Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Los Angeles City Hall was a finalist for this year's Black Hole Award, on my nomination. The government of the U.S. Virgin Islands took top prize. The runners up were the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (second time in the Black Hole) and the Marshall County, Tennessee's Sheriff’s Office. You can read about all of the "winners" here.

Friday, March 4, 2016


Alexandra Alter wrote in the New York Times yesterday that Barnes & Noble isn't dead yet, if you read into the retailer's middling quarterly performance as an indicator.
Barnes & Noble had another not-so-bad quarter, which these days counts as good for the struggling bookstore chain. When the company reported its earnings on Thursday for the third fiscal quarter of 2016, there were signs that the steep losses that have plagued it in recent years may finally be leveling off.
Also, Alter reported, the big retailers are starting to gain ground on e-books, and what retail sales they lose go at least in some part to the indies. Good news to me since I wrote last year about how local Los Angeles independent bookstores are surviving, and saw what they really are to community, placemaking, and authors trying to find a niche audience for their work.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Santander Consumer USA, a lender that was issuing Uber-cosigned weekly leases to the rideshare company's contracted drivers until an unexplained split last year, had to answer SEC questions yesterday about past financial reporting.

Inquiry into the Spain-based firm's public disclosures were not related to the past Uber partnership (though that partnership does merit some questions). However it reminded me to finally share unwritten parts of an LA Weekly piece I wrote last fall about Angelenos who use their smartphones as their employers, finding daily gigs via application-based personal services like Uber, Lyft, Wag!, Washio, and TaskRabbit. I call them smartphone microlaborers. I was limited to about 1250 words and only one photo, so I couldn't include all the colorful bits I found in this subsector of the local gig economy, or all the new questions that arose from looking at these contracts and what the smartphone gig life really means in practical terms.

With a few more paragraphs I would have painted a picture of lives out on the road: Uber and Lyft drivers have a head nod when they pass one another, Uber contractors of various roles ride with Lyft drivers to recruit ("poach") them for a bonus, Washio Ninjas live the most in their own worlds, as their numbers are fewer and an unspoken company culture of silence keeps them from chatting, even at the two Drop Shop locations where they pick up clean loads and drop off the dirties. Wag! dog walkers and DoorDash food deliverers share the pet peeve of paying their own meter parking. With the exception of David Nolan, the affable multi-gigger with whom I led my piece, ride service drivers generally dread drunk people.  Nolan finds them entertaining: "Drunk people turned out to be a good time." Sometimes he'll join them for a drink at the next bar when he's ferrying a crawl.

One major correction is needed: Uber did not decline to comment. I was in email and phone tag with their press rep, trying to schedule a time on the phone, as taking quotes by email is not good journalistic practice. We didn't connect before my deadline. I've made exceptions to asking questions by email before (LaBonge's errant staff), but I avoid it when I can. Jessica Santillo of Uber's Corporate Communications division wrote in an email, in response to Jerry Washington's account of no tech support when the driver-side interface of the app goes down, that Uber drivers now have such support in their west Los Angeles Partner Support Center. Santillo also noted that Uber has parted ways with Santander. I'd inquired about Santander for another piece of the story that did not make it in to the article: odd dealership fees and a costly lease eating into Uber drivers' profits.

Uber alone could be its own entire book, with staffing decisions being one chapter. Politico did an interesting piece last year on applying political communications strategies at Uber via Obama's campaign architect. Obama to Uber is not an uncommon migration: Santillo, based at Uber's San Francisco headquarters, is one of Uber's White House alumni. She worked as a press secretary in two different departments from 2011 to 2013 and before than ran communications for Obama's Ohio campaign. Michael Amodeo, Uber's LA press rep, didn't work in the White House, but was Communications Director for Obama's 2012 campaign in Colorado, according to his LinkedIn.

Last month I finally used Lyft as a customer, the first time I'd used a ride app. I got two rides two days in a row and caught both extreme ends of the spectrum.

My first driver represented the most negative stereotype of the ride app driver, not different from the image of the average LA cab driver: bolting through traffic, high speed and abrupt lane changes on the freeway, thinly veiled complaining about the short distance (read: low fare) to which he was delivering me, a scent of cigarette smoke masked by cologne, a slightly angry personality. Before Lyft he drove for a AAA subcontractor, but was axed when he wrecked a flatbed truck with two cars on it and presumably surrounding cars as well. He decided to try to jump a yellow late at night when he was dead tired at a full intersection. He blames his employer for scheduling him for such long shifts - if he weren't so tired, he says, he would have reacted better. No one will hire him now as a professional driver because of what it costs to insure him, but he can work for both Lyft and Uber because ride drivers pay their own insurance. So he eats the premium to continue to drive for a living, free to make decisions behind the wheel that are, based on my experience, as rash as ever.

My second driver, Walker, was the archetype of the positive experience, on both sides. On the customer side, I got a polite young guy safely driving a brand new, immaculate Prius C.  As a contractor who clocks in and out when he wants to, his schedule is open between rides for dance classes and auditions. He stays in and around North Hollywood, a major dance center. The Metro station is a frequent destination, and he says people are good to him for the most part.

When I started on this piece I expected find people like Walker populating this new labor economy. It is LA after all, and performers between gigs and auditions constantly trying to balance consistent income with scheduling flexibility represent a good chunk of our population. What I found instead was a wide range of circumstances.

I also learned that smartphone microlaborers, and the gig economy in general, will continue to remain a bit mysterious. There is no way to track them. Different categories of 1040 tax forms and Bureau of Labor Statistics definitions don't fully work as proxy, since performers doing gig work will self-identify primarily as performers. The same is true for other kinds of self-employment. Even if federal tax reporting categories were refined enough to draw an accurate statistical portrait, it would still only be national data, with no way to compare between regions, and certainly not as granular as city-level analysis. And because some app workers contract for more than one service, it's difficult to compare companies on effectiveness in recruiting and retention. That might provide clues to quality of work life, acceptable pay rates, and other perks that keep these contractors loyal to one app.

The outtakes:

Lyft keeps a large fleet on the road by issuing bonuses for drivers with a high acceptance rate (pick up requested rides rather than decline) who drive at peak times. 

Kate Eberhard was the Lyft driver in my story who sees her rides as leads to new adventures, and has a great time with the visitors to her backseat of all ages. This is her guestbook. Underneath it are the stacks of magazines she browses at her local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, when she's decided to have a mellow morning and contemplate taking rides for the day. 

Jerry Washington was a veteran of the Red Cross before he came a ride service driver. He's done Sidecar and Lyft, but now  drives mostly for Uber. He catches up with friends and browses the day's news at his local Santa Monica Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf before heading out for the day. The Santa Monica-Venice retail strip on Main Street, tourists around Third Street Promenade, and airport rides keep him busy year-round. He likes the flexibility and proximity to his home, even though his  position is that Uber pulled a bit of a bait and switch. Promises of income with bonuses moved him to lease a Pruis wagon at $235 week, but then had to eat unexplained dealer fees at signing, and go without rides some weekends when the Uber app malfunctioned. 

Uber was in a highly visible recruitment push at and around UCLA last fall. This flyer was on a tree in Westwood Village. The recruiters below are on UCLA's heavily trafficked Bruin Walk, a major connector on the large campus. They are positioned to meet traffic coming from undergraduate dorms and off-campus apartments to classrooms on a weekday morning. The recruiter on the right is an alum who said Uber provides great opportunity, but declined to be quoted by name or give specifics. 

This is Kate Eberhard's phone. A former Uber driver, she likes Lyft better, but continues to get messages with incentives to pull her back to Uber.