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Meet the (Meta)Press: Jon Fine

The Ad Age media reporter on the Rosie trial, the big stories, and whether the Manhattan media scene is problematically incestuous.

By Jesse Oxfeld - November 11, 2003

For more than three years, Jon Fine has covered the media business for Advertising Age, the 73-year-old ad-world weekly. During Fine's tenure, Ad Age's web presence has grown, and his regular appearance on AdAge.com has brought his work to those of us outside the advertising business who might not have previously been exposed to it. Over the last week, in fact, he's become perhaps the key correspondent at the enormous and somewhat ridiculous Rosie O'Donnell vs. Gruner + Jahr lawsuit, from which he's filed regular online updates, slaking the thirst of those curious and amused mag-world folks who didn't want to schlep down to Centre Street themselves. Fine spoke to mediabistro.com recently about the trial, his background, and whether or not the Manhattan media scene is problematically incestuous.

Birthdate: February 21, 1968
Hometown: Wichita Falls, Texas
First section of the Sunday Times: "The magazine, because it comes on Wednesday."

You've been doing an awful lot of Rosie coverage recently—daily, breaking, almost wire-style dispatches. Are you personally very into it, or is it just that you're the guy on this beat who's got a daily web venue?
In this very circumscribed world, this is the biggest thing going on right now. And it's an ongoing thing. I've been fortunately given the freedom to be there as long as it takes. By writing for the web, I have a little more leeway in terms of deadlines. Some of the newspaper reporters might have to rush back at 4 or whatever to file. I don't. It's sort of been a chance to represent, as it were, for Ad Age, because of the daily nature of it.

On a personal level, I've just gotten completely fascinated by this because everything up there has to do with the culture of magazines. There are huge personalities involved. It's obviously a big conflict and a big roll of the dice for a new CEO, and I just find this completely fascinating. It's the first trial I've really ever covered. And just the theater of it and this sort of ballet of it, I've just been completely sucked in.

Do you get to take advantage of your webbiness and do a sort of '30s movie, running-out-to-the-phone-booths, filing-at-midday thing?
I did that when Cindy Spengler, who's the chief marketing officer of Gruner + Jahr, broke down in tears on the stand after relating the whole Rosie-says-lying-gives-you-cancer thing. It had been out there, but it hadn't necessarily been attached to Cindy's name, I don't think. And I was able to, during a break, get to one of the few places in the hallway where my cell phone works—I literally was kneeling by a window and just hashed out three quick paragraphs that we got up pretty much immediately.

I guess now that Inside.com doesn't exist there's really nobody left other than you who can do that in the middle of the day.
Well, Media Week can, and they have. And obviously there are other people who can, too. The daily newspapers are geared, and rightfully so, toward producing the daily newspaper. But if something really big happens, David Carr, for instance, will have something on NYTimes.com by the end of the day. I think some years ago, on this beat, if you were on a weekly it was easier to compete with the dailies. Right now, you have so much competition: the Times, the Post, the Daily News, Women's Wear Daily, Media Week, Sridhar and the Observer, I must be forgetting five or six—places like you guys. If you go back, there is a time when the Post and the News had no media columnist. If you go back 10 or 15 years, it was just the Times and the Journal and maybe Ad Age and the trades, and the whole thing had a slower frequency.

But you weren't doing this 10 or 15 years ago. You've been at Ad Age since 2000, and I know you had an unusual path to this...
I graduated college, and my orientation then was primarily musical. I was in a band, and we'd put out records. My main concern, my first year out of school, was playing rock shows in Europe, basically.

Then through a friend of a friend, I ended up hooking up with this magazine called News Inc., which doesn't exist anymore. It was kind of a monthly competitor to Editor & Publisher. It had the great misfortune of launching into the teeth of the major media downturn in the early '90s, which eventually forced it to be downsized to a newsletter. I came on as a fact checker for, like, one issue and then stuck around for a while. Fact checker became assistant editor became associate editor became editor of the newsletter, eventually, when it got busted down to that. I was doing that for three or four years.

From that, I went to The Village Voice to do sort of side projects; they thought they might do some custom-publishing kinds of ventures. Then I got a column at Newsday, which I did for about three years, called "Pushing 30." They called me up and said, "We're looking for a Generation-X columnist, and your name keeps coming up." I said, "Well, I'm happy to continue the conversation as long as you never use that phrase with me again."

Did that for a few years, went to Brill's Content pre-launch, was there for six weeks and three days, if I recall correctly—Steve called me into his office and said, "This isn't working," and I said, "Yeah, you're right." Then I went to do freelance. The bread and better was kind of like three different pots—there was like a music pot, there was a sports pot, and there was a media pot, which was Ad Age, Columbia Journalism Review, and some other places.

The grind of waking up on the first of every month and realizing that you need to make X thousand dollars appear by the 30th in order to pay rent, that's kind of wearying. And around the time I was kind of freaking out about this, an old friend of mine said, "You should just find a staff job, like, if the media-reporter job at Ad Age comes up, you should take it.' And then three weeks later I was calling my predecessor to get someone's phone number, and I said, "What's up?" And she was like, "Well, I just got promoted. Do you want a job?" So there's that, and there's all this other extra-curricular crap, too, which is the music thing.

Who is the audience of Ad Age? Is it agency people? Buyers?
No, the majority is actually marketers. The circulation is like 60,000. God knows how many agency jobs have been lost, but the circ stays pretty steady. I mean, it's people at the companies that advertise: carmakers, watchmakers, Proctor & Gamble, all down the line. The audience is actually very elite marketers and advertising people—and that, as we know, is 80 percent of the revenue that makes this business run.

Does that color what sort of thing you're writing? Are you writing in the same vein as everyone else on the beat, or are you following specific stuff for your audience?
Everyone is chasing the same big stories. My audience's media habits are very similar to those of everyone who's obsessed with this stuff. It's not like this is an entirely foreign world for them, even if they may be mercifully less obsessed with what happened at Michael's than "Page Six." They understand the underpinnings of the business probably better than the average reader of competitor X.

But some of the mid-level personnel tangos, and editor X's latest tantrum, I'm not going to really worry about that. Those are lovely little stories, but we're concentrating more on the business side. On the other hand, whatever Bonnie Fuller does next is a huge business story, just because of what they're trying to do at American Media, and her role in it, and just the way the whole Bonnie Fuller-David Pecker partnership can either (a) let this company remake itself or (b) crash and burn.

What do you think is the biggest media-world business story right now?
The way Time Inc. is launching Cottage Living is indicative of where the media world is right now. What they're doing is they're launching relatively modestly for them, about 500,000 circulation. It's out of their Southern Progress division, which is based in Birmingham, which means (a) smaller staff for the kind of magazine it is and (b) cheaper. The reason why this is important is because the revenue and advertising metrics for the entire industry remain really lousy after three years. And the circulation situation remains really lousy. This dynamic hasn't changed, and I'm not sure that all of the big companies have finished reacting to that dynamic.

Every time Cathie Black, the president of Hearst Magazines, is on the stage, she'll point out, "You know, it's really weird that in Europe and even in places in America outside of New York, they need half the people to put out a magazine as in New York, why is that?" Now, what does that mean for magazines? The whole model has to change, because of the overall economic and business environment, but it hasn't changed yet. How that change manifests itself—it'll likely be slowly and fitfully and extraordinarily painfully for the people involved—is a good story.

There are other things, on a more micro level, like what happens with David Pecker and Bonnie at American Media? How does the stewardship of Ann Moore at Time Inc. differ from Don Logan's? What happens to Primedia? And the current hothouse flower for that one is, well, what happens to New York magazine? I don't think anyone really admits it, but New York is still a magazine that everybody in this sphere reads, even if they sort of roll their eyes about it. And there's an excellent chance that when this is done, it's going to be a completely different thing. That's pretty interesting.

So Gotham magazine has this spread on media reporters in the new issue, and you say in it that "the worst thing about your job" is "realizing the degree of incestuousness this world breeds." This seems a good time to note that, first, you and I are friendly, and, second, and more important, you are and have been for a year or so dating my boss, Laurel Touby.
Guilty as charged.

You're not exactly fighting hard against this incestuousness thing, are you?
You're saying because I met somebody that I truly care about, who happens to work in the same business, I should just—

And who bases her business on meeting everyone else—
So you're trying to get me to trash your boss and my girlfriend on a website that she owns? Is that what's going on?

No. I'm just trying to get you to say, "Yeah, I guess that is pretty incestuous, isn't it?" I guess I'm also trying to get you to admit that perhaps you're a tad hypocritical in decrying the incestuousness.
I'll give you two answers to that. No. 1, do I have friends who work at magazines? Do I have friends who are writers? Is my girlfriend running mediabistro.com? Yeah, absolutely. But this isn't all that I do. And I—and I'm sure everybody else on the beat—have entire subsets of friends and interests that go way beyond this. I didn't really read my Gotham comment as saying it's a terrible thing, that it's incestuous and I can't wait to get out. I love it. I cannot tell you how much fun it is covering this as a reporter. I can't think of a business beat or any beat that is more fun than this—regardless of the fact that you could argue that it's the same 200 players kind of endlessly circling each other in this dance, and you can roll your eyes at that.

Despite all of the ridiculous meta moments that we all recognize and roll our eyes at, this is a blast.

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



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