SYNGEd

A year in the life of a dot-com employee

It wasn't what you'd call a professional work atmosphere, but the advent of the dot-com start-up had torn down the imitation Bauhaus interiors and felt-lined partitions of corporate America and replaced them with cheap Chinese paper lanterns.

Despite the chaos, there was no other publication I would have rather been working for. The people with whom I spent upward of 12 hours per day, six days per week were consistently brilliant. When we weren't being micromanaged, our creative team was an editorial juggernaut with sharp edges and nasty points. As a group, we were actually creating a small buzz in the dot-com industry. I was being assigned to high-profile press junkets in swanky Hollywood suites, interviewing megalomaniacal celebrities like Robert Duvall (typical bitter old man), Nicolas Cage (surprisingly charming) and Angelina Jolie (lips much smaller in person). To offset the potential boredom of the fluff, I scored interviews with cult icons (Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell, Strangers With Candy's Amy Sedaris, Clerks' Jason Mewes). On top of that, I was being singled out by my peers as one of the writers whose voice defined Synge.

Forgive me for being melodramatic, but life was rather incredible.

In all the excitement—the celebrity contacts, tequila-fueled potlucks and festive surroundings—no one in the lower ranks ever considered that management was making decisions that would kill Synge.

 

Synge's downfall began with poor financial planning. In the early days, management confidently assured us that Synge was in great financial shape and that we were funded by several major venture capitalists.

I'm sure there were a couple of investors—there had to be—but whenever we asked for names, we were told, "They're private investors." The only one mentioned by name was CBS, but we soon found out that CBS was nothing more than management's perpetual dangling carrot, its hope, its Promised Land, where money flowed like water from a tapped rock. We were told for months that CBS' late-night-programming people were "into what Synge is doing." Two months into my tenure, Spicy told me over drinks that CBS was going to pony up $8 million. Of course, that was "between the two of us," and I was advised to keep my trap shut until an official announcement was made. I'm embarrassed to say that I believed her.

Such financial tales made everyone believe that spending "slightly over $1 million" on the redesign of the site (with a homepage that usually took 45 seconds to load—when it didn't time out) was smart. Same with the hiring of a trendy, Manhattan PR firm to organize extravagant launch parties in New York and Los Angeles (which would take place weeks before the proper site actually launched). Ditto for the thousands spent to get Howard Stern to (unenthusiastically) read a script detailing the many reasons his listeners would enjoy visiting the dot-com site he was pretending to find interesting that month.

But who was going to say anything? Who was going to question some of the more obvious flaws in the business model? Certainly not I. I was still as deluded as the rest of the staff. Peaking at about 30 people by the spring of 2000, we were constantly distracted by flashy perks. At staff drink nights, the big guys bought us all the cocktails we could hold down at Habana. (I developed quite a jones for the apple martini.) We were frequently treated to takeout for lunch, flown to Las Vegas for hedonistic weekends in the name of "team bonding" and whisked off to Los Angeles in limousines for "business meetings." And I haven't even mentioned the afternoon rubdowns by Edie, a handsome European woman with arms like Mark McGwire's. Under Edie's vigorous touch, I usually ended up feeling as if I had cheated on my wife.

On the surface, everything was perfect. Occasionally, one of us in editorial would mention that the 75-hour, 6-days-per-week workloads were killing morale, but the perks usually pacified us—until late in May 2000, the month Synge took its first major blow.

Although Synge's content was pretty clean (no nudity or hardcore profanity), it still wasn't something you wanted Grandma to read. But Synge's marketing vice president nevertheless had a problem: her potential clients were balking at sponsorships and affiliations with us because of some of the bawdier content on our homepage. The appearance in our media kit of the word "whore" was apparently a deal breaker. Hell, according to marketing, even Trojan Condoms—a company whose raison d'ĂȘtre is sex—reportedly passed on a Synge affiliation because of some of our content.

What came next shouldn't have been a surprise—but it was. One Monday morning, we got a company-wide e-mail (that's how all important company news was distributed): the marketing VP had resigned. On the shop floor, we read that as a friendly firing.

Normally, such a departure wouldn't have been a big deal. Synge had seen a few: there were the content producer who was reselling articles he wrote for Synge to an LA magazine as first-runs and—my personal favorite—the junkie who was fired via Post-It note.

But the departure of the marketing VP made us survivors hesitate: she, after all, had come to us from a serious, Old Economy, Fortune 500 company; she presumably knew what she was doing. We, on the other hand, were mere New Economy kids. Spicy, for example, was the former publisher of The Catalyst, a free, Long Beach-based poetry fanzine she wrote, copied at Kinko's and distributed to local coffeehouses. I had published my own zine and worked as a contributor for OC Weekly.

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