Because I happen to be the last man on earth who still buys music CDs, and because on Friday afternoon as I crossed 57th and Park Avenue I felt like I was about to spontaneously combust, I found myself ducking into an air conditioned Borders to pick up a re-issue of The Beach Boys’ classic, “Pet Sounds,” for which I recently had a hankering.
That’s when I saw it: Display copies of Randall Lane’s book, The Zeroes, chronicling the rise and fall of Doubledown Media, defunct publisher of the glossy, “Forbes-meets-GQ” magazine Trader Monthly, of which I was a senior editor, and which is considered by some to be among the most obnoxious magazines in history and which went down like the Hindenburg in February 2009.
I had no intention of reading the book, and had already received a few emails from ex-colleagues describing the various parts that mentioned me.
Nevertheless, as it was sitting right there in front of me and as I have never been mentioned in a book before, I picked one up, flipped to the index, looked up my name and proceeded to check out each one of the handful of references. As someone had already alerted me, I’m first in there mentioned as being “gruff and barrel-chested” and as someone who carried himself “like a trader,” which I suppose is, or is not, accurate, depending on the kind of trader stereotype to which you do or do not subscribe. If I carried anything like anyone, it was Trader Monthly, on my back, like a Himalayan Sherpa, but more on that later.
One passage had me emailing Randall about an at times combative editorial assistant named Teri Buhl. Supposedly, I was complaining to Lane, my boss, the editor in chief and CEO of Doubledown, that she was pestering me about not running some of her online scoops. I’m going to assume I sent the email and that Randall has a copy of it, but as I read this part I quietly shook my head, and could not help but wonder why any nonfictional narrative of any genre would ever reference for any reason an email from an editor at a trade magazine seeking advice on how best to handle an unhappy intern, but then again I do realize Randall and Teri have had their differences. For what it is worth, while I had misgivings about some of her pitches and ability to play well with others, following her departure I did enlist Teri to help me research our annual list of the highest paid traders, and in this regard she did some good work. It’s one thing to have a hedge fund PR handler whisper that, yeah we more or less have the income estimates right on, but it’s another to have the actual traders confirming (not for attribution) we were right on the money. Teri, in a number of cases, was able to do just that.
Producing the T100 list every year was a sick amount of work, a five-month siege, to say nothing of what it took (blood, sweat, tears, did I mention blood?) producing every issue of the magazine. That I was left to rely on inexperienced interns to aid me in the bulk of these endeavors tells you much of what you need to know about the way Doubledown was run, or at least as much as a brief leaf through of the book. The Zeroes could very well refer to Lane’s editorial staffing policy. He took running lean to a level not seen since Karen Carpenter first recorded “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and believe meâ€”I have.
The only thing more perplexing than how/why the company ever tried to function without even a single full-time experienced financial writer on staff besides myself is why I ever went along with it. I suppose the reason owes to the company’s original startup mentality, though looking back, Brian Dawson and Ty Wenger, who handled front-of-book and lifestyle content, respectively, and myself (handling everything else) were really suckers disguised as gluttons for punishment masquerading as can-do soldiers.
Also perplexing, to which anyone who has perused the DD bankruptcy filing can attest, is the mountain of debt the company ran up, considering, again, there was no real editorial staff and what freelancers we did use were often not paid for months, or at all. God Only Knows what the fiscal mess was actually about, but I Know There’s An Answer. Wouldn’t it Be Nice if we all figured it out.
The least impressive figure in the Doubledown saga is not Lane, but Jim Dunning, the diminutive private equity mogul who after becoming involved as owner (buying much of Magnus Greaves’ stake) would come by the office once every few weeks to blow smoke up all of our asses. Patronizing to an almost Monty Python-like point of absurdity, Dunning was convinced that he was building a company that would one day be valued at $1 billion dollars or more, hence the ill-fated launch â€“ with no staff â€“ of Dealmaker, billed as Trader Monthly for bankers, and the doomed acquisition of Private Air, and the royal debacle that was the launch of a single doomed issue of the Players Club with top-shelf collaborator Lenny Dykstra.
To me, Dunning was like G.E. Smith, the showy, blues-guitar-styling musical director of Saturday Night Live. For those who recall watching SNL in the ’90s, Smith would come on before and after commercials, simply to fill some space, busting out some seemingly amazing but in actuality ballachingly indulgent solo, commanding respect without it ever being clear why exactly he should.
For three years after Doubledown formally launched, myself and the aforementioned senior editors tried to get our equity stakes put down on paper, officially. I had always hoped/foolishly assumed my stake would be no less than 1-2 points. Like I said, we tried to get this in writing. I realize I should have done so before ever showing up for the first day of work, but at the time I never thought we would publish more than a few issues before folding, and so early on I agreed to have ownership codified at a later date. Soon enough, two years had gone by, and then three, and by then I was in too deep, committed for the long haul because Trader had gotten some traction and I had worked too damn hard to walk away. Randall kept stalling.
Still, I always trusted my sweat equity would be rewarded. In the end, I was granted a stake that did not add up to even one half of a point, and soon even this pathetic stake was diluted to some fraction of a percentage incalcuable without a special software application.
Not long after the dilution but before the company went to hell, in a sitdown meeting with Randall and Dunning, I voiced my disgust at what had gone down with the ownership stakes. Dunning started barking at me, something about me not understanding the math, and he promptly ordered me to write down some figures. He was trying to make a case that a smaller percentage of a larger sum was better than a larger percent of a smaller sum but his calculus depended on the company selling for hundreds of millions of dollars and it was clear by this point that was never going to happen.
Him instructing me to take down the figures like some rented stenographer was the straw that broke the barrel chest. I took my pen and my notebook and threw them at him, snapping, “you write it down” prompting Dunning to scowl and for Randall to say, “hey Rich that was not cool!”
I later settled down, and apologized, but looking back I wished I had thrown a pen, a notebook and a Bloomberg terminal, but then Doubledown would never have thought to pay for a Bloomberg terminal. Another editor, Ty, had the presence of mind to snag that notebook for posterity. Hopefully, he still has it. It should remain as a lone symbol of the one shred of my dignity that survived that shitshow.
I just had to get that off my barrel chest. Sorry to be so gruff.
No, actually, I’m not sorry. And, incidentally, if Hollywood ever turns The Zeroes into a movie, I want to be played by the fat guy from “Lost.”