Tuesday night: join the (media) circus

April 5th, 2009 → 2:49 pm @

The 24 hours immediately following Opening Day is always a bit of a let-down: there’s the months of buildup, the six weeks of Spring Training, that first game…and then an off-day? What, people already need a rest?

This year, the wonderful men and women at Gelf have decided to help out those of you living in NYC…and I’ve decided to help them. You guessed it: Tuesday night I’ll be part of a panel at Gelf’s first-ever Media Circus event – which, according to those in the know, is “a new monthly speaking series…held at JLA Studios in DUMBO, Brooklyn—only one subway stop away from Manhattan!” (Gmap for JLA at 63 Pearl St.) Besides me, Gawker media critic Hamilton Nolan and Portfolio’s Jeff Bercovici will be talking about how we’re all about to join the ranks of the unempl…er, about “how the press covers and consumes itself.” The event is free, drinks will be served, doors open at 7pm, and the panel starts at 7:30.

(And to those of you who think I haven’t learned anything in the past five years…I’ve forever retired the oft-mocked picture of me that accompanied previous interviews, etc. For the Q/A table-setter for this event — in which I talk about the Red Sox, drugs, the Kindle, and Russian Jews — I opted for a mostly obscured shot of me riding in a tank. So there.)

Post Categories: 2009 Opening Day & Gawker & Media reporting & Portfolio & Speaking appearances

From Baghdad to Bloomberg

November 5th, 2008 → 12:49 pm @

After a good stretch without any stories in VF, I have two in this month’s issue: a piece on the American public’s (and the American media’s) waning interest in Iraq and one on the fairly remarkable success of Bloomberg News. Capsule descriptions have never been my strong suit, so I’ll use the magazine’s sub-heads to do the job for me…

The New York Times’s Lonely War

With most of the U.S. media withdrawn from Iraq, only The New York Times seems determined to stay the course. From inside the paper’s fortified Baghdad bureau, Seth Mnookin reveals the psychological and physical dangers that have faced the likes of John F. Burns, Dexter Filkins, and Alissa J. Rubin as the dramatic headlines of 2003 turned into a complex, difficult story that no one wants to read.


Bloomberg Without Bloomberg

With its ruthless competitiveness, its singular business model, and its bizarre editorial culture, Bloomberg News has continued to expand even as the media business shrivels. Under the new stewardship of former Time Inc. chief Norman Pearlstine, reports Seth Mnookin, the brainchild of New York’s mayor is poised to become the most consulted news source in the world.

It’s still well worth it to spend the five bucks for a hard-copy of the issue itself–the photos on both pieces are stunning. Except, of course, for the left half of this one…

Post Categories: Bloomberg News & Iraq & Media & Media reporting & New York Times & Vanity Fair

“Thirty-eight people, including the author of this story, lost their jobs.”

November 3rd, 2008 → 3:11 pm @

It’s been a little more than seven years since Inside.com and Brill’s Content cratered — and there are still days when it feels as if the piece of journalism I’m best known for is the obit I posted on Inside a couple of hours after the news was announced. At the time, the scribbling class was worried about what the bursting of the dot com bubble would mean for our future job prospects. Who knew we should have been more concerned about collateralized debt obligations?

Indeed, what’s going on today feels much worse than the collective belt-tightening that went on in the months after 9/11. In June, The Palm Beach Post, the first daily newspaper I worked for, cut its newsroom staff in half. The New York Sun, the newspaper that hired me immediately after Brill’s/Inside folded, shut its doors a little more than a month ago. Newsweek, where I landed next, has gone from hiring freezes to buyouts to staff cuts. And last week, Men’s Vogue, Mrs. FTM’s employer, announced that it was folding. (I know: technically it’ll still be publishing twice a year. But in reality it’s finished: every single employee save for the editor-in-chief was laid off.) I’m not sure if I should be thankful or terrified about the fact that I’m functionally self-employed…

But I digress. I’ve gotten several requests for the aforementioned obit…so here it is, in all of its nostalgic glory.

Inside.com and Brill’s Content to Close — This Time We Really Mean It

Awkward marriage between polar opposites on the hipness spectrum ends, as relationship between Steven Brill and Primedia unravels. 38 lose their jobs.

by Seth Mnookin

Monday, October 15, 2001

Brill’s Content and Inside.com, the church lady and swinging single of the myopic media world who got hitched in April, have been closed, victims of terrible publishing and Web economies and a strained relationship between Steven Brill and his major backer, Primedia.

The moves come as part of an announcement that Brill Media Holdings and Primedia, which owns 49 percent of the former, were unwinding their complicated relationship. Brill’s Content will cease publication immediately. Inside.com, which Brill Media Holdings has sold to Primedia, will live on in name only, becoming a portal for the Media Central publications like Folio:, Cable World and Inside Book Publishing Report. And the management of those Media Central titles will revert to Primedia, which ran them before its deal last January with Brill.

Thirty-eight people, including the author of this story, lost their jobs. And Steven Brill, the CEO of both Media Central and chairman and CEO of Brill Media Holdings, will leave after a three-month transition.

Both Brill and Primedia chairman Tom Rogers said in statements that the performance of the publications was not the cause of the closure. Neither man would comment to Inside.com on their relationship, but reportedly tensions between Brill and Primedia had grown; press reports in recent weeks have speculated that the once-close relationship between Brill and Rogers had soured to the point where it made working together impossible.

“To say you’re surprised at any media business finding it hard to remain in existence at this point would be silly,” says Inside co-founder Kurt Andersen, who along with Michael Hirschorn and Deanna Brown formed the media and entertainment news company in 1999 and sold it to Brill in April 2001. “If sheer quality were a guarantor of survivorship, there would be a lot of publications and Web sites around that are not.”

The announcement, which had been rumored and speculated about in print for weeks, finally came at 10:48 a.m. Monday in the form of an e-mail announcement from Brill. “I would like to meet with people who work primarily on Brill’s Content and Inside at 11 in the big conference room,” Brill wrote, in a message that everyone knew meant the end. An attached memo explained the minutiae of the divorce of what was already an almost comically complicated arrangement.

Andersen, who in a much-ridiculed statement bragged during the go-go year of the New Economy (June 1999 to May 2000, for those keeping score at home) that raising money was as easy as “getting laid in 1969,” said he didn’t know of anything that could have done differently. “There wasn’t some big mistake that Brill made or that we made,” he said.

While Inside will likely be remembered as a white-hot outfit, that, for a brief, shining moment early last year, seemed to be the center of an over-oxygenated media world, Brill’s Content will go down as an occasionally preachy, often confusing, but sometimes fascinating publication that never quite found its niche. It aimed to be a consumer title about the press in the same way that Sports Illustrated aimed to be a consumer title about sports, an ambitious plan done in, perhaps, by the fact that people don’t tend to gather at stadiums to root on their favorite media outlet.

The magazine came onto the scene with Steve Brill’s voluminous and damning portrayal of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s manipulation of the press through well-timed leaks. But the magazine went through editors and writers faster than a sugar-starved 10-year old goes through candy bars. Michael Kramer and Eric Effron both served as top editors under Brill; when David Kuhn took over as editor in chief in February 2000, Effron stayed on as his No. 2.

Kuhn, who had spent most of his career working with Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Talk, immediately juiced up the book. Under his watch, Abigail Pogrebin’s piece on Richard Blow’s confidentiality agreement with JFK, Jr. was largely responsible for squelching Blow’s book deal — which was recently resurrected, however. Pieces on writers Lynn Hirschberg and Alex Kuczynski were hipper and more knowing than the magazine had been known for, and the book’s political coverage was bulked up.

But the publication floundered this spring. At first, Inside’s print magazine and Brill’s Content were going to be joined to create Inside Content; that plan was scrapped several months later, and Brill’s Content was relaunched as a quarterly. While the fall issue of Brill’s was, by many accounts, the strongest issue produced, the notion of an academic-looking quarterly about the media world proved a hard sell.

As Michael Gartner, the magazine’s ombudsman, wrote in a column that will now never run: “Perhaps there’s something more irrelevant, somewhere, than an ombudsman’s column in a publication that just went quarterly in a world that just went hourly. Perhaps there is something more meaningless than worrying about the suddenly silly stories in a publication that zigged and zagged in the direction of Vanity Fair at precisely the time the world careered and careened in the direction of Jane’s Defense Weekly. … Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps. But I doubt it.”

Inside had a more consistent, and more consistently lauded, history. Andersen and Hirschorn, by dint of their reputations, personalities, and a now comical belief in the transformative powers of the Internet, attracted a top-notch staff, many of whom were hired as much for their rock-solid connections as for their journalistic bona fides. For example, David Carr, the disheveled, gruff and immensely popular media reporter, came up from Washington, D.C., where he had been editing City Paper to cover magazines and newspapers, while Kyle Pope was drawn from The Wall Street Journal to be the TV editor. (Both left soon after the merger with Brill.)

And Inside broke news. P.J. Mark’s piece on a book about a mysterious invention that was supposed to revolutionize travel and more, took on a life of its own. Other scoops included: Stephen Battaglio’s piece about Jeff Zucker getting the presidency of NBC Entertainment and Carr and Lorne Manly’s story on the closing of George magazine.

But the hoped-for mix of ad and circulation revenue never materialized. The Internet market collapsed, and people’s aversion to paying for content on the Web was hard to overcome.

“Of course it was fun,” Andersen said. “It’s always fun to create something that not only hasn’t existed before, but to create something that by almost every account was good from the get-go. I think we raised the bar, both in terms of speed, and knowingness and intelligence.”

Post Categories: Brill's Content & Inside.com & Media & Media reporting & Men's Vogue & The Death of Print

Can you hear me now? The Daly fiasco echo chamber, day two.

December 12th, 2007 → 12:51 pm @

After getting roundly hammered for his asinine post yesterday, BU journalism professor Chris Daly apparently decided that he hadn’t sufficiently proved his lack of insight and threw up several hundred more words of absolute drivel. It’s hard to tease out the biggest laughlines, but here are a couple of start with:

“As a professor of journalism, I work with dozens of talented young people every year, and I know just how capable they are. I also know that they often need guidance, backgrounding, and careful editing. I regret leaving the impression that people in their 20s are somehow inherently unqualified to cover presidential politics or anything else.”


“Like many blogs, mine is a venue for criticism, analysis and commentary. It is not an outlet for reporting or research. I googled Mr. Bacon to begin to address the question, Could experience have been a factor?”

So, to summarize: Daly defends his own ignorance by writing that the young’uns out there need “backgrounding and careful editing”…and then goes on to say that he didn’t have any responsibility to provide any kind of background, context, or careful analysis because he declined to do any reporting and research before publishing online. (This last point is particularly ironic in light of a piece Daly has posted on his site titled “Are Bloggers Journalists?” in which he invokes the two Thomases: Paine and Jefferson.) As a j-school professor, Daly sure raises some interesting points, such as: Does a self-proclaimed professional journalist and educator have any responsibility to maintain any standards when writing for his blog, which heralds his profession (www.journalismprofessor.com) and his professional affiliation? What standards should blogs be held to if they want to be taken seriously? Etc, etc. Unfortunately (for his students, anyway), Daly raises these issues implicitly, and only by his own negative example.

This little bout of industry indignation also raises another interesting issue: the Romenesko echo chamber effect. Since the first link to his original post yesterday, Daly’s musing have been the subject of four more posts on Jim Romenesko’s “daily fix of media industry news,” including this one detailing initial reactions (including my own), an unintentionally ironic post from Washington Post executive editor Len Downie chastising Romenesko for linking to Daly’s piece in the first piece, a link to a letter from Time’s David Von Drehle, and this morning’s post detailing Daly’s semi-apologia. Numerous other people weighed in on Romenesko’s letters page, including the Times’ Adam Nagourney, the Boston Globe’s Erica Noonan, and Eric Alterman’s Eric Alterman. In an era of continual griping about newsroom cutbacks, why are so many highly-respected (and relatively high paid) journalists spending their precious time engaging a man who, according to his own resume, last did time as a working journalist in 1997? (I, for one, have a good excuse: I don’t have a job.)

I’ll venture one answer: journalists are self-obsessed, and, in a time when our public opinion ranking is somewhere below that of politicians, garbage collectors, and lawyers, Romenesko–a site that’s been labeled the industry’s water cooler so many times it’s practically part of the site’s name–is one area where we can remind each other we still matter. The lack of a volume control on Romenesko’s site, where a long Times feature about the future of the Wall Street Journal under Rupert Murdoch gets less attention that Chris Daly, makes it easy for us all to indulge in these self-important feeding frenzies. As a result, we give the Chris Daly’s of the world some weight, but that’s really secondary to our main, albeit unconscious, objective: reminding ourselves how much we matter.

Which isn’t to say that the first thing I’ll do when I post this is send a humble email to Romenesko himself. Because if there’s no link–and no reaction from my peers–how will I know that my voice on this burning issue is being heard?

Post Categories: Bloggers & Chris Daly & Media reporting & Navel Gazing & Romenesko

J-prof unwittingly demonstrates the worst political blogging of 2007

December 11th, 2007 → 12:14 pm @

BU journalism professor Chris Daly has a blog post today in which he takes the Washington Post to task for assigning Perry Bacon, Jr. to write front-page political stories. “Who is Perry Bacon Jr.?” Daly asks. “I don’t really know, but in two minutes of Googling him, I learned that he graduated from Yale in 2002, so he is approximately 27 years old. Since when does the Post assign 27-year-olds to write Page 1 presidential campaign pieces?” Daly goes on to compare Bacon’s now-infamous story about the non-reality of the “Barack is a Muslim” rumor to a hypothetical piece saying that Bacon is not a child molester.

This appears to be a good example of the maxim, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Whether or not Perry Bacon should be writing page 1 political stories is a question I can’t answer; I do, however, know that his age has absolutely nothing to do with it. To give some points of comparison:

Age at which Bob Woodward was assigned to Watergate: 29.
Age at which Carl Bernstein was assigned to cover Watergate: 28.
Age at which Charlie Savage won a Pulitzer for his investigation into President Bush’s use of “signing statements” to bypass provisions of new laws: 32.
Age of Ryan Lizza, the campaign correspondent for The New Yorker: 32.
Age at which David Rohde won his Pulitzer Prize for his eyewitness reporting on the massacre of Bosnian Muslims: 28.*
I could go on and on; I just pulled these examples out of my ass. And comparing a story addressing the fact that, as Bacon’s story’s headline read, “Foes Use Obama’s Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him” to the hoary old example of making some deny some outrageous, and previously unraised, accusation is so silly it does nothing so much as make me thankful Daly isn’t actually doing work inside newsrooms.

(I may be particularly sensitive to these kind of stupid, ageist accusations; I was 31 when I started work on Hard News, my book about the New York Times, and there were more than a few people who whispered to critics that I had no right investigating such an august institution. Maybe the Washington Post tapped it as one of the year’s best books solely to justify their use of young whippersnappers to cover politics.)

*I’m guessing at Savage’s, Lizza’s, and Rohde’s ages – I know the years in which they were born, but not the dates, which means they could have been 31, 31, and 27, respectively.

Post Categories: Academia & Hard News & Media reporting & Political Reporting & Washington Post

Wrong again!

September 5th, 2007 → 11:09 am @

I try not to respond to bait from those current (or former) Boston reporters who, for whatever reason, seem to have a bone to pick with the fact that I was the person who wrote the behind-the-scenes book on the Sox’s recent history…but I do feel compelled to correct one glaring inaccuracy in Howard Bryant’s recent ESPN.com column. In a column purportedly about…well, I’m actually not entirely sure what it’s about, but in said column, Bryant includes this paragraph:

“Henry, Werner and Lucchino needed validation for their collective erudition. In 2005 — in apparent response to Michael Lewis’ runaway bestseller ‘Moneyball’ — they commissioned a journalist, presumably for posterity, to chronicle their daily routines, management style and approach to the business of baseball, a behind-the-scenes, special features companion disc to the DVD that was the regular season.”

Since I actually know what I’m talking about here, l want to point out that every single statement in that graf is incorrect. I wasn’t commissioned to write Feeding the Monster; I pitched the book to my agent, we put together a proposal, and I hammered out a arrangement with the Sox that dictated the terms of my access. They didn’t come to me to propose the book; they didn’t commission anything; they had no editorial control over the final product; and no money between myself and the team ever exchanged hands. What’s more, I have no idea what any of that has to do with Moneyball…but whatever.

Maybe this shouldn’t bother me; as the good folks at Sons of Sam Horn recently pointed out, Bryant can be a little bit imprecise with his facts. (The example above is about a column titled “Mussina, Schilling being stalked by mortality” in which Bryant referred to Schilling’s recent loss to the Yankees as a game in which Curt “was beaten 5-0”; in fact, Curt gave up 2 runs in seven innings in what was eventually a 5-0 loss. What’s more, comparing a guy who recently took a one-hitter into the ninth and who has a 4 ERA and a 4-1 K/BB ratio to a guy who lost his starting job, has a 5.50 ERA, and less than a 3-1 K/BB ratio also seems kind of silly…) But as someone whose first book was about media ethics, I bristle at the notion of my being in financial cahoots with the subject of anything I happen to be writing about.

Post Categories: Feeding the Monster & Media reporting & Red Sox ownership & Sports Reporters

The Pulitzer Prizes, 2007 edition: Howell Raines pulls out the video of the ’02 awards.

March 9th, 2007 → 12:29 pm @

Here’s yet another example of why I’m glad I’m no longer covering the media: I don’t need to spend days furiously tracking down possible Pulitzer finalists. Editor and Publisher did the legwork this year, and there’ll undoubtedly be lots o’ chatter about this list in the month to come. (Back in 2000, I did a too-long but actually pretty fascinating article about the Pulitzers, which, it turns out, are about as trustworthy as the Golden Globes. Unfortunately, since said article was for the now-defunct Brill’s Content, and since Steve Brill hoped to monetize that content with the similarly defunct Contentville, that article isn’t available on Nexis or anywhere else online.)

One interesting thing about the list: the The New York Times has, according to this probably inaccurate and still incomplete list, a mere three finalists, only one more than the morale-leaking Los Angeles Times (and only one more than The Seattle Times). (Note: one of those finalists is supposedly columnist Joe Nocera — and I touted him months ago!) Does this mean the NYT is only 33 percent better than the LAT or the ST? Obviously not: the LAT was once a great paper. It’s not any more. And it’s getting less great by the day.

This does point to the ridiculousness of using awards — and in particular the Pulitzer — as a way to judge a newspaper’s overall quality. Just as the Times‘s 2002 haul meant a lot less than Howell Raines liked to think — a point I hammered home in my under-read (but well received!) ’04 book, Hard News — this year’s tally doesn’t say all that much about what’s actually going on in the industry this year. Some papers are excellent at launching prize-trolling projects (see: Philadelphia Inquirer in the ’70s), and kudos to them. But the Times is on a roll. It could shore up their political coverage, and its investigative reporting has had some notable screw-ups in the last four or so years, but its far and away the best general interest daily paper out there.

This list — again, with the healthy caveat that it might not be accurate — also likely demonstrates the ways in which the Pulitzer committee uses the prizes to send out pointed messages to the industry. Here the message to the Tribune Co., owner of the LAT, seems clear: stop screwing with our product. For some reason, I bet the Trib board isn’t gonna be listening.

Post Categories: Hard News & Howell Raines & Media reporting