Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Denial of Access

By Douglas McDaniel
Mythville MetaMedia

The date is Dec. 13, 2000, and the Internet landscape is teetering on the brink of collapse. But we don’t know it yet. We are secure, successful, on top of the publishing world. Or so we believe. Even as the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding the presidential election for us. We are winners … or so we believe.

Gathered in a large enough quantity in a hotel meeting room, we, the full-time, well-paid employees of Access Internet Magazine, create a convincing air of confidence, of go-go e-business wiles, high on the Net-savvy narcotic of the zeitgeist vibe, a self-assurance and self-pleased demeanor that would be comic if it weren’t so tragic. Looking back at it now, that is. Sure, some of us worried rough times were ahead. At least I did. I’m a worrier, though. Yet, even considering my natural pessimism, it would be hard to imagine how quickly such things can end.

So many startups, as in new magazines, whole living cycles, forests of ink and paper at your doorstep, so many all come and gone. I’ve done them all now: multi-million dollar projects, national monthlies, regional rags covering sports and art, grass roots enviro’ ops out in the desert, entertainment weeklies, all gone. Killed by everything from the Gulf War to a Major League Baseball strike. And now, the dot-com bust. All due to a lack of ad lineage, paid for by e-commerce enterprises in a similar bind, due to the danger of having too much investment capital to burn. Due to publishers always believe they are capturing, the so-called crest of the wave. Until, that is, the wave, the demo, crashes on the shore.

The next wave is on the way. But it’s too late. Ink on paper just can’t adapt in these seas.

We are at the annual sales meeting for Access Media Inc., just before the lavish Christmas Party on the far end of town. Publisher Mike Veitch stands in front of the magazine’s blown up cover featuring then president Bill Clinton: who could likely barely work his e-mail. At least the cover shot of the stumped and befuddled president seemed to depict just that. As if he is looking into one of the impenetrable miracles of our time. Like he fit the demo of newbie readers to “America’s Guide to the Internet.”
Access staffers, mostly those on the advertising side, had come from all over the country after a remarkable year of growth and, apparently, breakthroughs in publishing. You might just wonder, with so much growth in circulation so fast, from 4 million to 10 million weekly within a little over a year, if we had a bigger audience than the president. Whole suburbs of newsreaders, gadget fanatics or, more likely, grandmas wanting to know how to receive photos by e-mail of their grandchildren, practical professionals wanting to know the latest investment site, moms looking for cooking sites and so on…a demo that was nothing less than a cookie-cutter composite of the whole country.
Access was riding the crest of the Internet wave, but it was trying to hit an impossible moving target. The first weekly publication of its time, it attempted to cover the crossover of the mainstream into the entire mélange of the fab electricities in the air. They were breaking up, captain. They would not keep still. It was like chasing a lightning bolt with a dinosaur.

Veitch was self-congratulating the rotunda roomful of attentive ears, maybe 150 people, for publishing Access on a weekly basis as the third largest weekly in the United States, a circulation of nearly 10 million, all distributed as an insert through newspapers across the country. The hotel was notable, from the outside, for huge radio tower landmarks, much older than the Web, that served as testament to the long history of Route 128’s silicon valley of telecommunications wizards, mass marketers, open sourcerers, dot-com rebels and computer-related trade ’zines out the ying yang. Huge glass towers they were all housed in, moving in for the kill.
So powerful and amazing is Access, Veitch tells the group, one Access expose once pointed out that some invasive America Online malfunction was fixed by the safe-surfing company because it had been first criticized by one of the Access columnists.

“The simple and direct way we have helped people in their lives,” Veitch says, “is what journalism is about.”

Maybe a week later, in the red brick office park that was somewhat secluded on the Charles River in Needham, Veitch would be boasting how Access was conceived of, as a business plan, on a single sheet of paper, a metaphor for the integration of all media. By this time, Access Media is the typical cube farm of too many employees cramped into a honeycombed beehive. Basically, what you could get with $17 to $27 million venture capital investment, spent over a year and a half or so. “Access is the first fully integrated mass medium of the post-Internet era,” he said.

Considering the extent of its weekly circulation, maybe 20 million people in affluent suburbs across the nation who may have been actually looking at it at the same time, and the high-priced talent (USA Today online staffers, mainly) who were brought on to head up a new Web-page undertaking, one might have hoped that it could have accomplished more than the mere tweaking of your home computer’s keypad control. Considering all of the computerized wizardry of the place, it could have accomplished pretty much anything it wanted. For myself, I felt as if we were a kind of revolutionary force bringing the liberating Web to the masses. That is the kind of thing people like to hear, that is, until the limits of print----in this form, at this time----became apparent.

But forces much, much larger than a mere circulation of 10 million were at work, almost invisibly, that day. The big die off first sniffed out by Fuckedcompany.com was becoming apparent. First, Access Internet Magazine scaled back its online operations, laying off 21 employees shortly after the beginning of the year, mostly those who worked for accessmagazine.com, about 25 percent of Access Media’s payroll.

Veitch would be pastured into a role as an adviser to the company and board member. John Jay, president of Access Internet Magazine, and Larry Sanders, president of accessmagazine.com, left the company.

Sanders came from USA Today online wars to start up the Access Web site’s expansion during the gold rush heyday. They were predatory times. So he tried a sticky hit style, the “roach motel” approach, attempting to “drive them” like cattle. That was common nomenclature in Access executive culture: This whole idea that people, somehow lacking any choice in the matter, could be “driven” into its Web of multimedia ventures. For bizarre reasons, the site never drove huge numbers, and for a long time ended up with fewer hits than most alternative zines, especially considering the self-marketing possibilities of sending out 10 million flyers----that is, the magazine itself, with the Web site’s URLs at the top of each page and the banner. For whatever reason, readers felt little need to get the same thing at the Web site, too.

By the end of 2000, the company had been working on plans for a national online advertising network and new e-mail products, but scaled back as the Internet tide changed. A new investment from General Atlantic reportedly served as a blood transfusion of less than $1 million. Access had previously raised money in August 2000, when investors contributed $17 million. We were always told $27 million, but we know how quickly $10 million bucks can go up in smoke. Other venture investors in Access Media include Sequoia Capital, One Liberty Ventures, and Labrador Ventures. Individual investors included former Time Warner co-CEO N.J. Nicholas Jr. and E-Trade founder Bill Porter.

The cost of newsprint (about a half-million dollars per edition) and the decline of the Web as an item worthy of mass media interest, especially in terms of potential advertising dollars, were to blame.

It could have been, and very often was, a media project that exemplified the realm of possibility for its time. Access could be just about that, access to the new world of megamedia, to the palace of wisdom (at least as far as the Internet could provide), but at times it seemed just as willing to sift through so much web-based errata in the public interest, it became a tiny little hole indeed, even, at times, a limitation for depicting what was really out there on the Web. These days, let’s face it, if you are less outrageous than the FOX Network when dealing with Web topics, well, you get the picture …

Even as Florida presidential election embroglio roiled on, and angry e-mail bounced around in incredible viral swirls of angst, we, the editors of Access Internet Magazine, were debating whether or not to veto listing the URL of a short, but relatively dated, South Park film depicting a rumble between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, an animated fight between animated good and animated evil. The magazine had been advised by its endless surveys and focus groups to shoot right down the middle. And after so many surveys, believe me, it becomes corporate dogma to believe what demographic research tells us, even if it’s based on mere surface level things that fail to see the real complexities at work. During the staff meeting, it was decided the short film was just too riske’ for the supposed audience of Webizens they were trying to reach.
In fact, the Web is far, far weirder. Which may have been the problem: How do you show that to a mainstream audience, watering it down, so to speak, in print-time, without really becoming too tame and dated.

The real-time medium the magazine was about, the Internet, is certainly not that way.

But this time content was an irrelevant peon, as opposed to king. The magazine delivered, even in a less-is-more slimdown, more information than most people could handle. And that’s just it: Information overload is no longer the rage. A necessity, perhaps: But not the cultural phenomenon it used to be.
I have fond memories, though, of working with an incredibly gifted and experienced staff under the most unusual circumstances. Surrounded by other human search engines, in our own geometric cubes, scanning the World Wide Web all-a-de-day long, being an editorial staffer at Access was like being the subject of some unprecedented experiment in human behavior. Visitors to the office, especially journalists from other news rooms, thought the quiet to be creepy. Newsrooms, in general, are usually boisterous places. Considering how tightly we were packed in after growing from 24 or so to nearly 100 employees in less than a year, it was if nothing else an intimate situation. But it could be quiet as a library. We were more likely to interact from the computer, often by Yahoo’s instant messenger service, often without speaking to anyone, in person, all day. I don’t think that impression was unique for myself. We were literally paid to be hooked to machines and surf the Web. It wasn’t as if there weren’t plenty of people in our lives. We weren’t disconnected humanity. In fact, I have never come in contact with so many people in my life. It seemed to work, until, for myself, I started to get close to 100 e-mail messages per day, many of them from struggling dot-coms in need of publicity for their shopping sites, especially before the Christmas push. Or from other editors, wondering why I hadn’t gotten back to them with missives about my doubt and fears about what was really happening in the Noosphere.

But, as it turned out, nobody really got the shot in the arm they were looking for. Access included. But maybe in some small way, the Noosphere moved just a little further along.

In a little more than six months after the beginning of the new year, Access has suspended publication. The following was posted on its Web site, at least as of July 10, 2001 at www.accessmagazine.com:

“Access Magazine has suspended publication, due to the continuing uncertainty in the economy.”

Apparently the business of producing a for-print mag announcing the dawn of a new media era is just a little too much like being a Trojan horse. In another example, the first newspaper to launch a free-standing technology section for general readers, The Toronto Star, also shut down that section. For seven years, the section covered the Internet, computers, software, wireless gadgets, anything related to high-tech. I guess once readers figure it out, they just don’t need ink on paper anymore.

On a nice, Indian summer November day, I happened to go by the old Access offices in Needham, right off the Charles River. I walked up to the second floor and happened to run into one of the old execs. He was on the way out. He had little time to chat. Everybody's unemployment was running out, he said. Everybody had to get a job. Some had, most had not.

For myself, I didn't feel like dancing, or, saying I told you so. Sadness, really, a bittersweet one, at that. Their servers are down. The office is a cluttered jumble of half-opened boxes and empty dreams. I got what I could save. A pile of old issues. Someday, hopefully soon, I will database it all.

Thursday, March 08, 2001

Glasnost Lost

From the Suburban Jungle
to the Mountaintop at 10,000 feet:
Throwin' lightning
right back down the hill.
From the end of the world
to your town, basically ...

By Douglas McDaniel

There was that bulgy woman's face, my ex mother-in-law, screaming at me, "Heathen! Heathen! Why don't you read something good for you, like the Bible? Not those stupidheads you call heroes. They are all screwed up, all of them." Her face is big and red, blood-dimmed authoritarian swimming pool from God's forsaken lake a fire.

A flood of my life's decisions, mainly the bad ones, ping pong though my head. If I'd only done this, resisted my ego on that, had gotten real on the other. And now this, this fat face in a blond mop of over-the-hill hair, screaming at me about reading Salman Rushdie. Instead of the Bible. Well, let's see, I'd be in an entirely different place, for sure, if I'd been reading the Bible. In fact, I usually do, in one way or the other, from year to year, except maybe I'd use it like the I-Ching, let pages open themselves, in hopes they might speak to me. Maybe I'd be married still, in Phoenix, living in the suburbs, like a squirrel counting his nuts for the winter, and still listening to this blather from this charismatic miscreant, in my own home, no less.

In less time than it took for the U.S. Marines to find Noriega in Panama, I grabbed my soon-to-be-first-ex-mother in law by the arm and shoulder and wedged her out my front living room door. Once the lock was secured, as she tried to force her way back in, I went back to reading Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses." Or tried to as my hands shook from the adrenalin rush.

Really, it's a hilarious book.

And if I've reacted incorrectly, in this case, to the cruel joke that is that soon-to-be-former life as long as 10 years ago, well then, to leap from a burning train to roll on the hard, hard surface of this terrible terrain is no better or worse. I believe I'm much closer to the pool of the living, and much saner than those who are supposedly rational. What was that Barry Goldwater saying, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." The only freedom and liberty we ever really get in this world----and that's the way it's always been----is what we can hack for ourselves. Usually, if not always, at a considerable cost.

For example, just the other night----as I fast-forward my dear readers back to Telluride, Colorado----I met an incredible woman, many times more intellectually gifted than most of us could ever hope to be, who was incredible in the sense that she had managed to find a way out of the trap of her life's circumstances. Incredibly damaged, she was, the victim of a life-long pattern of sexual abuse since the age of 12 or 13.

"You know," she finally said, hmmm, maybe an hour after I'd wept when she listed all of the men who had sexually abused her: Her grandfather, her father, a priest, a high-school teacher, "I wouldn't walk down a back alley or a bad street at night, because they always teach you to be home and safe. But these were all people I was supposed to trust."

From the age of 13 on, each trusted male abused that very trust. A hell of eternal return she lived with each new family situation, which is the way we usually end up, whatever the reason, within our life cycles. The male of the species had a way of picking her out of a crowd, and then, let the perversity begin…

A lifting energy pulls through me like a tide. It's a weird sensation of apparent chaos revealing itself as truth. One must be very quiet, perfectly still almost, to begin to feel it, then see it. Freedom is there, beyond the desolation, in the blue smoke that rises from the ashes. If Glasnost Lost is paradise lost, then maybe the real paradise is found in the land of remembering.

Now I'm back in the desert, with my notes mean't for poems written in a green, nine-and-a-half by six-inch notebook. Perhaps if I'd left my thoughts unrecorded in that spring season, I would have never realized the unspeakable loneliness I felt in my marriage. My future X knew it, which is why she eventually burned the notebook in the backyard barbecue. She was, like her charismatic Christian mother, the living microcosm of an authoritarian regime. A real reactionary. A rage-a-holic.

In my college days at the University of Arizona, I believed that it was pointless to be a poet. A poet was no longer dangerous to any society. The highest compliment that could be paid to a writer was to be burned at the stake or censored or sent to the Gulag. His ideas would run against the prevailing current, and the government would have no choice but to try to silence him, thus martyring him for future readers, and thus, the world would be moved further along. But it was hard to see how it could be thus in a technological, democratic, pop-culture driven society. I couldn't make the connection. How could I know that the dissatisfaction as revealed in that notebook would, in fact, ignite a revolution in my small Web of life, and then set me free onto the road to Mythville?

What did I have to be dissatisfied about? I had a wife, three kids, a crazy dog, a professional career in journalism that basically kept us more than just afloat. Barely, yes, but floating all the same. The boom was over, after all. The prosperity my mother and father had enjoyed and striven for held little promise as we walked a slow march into a new century. On that spring day several years ago, it finally broke loose. I looked at the words in my notebook and wondered why they were so dark. My tone seemed to be that of a prisoner who lived in a state of constant contradiction against my very nature. The result: a secret self working beneath the autocratic empire in the bedroom.

I remember being afraid to go home. The long straight city streets leading through the scatterbrained signage of Phoenix hinted at an ugliness of the suburban southwest. Fast food joints, convenience stores, strips malls and every now and then rows of track homes crossed the eyes. At each stoplight, there was back pain, the endless shifting of the truck's gears, and the anxious pressure of being surrounded by the city, of what kind of moods awaited me at home.

I pulled into the driveway and sighed. There were a few boards piled on the front lawn that my son had fashioned into a jumping ramp for skateboards, and a few new dents in the garage door from the past weekend's tossing the baseball around. I opened the door and there was my son, twittering on the nobs of a video game while he lay on the couch. He barely moved and there was a small beeping sound from his hand-held machine. Not expecting a reaction from my arrival, I moved toward the entertainment center console, checking for any mail. There were a few bills, an ominous looking certified letter from the IRS, assorted junk mail, and a couple of packages, no doubt new compact disks to be to reviewed for the rock magazine. I opened the first package immediately, pulling out something post-punk, or, maybe retro. Immediately aware of its unsuitable nature for my censorious wife's scanning eyes, I threw it in the cabinet, putting it beneath a slew of other CDs that would get my attention later that night. I opened the other package, a jazz disc, which would be hard to say anything about since it wouldn't contain any offensive lyrics to hail as the new bad boys of rock. I threw it on top of the pile in the cabinet as well and gave a pause to Iggy Pop.

A decision was brewing inside, moving from the back of the mind to the front. All of those things I'd ever wished for myself had never actually been considered. I sleepwalked into my adult years, reacting to the merely formal expectations of finding a girl, making a marriage, the constant question of whether to have children. One would not call it an expectation, it seemed to happen naturally, as if I were an actor in a play in which the lines had been written from a dependable author who had the essence of life down to a biological science. Survival is everything, ya know, perpetuating the DNA, for what reason I know not why.

So that day in my mid 30s, the course I'd led found me drifting. I sat on the couch, twittered on some poetry, then reaching for the headphones for loud music. The music is by the seminal L.A. punk band, X, the sound of late century central city sprawl in flames. My eyes are closed as I lay on the couch, hoping to find a few moments of disengagement. I marvel at the dichotomy of the male and female voices from both heaven and hell. Then, I'm stunned back to the suburbs by my wife, who is poking me. Her expression has that stormy, bleary eye contact of someone who is ready for a fight. She began one of her usual discourses on my behavior, what she often refers to as Short Attention Span Theater.

"You seem so frantic," she says, her hands on her hips, looking down. "At one time you show up, start reading a book, and then I look up again, and you are on your way out the door, sneaking a joint. Now look at your lazy ass. I've got things to do around the house, you know. I need help."

She has her dishwater blond hair up in a Bam Bam bush on top of her head, wearing a jeans skirt and tennis shoes, very much in her work detachment mode. Soon she would be strutting around the house, slamming cabinet doors and making everyone sure it was busy time in that passive aggressive way. You know: the kind of gal who saw no problem with running the vacuum cleaner into the wee hours of the night.

"You're shifty. Your stuck in sand, sinking in sand, or maybe just trying to avoid sinking in sand," she says. "Look at this place," she thumbs one of the books he's left half opened on couch. "How many books can one person read at once, anyway?

"Sometimes you seem so quiet, and then you are talking so fast it's like you are some drug. Why can't you relax, why can't you stop worrying about where you will be next. You just want to hang out in bars and smoke. I mean, why go all of the way to a public place to spend your time alone, if that's what you are really doing?"

I could see where this was leading. I could see that look in her eye, the bulldog that couldn't let go of those ever-tightening categories of perpetual blame. Angrier words were exchanged, neither side listening, and somehow I managed to leave, though at some cost, her haven taken my notebook and holding it up, scouring, her face with a challenging smile, as if to indicate, "Ah ha, I've got it," as she took it and left the room.

Within a week I'd left her. The notebook had been read then fricasseed, and then an attempt had been made to restore the notebook for legal purposes. Then she tried to run me over with her car. Then, having taken to the streets of Phoenix in the need of disguising my locations, I bounced around like a wannabe TV show fugitive, trying to arrange lawyers, new living digs, dealing with a capably diabolical X, and, the possibility that my soon to be ex wife might try to find me and kill me. At work they called me "McGyver" because I was always looking for alternative exits to my surroundings. There were the urgings of my mother in law, who spoke in tongues and filibustered my future X into devious ways of attacking me. There were ugly late-night phone calls and cruel, teasing seductions. Before long, there would be the assault at the office, the restraining orders, the use of the children as hostages in the marriage, but more than anything else, my own descent into the maze of adulterated windows and doors in an exploration of my private novelty gene.

Spencer was a crazy family dog, most definitely also the beholder of the novelty gene.

On the day the he first landed in the suburbs of Phoenix, when I was just a boy, maybe 15, the heat was 120 degrees and the back yard we'd put him was a one-acre field of white hot dust. The next day, hail stones the size of Hope diamonds pelted puffs of dust onto the white-hot ground as Spencer, despite the hellfire from the sky, chased around the yard, pouncing on each poof. I remember the steam rising on the sand. Next, a freak tornado tore through our neighborhood, and the only thing in its path, mainly, or house, was left intact.

Spencer was a runner, though. This was before he learned things about the neighborhood on mid-night sneak outs. Before he'd gone through the rancheria of back yards, golf courses, the river park basin, the very edges of the desert. Well before he'd caused a fight with the family across the street. Well before the subdivision was made safe from the last horny toad lizard, well before my father ran over that same neighbor's pet snake, which had escaped, in the driveway: Long before the paradisical and counter-intuitive creation dream of Phoenix, city of the great Sonoran Desert. As a mongrel beagle, Spencer couldn't be trained, thus keeping him the place of the long line of pets that drove my father to distraction.

"Her boy, her Spencer," he'd say. "Sit, roll, dammit, do something!"

I'd sit and watch this comedy, a young teen in the suburbs, up in a willow. I was always up in trees, come to think of it. Despite the call, all Spencer could do was run up and down the fence, occasionally poking his nose through holes in the ground beneath. Spencer was a barker, too, howling at all hours, never seeming to run out of energy. Spencer had the novelty gene. Or perhaps he'd just learned it from my family.

Spencer was a real bastard.

So Spencer and I had the novelty gene, and on the day the tornado came, I saw it in the window. Dust was blowing all around, but I saw it there, bigger than the black and white version in the Wizard of Oz. I ran outside. I remember pinpricks of dust hitting my face and my mother screaming at me to get into the house. I leaned into the wind. The tornado high in my view, I saw it tear a roof off a house down the street, and went back inside, satisfied that my scouting report through the window was correct. We barricaded ourselves in the hallway. God knows what was running through my father's mind because his father's family had been killed by a tornado in West Texas. God knows what's in a dog's mind when the sky had been turned upside down. All that I know is after the winds died down, after our new saplings were pulled out of the ground, after it seemed liked the wind picked up our back yard and deposited it somewhere west of our neighborhood, Spencer was gone.

We looked for him for a week. First we walked past the demolished homes in the area, marveling at their bombed-out look. As a 10-year-old boy, the inconvenience this caused to our neighbors was hardly a factor. It seemed fun out there, fun to be a searcher in bombed-out Phoenix, the subdivision seriously in decline due to the storm. Worst hit were the people down the street, who we had a running feud with because they were always the ones who called to get Spencer picked up by the animal control officer. Once, when we'd returned from a sailing trip to San Diego, Spencer was missing from the back yard. I knew immediately what had happened. I rushed across the street, being a hot-headed 15-year-old, and started yelling at the neighbor, Rosey McAllister, who was dead drunk when she answered the door. "You give my dog back," I shouted. "You have no right." They, of course, did have a right. Leash laws mandated by the homeowners' committee being fairly clear. When Spencer was recovered from the animal shelter, he continued to pursue his novelty exploits, eventually getting to the point that he could leap the height of our wood fence in the backyard. Had to be six feet. It was only a matter of time, at least he had the potential, to jump the fence. Then the storm came and we had to resolve ourselves to the image of Spencer spinning away into the clouds. These were happy days for my father.

A few days later I had my first psychic experience. It was during a baseball game. Bats and balls and the hopes of being a professional baseball player being my only real concern. That and the skinny blond girl who was watching the game in the bleachers. We were behind, maybe by a few runs. We were up to bat. I sat on the bench, and I had this feeling come over me, that heaviness from within. I thought that perhaps I was feeling ill. It was then thought I saw the whole thing before, one, two, three batters ahead -- I knew that each one would reach base and I visualized my bat hitting a line drive to right field and our team winning the game. That's exactly what happened. When it was my turn to bat, I half-consciously lined the ball to right, just as I pictured it, willed it, in my brain. I was buried by my teammates, and after the game that skinny blonde girl gave me my first kiss. My braces, unfortunately, cutting her lip pretty good.

When we came home, Spencer was at our doorstep. We could only wonder about the tales he could tell, flying over Phoenix and out into the desert.

For more chapters of the Ongoing Saga of Post-Democracy America, "Glasnost Lost," click away at the Mythville Project at G21, here. For the latest entries, go to Glasnost Lost.