Mnookin, Newsweek senior writer
Newton, Massachusetts. Age: 30.
First job: Freelancing for The Boston Phoenix. Career highlights:Inside.com
senior correspondent; Brill's Content senior writer; busboy at The
Hoot, Toot, and Whistle. First Sunday Times section he reads:
|Miss Kitty is so moody sometimes. She's usually quite outgoing
with strangers, but during a reporter's recent visit to her cozy West Village
one-bedroom, she refused to even say hello. "She's being unusually shy,"
said her live-in companion, Seth Mnookin, apologetically. The music editor and
political and media reporter at The New York Sun, Mnookin has had to
put up with Miss Kitty's shit as of late, since he's working at home a lot these
days, filling out his final days at the Sun which launched only
a month ago and waiting for his new gig at Newsweek's national
desk to start in late June. Like a lot of former dot-com journalists, Mnookin
had been freelancing last fall (for New York magazine and Details,
among other places) and sending out copies of his resume and clips in the hopes
of landing a full-time gig. A call from Newsweek editor Mark
Whitaker was the result.
You were at both Inside and
Brill's Content, two widely watched media ventures covering the media.
But before that, you held political and music beats. What's the
Two things surprised me: My peers' frenzied interest in any kind
of media reporting, and how nervous journalists are about being quoted about
anything. I covered the McCain campaign for Brill's, and one big thing
he had going for him was that, for him, nothing was off the record. There I
was plopped down in the middle of maybe a hundred reporters traveling with him,
and a lot of them were incredibly skittish about having anything on
the record. But I understand: They didn't know who I was, and the campaign trail
was their office.
Journalists can be the most mistrusting, paranoid subjects.
Because we know. You can spend 20 hours with someone, and
an off-the-cuff remark ends up a major controversy. We saw that with McCain:
At one point, he referred to his captors in Vietnam as "gooks," and
it wasn't during an interview. I don't think he thought it would dominate the
Have you ever read Janet Malcolm's book
The Journalist and the Murderer?
Where she describes journalism as a kind of betrayal.
It's certainly true in the sense that, if a journalist shares
the source's side of the story, that's tangential. It's never what their main
interest is. You get into a meta situation as a media reporter: You're a journalist
writing about other journalists who may or may not be representing their subject's
side of the story.
Both Inside and Brill's failed in this very spectacular
way. Was it media navel-gazing taken to its heights?
Actually, in terms of showing the value in reporting how the public
gets its information, I think Steve [Brill, founder of Brill's Content,
now a columnist at Newsweek] and the magazine succeeded. We see more
long-form media reportage than we did five years ago. Same with Inside: The
New York Times started putting their media stories on the Web immediately
as they were filed, instead of waiting until the next day. I don't know for
a fact they were worried about getting scooped by Inside, but I can't imagine
why else they'd do it.
You've told me that you're "emotionally invested"
in the Sun.
On both a personal and professional level, I just really like
both Ira and Seth
[founding editors Ira Stoll and Seth Lipsky]. They gave me my first job in New
York [at The Forward, covering city politics]. I certainly know and will
why leave the paper so soon?
I wasn't looking to get out the Sun is doing better
than anybody can reasonably expect. It's just that this is a very rare opportunity,
and I'm getting a chance to work on national stories. I'm at a point in my life
where I don't have children, I'm not married, and I can travel four days a week.
I might not be able to or want to do that in five years. Also, in a very hokey
way, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated were the magazines I started
reading since I was 10, so it's incredibly thrilling actually working there.
The resources, the impact, three million readers all those things.
I also wasn't at the Sun full-time. Going into it, they
understood that I had a serious interest in helping them get this off the ground
not that they need my help but also that I was already talking
to other places, including Newsweek.
Why does the Sun insists on this dry, AP-style voice?
It seems if you're going to be a second or third read paper, you have to offer
The Sun isn't looking to be the Observer, and in
my own opinion, it isn't looking to be a second read in the traditional sense.
It very clearly wants scoops. This has been Seth's guiding principle. The Observer
does break news, and I think they do great work, but these days, it's more known
for its own take on stories you're already familiar with. The Sun isn't
looking to have that attitudinal niche. If you want to be taken seriously as
a place that breaks news, you can't have your tongue planted too firmly in your
What will you be doing at Newsweek?
I'll be working closely with Tom Watson, their national editor,
and Jon Meacham, the managing editor. Obviously, I haven't started yet, but
it's some reporting, some writing, helping out on whatever's the big story of
Which means anything from Botox to Enron to local floods.
Literally, I have no idea, though I assume Enron would fall more
on their business reporters. But it's tilted more toward breaking news.
How did you land the gig?
When Brill's and Inside closed in mid-October, I sent a
letter and some of my stuff to [Newsweek editor] Mark Whitaker, and told
him how interested I was in working at the publication. At the time, there were
hiring freezes everywhere, so he asked me to stay in touch, and I did.
mother wrote two companion pieces for Salon about your debilitating
heroin addiction. You've also worked as a cab driver and a contractor. Clearly
you didn't have the typical career trajectory. How did you break into the field?
I've wanted to be a journalist since I was 15. My high school
newspaper, The Newtonite, was sort of like the Dunbar High of journalism
(Dunbar High had something like five NBA players in a four-year span). Jodi
Wilgoren, who's now the Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times,
was my editor-in-chief. Ben Pappas, who is at Us Weekly, was editor-in-chief
two years later. Jerry Useem, a senior writer at Fortune, was the news
analysis editor. I got addicted to journalism at that time, staying up until
1 or 2 in the morning, putting out papers. When was in college, I worked at
The Harvard Crimson,
writing about music and working mainly on the weekly magazine section. Ira [Stoll]
was president of the Crimson my year we were classmates
although we weren't friends at the time.
I graduated in 1994, did some features and music columns for the
Boston Phoenix, and moved to New York that October. My first job was
as an editor at a now-defunct children's entertainment magazine called Radio
Aahs not exactly my lifelong ambition.
I actually found that through a very bizarre connection: At the
Phoenix, I'd written a review of an album by a band called the Brain
Surgeons, and one of them had been a music journalist. When I moved to New
York, she introduced me to someone running Radio Aahs. She also introduced
me to a guy named Michael Goldberg, who was starting a website called Addicted
to Noise, one of the first real Web magazines. He needed very cheap labor,
and I just wanted to write. I got, like, $25 a month, and would write a dozen
pieces or more album reviews, concert reviews, interviews. Eventually,
they were able to pay me more, but that's how I got my foot in the door.
And while you were at Radio Aahs,your heroin
Yeah, I left the magazine in 1995, and moved back outside of Boston.
I continued to freelance mainly music pieces for the next couple of years, but
was not doing a huge amount of work, and was increasingly getting into more
and more trouble. By 1997, I was really doing no work at all.
How were you supporting yourself?
I wasn't, really. I ended up with huge amounts of debt. Credit
cards, cash advances. I went into a six-month in-patient program in West Palm
Beach, Florida, in October 1997, and since the day I went in, I haven't used.
I don't even drink.
After that I got a job temping in the mail room of Office Depot's
corporate headquarters. I got fired a month later I didn't quite have
my shit together yet. Then I was a busboy at a restaurant in Boca Raton called
Hoot, Toot, and Whistle, which was designed to look like an old Orient Express
Eventually, I sent some year-old clips to The Palm Beach Post
and The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and got a call from the Post's
metro editor. They said: "You don't have any daily experience, you don't
have any substantial clips. The best we can do is give you a two-week trial
as a metro reporter." For those two weeks, I worked my ass off.
Because here was a chance for you to get back on track.
The day I started was my birthday. I totally shit my pants. It
was amazing news I thought I was going to Florida for a couple
of weeks for this [drug rehab] program. I didn't have any dress shirts. I went
out to TJ Maxx and bought what I thought were nice white shirts and some black
ties. They must have thought I was auditioning for The Blues Brothers.
And for a while, I think my editor thought I was living out of my car, because
it was so messy, and I was living in an efficiency (just a room without a kitchen)
and would eat cereal in the office in the mornings. They were probably just
thrilled to have someone eager and I was very eager to
work long hours for little pay. I started covering the night beat, 4 p.m. till
midnight, humping the police scanner, driving around to car wrecks, random shootings,
alligator's in people's homes.
Eventually, I moved to covering municipalities and consumer affairs.
It was definitely an amazing break for me. I was there from spring of
'97 to spring of '98.
Then you went to The Forward to cover city politics.
Yeah. South Florida is a great place to work as a newspaper reporter
because the average age is, like, 120, so everyone's reading three or four papers
a day, but it wasn't the most exciting place to live. I started talking to other
places, and had about as different options as you could possibly have. The
National Enquirer had offered to put me up in a houseboat in L.A. (I'd written
a piece on the Enquirer for The Palm Beach Post). I was also talking
to The Austin American Statesman about a metro job, interviewing for
the music editor job at Westword, the alt-weekly in Denver, and I was
talking to Seth and Ira about The Forward.
So it was: L.A., Texas, Denver, and New York. A supermarket tabloid,
a big-city daily, an alternative weekly, and a niche Jewish weekly. [Laughs.]
Four incredibly different jobs. I decided to come to The Forward both
because of New York, and because I knew Ira and knew of Seth.
How did you end up at Brill's?
I knew Mike Colton, another Newtonite alum, who now runs
since he was, like, 2. He introduced me to an editor there. I was really interested
in politics, and they were looking for someone to cover the [presidential] campaign.
You know, I've heard it said that it's clever to have the media
beat, career-wise, because it means your byline is widely read by other editors.
Has it been true in your case?
It was easier to get my calls returnedbecause Brill's
was highly read within media circles. I definitely noticed with Inside; it was
a buzzier publication, and it was also on the Web, so people had instant access
to it. But also, I really do believe it's because my name is so unusual
people always remember the "M-N-O."