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So What Do You Do, Michael Calderone, Politico Media Reporter?

From joining Politico to hitting the campaign trail with Tim Russert, this reporter discusses his big year

By Neal Ungerleider - January 30, 2008
Michael Calderone's name is a familiar one to New York media watchers. The longtime New York Observer columnist spent three years at the salmon-colored newspaper -- where, before handling real estate and media beats for the NYO, he started off as an intern. Most notably, Calderone scored an infamous interview with the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz and regularly covered a number of high-profile stories relating to the magazine and newspaper industries both for the print paper and their "The Media Mob" blog.

But Calderone made the move to DC. In October 2007, he announced that he was joining The Politico as a political media reporter. One of 2007's most successful media launches, the DC-based newspaper was founded in time to cover the most exciting presidential race in thirty years. The Politico is one of the few sites we can think of that has been praised by both Bill Clinton and Bill O'Reilly. Founded by ex-Washington Posters John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, the paper varies its issue release schedule as events warrant, with additional content posted daily to their Web site. We caught up with Calderone in a few conversations while he was on the road covering the caucuses and primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire to discuss New York vs. D.C., Politico.com vs. the Observer, and media reporting vs. political reporting.


Name: Michael Calderone
Position: Media reporter; Politico.com
Resume: Started at Politico in November 2007 after three years at the New York Observer, most recently covering the media; previously a researcher at Artforum and Bookforum; freelance writer for several publications, including The Fader, Nylon, and ARTnews
Birthdate: October 27, 1979
Hometown: South Plainfield, NJ
Education: Rutgers University, B.A. in English; New York University, M.A in Journalism
Marital status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: I always scan the A1 stories as soon as I pick it up. But the first section I get into is Week in Review, working backwards from the opinion pages. I won't say how quickly after that I get to the wedding pages in Styles.
Favorite television show: Like every other person working in media in 2008, I'm obsessed with The Wire. Also excited for Lost, even if there are only eight episodes in the can due to the WGA strike.
Last book read: It was a Chekhov book called A Journey to the End of the Russian Empire. That might sound pretentious, but it was a very thin travel book, not one of the 19th-century Russian doorstops.


What is a typical day like on the job?
I'm sure that it's not too much different from many reporters and, sadly, it's not as adventurous as reporting from Baghdad. But here goes: On the way to work, I usually pick up three or four daily papers to both get started with my day and to do my part in keeping the newspaper industry afloat (or at least to counteract reporting on dwindling circulation numbers). To cover the media, I still think it's important to try and read the hard copies. But I keep up with media and political news online during the day, and make lots of phone calls -- whether running through a publication's masthead to confirm a short item or having longer talks with editors and producers to get more insight. There's lunch and drinks with sources on occasion, and of course, writing. Shorter pieces are usually done in the office with the help of my iPod. For longer, more nuanced articles, I prefer to write from home.

What qualities do you think are most important for political and media reporters?
For media reporters, I suggest to block out of your mind that the people you're writing about could be future employers or colleagues. It's not relevant to the reporting task at hand, and if you are accurate and ethical, I believe that folks will understand that you have a job to do. And while it's also important to be critical of the industry's prospects, you have to try to avoid the all-too-familiar-pattern of seeing doom and gloom in everything these days. Of course the media industry's not in the best shape, and it is sad to keep reporting on foreign bureaus shuttering down and chopping resources. But with the shift to the Web, it's a transformative time as well.

Since I am not a political reporter -- and can't claim to have authority on the subject -- I'll just offer a couple suggestions from what I noticed on the campaign trail. While it's easy to give better treatment to a candidate when there's lots of access, political reporters need to remain skeptical at all times. I think that most still do, but that even includes the hour laughing with John McCain on the Straight Talk Express. Also, if New Hampshire taught anything, it's to beware of the bubble!

"I don't expect you'd keep talented journalists around if they were forced to report through a partisan filter."

You were in Iowa and New Hampshire covering the caucuses and primaries. What was the experience of covering them like?
Before I left for Iowa, I was fishing for campaign press stories, and every reporter I had contacted just said to go out there and see for myself. And it was incredible to try and take in the fact that the entire media apparatus relocated out to Des Moines, and later Manchester. For someone who makes their living covering these personalities, it could be more than a little disorienting. Look, it's Tim Russert! There's David Brooks! Not to mention the fact that I had a few encounters with journalists I'd written about or emailed but never met in person. So that kept things interesting.

How are reporters keeping themselves busy during the downtime covering the caucuses and primaries? Was there a lot of downtime?
Well, there's always drinking. But seriously, it's not exactly Hunter Thompson-style fear and loathing on the campaign trail. Part of the reason, I think, is that reporters these days are filing so much copy throughout the day online, and the fact that they are also connected back home via BlackBerry. Sometimes you're on a bus for 12 hours a day, which makes it harder to escape on the trail. In Des Moines, the New York and Washington crowds often filtered into the same handful of bars and restaurants at night. But even during downtime, reporters compare notes, and endlessly handicap the race -- even at New Year's parties.

For those unfamiliar with the Politico, how would you describe it?
Politico is a multi-platform, print and Web publication that covers politics, with exhaustive reporting on the 2008 Presidential race and the various levers of power and personalities in Washington D.C., whether in Congress, media, or lobbying. The print edition is generally published three times a week when Congress is in session, but it is distributed down here (in the Washington D.C. area). So even if New Yorkers are unable to get a paper copy, the Web site is constantly updated with breaking news stories, video, and blogs.

As a staff reporter, what does your beat cover?
I report on political media, with a focus on election coverage.

Some have accused the Politico as having a right-wing bias. Do you think there is any truth to that?
Definitely not. And I don't expect you'd keep talented journalists around if they were forced to report through a partisan filter.

Before joining the Politico, you reported on media for the New York Observer. What have the biggest differences been in covering media in Washington vs. New York?
For one thing, I don't have to worry about the stupid things I say at parties winding up on Gawker. But the main difference is that my focus here has narrowed to political media and examining the interplay of campaigns and the press. That's definitely a change from covering the glitzy magazine industry in Manhattan -- I haven't been to a Radar party in ages! Not to mention that my Us Weekly comp subscription hasn't made it down to D.C. as of yet.

A number of your stories deal with New York media pillars like The Wall Street Journal. What is it like covering New York while living in Washington?
At the Observer, I covered Dean Baquet leaving the Los Angeles Times, buyouts at the Boston Globe, and squabbles at The New Republic, all while writing from a bullpen in the Flatiron district. It is better to be closer to sources at times, but you can still break news remotely simply with a phone and computer.

What do you think of Jared Kushner's work at the Observer?
Well, I know Jared works very hard because whenever I came into the office on Sunday afternoons, he was always there. Since arriving, a lot has changed: the broadsheet morphed into a tabloid and the Web site was redesigned. And unlike most owners, Jared has actually increased the paper's editorial staff -- which is a very good thing. But I've been away, so I will have to wait for Isaiah Wilner's upcoming piece in New York piece to find out what is going on at the Observer now.


Neal Ungerleider is co-editor of FishbowlNY.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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