening to sue us for trademark violation. Also NSFWCORP is just a better name. But, as you’ll see, the Gambit name stuck around a while longer.

Here’s Jason’s response…

On Monday, February 20, 2012 at 6:50 AM, Jason Heller wrote:

Hi Paul,

Great to hear from you on, and thanks for the generous words about Taft 2012. He is indeed a pretty remarkable character (in both the historical and fictional sense). And zeitgeist-ly enough, he seems to be popping up in the opinion pages an awful lot lately. Of course, that phenomenon could probably be contributed to the relentless turnover of our 100-year news cycle…

But anyway, to answer your question: Yes, I’d love to contribute something to NSFW’s pilot. What length did you have in mind? Let me know, and I’d be happy to draft you up a pitch/outline. There’s so much “Taft vs. Today” that I didn’t get to capitalize on in the book, seeing as how it was completed before the 2012 campaign was launched in earnest…

Thanks much,

Jason

Another sidenote from around this time: While NSFWCORP/The New Gambit was always going to be our first publication, I still wasn’t sure if it’d be our only publication. An alternative idea, sketched out in my notebooks from the time, was to act more like a contract publishing house – building magazines for other people on our shiny new HTML platform, while using NSFWCORP/TNG as our flagship/showroom product.

Part of that thinking came from conversations with Sarah Lacy whose PandoDaily was already doing great guns. Did it make sense for us to merge Pando and NSFWCORP and run it as a single company? After all, we both had Michael Arrington and Tony Hsieh as investors, and we both wanted to fix journalism.

My notes from the time show me brainstorming (with myself) how such a deal might work. We never quite came to terms on a merger (at least not in 2012) but we did agree to collaborate on a NSFWCORP-published/Pando branded ebook about Facebook’s upcoming IPO.

Back at NSFWCORP, Jason Heller had been joined (virtually speaking) by New York based writer Patrick Sauer who wanted to write about Vegas’ own Heart Attack Grill. I’d also convinced the wonderful Molyl Crabapple to illustrate the header of the issue, and several other pieces.Two pilot pieces down, three to go!

We were now in mid-March and Josh and Roger were doing sterling work with the initial designs and coding of NSFWCORP, especially given my constant demands for fundamental changes to how the thing would look and feel. I’d also hired Rosalie Miletich, another Vegas local, as our first copy editor and office manager.

Early April – April 12th/13th to be more specific – saw the construction of the NSFWCORP audio studio. That task fell to Josh and I and we set off to spend even more of NSFWCORP’s dwindling funds at Sam Ash. An audio board, headphones, some software and a desk to hold it all were carted back to apartment 805. A trip to the Apple store furnished an iMac to run Ableton.

We set up the studio in an airless, windowless closet which, of course, was echo-y as all hell until Josh had the bright idea of bulk buying a car-load of mattress pads from Target and attaching them to the walls with picture hooks.

But, Christ, finding more writers was proving way harder than I expected. perhaps it’s because nobody in the US comedy writing world had a fucking clue who I was, or perhaps there just aren’t many people who can write funny journalism (I shall insist to my grave that it’s the latter.) Either way, by mid April, I was ready to give up on funny Americans and decide instead to email two of my favorite Brits – James Aylett and Sarah Bee, both of whom had worked with me on The Friday Thing and The Friday project.

Here’s the email I sent to James on April 16th 2012:

I realise — assume – you’re ridiculously busy with Art-related things but, ahead of 24HIA [our pre-existing plan to livestream the 2012 election], do you have any interest in contributing to The New Gambit?

I was trying to source the bulk of our freelance writers from this side of the Atlantic, but I keep running into a giant wall on to which someone has painted the words AMERICANS ARE REALLY BAD AT WRITING TOPICAL COMEDY.

Seriously – have you seen how bad the Onion has got since they moved to Chicago?

Anyway, yeah, any interest? We;d pay for words, obv. There’s 75c a word in the editorial spreadsheet at the moment, but flexible. Tone: not a million miles away from what TFT would probably be if it had kept maturing for another five years. And obviously more internationally (read: US-friendly) focused.

Be great to have you involved. Not really sure why I didn’t look back across the  Atlantic sooner. I tried, you Yankee fuckers. I tried.

Oh, and we”re going to do a weekly (potentially even daily, but we’ll see) audio show (I refuse to use the word “podcast”) which would be great to have you involved with too. And might be an interesting pre-cursor to 24HIA.  Immediate knee-jerk thoughts?

As you’ll notice from my email to James, by April, our per-word budget had dropped from $1.50 a word to 75c a word. By this point I was watching with mounting horror how quickly our seed $125k was flowing from the NSFWCORP account. And we were already at least three months late on publishing the pilot.

James – thank God – said he’d be happy to contribute (little did I know he’d end up as a writer, developer, product genius, NSFWLIVE host and 1,000 other things at NSFWCORP), as did Sarah.

Sarah even had an idea for the pilot. Which left only two slots left to fill.

That forth slot – and later a major editorial role – would filled thanks to Richard Nash who listened patiently as I despaired about the lack of funny, available, brilliant American writers. Then he said the five words that would set the tone for so much of what NSFWCORP became: “Do you know Mark Ames?”