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Meet the (Meta)Press: Sridhar Pappu

Who reports on the reporters?

By David S. Hirschman - May 13, 2003

The famously pink-papered New York Observer is, as Lincoln might have put it, a weekly of the cognoscenti, by the cognoscenti, and for the cognoscenti. Catering to New York's power brokers and intellectuals—to, that is, the media elite—everything about the Observer exudes an almost intimidating classiness and exclusivity, from what it chooses to cover to the knowing tone it employs—to even the posh Upper East Side town house it inhabits. "Off the Record," the paper's media column, is one of its best-known and most-watched features, and its current author, 27-year-old Sridhar Pappu, who has held the post for two years, met with mediabistro.com not long in the town house's elegant conference room. (Pronounce his first name to rhyme with reader, with a shh at the beginning.) In a navy blazer and hiply unshaven, Pappu spoke quickly, with what seems like an impatient intelligence. Despite his youth, he regularly interviews some of the most important player in the Manhattan media landscape, and as he moved briskly through our questions, we couldn't shake the impression that he probably had far more important people he needed to talk to.

Birthdate: June 2, 1975
Hometown: Oxford, Ohio
Reads for work: "I get a lot of stuff for free, but I read about five papers each day: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the Daily News, the Sun and The Washington Post."
Reads for fun: "I try to read books on the weekends; Saturday and Sunday are reserved for books. But I read books on my beat, books about the media, about publications. I try to read fiction, too."
First section of the Sunday Times: Sports.

Tell me about your career path.
I went to Northwestern. I was a Medill undergrad, and I started working when I was 20 at the Washington City Paper on a summer internship. I worked with really great people there. [New York Times media reporter] David Carr was just becoming editor. David Plotz from Slate was the number two. Clara Jeffery, who's the deputy editor of Mother Jones, was there. Eddie Dean, who went on to write for Talk, was a writer there. John Cloud, who writes for Time magazine, was there.

So at the age of 20, you were already laying the groundwork for future contacts?
Not even contacts, really. All those guys were just so smart that I learned so much from them. I was just a kid. I looked up to them, and it kind went from there. Later, I was an intern at Ann Arbor News in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then I was an intern at Harper's. And then I went to work for three years at the Chicago Reader, as a staff writer. I came to New York as a writer for Money magazine, and I was at Money from October 2000 to June 2001, and then I started here. Gabriel Snyder and I split the "Off the Record" beat from June 2001 to May 2002, and I've been doing it by myself since May 2002.

You're only 27 and your column often deals with high-and-mighty media people. Do you ever worry that your column might piss off a potential future employer?
I try not to think about that. I just think about doing the best job I can.

Your column is a mix of reporting and editorializing. Do you think media reporting is different than straight news journalism?
There's a point of view in there, it's true. It's different, because you're dealing with big cultural ideas a lot, but you're also dealing with the business of reporting. When you combine those two things, you go from straight news reporting and sources and trying to break big stories to dealing with larger kinds of questions about the role of the media. At least that's the way we approach media here [at the Observer]. So in that respect, it's different. It's also different because, if you're a journalist, you end up having lots of journalist friends, so I don't necessarily want to talk business with them. Sometimes I just want to talk about fly fishing or something like that.

Where do you get your scoops and tidbits from? Is it all about overhearing things and then reporting them?
No, it's not. I feel it has to be a combination of noticing things and asking the right questions. You have to train yourself to ask the right questions. You know, "Why is a publication doing this? Why is this happening? Why is this going on?" And so when you read a newspaper or a magazine, you have to approach it from a tactical point of view. You have to understand where things come from, because if you solely rely on trying to get stuff, it's hard, because you have to write every week, and that alone is not enough.

How do you get insider information?
You make a ton of phone calls, and you go places and meet people. A lot of what helps you out is, if you get stuff right, you earn a certain amount of respect, and it helps you because people are willing to trust you.

What's been the most difficult issue you've had to face, the hardest story?
Daniel Pearl. I wrote stories about him every week from the time he was taken, and then I wrote a cover feature after it was discovered that he was dead. It was hard for a variety of reasons. The people I had to interview were in a bad spot, and they were going through a rough time at The Wall Street Journal. And you wanted things to come out OK, and when they didn't, it was hard. Even though I never met him, it was a difficult story to report.

The Observer tends to cater to a pretty elite crowd. Does that affect the things you cover?
It's hard to say. You don't think about this very specific audience when you write, necessarily, but you do have an idea of what they want and what they don't want.

You wrote that media glamour peaked at the end of 2000, using Tina Brown and Steven Brill as examples of the old guard. How would you characterize the current era? What's taken their place?
I think we're still trying to figure that out. We sometimes think we're seeing a glimpse of it, then it goes away. The industry itself is very different. The kinds of things we care about are very different. Media companies are changing what they believe in these days. People are trying to figure out what's important, what they care about. It may be one of those things where you never know what kind of an era you're in until it's over, and then you can look back and say, "OK, this is what happened."

Give me your take on the coverage of the war in Iraq.
Clearly it was covered comprehensively. I can only speak from a print standpoint, but a lot of great work came out of it.

What was the best work that came out of it?
Jim Dwyer from The New York Times was great. And some of the embedded stories were great. When that family of civilians was killed by those Marines, and the Washington Post guy was there, it was just phenomenal to read. I thought The Wall Street Journal's coverage was good. I thought everyone did pretty well.

What do you think about the rest of the world's charge that there was a pro-American bias in the coverage?
I don't know about that. I didn't see it. When I looked at The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, all of which I read every day, I didn't see it. I saw really good reporting.

Do you think the explosion of cable news stations has created an environment conducive to greater journalistic fairness? Do more media outlets give us a better picture of what's going on?
I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that Fox News has its own agenda. But, otherwise, people talk about a left-wing bias, but frankly I don't see it. As reporters, people tend to be fairly apolitical as a whole. It's hard for me to see the media bias in the big picture.

What do you think are the most pressing issues facing the media right now?
I think the idea of trying to figure out where we, as publications, stand and what we mean and who we talk to. It fascinates me to no end. The reason I love this job is because I love newspapers and I love magazines. I'm fascinated with how publications deal with stories and deal with subjects.

What would be your dream job? In an ideal world, how would you spend your day?
Dream job? I don't know. I'm happy now. In an ideal world, I'd spend all day playing my Playstation.

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



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