You’re not supposed to see how the news gets made, the saying goes. For the same reason that you’re not supposed to watch how sausage gets made.
But here’s a slight glimpse of some newsmaking involving Uber.
Don’t worry! It’s not really unpleasant.
This comes to us via the Alphabet/Google/Waymo v. Uber/Otto lawsuit, which my colleague Johana Bhuiyan has been covering in great detail. Today, as Johana reported, we got to look at a large batch of texts from Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Anthony Levandowski, the former Google/Alphabet employee who went on to found Otto, the self-driving truck startup Uber bought in 2016. And as she noted, there’s some pretty juicy stuff in there.
There’s also a bit that’s not nearly as juicy, but still interesting to people who care about media (almost exclusively, people in media).
It’s from the summer of 2016, when Kalanick and Levandowski were talking about the rollout of their big news: That Uber had paid something like $700 million for Otto, as well as the fact that Uber was going to start test-driving self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and had a partnership with Volvo.
If you know anything about Travis Kalanick, you would assume that this exchange would include Kalanick saying disparaging things about the journalists who would cover this story, since Kalanick generally seems to hold a low opinion of most journalists.*
And in fact, some of that sentiment does bubble up in the Kalanick/Levandowski exchanges. But it’s from Levandowski, and it’s not from the rollout. It’s from earlier in the year, when he tells Kalanick that “The journalists don’t know shit, you need to operate on reality not their perception.** I know you know this but don’t let the bs cloud your judgement.”
Anyway. Back to the rollout.
At the end of July 2016, texts show the two men discussing the press coverage of the announcement they have planned for August. The eventual plan: Break the news via a big feature in Bloomberg Businessweek, followed by corporate posts from Uber and Otto, and eventually lots of follow-up stories from other outlets.
Pretty good plan. And not an unusual one, as big tech rollouts go.
But as the two men text, you can see that Levandowski is worried: He’s concerned that the narrative won’t explain why Uber is spending all that money on Otto when it has “ATC” — its Advanced Technologies Center, which has already been working on self-driving cars for a couple years.
“We need to show synergy between Otto and ATC, the why is missing. We should have addressed that,” he writes.
And Levandowski also wants to make sure that the story serves multiple audiences, one of which is potential hires or competitors: “We should also have a undertone of scorched earth for new entrants so the recruiting is easier,” he writes. “I.e. If you’re interested in this epic tech development you should join our side vs waste your time building something from scratch.”
He does feel optimistic about a particular writer, though — and here he’s presumably talking about Bloomberg’s Max Chafkin***, who wrote the rollout feature after talking to Kalanick, Levandowski and several of their employees, and getting behind-the-scenes peeks at Uber’s self-driving tests. (Though it’s possible it’s another writer. I asked both Chafkin and Uber for comment, and both declined.)
“Good news is he’s getting a story of a lifetime, hope he doesn’t play it as a google vs uber,” Levandowski writes.
But Kalanick, who by this time is a very old pro when it comes to press coverage, is more sanguine. The story will almost sell itself, and he has people to help sell it — specifically Jill Hazelbaker, a longtime Google communications exec who spent a year at Snapchat before Kalanick hired her.
“The tech mojo will be obvious AND Jill will work him on background to make sure our main points get through,” he writes. “Follow it up with legit press tour choreography and storytelling and we’ll nail it.”
It looks like Kalanick was correct: The Bloomberg story is a good piece that captures both the excitement about self-driving cars and the challenges in front of Uber. The follow-on pieces followed suit.
And if you were looking for the kind of unpleasant compromising and deal-making that can often accompany a big story where a writer gets an early, exclusive look, you don’t get that here — either in the conversations or the finished product.
That is: Kalanick and Levandowski had goals they wanted to accomplish, and it looks like they succeeded. But Bloomberg succeeded, too, with a smart, balanced report. There’s no evidence Chafkin’s access weakened the story.****
What about Levandowski’s worry that the story would be focused on “google vs uber”?
Well, there was some of that. Because there had to be, since Uber and Google are competitors, and Levandowski had recently worked at Google.
But it turns out that the real problem with the “google vs uber” story wasn’t the Bloomberg story, or any of the rollout coverage. It was Google, which ended up suing Uber for hiring Levandowski and allegedly hoovering up proprietary information along the way.
Which is why we can see these texts today.
Lesson: Good press is good. But it’s even better not to go to court with an angry tech giant.
* Reasonable, really. Many of us feel that way about ourselves. Still: Many sides!
** Also reasonable!
*** Journalism is a small world, so here’s my disclosure: I worked with Max several times, because we both used to be freelance contributors for Vanity Fair’s annual “New Establishment” issue. He was super-pleasant to work with, and very helpful when I continually blew my deadlines. More important, he’s a very good journalist.
**** Again: I like Max! Here’s a Max story I really, really liked.
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