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So What Do You Do, Jonathan Alter, Senior Editor and Columnist, Newsweek

After 50 covers and 25 years at Newsweek, this senior editor chats about the current campaign, the blogosphere, and how to get started in the biz

By Kathryn Carlson - April 16, 2008
It may have slipped Jonathan Alter's mind to go to law school or enter the public service, but this Newsweek veteran didn't exactly stumble into journalism. As a young boy, Alter graced his neighbors with the editorial enthusiasm of his very own "little newspaper" -- acting as the sole reporter, writer, and oftentimes main subject.

Now, nearly 30 years after graduating from Harvard University, Alter boasts a resume that includes The Washington Monthly, NBC, author, and senior editor and columnist at Newsweek. This year marks his seventh round of election coverage, 25 years at Newsweek, and surpassing 50 covers at the news magazine.

Whether through his weekly column, posting online, appearing on NPR, or frequenting NBC as a talking head, Alter says he aims to help his audience think outside the box. We chatted with this seasoned journalist about the 2008 election, what it's like to break news, the "YouTube factor," and how to posture yourself for success in the business.


Name: Jonathan Alter
Position: Senior editor and columnist, Newsweek; Analyst and contributing correspondent, NBC News.
Resume: The Washington Monthly, 1981-1983. Newsweek, 1983-present. Author, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.
Birthday: October 6, 1957
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Education: Harvard University
Marital status: Married to Emily Lazar. Three children: Charlotte, 18; Tommy, 16; and Molly, 14
First section of Sunday Times: Week in Review
Favorite TV show: The Colbert Report
Last books read: Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America, by Donna Foote
Guilty pleasure: Walnut chocolate cookies

Describe your start in journalism. What did you want to do initially and why?
I was interested in journalism as a kid. I used to make up a little newspaper about what was going on the neighborhood and distribute it. Usually I was the only reporter and the primary subject of the story. I remember one headline was "John loses baseballs one summer." In high school, I worked for the school paper and then I worked for the Harvard Crimson. After I got out of college, I wasn't really sure what I was going to do. I thought about public service and law school, but that all slipped my mind. I ended up traveling, landed in Washington, and then started to do freelance for various newspapers and magazines. By that time I had fallen in love with The Washington Monthly and, after considerable effort, I was reluctantly hired in 1981. I did everything from taking the garbage out to writing cover stories. By the time I started there, I had appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic and a couple of other magazines, so I had a fairly good file of pieces going. About four years after I had graduated from college, I was hired by Newsweek and I've been there ever since -- for 25 years.

Given the media landscape these days, what's important for a journalist starting out who wants to follow a similar path to yours?
It's not a one-size-fits-all business. I think the Internet opens up a lot of career opportunities for people but I do think that writing for a lot of different publications is a good way to put together the clips you need to get hired. I really believe that you only need about five to 10 really good clips, it's not like you need to have 40 articles. You just need some that show you have strengths in different areas. This is a merit-based business, so what you've written tells a lot. If you can write stories and tell them in a thoughtful way, then there's going to be a place for you.

You joined Newsweek as an associate editor after being an editor at The Washington Monthly. What was it like moving from a monthly to a weekly?
It was an interesting jump. I was 25 years old and I was hired in Katharine Grahams' office in Washington. It was steady for me at the time. A weekly was ironically less stressful because there were about a hundred times as many people who worked at Newsweek than worked at The Washington Monthly.

You recently celebrated your 25th anniversary with Newsweek. What has kept you there for so long?
I would say it's the people and the company. Newsweek has always been open to my ideas and interests. Also, starting in the 1980s, the editors realized that it was helpful to Newsweek to have people from the magazine appear on television. So I've been able to use Newsweek as a wonderful base for a wide-ranging career in journalism. Basically, I do online, television, magazines, radio, and book writing. Another reason I've been able to stay here so long is that news magazines allow you to meld reporting and analysis in a way that's proven to be very appealing to me over the years.

I think bloggers are answerable to other bloggers and to their readers. My belief is that the age of no accountability is over.

I come from the school of journalism where you go out and do your reporting and collect facts, and then you owe it to your readers to provide some kind of context and even to give them some ways of thinking that maybe hadn't occurred to them before. I don't think I would've been able to stay at a newspaper this long, and I don't think I would've been able to stay within the confines of television storytelling for this long. News magazines basically give you a lot of freedom in the way that you cover the world.

As you said, you've worked within multiple mediums -- print, television, radio, and the Web. Do certain mediums require you to rely more on particular skills than others?
I signed with NBC News in 1996 and I've been with them for nearly 12 years on a part-time basis. When it came to producing two-minute television pieces, I was good at certain parts, like script-writing, and not so good at other parts, like stand-ups. Now I do more of the talking head end of the business, for which there's a large appetite. That transition hasn't been that difficult.

In the 1980s, you were Newsweek's media critic and were among the first in the mainstream media to hold news organizations accountable for their coverage. That role is now filled by blogs. What has the emergence of the blogosphere meant for publications like Newsweek?
When I started covering the media in 1984, there were very few media critics in the United States. At one point, I was named one of the top ten media critics in America and my parents were very pleased -- but I had to tell them that there were only ten media critics in America. So the honor wasn't tremendously meaningful because that aspect of the business was tremendously underdeveloped. The media just basically wasn't held accountable. Today, the blogosphere does a good job of holding the media accountable for its mistakes and its misinterpretations. This means that there's one less thing for Time and Newsweek to have to do, which is fine because we can always use the space for something else. But yes, there was a time when news organizations didn't have to answer to anybody. And I thought that was wrong. So I wrote a lot of pieces that don't actually look a lot different than blog entries today. I'm actually going to have a collection of my media columns put together sometime later this year, going back 20 years. I also put out another paperback recently, actually.

That's the book called Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, right?
Yeah, it's going to be a movie.

Wasn't that the book Kurt Vonnegut said was like crack-cocaine for his generation?
Yeah, isn't that a great quote? He called me up a month before he died and invited me out for dinner. The only agenda was to talk about Roosevelt. I really had a great time with him.

Back to blogosphere, how is Newsweek keeping pace with the demand for online content?
I think we're doing well. Like I said, just a few minutes ago I posted a story on Newsweek.com about how some Democrat is urging Hillary Clinton to run for governor of New York when this presidential thing ends. It gives me a chance to put things out there without waiting until the following week. For the first 15 years that I worked at Newsweek, we didn't have an online presence so there wasn't the opportunity to do that. It also means more work for everybody. We have many fewer employees than we used to and we also do more work. I think that's something that's shared across the business right now. People are working harder. The beast is always hungry.

At a recent New York University media event, you and the other panelists addressed the issue of credentialing and accountability. How does that factor into the blogosphere?
I think bloggers are answerable to other bloggers and to their readers. My belief is that the age of no accountability is over. I think the lack of credentialing is a good thing -- I'm an anti-credentialist. Credentialing has run amok in America. In many instances, credentials are just barriers to entry and they're ways for people who are already in a particular craft or profession to keep other people out. I think it's insane that Bill Gates can't go into a public school in the United States and teach a computer science class because he hasn't got some Mickey Mouse teacher's credential. I think it's wrong that I can't teach journalism in a school. You should be judged on what you can do and what you know, not by whether you have a piece of sheepskin.

It used to be that when something didn't make the evening news, it didn't happen. Now when something doesn't really make it on YouTube, it didn't happen.

So I don't have a problem with the lack of credentialing. Where I do have a problem, is a lack of standards. There are certain standards in our business, like calling the subject of a story for comment, providing some elemental sense of fairness in the criticisms at some level, avoiding cheap shots and kicking people when they're down. I'm talking about picking up the phone once and a while, which is something that, unfortunately, a lot of self-styled journalists and bloggers just don't do. There's a slippage in the basic standards. Having said that, there's a lot of great stuff that's being done outside the mainstream media. For example, I look at things like Talking Points Memo, I think they should figure out how to give Josh Marshall a Pulitzer Prize -- but of course online content isn't eligible, but that's a different story.

On that note, which blogs do you read regularly?
I read Talking Points Memo, Ben Smith's, and some of the other political blogs depending on the day. I read Drudge, Huffington Post, and Real Clear Politics. I'm a little bit skewed to the campaign and election content right now. I'm pretty obsessed with the campaign. I do read some media blogs like Romenesko, mediabistro.com, and TVNewser.

This is the seventh time you've covered an election season. How does this one compare to the previous ones in terms of coverage you're seeing across media outlets, access, appetite for the news etc?
This campaign is the most compelling of any of the seven that I've covered. There's the freshness of change and possibility in the United States. Arguably, the most fun was 2000, mostly because of the aftermath and because early in the season John McCain gave us unprecedented access that we'd never seen before and that I don't think we'll ever see again. 1992 was a lot of fun too, I covered a lot of the Clinton campaign that year. I think people kept waiting for the first real Internet election, and I think 2008 is the year. The Internet has transformed fundraising. It's taken power away from the fat cats and given it to average people. The YouTube factor is also huge. It used to be that evening news programs were the spine of a campaign. Now YouTube is the spine of the campaign. It used to be that when something didn't make the evening news, it didn't happen. Now when something doesn't really make it on YouTube, it didn't happen. Obama gave a speech yesterday in economics. It was important to a lot of people, but it wasn't important to the horserace. Whereas his speech on race was. It's like when a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it -- it's like it never happened. The same goes for when something doesn't register on YouTube.

Would you say that Obama has best capitalized on what YouTube has to offer?
I think he's been more viral and more attune to the Internet than other candidates. Although Mike Huckabee was too. YouTube has also hurt Obama. If the Reverend Wright issue had happened and you just heard about it on the nightly news, it wouldn't have been so powerful or so harmful to Obama.

In your experience with this year's candidates, what distinguishes them in how they interact with the press?
McCain is still more open than the others. I think he probably gets an easier ride for that reason. Hillary started very inaccessible and she has gotten more accessible in direct proportion to her decline in the polls and in the primaries. I think she recognized after Iowa that she had to open herself up more to reporters. That's usually the way that it works �- the frontrunner usually starts off the most inaccessible and then gradually opens up as the campaign goes on. Obama isn't inaccessible, but he's less accessible than the other candidates.

So you were on The Colbert Report in 2006...
Yeah, my wife works there.
What's your take on the role of "fake news shows" in the election season?
I love "fake news" -- it helps pay my mortgage. I think the idea that we should be wringing our hands because people are getting their news from Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert is ridiculous. If people watching those shows hadn't already consumed the news from other sources, people wouldn't get the jokes. The news that they get from other sources is parodied and contextualized in a humorous and often brilliant way. And there are ways in which being the subject of ribbing by late-night comedians can elevate a candidate.

Moving back to election night 2000, you went on NBC News to break the story of a problem with "butterfly ballots" in Palm Beach County, Florida. What does it feel like to be the first one reporting national news on that scale?
That was kind of a fun moment for me. I was one of dozens of NBC people who were on standby on election night. It was hard to get on the air unless you had something fresh. I saw that Florida had shifted from Al Gore to "too close to call" which is kind of unusual after a state is called for a candidate. So I phoned the Miami Herald and asked, "what's going on in Florida?" and he said, "I don't know, but I think something's going on in Palm Beach County." Then I called the Palm Beach Post and they said that there had been irregularities because people were voting for Pat Buchanan when they thought they were voting for Al Gore. Nowadays, they would've posted that on their Web site and everybody would've known about it. But at that time, they were still in the rhythm of old-media thinking and they were holding it for the next day's paper. So it turned out for them to be a mistake that they told me. I went on the air immediately with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric and I told the world that there was a serious problem in Palm Beach County with something called the "butterfly ballot." I explained what that was. After that, it was off to the races.

I suppose the Post might have regretted passing along that information before it hit the paper the next day�
I'm not sure they even knew that they had a scoop because they probably thought that a lot of other people had the story too. That's a strange story and one of the highlights of my career that wasn't exactly a lot of hard digging, but sometimes things fall on your lap when you make a few phone calls.

What are some other stories that you've done that stick out as highlights in your career?
I've been a columnist for 17 years now. One of the more memorable stories that I've reported was in 1986 when a colleague at Newsweek and I broke a story on the cover that there was what we called a civil war at CBS. The board of directors was unhappy with the way things were going inside the company and there was an overhaul at CBS. In the 1980s, that was a big media story that we broke. Several years ago, someone at The Washington Monthly, Josh Green, and I broke a story about William Bennett's gambling jones. In 2006, I was the first person to say that it was likely that Barack Obama was going to run for president.

How did you acquire that information and when did you feel confident to break with that news?
I posted it online in late September of 2006, maybe early October. I heard from somebody he was running. They were trying to keep the cat from getting out of the bag so they said it was only "fifty-fifty" that he would run. I posted that it was only fifty-fifty, but that was about 49 percent more likely than anybody had admitted to at that time. I first got onto that when I saw Obama in September around Labor Day and I said "so are you not going to run if Hillary Clinton runs?" and he told me on background that I shouldn't make that assumption. That was the first time that I got the sense that he was going to run and later I was able to confirm it. In retrospect, I wish I had written it harder and just said "he is going to run." I think I could have done that. I think I could have been a little bit bolder because I had good authority that he was making plans to run. But part of the reason was that Michelle Obama wasn't entirely on board so there was a slight chance that he was not going to run.

Eventually the deadline comes around and you just have to do it. Nothing concentrates the mind like feeling that you're going to leave a big hole in the magazine if you don't get it done.

I think another interesting story that I broke was in the last year -- that Ted Kennedy had harsh words with Bill Clinton on the phone after New Hampshire telling him to tone it down and that he was introducing race into the campaign, and that Ted Kennedy was likely to endorse Obama. In the time since then, people have gone "well so what, Obama didn't carry Massachusetts," but if you talk to the Obama people they'll tell you that the endorsement of the Kennedys was instrumental in their success so far because it came at a point when they needed it after New Hampshire.

How did you get wind that Kennedy made that call?
I'd tell you, but I'd have to kill you.

Moving right along then�What kind of story do you find most difficult to pursue and why? Is it a political story? A breaking story?
I'm not as nearly as good at breaking stories as someone like Michael Isikoff, and I'm not nearly as good at writing cover stories as Evan Thomas -- although I've written a lot of them over the years. I'm most comfortable trying to get at subtext of events in a column form but it's sometimes difficult for me to get it out. Sometimes it takes me an hour to write a column and sometimes it takes me 12 hours. It varies. I can't really explain why, except that sometimes I'm not pulling my thoughts together in the way I'd like to or sometimes the re-write didn't go as well I'd hoped. I strongly believe that re-writing makes for good writing. Other times it comes more easily.

In those times that it takes you longer to get the column going and you find yourself frustrated, how do you move beyond that?
Eventually the deadline comes around and you just have to do it. Sometimes it pays not to start too early. Nothing so concentrates the mind as contemplating one's own impending execution, so I think it's also true that nothing concentrates the mind like feeling that you're going to leave a big hole in the magazine if you don't get it done. The trick is to make it look like you dashed it off, to make it look easy and casual. There are some people who are so wonderful at that like Maureen Dowd or Gail Collins. They have an informal style that makes it look like they dashed it off and that it didn't take tremendous effort. I think that's part of the challenge is to make it look like it's not labored -- but you have to labor at it to make it look unlabored.

Back to the campaign, what is your impression of Senator Hillary Clinton and how she's running her campaign? How does it reflect what you saw of her when you had access to Bill Clinton starting in 1992?
Well, I had a lot of access to Bill Clinton. I interviewed him as much as anybody else when he was president. And then I was granted the first interview he gave after he left the presidency. In terms of Hillary's campaign, on tactical and strategic grounds, I'd say that she's a better candidate than the campaign would suggest. She's a good candidate but her people have not been running a good campaign.

How did you gain such close access to Bill Clinton?
I met him in 1984. In the years after that, we connected on a policy basis. He has different relationships with different people. With some people he has golf relationships with, with some he has political gossip relationships with, with me he always boiled down the policy issues that both of us were interested in -- whether it was welfare or relations with China, we connected and talked easily on many occasions. I wouldn't say that now would be one of those times when we would be connecting very well because of what I've been writing lately. But one thing that I really respect about Bill Clinton is that he's made so many mistakes himself and requires so much forgiveness that he's very forgiving toward other people.

It came up at the New York University media event that some people credit the writers' strike for the unprecedented election coverage. Do you think that a lull in regular television programming had anything to do with viewers' appetite for election coverage?
I don't think so. I think the appetite started earlier. It's an unprecedented situation. First major female candidate, first African American candidate, growing involvement of the youth voters �- all of those things are much more important than the writer's strike. Though it was frustrating in my family because my wife is not a member of the guild and when Colbert went back on the air, it was hard to keep the quality of the show high when they were so short-staffed. For our family, the strike was a big deal, and it affected the writing of the movie of my FDR book.

Speaking of books, in general do you believe all the doom and gloom about the print industry? What is your take on that?
I think that there is a big issue because old media is so much more expensive to get into the hands of readers. There's a basic economic issue there. But having said that, the history of the media in the United States is that new media does not destroy old media. It simply pushes it into an often lesser niche entirely. When radio came in, people thought it was going to be the death of newspapers. When television came in, people thought it would be the death of radio and movies. Reading a magazine in your hands is a different experience than reading online so I think there will always be some taste for that tactile experience of reading a magazine. Newspapers are a greater peril because a lot of what they do, from classified advertisements to breaking news, is done so much more easily through other media. They will survive as long as long as baby boomers survive, which is another forty years or so.

Thinking back to your fifty Newsweek covers, of which one are you the most proud?
I would say that the very first one I did on a homeless American in 1983 showed me that I can take a social problem and bring attention to it. That showed me what a news magazine cover could do. I'm still proud of that one and it sticks out in my mind because it was my first one. I've done many stories over the years on things like mentoring and the problems of at-risk youth -- I'm very proud of those stories. I guess I'm proud of the historical context I bring to a lot of different stories. I think it's really important to the understanding of an event to have historical context.


Kathryn Carlson is an editorial intern at mediabistro.com and a graduate journalism student at New York University.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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