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the mb q&a

the mediabistro Q&A:
Seth Mnookin, Newsweek senior writer

Hometown: 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: Sports.

BY ALBERT LEE | 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 difference?

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 news.

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 remember that.

So 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 something punchier.

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 cheek.

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 the week.

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.

You and your 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 addiction intensified.

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 The Hoot, Toot, and Whistle, which was designed to look like an old Orient Express railroad car.

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.

Very Cops.

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 Modern Humorist, 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 returned because 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."

Albert Lee is the editor of mediabistro.com.


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