Paul Miller And The Five Rules Of Stunt Resignation

On Friday afternoon, Paul J. Miller caused what passes for a kerfuffle inside the technology journalism meta-bubble.

Miller, as you know, is “Senior Associate Editor” at our estranged sister site Engadget – or at least he was until yesterday when he posted a resignation note on his blog. The reason for his leaving? The Aol Way.

You’ve already read the document: Tim Armstong and David Eun’s 58-page death warrant for journalists and the practice of journalism at Aol. Hyperbole? Hardly. Here are a few choice quotes…

  • “each article should be profitable and generate at least [emphasis theirs] 7k PVs/story”
  • “[By March:] SEO checker to be used on 95% of stories”
  • “Decide What Topics To Cover [based on] 1) Traffic Potential, 2) Revenue/Profit 3) Turnaround Time 4) Editorial Integrity”
  • “use [freelancers] sparingly unless paid for by advertiser”
  • “”Carefully craft headlines to grab users’ interest by incorporating in-demand terms and entice them to click onto the article [e.g.] ‘Lady Gaga Goes Pantsless in Paris’”
  • “use editorial judgment & insight to determine production. Ex: “Macaulay Culkin” & Mila Kunis” are trending because they broke up -> write story about Macaulay Culkin and Mila Kunis”.

Had I been drafting the document, I might have added the words “Alternatively, kill yourself” to that last nugget of advice. (Although journalists with a ghoulish bent might enjoy pitching some ideas to Aol based on today’s Google trending search terms: Suez, Benghazi, Radiohead and Planned Parenthood. You have 30 seconds – go!)

As an added bonus, the Aol Way also contains a borderline-satirical list of scheduled meetings and calls between editorial staffs and the mothership, mostly to waste everyone’s time constantly monitor progress. As anyone who works with Aol will tell you, this company freaking loves arranging meetings and calls. (As the old saying goes: those who can, do; those who can’t, set up a conference call to outline targets for doing.)

So who can blame Miller for wanting to quit Aol while it was behind? Well, actually I can. Not for his motives – it’s always heartening to see someone taking a stand – but for his methods. In fact, Millers’s resignation broke every one of the Five Rules Of Stunt Resignation.

Having been fired – or “forceably resigned” – from every job I’ve ever had, this is kinda my wheelhouse. Here then, for the benefit of anyone else thinking about following Miller out the door, is a quick reminder of how the game works.

Rule One: Go Out In A Blaze Of Glory

This is the big one: never – ever – resign. Always – always – make them fire you. Assuming Miller really did jump as opposed to being being pushed, he was a fool to walk out the door of his own volition. Resignations do not a martyr make, and by tomorrow everyone will have forgotten about his admirable act of principle. Exhibit: How many high profile political resignations can you remember? Now how many high profile firings? Exactly.

Once Miller decided he no longer cared to keep his job, he gave himself a once in a lifetime opportunity to mess with his hated Aol overlords. He could have written a series of long, rambling, un-search optimised pieces poking fun at the Aol Way. He could have composed an open letter to Armstong and Eun, and posted it on the front page of Engadget for maximum embarrassment (posting his resignation on his own blog rather than his employers’ was a classic schoolboy error). Hell, he could have written Vogon poetry, or posted video of him doing interpretive dance. In short, if he didn’t care about his job, he could have used Engadget’s audience to loudly and annoyingly hammer home his point about Aol’s repellent content strategy until he was dragged kicking and screaming from the building, a martyr to online journalism!

A grossly unprofessional abuse of power? Of course, but also this: a pitch-perfect stunt firing of which Network’s Howard Beale would be proud.

Rule Two: Have A Specific Grievance

Another big problem with Miller’s blog post is the lack of specifics.

“I’d love to be able to keep doing this forever, but unfortunately Engadget is owned by AOL, and AOL has proved an unwilling partner in this site’s evolution.”

What does that mean? I don’t know what life is like at Engadget but with TechCrunch, AOL has thus far stuck to its word not to interfere with editorial. No one (except possibly Mike) would be happier than me to receive an email from Daddy Tim, asking us to cover a particular subject, or leave something else alone. It would be posted on TechCrunch before the ink was dry. Likewise, the day that one of Aol’s “SEO consultants” walks through the door of TCHQ, Powerpoint presentation in hand, will be one of the best days of TCTV’s life. The video of us messing with them will get a zillion views.

Disappointingly, though, none of this has happened yet. I’m sure the TechCrunchers and Engageters who have to deal with Aol on a corporate level – those fucking calls – have sufficient specific grievances to justify taking a walk, but I’m not convinced that any editorial staffers do yet. If Miller’s experience is dramatically different than ours, he should have given specifics – otherwise it just sounds like he was generally fed up with his job, and the Aol just gave him an excuse. Which brings me to…

Rule Three: Timing Is Everything

Miller joined Engadget in September 2005, about a month before the blog was acquired by AOL, and a full six years after Michael Wolff wrote Burn Rate, the first book to give an insight into how breathtakingly dysfunctional Aol can be. The Aol Way document is a hell of a flimsy final straw to break a six year employee’s back —

— and even then, the Aol Way was published more than two weeks before Miller’s resignation. If he was determined to resign on principle, rather than because of some specific example of corporate interference,  the rules dictate he should have walked within 24 hours of the document being leaked. Waiting 17 days reminds me of those soccer players (naming no names: Ronaldo) who take a dive ten seconds after an opponent has brushed past them. “Oh, ow… foul!” Oh, please.

Rule Four: “There’s No One Else Involved”

In many ways, resignations follow the same protocol as celebrity divorces (speaking of: did you hear about Macaulay and Mila!? Oh Em Gee!”). Specifically, in one’s statement of separation it’s vital to include an assurance that the decision was made entirely alone; that there is no one else involved: no other job, or younger starlet, waiting in the wings. To suggest otherwise is to turn a shining martyr into a grubby comparison shopper. The nearest Miller’s blog post got to such a statement was this:

“I’m not exactly sure what these next months and years are going to look like for me, and I’m truly sad that they can’t look like Engadget, but I’m excited to find out what’s next.”

Meh. Four out of ten.

Rule Five: Find Someone Else Within A Week

In reality, of course, Rule Four is just an inside joke. Of course there’s someone else, or at least there bloody well better be. After resigning, or being fired, you have a maximum of seven days before everyone forgets who you are – or until they assume that, if no other employer wants you, you weren’t that great a loss in the first place.

When the Guardian laid me off a year or so ago, I immediately announced my move to TechCrunch, following a lighting-fast negotiation which made Phileas Fogg’s sprint to the Reform Club look relaxed. Even back in 2004, when my re-employ-ability was less certain, I understood the importance of Rule Five: within three days of being fired as editor of a magazine I’d co-founded, I announced that I was launching a brand new company called The Friday Project. Of course I had absolutely no idea what The Friday Project would do, but I registered the domain name and created a holding site and sent out a press release anyway. Eight months later, when my new business partner and I finally revealed that The Friday Project would be a new publishing house, everyone assumed we’d planned it that way from the start. Appearances are everything.

So, Paul J. Miller, Rule Five dictates that you have fewer than six days left to make your next move. You’re a talented, popular writer – and an even more popular podcaster – so hopefully, having screwed up all the other rules, you’ll at least nail this one.

I mean, I’d suggest joining us here at TechCrunch but… well… you know… Aol. Those fuckers are everywhere.

Good luck!