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Born: September 30, 1972
Lives now: Manhattan
First section of the Sunday Times: "I immediately perform Sunday-Times triage: I flip through and throw away the things that I don't want, like 'Databank' and the 'Travel' section. I guess the first thing that I pay any reasonable attention to is the Sunday crossword."
What brought you to the media beat at The Wall Street Journal?
I was working for the European Journal in London, covering very large, quite dull European technology companies, which one by one showed themselves to be remarkably, deliciously fraudulent—which provided a whole ream of wonderful stories. The biggest driver for me was wanting to move to New York; for some peculiar reason I had a lot of friends and acquaintances here, and to be a fully well rounded human being in the modern world you really have to live in New York at some point, whether you like it or not. So I just put up my hand to the U.S. editors at the Journal and said I'll happily cover ball bearings for you, if you have a job available. And it just so happened that the media group was going through some significant changes at that time and there was this position that was open, and still to this day I have no idea exactly what it was that got me this fantastic job. But I lucked into it, and no one's kicked me out yet.
How did you get to the European Journal in the first place?
My entire life is a series of random flukes. This was one of those situations in which one thing led to another led to another. I went to an American graduate school, the Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, for two years, and came back to London, stupidly chasing a forlorn love, which fell to bits. I got an internship at European Business News, which was a business TV station owned by Dow Jones. So I was running around with tape from midnight to nine in the morning, while no one was watching. And the offices of the Journal were below, and they were advertising for a news assistanta copy maker, fax collator, chart builderand I went downstairs and accidentally answered all of the questions right and got that job.
So you weren't a media-about-media guy all along?
No, not at all. I knew nothing. I mean, it's possible that I don't know much now, but I certainly knew significantly less four years ago. I didn't know the personalities or the people or the mechanics or any of that stuff. I just started from scratch, which actually isn't a bad way to start on this beat in particular, which has a danger of becoming incredibly insidery. To start with zero knowledge is not quite as bad.
Why is that?
It is a beat that is very much dominated by personalities, which you have to know cover the beat properly. But there can be an overemphasis on what people do, regardless of whether what they do is interesting, because of who they are. And perhaps if you start off not really knowing or caring who these people are then you start to evaluate them more conscientiously, whether what they're doing merits attention.
What is it like covering this beat for what's fundamentally a financial publication?
I would immediately say that that's an inaccurate observation. An incredibly important part of the Journal's coverage is finance, pure finance; the third section worries about that all the time. But, much more broadly, we just look at things through the prism of money. We do many stories that aren't obviously financial, aren't even obviously business stories, that look through the prism of how money is spent and where it's going, who has it, and who's getting it and who's losing it. And those are universal issues. I mean, what I do and what, say, the business reporters from The New York Times do is fundamentally the same thing. And what Keith Kelly would do, or Seth Mnookin, or any of the other reporters of covering this stuff—we all pretty much think about the same things. Now it's possible that I may end up doing a story about newspaper stocks, for example, a very technical analysis, or something about Martha Stewart's shareholders, that other people wouldn't, because we do have a little more of that financial bit, but it's more similar than it is different. But that incredibly laser-eyed focus on business allows you to focus your coverage a lot more coherently. It's another filter to make sure you're doing things that really matter rather than things that people are talking about. Often those two are the same thing, and often you can do a story that people are talking about that has no business implications, just because it's fun. But you shouldn't do too many of those.
Plus, normally if the personality is interesting enough and doing things that are interesting enough, it is by definition a business story. All stories can be seen through the prism of business and are often a lot better for it. People think business stories have to be dull, which isn't the case at all. You can have the most delicious, wonderful anecdotes in them—and, in fact, we do that all the time. It's one reason the paper encourages the kind of narrative reporting you don't get often at other newspapers. But somehow the stories all feel like they have more solid base to them because they're grounded in something that's actually happening and actually significant. Rosie O'Donnell is a great example. The collapse of Rosie's magazine in and of itself was like a rock thrown in a pond: It would have made some ripples but after a while gone away. It didn't really have, apart from the personalities involved, any long-lasting impact on the way in which magazines are produced and the way in which people buy them. But it was a great story because it had these incredibly large personalities; it had an incredible, sort of classic Greek tragic rise and fall, with a whole ball of hubris at the top of that, which encouraged it; and at the same time you had money, you had a business story, you had a company trying to make a splash in the U.S. doing this big magazine; and so that kind of rooted it. If one of those things wasn't there, then the story would have been just fundamentally less compelling, but all together made it a great story. Tying all of those things together and being able to do the things that otherwise might be trivial, but doing them in a context in which they matter, is to my mind the best kind of media story.
The Journal, of course, is one of the few papers that doesn't make all of its content free online. Yeah, sometimes sites like Romenesko's and ours get access to your pieces, but not always. Given that people who really care about media news follow it on these sites so much, do you ever feel your visibility is decreased because you're not able to be playing on that field all the time?
Sure, as a practical matter it's just be easier for people to link to the stories of other newspapers on blogs or other people's personal websites or whatever. Whether it decreases the visibility, I just don't know. It's hard to measure. I wonder if it decreases the chatter around your stories, but I don't quite know if that makes them less influential. But this goes to the heart of whether this stuff should be free or not, so it's tough for me to get into it.
Sure. But you mentioned to me your theory that coverage on this beat has to some degree become influenced by people trying to write things that will get a link from
Nothing comes to mind immediately, but you sometimes smell stories that have been written because they're going to get a link on Romenesko. It's again this whole idea that no one reads your stories, they just see it on—there's the great column Simon Dumenco did in New York on how no one actually reads stuff; they just read the links. So you get a sense sometimes. I would be amazed if people—they don't necessarily change their stories, but they drop in quotes they wouldn't otherwise use or sentences and phrases that they otherwise wouldn't put in just so they can pique Jim's interest. Here's an example: I did a story on Maer Roshan last September or October, just about how many new magazines were being launched all in one big glut, and how crazy were all these people to do this in the world's most crappy magazine environment. The very last paragraph was a quote from Tina Brown, saying something like, "If I had to launch Talk again I'd launch it on the web." And it wasn't a large portion of the story, but it was left in there, and lo and behold it's what Romenesko picked up and made the headline of the story even though that wasn't what it was about at all.
So you fall victim to this too sometimes.
Absolutely. It's one those things where it wasn't in there deliberately to get his attention, but it was obvious in writing it that it would be something that would pique his interest.
Now, speaking of your influence, one theory you keep hearing on why it was finally time for Howell Raines to go is because allegedly Matthew Rose was working on this big story that was going to change everything. True?
I also heard that I was working on a big story that was going to change everything, which actually is unfair to a colleague of mine who also was helping with the Times coverage, Laurie Cohen. She and I did the story the day he quit. I can't really talk about the stories that we either are thinking of doing or were doing or might be doing or any permutation you could possibly want of that. We did a lot of Times coverage. And it's really hard to give an honest assessment of how much any individual reporter's reporting actually stirred the pot.
Do you think the Keller regime is going to be less exciting to cover?
This actually gets to the heart of your question about the Journal and the kind of stuff we cover. We only started doing stories about Howell and Howell's rule of the paper after the Blair thing popped up and things started to get bad. For a long time reporters were clearly unhappy with the way things were going there, but we always asked ourselves, what's the story? You know, unhappy reporters are not themselves a story, because reporters are always unhappy. So at what point does this become something broader, something significant to the way in which the paper was run, something fundamental to the company or to the newspaper? And it wasn't until the Blair thing happened that suddenly, there you go, this is certainly important because it has a base to it, rather than just saying reporters are unhappy with the way Howell runs stuff. So in terms of covering Keller and covering the Times again as a continuous story, I wonder how much coverage we would do and at what point it becomes serious and important again. But it can't be dull; it's made itself into the most fascinating story.
You said that reporters are always unhappy. Reporter Mathew Rose, reasonably happy or reasonably unhappy?
Oh, I'm very happy. I have no other plans to do anything else.
So you'll stay on the media beat for a long time?
Yeah, well not forever. I think it's one of those beats that if you stay on it for too long it becomes kind of corrupting because you do end up becoming an insider and that becomes dangerous. As evidence, I'm giving an interview to you.
Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com