Audit Notes: Sex bias and arbitration, NYT Now, ageism in the Valley

The Times on corporate culture questions raised by a lawsuit against Sterling Jewelers

Susan Antilla has a disturbing story in The New York Times about a sexual harassment and bias lawsuit seeking class statu against the country’s biggest jewelery retailer, Sterling, which owns Kay Jewelers, among other brands.

When you’ve got a CEO who has affairs with subordinates and “jumped into a swimming pool with female managers who were ‘in various states of undress,’” the complaint alleges, you may have a cultural problem. Sterling didn’t answer NYT questions about those allegations.

And this raises serious questions about the extra-judicial process the company requires employees to go through for complaints:

Since 1998, Sterling has required employees to agree to take disputes to private arbitration as a condition of employment. Companies are increasingly demanding that employees agree to arbitration, said Cliff Palefsky, an employment lawyer in San Francisco. More recently, firms are including clauses that prohibit bringing class-action complaints to arbitration, he said.

“In the old days, arbitration clauses said nothing about class actions,” he said. “Now companies are jumping on the bandwagon.”

Sterling employees can get to arbitration only after they have filed a claim with its in-house resolution program. It received 474 complaints from 1998 to 2010. In that time, according to plaintiffs’ legal filings, only two moved to an arbitration decision.

— Ken Doctor looks at NYT Now, which is the primary piece of The New York Times Company’s paywall 2.0 strategy:

The pricing of the “essential” product, NYT Now, may be tricky. It’s only $2 a week, which gets you through-the-day reports plus a curated sense of what’s big news from elsewhere and the briefings. However, for $3.75 a week, you can get access to four or five times more New York Times content through its smartphone app — and full access to the on the web. So a side-by-side comparison may give buyers second thoughts. It’s more likely that Times strategy will be to put NYT Now front-and-center as the shiny new must-have thing, believing that comparison shopping won’t be of major consequence.

If the three E’s have it, the word to avoid starts with a C: cannibalization, as in NYT Now eating away at the Times’ own full-price digital subscriber base. The Times has examined three years of data on customer usage and interaction to figure not just which products they might pay for, but also the kinds of partial-content Times products that wouldn’t incentivize existing subscribers to downgrade — which would put a dent in that $150 million in new subscription revenue the paywall is pumping out annually. So NYT Now, the first of the three new niche paid products (food and opinion products will roll out this summer), is intended to satisfy, but not satiate, segments of readers.

It seems unlikely that NYT Now will make much if any direct difference to the Times’s bottom line. But it doesn’t have to snag hundreds of thousands of subscribers to be a good investment. If existing subscribers come to view it as an essential part of their subscriptions, and if the lessons in mobile news that the Times will learn from it make NYT Now worth the relatively small investment.

— Noam Scheiber’s New Republic piece on the hyper-ageism of Silicon Valley is a fascinating look at the arrested development of the brogrammer business:

Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old. “Young people are just smarter,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford back in 2007. As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara-based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its “careers” page: “We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them”…
In 2011, famed V.C. Vinod Khosla told a conference that “people over forty-five basically die in terms of new ideas.” Michael Moritz, of Sequoia Capital, one of the most pedigreed firms in the tech world, once touted himself as “an incredibly enthusiastic fan of very talented twentysomethings starting companies.” His logic was simple: “They have great passion. They don’t have distractions like families and children and other things that get in the way.” But, of course, whereas the Homebrewers mostly wanted to unleash the power of computers from IBM and share it with the common man, the V.C.s want to harness youthful energy in the service of a trillion-dollar industry…
And then there is the question of what purpose our economic growth actually serves. The most common advice V.C.s give entrepreneurs is to solve a problem they encounter in their daily lives. Unfortunately, the problems the average 22-year-old male programmer has experienced are all about being an affluent single guy in Northern California. That’s how we’ve ended up with so many games (Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, Crappy Bird) and all those apps for what one start-up founder described to me as cooler ways to hang out with friends on a Saturday night.

I’d have liked to have seen some data on the median age of these companies (Google’s, for instance, is 29. The average American worker is 42.) and more on what this aspect of the culture means for women, who are also massively underrepresented, but it’s a very good piece.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,