Columnists Cover Media’s Dark Underbelly and Successes, Too

Range of Subjects and Approaches Keeps Readership from Dwindling to a Few Journalism News Hounds

Have a gander at the scope of media writing — the reporting, the analysis, the dish — and it’s easy to fancy journalism as a solipsistic network of wonks and insiders interested largely in each other.

But media writing is not all the same, especially at papers that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Some columns lean toward gossip, others are strictly reported, and still others hover on a continuum between editorial prognostics and heady analysis. The five AAN columnists interviewed for this story say that covering the media is a complex endeavor with many potential pitfalls, such as the temptations to flog their daily into oblivion or devote inches to masthead switcheroos that all of a dozen readers care about. What they agree on, however, is that a columnist’s environs can, and should, guide coverage.

Plenty of watchdogs study the nation’s watchdogs in New York

In the media capital, the Village Voice’s Cynthia Cotts competes with industry heavies. Cotts politely declines to comment on her competition, but it’s no secret that Gotham’s tabloids house febrile gossips, in addition to more heady columns like New York Magazine’s Media section and The New York Observer’s Off the Record (formerly penned by Washington City Paper ex-intern Sridhar Pappu and now by City Paper ex-senior editor Tom Scocca).

Cotts, who has written Press Clips since 1998, says she’s interested in a spectrum of coverage.

“I always approached this job with the idea that the column should be flexible,” says Cotts, who is on a three-month leave from which she returns in July. “I could write anything ranging from gossip to news to analysis, depending on what was fresh that week.” Her subjects encompass the foibles of New York Times staffers, the role of bloggers and the treatment of freelancers.

Cotts notes that her readership comprises different constituencies. Some have an insatiable hunger for dish, while others yearn for “a deep, structuralist critique of the media industrial complex.”

“Some people will be very interested in any gossip that has to do with internal matters at The New York Times, and other people might be interested in an advance look at what the media coverage of the Republican convention might be like. It’s a huge spectrum that now seems to come under the big tent of media criticism.”

Washington City Paper jumped on last year’s hottest media story

In the political journalist war zone of Washington, D.C., City Paper editor Erik Wemple tries to balance scooping formidable competition like The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, who, he claims, beat him on breaking the Jayson Blair story by all of 15 minutes.

The City Paper reported Blair’s lifting of parts of a news story from the San Antonio Express-News as well as his cribbing from the Associated Press. In a follow-up cover story a week later, on May 9, 2003, Wemple and Josh Levin detailed the extent of Blair’s malfeasance on the D.C. sniper case and offered a litany of previous Blairisms. This was two days before the New York Times ran its now famous mea culpa.

“Blair said [in his book] the stuff that we had really set his editors over the top,” Wemple notes. “It’s a question of whether you want to believe Blair on anything.”

Wemple has been writing his Department of Media column since the spring of 2002. His usual target, in one form or another, is the town’s big kahuna, The Washington Post.

“I tend to zero in most on the Post’s metro coverage,” Wemple says. “I call over there for tips and people tell me about everything: national coverage, food coverage. It’s all across the board.”

The downside of having good sources at a big daily, Wemple says, is having to listen to them vent about workplace issues.

“You can’t get away from listening to journalists talk about personnel shit. It is endless. That’s what they do, that’s what they specialize in,” Wemple says. “They bring their workplace crap into your life. Part of your job is to listen and take notes and then not to write about it.”

Since his column began, Wemple claims to have received hundreds of tips relating to Post personnel changes.

“It’s just the most boring shit you can ever find,” Wemple says. “There’s borderline stories where you have personnel moves that reflect broader things about the media industry, but those are few and far between.”

While routine roster changes are banned from Wemple’s column, ribbing the Post is his manna. In anticipation of the paper’s annual Thanksgiving traffic story, Wemple went back into the archives and reconstructed an entire story.

“It actually worked. I was able to take the lead from 1981, the second graph from 1995, the third graph from 1987. I put them all in parentheses and I pieced together a Thanksgiving story.”

All kidding aside, Wemple says that his regret is not breaking out of the Washington Post beat. “The thing I fail most on is covering the smaller outlets,” he says.

In mid-sized markets, field is wide open

New York and Washington are home to media powerhouses that boast not only global readerships but devotees who, for whatever reason, yearn for news from the bowels of these institutions. Head to slightly smaller markets, however, and the scene is radically different. Even in cities as big as Chicago and Denver, AAN weekly media columnists often reign as the only regular writers on the local media beat.

“There’s been competition, if you want to call it competition,” says the Chicago Reader’s Hot Type columnist Michael Miner. The Windy City has seen short-lived media coverage from Chicago Magazine and the competing alt-weekly, Chicago Newcity, he says. But now he seems to have the beat all to himself.

“I’ve never thought of it as competition because more than one person should be doing it,” Miner says. “It’s not zero sum, where one of us rises and the other falls.”

Reporting solo is not without its pitfalls, Miner says.

“I feel very impatient with myself trying to cover the Hollinger/Conrad Black problems because that’s such a complicated financial story, and that’s not my strength at all,” he says. In January, Hollinger International, which owns the Chicago Sun-Times, fired its CEO, Black, and filed a lawsuit against him. This came after an internal investigation found that Black and other Hollinger executives had received millions in unauthorized payments, according to news reports.

“I’ve sort of floundered for purchase there and regretted the fact that I didn’t go to business school,” Miner says.

In Denver, Westword’s Michael Roberts says the field is wide open and bountiful. With Colorado churning scandals ranging from the Columbine High School massacre (and its fallout), to the rape accusation against Kobe Bryant, to questionable football-player recruiting practices at the University of Colorado, “It seems as if Denver has been, if not in the center of the media world, certainly in the vicinity, and it’s provided all kinds of opportunities to look at the media: good, bad and ugly.”

Roberts says that he remains determined not to write solely for people in newsrooms and not to knee-jerk against mainstream media.

“There are times when media columns in alternative weeklies seem like they are mainly, ‘Here’s what the daily newspaper in town did that was stupid this last week,'” Roberts says. “I try to celebrate people in the media who I think are doing a good job.”

Roberts offers up the example of a recent profile of Colorado Avalanche play-by-play announcer Mike Haynes. “That’s an example of a story that might not be a typical media column topic,” Roberts says. At the same time, he notes, such a seemingly benign profile can raise bigger questions. “How does an announcer do his job in an objective way and not seem like a Homer when he is actually on the payroll of the team itself?”

While many of AAN’s media writers are something of a local fixture, in Tucson, former Tucson Weekly editor and now regular freelancer James Reel is still figuring out what type of animal his Media Watch column should be.

“There’s a lot of media in this market, but it’s not unusual in any way,” Reel says. Started in January upon the directive of editor Jimmy Boegle, the column, which ranges from 450 to 900 words, has chronicled comings and goings of local reporters, and even delved into murkier realms.

“I pay attention to what’s going on with the local access cable shows, which can be flaky,” Reel says. “It’s not just big media I’m interested in.”

Romenesko Web site gives local media news a wider forum

A factor in the commentariat carnival of media writing is the advent of online readership that has been furthered by Jim Romenesko’s media news Web site. Run by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, the site posts a diverse swath of media-related stories and is considered required reading for reporters, wonks and everyone in between.

“That Romenesko platform immediately delivers any media news to a really wide audience, an industry-wide audience,” says Cotts. Tidbits from her column can often be found on Romenesko before the entire edition of the Voice is loaded onto the Web. “It’s definitely a different audience than the people who pick up the print version of the Voice.”

Only 10 percent of Romenesko’s posts come from e-mailed suggestions, Jim Romenesko tells AAN News. “I’ve been doing this for over five years so I know who the critics are (or most of them) and when their columns go up,” he writes via e-mail.

“The story or column — or maybe even a single quote in it — just has to interest *me* to be posted. It can be a good profile, a controversy, a critic, or whatever. I don’t care how local it is, as long as there’s something in it that I find interesting.”

Westword’s Roberts says he’s often surprised by the stories of his that Romenesko carries. But the Weblogger “seems to understand that even if the specifics of a story are local, there are often aspects of them that will have resonance beyond the city limits.”

John Dicker is a former staff writer for the Colorado Springs Independent. His book, “The United States of Wal-Mart,” is due out next year from Tarcher.