Bought and sold, Part II
The Globe is being sold, so this week one of the board members addressed the employees in a town hall-style meeting. And, inevitably, someone asked what factors would be at play when choosing a buyer. And, inevitably, he had to say that they are a publicly traded company — which means they have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to maximize profits.
In short, it has to be about the money.
Anyone who reads the business page knows this, but it tickled me a little to be reminded of it.
A few weeks ago I wrote about having our work bottled and sold. Every few days, I’m reminded that the work I do is not legally mine, but rather someone else’s. It’s fair, since I get paid to do what I do, but it can occasionally be a tough thing to grasp when working extra hours to perfect every little detail. But two things redeemed this depressing line of thought:
1) The product of the work may not be mine, but the machine that produces it is — and that machine is me. I have the power to take myself elsewhere.
2) I am using the company to provide a platform for something I believe in: quality journalism that strives to be the fourth estate.
When I was young, my family owned several businesses — a dry cleaner, a car stereo business, a window tinting business, a vending machine business. But it was stressful enough for my parents that I specifically remember them telling me that it’s better to work for a company, because someone else can take care of the details — someone else can take on the risk. However, many Korean families want nothing else but to have their own business because it means they control their own destiny. Whether that means you own a gift shop or a laundromat, it’s stressful — but conceptually there’s some freedom in being your own boss. And for many immigrants in my parents’ generation, control and freedom were completely lacking in their life until they fought their way up to buy that first small business they could call their own. And no matter how hard life got — no matter what terrible turns it took — it was their choices and not someone else’s that got them there.
It’s a give and take. When you’re the captain, you control how the ship operates, but you also have to make sure the ship stays afloat.
Growing up in middle-class family, I had no problem working for someone else, especially since I like to be a minimalist. I liked the idea that my core asset was myself and I could do what I believed was right. My freedom came from having the privilege of education, or so I believed.
But I went into the media business, where the line between product and art is blended, which means that the freedom comes from not just what we can make, but rather what we believe in. The art is in the transfer of ideas and concepts — not in the pieces themselves. It’s artistic in the way it interacts with society in large scale, with the canvas of trust, the paint of truth and the brush of the first amendment. The individual products can be bought and sold, but our art cannot. It just requires is a platform.
So when the board member pointed out that they had this fiduciary responsibility to make money for the shareholders, and he couldn’t guarantee — through no fault of his own — that the organization would continue to be a platform for what we believe in, it tickled me. Because I wondered what would happen if the platform, as we know it, disappeared and journalists like myself felt we were missing the freedom to do what we believed. Surely some of us would go elsewhere, do something else, because we all have to survive. But I like to believe that some of us would evolve a platform that does align with journalistic beliefs. I like to believe that, like what happened in the Middle East, if our mass media and platforms no longer share our convictions, we would managed to push out information, to lobby for transparency and wield the sword of human stories. I want to believe that, if we saw corruption in power structure, like the Vatican, we would be willing to distribute leaked documents revealing the truth about our leaders. When platforms disappear, I want to believe that our convictions won’t.
Of course this is me being dramatic, and everything will probably be OK. But like my immigrant ancestors before me, our freedom doesn’t grow from practical comfort. In the movie “Shawshank Redemption,” the main character is an accountant name Andy, and halfway through the movie he helps the guards with their taxes. This allows him to pull favors from the guards. So after one long day tarring the roof of the prison, the guards give Andy and his friends a pack of beers to enjoy. Many of these guys have been in prison for decades and would be for several more, including the narrator, Red (Morgan Freeman). And he says:
“We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. Hell, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the lords of all creation.”