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Meet the (Meta)Press: Mark Jurkowitz

Who reports on the reporters?

- August 12, 2003

It's no wonder Mark Jurkowitz covers the media beat for The Boston Globe: With the exception of the archrival Boston Herald, he's worked for all the major print outlets in Beantown. After stints at the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix and Boston magazine, Jurkowitz joined the Globe in 1995 as the paper's ombudsman and leveraged that gig into a position as what he believes is the paper's first-ever exclusively media writer. Now that he's halfway through his second decade in that gig, Jurkowitz spoke to mediabistro.com last week about Tina vs. Remnick, working for The New York Times Company, and how the New York Yankees—the Yankees!—got him started on his Bostonian career.

Born: November 24, 1953
Hometown: Scranton, Pennsylvania
First section of the Sunday Globe: "If I don't know how the Yankees have done the night before, the first section I read is the sports section. Otherwise, the A section."

How did you get into this media-about-media kind of writing?
Like a lot of people, I fell in love with newspapers because of baseball when I was a kid. I was a huge Yankee fan growing up, and often I'd have to go to bed before the game was over on the radio, so, as a result, I'd wake up really early just to get the paper and find out the Yankee score. From this, I learned both to love newspapers and to get up early, which I still do. But I was always a newspaper junkie; whenever my family would go on vacations I would always buy the local papers. I was really enthralled with the media.

What media are you most enthralled with these days?
I read a ton of stuff. I usually don't read books unless I'm reviewing them, but I'm always reading magazines, Boston-based and otherwise. In terms of favorites, I can't actually say that I have any in particular. I love reading aspects of The New York Times. The two magazines I will read for my own education each week are The New Yorker and the Times's Sunday magazine. For my personal interest, in international politics, I definitely like to check in with Tom Friedman and read his stuff.

But, also, without too much praising of the deceased, I will say one of the most amazing things recently was the job that Mike Kelly did at The Altantic Monthly. There's a lot of feeling that it's hard to change a magazine, but I'm convinced that the right people can do anything. Kelly did an amazing thing in the last few years of his stewardship at The Atlantic. Also, by way of example, Craig Unger did a remarkable job at Boston magazine, which has run hot and cold in the past. I think editors can really make a difference. Even at The New Yorker; I was a Tina Brown fan—yes there was more glitz, but, as good a job as Remnick does, I still liked her version a bit better.

So how did you move from a newspaper-reading kind to the media writer for The Boston Globe?
I've been here in Boston for almost 30 years. I went to BU for journalism and was a freelance writer at first. The first job I had was with the Tab newspapers, a small group of suburban weeklies in Brookline and Newton in the late '70s—basically it was classic community journalism. I ended up at editor of the Tabs in '84, and we expanded to Cambridge, Boston, Wellesley, and a few other places. In 1986, I spent a year in congressional campaign, as press secretary for Jim Roosevelt, who was running for the seat vacated by Tip O'Neill. It was an election that was ultimately won by Joe Kennedy, but I probably made more media contacts there than in all my years working for the Tabs. I started at The Boston Phoenix in 1987, reviving a media criticism column called "Don't Quote Me," which had previously been done, long before, by Dave O'Brian.

I worked at the Phoenix for seven years and also became the news editor there, but, after a while I felt that the beat was really too narrow. It was just the Globe and the Herald, and how long could I write about just those two papers? So in '94 I went to Boston magazine very briefly, to take the executive editor job, which was the number two spot, and also continue to write media stories. At that point I'd never really envisioned a career in daily journalism. First off, I was older, I'd only worked for weeklies, and I'd been doing media criticism for the better part of a decade.

I'd also never envisioned going to the Globe. In fact, when I got the Phoenix job I'd had to swear I wasn't ever interested in going to the Globe, because if I had been interested it would have become a conflict possibly in how I covered them. But right after I started at Boston magazine, in '95, the Globe offered a job as the ombudsman for the paper, and I became the first one they ever had who came from outside of the newsroom. I took it, and also did some media writing for them. I was ombudsman for two-and-a-half years and then became a full-time media critic. I think they never had a person assigned to cover solely journalism before me.

Was there anyone who mentored you into being this media writer?
I've had good editors everywhere I've worked, but I don't know if anyone in particular turned me on to media coverage. Media writing is sort of a funky part of the journalism business. I was always a fan of the "Don't Quote Me" column by Dave O'Brian; I always used to read it and think "Man, this guy has guts." I used to think it was amazing that he was totally unafraid to criticize people in the business. I remember once he criticized an editor friend of mine, and the editor stewed for days about how to get back at him. I remember thinking how great it would be to be able to do that. And then I met him a couple of years later and it was funny because he was just this quiet, small, unassuming guy. But he made that column famous with the way he executed his writing. He passed away a couple of years ago, and, though I wouldn't say we were friends or anything, I was really enthralled by his writing, and I was proud that I was the one who ended up writing an obituary for him in the Phoenix.

With the big rivalry between your paper and the Herald, is it tough being expected to then unbiasedly criticize their coverage?
The toughest part of this job isn't writing about the Herald. It's having to do assignments and stay fair, with no hidden agenda. In some ways you end up covering you own institution. For a while I was the ombudsman as well, and if you're doing your ombudsman job effectively, fewer and fewer people are willing to stand next to you in line at the cafeteria. As a media writer, I ended up also writing about the Globe quite a bit. I covered the departures of Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith, which was a really tough time here. Also the removal of Ben Taylor, the last publisher from the family that had owned the paper, was tough. And the changing of the guard of editors here.

The Herald rivalry is actually pretty easy to cover. They do their thing, and we do ours. I try to write about them only if there's a big story, like there is now as people are seeing the paper evolve pretty dramatically. But as far as independence, I am proud that a couple of years ago the paper let me do a profile on the publisher of the Herald. I did a bunch of interviews with Pat Purcell and eventually we ran a piece that was actually flattering. Another thing about this newspaper that I'm proud of is that there is a good reputation of airing our own linen here. I have the freedom to write about the Globe as I would about anyone else.

Did much change when The New York Times Company bought the paper a decade ago, in the transition from family to corporate ownership? I mean, what was it like covering the Jayson Blair saga as a guy who gets his paychecks ultimately from the Sulzbergers?
I always tell people if they want to know when something big is going to happen, find out when I'm on vacation. I was on vacation for the first bombing of the World Trade Center. Also for Waco and 9/11. And I ended up being vacation when a lot of the Jayson Blair stuff happened.

Certainly I am allowed to cover the Times, and I am supposed to cover it as we would any other newspaper. We profiled Joe Lelyveld at one point, and also, since Blair worked here too, we also did our own profile of him, and did our own investigation into whether he did anything here. In terms of corporate stuff, I certainly don't get any stories from the Times—the two papers are really independent of each other. The one area where the Times Company's broad media ambitions intersect with what I do is, now that the FCC's cross-ownership rules might come down, there is speculation that the company might buy a television station in Boston and leverage the Globe coverage with TV news, but that's all highly speculative. But I'm always skeptical that synergy works the way it's supposed to.

David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer and editor and mediabistro.com's news editor.



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