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Don't want it Public? Don't put it in an Email; Two Cautionary Tales

02/01/11

By Ken Magill

A recent court decision serves to remind us of one of the cardinal rules of email, especially work email: Don’t put anything in it you wouldn’t want forwarded to the world or posted on the company bulletin board.

A California appeals court recently ruled that emails to an attorney that would otherwise have been privileged did not qualify as a "confidential communication between client and lawyer," according to the Chronicle of Data Protection.

The reason: they were sent from her employer’s computer. Moreover, the messages regarded her possibly suing her employer.

Uh, Doy.

In reading about the case, I was reminded of the mother-of-all-misguided-workplace-email incidents of which I was personally part.

It happened while I was at The New York Sun, a start-up daily I worked at for about 18 months from 2003 to 2005.

I went to work for that paper with stars in my eyes. I was going to work for a New York City friggin’ daily. For a reporter, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Also, The Sun’s offices were just blocks from the World Trade Center and kitty corner from where I stood when I witnessed the second plane hit on Sept. 11, 2001. Working there seemed symbolic. I was supposed to be there, I thought.

However, I very quickly found out I hadn’t gone to work for a New York City friggin’ daily. I had gone to work for a New York City friggin’ clinically insane daily.

While the place practically dripped with editorial talent—I was awestruck by how good the crew putting the paper together every night was, and was honored to be one of them—management was more dysfunctional than any I had ever experienced.

For example, after we had run off another business editor—the paper went through six in three years—I ended up de facto business editor.

I say de facto because they weren’t prepared to give me the job officially and were searching for someone more suitable.

One afternoon, the phone on my desk rang and it was managing editor Ira Stoll’s assistant: "I have [can’t remember the name] on the line. He’s coming to work for the business desk tomorrow."

"Is he the new editor?" I asked. [I’m, of course, paraphrasing here, with the exception of the last quote, which is forever seared into my brain.]

"Excuse me?" she asked.

"Is he the new editor? Have they found the editor they’re looking for? Is he reporting to me or am I reporting to him?"

"I don’t know. Let me check," she said.

A moment later she came back on the line: "Ira says he doesn’t know. Work it out between you."

No one who worked for The New York Sun would be remotely surprised by that story.

The guy was older than I was. He was nice enough. He said he was there to live out his life-long dream of working for a New York City daily.

"I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to continue to bust my ass night after night while you live out your romantic fantasy," I thought. I appointed him my editor. I don’t remember him even lasting a day, though I could be misremembering here. He certainly had no lasting impact.

And now, the email incident: One night in 2005 while putting the next morning’s issue together, everyone in the newsroom’s email box pinged.

The message it contained was a bombshell.

Someone outside the company—a disgruntled former employee, we suspected—had accessed deputy managing editor Robert Messenger’s computer and forwarded a memo to everyone that Messenger had recently sent to Stoll and the paper’s editor Seth Lipsky. In the memo, Messenger recommended refocusing the paper as a niche product and making $500,000 in staff cuts.

Mine was one of the jobs targeted. The memo also published our salaries—which were way out of whack relative to one another. I, for example, found out that someone I considered a low-talent hack was out earning me considerably.

"Our business section has not hit the mark under a half-dozen editors," the memo said. "Given the traditional coverage in the Times, WSJ, FT, IBD and flair of the Post, this is clearly an area where we can't compete without spending more money, significantly more money."

Messenger was right.

I, however, had had enough.

I didn’t consider Messenger’s memo embarrassing. It was empowering.

While discussing my next move with my wife, she looked over our finances and said: "Can you bring home $3,000 a month freelancing?"

"Easily," I said.

"Then you go tell them to fuck off and you tell them to fuck off immediately so they know exactly why you’re telling them to fuck off," she said. Never had such a profanity-laced sentence made me feel so loved.

When I resigned, Lipsky asked me if I had a job lined up.

"Nope," I said. "I just know I don’t want to be here."

It was one of the most liberating employment experiences of my life.

On my last evening at The Sun, the night crew gave me a heart-warming card signed by everyone on the shift and a bottle of vodka [go figure]. Though I’ve lost touch with them, I still miss working with them.

Several months later—in September of 2005—I signed on with Penton Media and was happily back in the trades, having once and for all scratched the itch of wanting to work for a New York City daily.

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