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Meet the (Meta)Press: Keith Kelly

Who reports on the reporters?

By Jesse Oxfeld - July 8, 2003

New York publishing people fancy themselves the literary elite, the leftish intellectual class that watches PBS and chuckles politely at New Yorker cartoons. But if you actually pay attention to the reading habits of the Michael's crowd, you'll notice that its only absolute lingua franca—the one publication that everyone who even aspires to be anyone reads religiously and nearly comprehensively—is Rupert Murdoch's very scrappy, very conservative, and not-always-entirely accurate New York Post. That's quite intentional: In recent years the Post has carefully positioned itself as the daily paper of the media class, a white-collar second read that delivers the real dirt on our business, whether or not it's news sufficiently fit for the first-read Gray Lady to print. The top draw for that crowd is "Media Ink" columnist Keith Kelly, who's in the paper nearly every day and breaks more news about the media business—or, at least, breaks more fun, gossippy news about the media business—than anyone else on the beat. Kelly spoke to mediabistro.com yesterday about the Post, fishing for stories, and the ingredients of a good nickname.

Birthdate: September 10, 1954
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Lives now: Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan
First section of the Sunday Times: "I have to read their dull and pedantic business section, so I do. But the first is the front page."

As the Post has turned itself into this media business must-read over the last few years, you've obviously been one of the marquee names in the paper. But how long have you been doing the beat there, and what did you do before?
Let's see. This month it will be five years here at the Post. Most immediately before this, I was working at the Daily News, in the very short-lived Pete Hamill era. He realized that the Post was starting to rev up media coverage, and he wanted to counteract it. I knew him from Brooklyn circles and Irish circles and journalism circles, and at the time I was senior editor at Advertising Age, so he knew I had a lot of contacts and sources in the right places. So Hamill made the smart move and brought me over there and gave me the column.

And before the News you were at Ad Age, you said...
Advertising Age, yeah. Prior to that I was at Folio:, and I started Folio: First Day back in the days when faxes were amazing things. It was one of the first fax-delivered newsletters, it came out twice a week, and we broke some good stories.

So you've been doing this sort of media-about-media stuff all along?
I started basically in 1988. In '87 I did some freelance for Jack O'Dwyer's newsletter, and then I heard about this new thing called Magazine Week, which was starting up in the Boston but didn't have anybody in New York. So I ended up hooking up with them as their New York editor—that was in '88—and then by the time I left in '92 I was the editorial director and we had our whole little staff going in New York. But the problem was we ran into the early-'90s recession and were running out of money. And I wasn't the captain of the ship, so I jumped to Folio:.

I would have thought you'd been a tabloid lifer—you know, cops reporter or something—because your stuff feels so shoe-leathery.
Well, I started out working at a small chain of weekly papers out in Suffolk County, where I ended up growing up, and I was doing cop reporting and things like that out there. Then I got sidetracked for a bunch of years at McGraw-Hill, but I freelanced out of Belfast in 1980, broke a couple of good stories there about the looming IRA hunger strike. But then the media thing—partially I was intrigued by it, and it was partially luck: Magazine Week didn't have anybody in New York, and I just started stringing for them.

I said your scoops seem to come from shoe leather, but, really, to what degree are people leaking to you and to what degree is it actually lots of phone calls?
We don't get as many leaks as people think. I mean, most of the time when we get stuff, because of the Post's sort of, you know, on-the-run, tabloid style, we get a lot of pissed off people who call, but it's not usually stuff that you can actually use. Sometimes it's just, this guy was fired for legitimate reasons and now he's trying to smear the competition or his former boss or whatever. So you get some people like that. Of course, sometimes just because someone's a disgruntled former employee doesn't mean he doesn't have good information. But you still gotta stand it up.

More often, it's that after doing this for quite a number of years, you're like a good fisherman: You know where the good fishing holes are. But you can't fish them everyday, otherwise they'd be gone. You keep calling up the same source; the fish will be depleted.

One of the things about "Media Ink"—and you must know this—is that everyone knows you've got to read Keith Kelly, but everyone also knows that the reality is usually going to be a little bit different from what's in the paper. Is that just sort of the culture of tabloids, the culture of the Post? Is it a breaking-news, fog-of-war kind of thing?
Well, obviously you try to get it 100 percent right, 100 percent of the time. But I think we live in a culture where we place a great premium on the scoop. I'm not going to do the second- or third-day, here's-how-it-fits-into-the-culture piece. I don't do that; I just don't have the space. I mean, we're getting a lot of flak lately—"You said Bonnie Fuller had inked a deal back in February..."—and I'm like, "Well, yeah, we did run that story, but shouldn't people be looking at Bonnie Fuller? I mean, the company and Bonnie both said she had a deal, so obviously somebody was lying. Who the hell was that? Was that our fault? We accurately quoted people who gave us the information." I mean, usually when you're doing a story you're not going to say, "Can I take a look at that contract just to verify that you in fact have signed a new contract?" When somebody calls you up and says, "Hey we got a deal." You say, "OK, great," not, "Did you sign the deal, or did you just agree to the deal?"

So if you were David Carr, covering the same beat but for the august New York Times and not the scrappy Post, do you think you'd be doing things differently?
Yeah, absolutely. I don't think I would break as many stories.

Because you'd have to be more careful about things?
It's not really the fact that I'd have to be more careful. It's a curse and a blessing that I do two major columns a week plus breaking news as it develops in between. So that means, as they say at "Page Six," it's a hungry beast, and it has to be fed. So some of the stuff is just interesting inside baseball that will end up in a column because you want to have the inside-baseball readers tuning into you. The best stories are the ones—like Ben Bradlee said, the holy-shit stories, where the competition reads them the next day and goes "holy shit"—but that also translate to the average man in the street. You know, "This guy really got fucked in this job," or, "What a crazy boss who did this to him." You have to have something that resonates with the common man. That to me is the ideal story, the one that the industry is intrigued by, but also, hopefully, has enough human interest and drama in it. I guess if you want to boil it down to the quick and easy, we're very much interested in just basically winners and losers. And we're much more interested in uncovering the news than covering the news.

Two weeks ago I interviewed Howie Kurtz for this column, and he talked about filing on Jayson Blair from his wedding weekend. I heard a story someplace about you filing on Conde Nast from a vacation in rural Ireland.
Yeah, I did that. It was the Art Cooper story. There were rumors swirling about Cooper being forced to retire, blah blah blah. You don't just want to run stray rumors that will hurt someone's career if they're false, so, ideally, you hear the rumor and try to confirm it. Well, we didn't quite have that, but the drumbeats were so strong and so intense that I said, "OK, in this particular case we're going to go with a rumor story." Because my instincts and my signals and whatnot were telling me that it's accurate. So I had the story pretty much set up, and then I just made a couple of calls from Ireland and, you know, called in the update. But I didn't rewrite the story on vacation.

Gotcha. Have you had other incidents with breaking stuff when you're theoretically off duty?
My theory in journalism is—it's not a theory, but if you're a journalist and you see news and it's happening, and you're the man, you should respond to the story. It's kind of like a doctor: If you drive by an accident and you're a doctor, you're supposed to stop. Or a sea captain if he sees a boat in distress. Sometimes this gets us in trouble. I think I've been banned from Rao's for life.

You've been banned from Rao's?
Yeah I think so. I don't think I could get back in.

What did you do there?
I'd better not say it. Let's just say that there was a celebrity on my beat that was spotted at Rao's, and although I did not mention the restaurant by name, the owners were ticked off that the incident got captured. Because they knew, and they knew that I knew, and they were worried that other people might know. But anyway, I don't want to go into too many more details.

OK. So you reported Sunday that they're saying Bill Keller's got the Times job. How confident are you in that? What would you bet on it?
I wouldn't bet my house. I mean it's the buzz at the moment, but I didn't get it from Sulzberger. Sulzberger knows who I am, but he hasn't said a word to me since this whole scandal started, ironically enough.

Really?
Yeah. Ol' Pinch. I guess we used the nickname one too many times or something.

You do seem fond of nicknames. He's never Terry McDonell, for example, he's always Terry "Big Sky" McDonell.
Big Sky! Nicknames are good. I'm not the first guy to use nicknames; I'm been carrying on a tradition. The guy who actually gave Maria Bartiromo the nickname "Money Honey"—she hated it. Then she realized it was a great marketing tool. Now she does her books as the Money Honey. But some people don't like them.

Right, and Sulzberger has never liked "Pinch."
Yeah, but we'll use that partly because it simplifies trying to explain the difference between him and his father. It's a good nickname because it simplifies the process. See that's the problem. John Huey we would call "The Radioactive Man of Time Inc." It was given to him by somebody inside the company, and we sort of played it up for a while, but it was never going to be like a good long-term nickname because he has eight letters in his real name, and its hard to get a nickname that's shorter than that. It sort of faded.

So that's the secret to a good nickname? It's gotta be short and quick?
Well, it's got to have some staying power. "Big Sky" is good. It fits him well, but he doesn't like it. I mean, that's the other thing. You have to dislike your nickname to some extent, or at least it has to grow on you.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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