USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Romenesko Revealed

When most guys walk into a coffee shop, mid-day, with a fresh newspaper in hand, there's little cause for concern. But when Jim Romenesko strolls into an Evanston, Ill. coffee shop carrying crisp copies of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune at one in the afternoon -- a good nine hours after the newspapers hit the streets and at least 12 hours after they hit the Web -- serious questions arise.

Hasn't Romenesko, the guy behind MediaGossip.com, the must-read media news site for journalists, read the papers by now? Has the King of All Media News begun to slack just days after his popular Web site moved to its new home at Poynter.org?

And finally, couldn't this juicy tidbit -- Mr. Media Gossip Spotted Reading Major Newspapers Long After Rest of Free World -- make for a link on Romenesko's very own site?

Not to worry, Romenesko says.

As snowflakes flutter outside, the 46-year-old removes his wool cap and explains that he's already checked out more than 100 Web sites today, including those of the three newspapers. Not only that, but he has updated his media news site several times. This, he says, is simply part of his afternoon ritual.

"I really like coming down here and reading the print versions," Romenesko says, revealing just the sort of dedication it takes to maintain the nation's top media news Weblog. "The reading experience is so much different than it is on the Web: the way the news is laid out, the graphics. I always find things in the print versions that I missed online. Sometimes I go back and update my site with the discoveries I made."

For the uninitiated, Romenesko is a life-long journalist and zine publisher who began producing MediaGossip.com out of his home in May 1999. The Web site, which averages roughly 13,000 unique visitors daily, is a compendium of links to the top media news stories on the Web. It's part good-natured gossip (who's leaving what job for where), part serious criticism (What was the Los Angeles Times thinking with that whole Staples Center debacle?).

Romenesko launched the site, as he did his Obscure Store and Reading Room collection of links to oddball stories, for his own enjoyment, updating it daily before heading off to work as an Internet columnist at the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. In August, the nonprofit Poynter Institute journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla. hired him to produce the site for Poynter.org out of his Evanston home. The site's new version, called Romenesko's MediaNews, went up last week, and Romenesko agreed to discuss it.

During the 90-minute conversation, Romenesko sips coffee and fields questions, pausing every so often to check his e-mail pager, which buzzes frequently with notes alerting him to the latest media news.

OJR: So how did the move to Poynter come about?

Romenesko: It happened very quickly. There was a piece in the New York Times on Weblogs and I was in the lead. Two days later, I got an e-mail from Bill Mitchell, the online editor at Poynter, saying that he was embarrassed to say that he'd never heard of my site until he read about it in the Times, and would I be interested in a couple of options? I'd just struck a deal with the Pioneer Press to go on a four-month leave of absence and the deal was that I'd have to stay with the newspaper for eight months after that. So I told Bill, if you do anything you've got to do it quickly because I have this leave coming up. So they flew me down the next weekend to St. Petersburg. I interviewed with them on a Saturday and Sunday morning they offered me a job.

OJR: What, exactly, does the new job entail?

Romenesko: Putting up the media page. That's basically what they wanted. They wanted someone who could bring traffic. Their plan was to be the journalism portal. When they saw what I was doing, they said, "Hey, this is exactly what we have in mind." I became an employee on October 1, but there were the usual delays before we got the new site up.

OJR: So they're paying you do produce the same site you were doing earlier for free.

Romenesko: Yeah. It's nice.

OJR: Any big changes?

Romenesko: No, I don't think so. The way it's laid out, you'll see a black overlay. People have said they like the look of it. The only complaints have been about the download time, and they're working on that. The site has always had a simple look. I know only simple HTML. I couldn't put a spinning globe on the site if you asked me to. As for the stories, since October I've been producing MediaGossip under their employ. They had the right then, as my employer, to tell me to do this or that, but they didn't. They give me a very long leash. They knew what they were getting into when they hired me.

OJR: They changed the name from "MediaGossip" to "MediaNews." Why?

Romenesko: Well, Poynter has a good reputation. I think at first they were a little squeamish about the "Gossip" name. I think in the end they grew to appreciate it as a brand name. I don't think the case is closed on the name. I'm holding onto the domain so in my post Poynter-life I can resurrect it. By the way, when I first launched MediaGossip, I got some angry e-mails from people who thought I was really going to dish the dirt. They looked at the site and were really disappointed. They wanted, you know, "Maureen Dowd was spotted running naked on 5th Avenue" or something like that.

OJR: But you never set out to do tawdry gossip.

Romenesko: No. You know, gossip's always a fine line. I knew that people would catch on very quickly to what I was doing and understand that it wasn't irresponsible. Of course, you take a look at that whole Los Angeles Times fiasco. There were certainly a lot of gossip elements to that. Today I posted an item about Kathryn Downing not wanting to go to a ceremony honoring Otis Chandler. That's gossip, but it's verified gossip. As long as it rings true, I'll post it. That said, I'd reject the who's sleeping with whom scuttlebutt.

OJR: Speaking of the Times deal, you don't normally do your own reporting on the site, but you did in at least one instance there. Now that you're working on the site full-time, do you plan to do more original reporting?

Romenesko: Yes I do. I had something today about David Kuhn being named editor-in-chief of Brill's Content. I talked to Steven Brill this morning and got a couple of quotes from him and put that up.

OJR: So what makes for a great MediaGossip/MediaNews link??

Romenesko: Something that people wouldn't find on their own. It has the usual news elements, maybe conflict or intrigue. And breaking news.

OJR: How many sites do you search each day to find those stories?

Romenesko: Probably more than 150. I bookmark the headlines pages and can spend three seconds at a site and know whether there's something there for me. I compare it to when I was a cub police reporter and used to make the rounds to the district stations and the fire stations. Now I get up in the morning and look at the Washington Post's Style section and Page 6 and the Post's business news.

OJR: What other sites do you check first?

Romenesko: Well I start on the East Coast. They're an hour ahead of me. I start with the New York papers, Boston, then go on to Philadelphia, New Jersey. I do all the non-newspaper sites in one fell swoop: Slate, Salon, Feed. I usually check the Washington Post before I go to bed. If I stay up until 11, the New York Times is usually up. I go to the business sections, the metro sections. You get to know the papers. I know, for example, that the Chicago Tribune occasionally has a Tempo section media feature and I'll look at that.

OJR: Among the big papers, who's doing good media reporting these days?

Romenesko: Obviously the Post, with Howard Kurtz. The Boston papers. The Hartford Courant. The Trib. I think the weeklies do a good job, heavy on the attitude sometimes.

OJR: What big papers are doing a lousy job?

Romenesko: The Seattle papers. The Denver papers. The Dallas Morning News. It's probably a luxury for a lot of these papers to have a full-time media reporter.

OJR: You wrote a media criticism column for Milwaukee Magazine for 13 years, yet you refrain from taking any critical shots on your media site. Why?

Romenesko: I don't think people look to the site for that. There's enough hot air being blown out that basically I just want to put the links out there. I don't think people go to my site to get deep, thoughtful commentary from me. And frankly, at 5:30 in the morning, I'm lucky to just spell the words right.

OJR: Before taking the job with Poynter, you updated the site each morning before going to work. Has your routine changed much since you began doing it full-time?

Romenesko: Yeah. Now I work on it throughout the day. Some of the weeklies post Wednesday night, so I'm checking them in the evening. I get up, do it and keep checking things until I go to bed. I live in a tiny studio apartment and every time I get an e-mail I hear the little clink, so I'm always checking the e-mails. I think people expect items to be put up throughout the day. They see it as sort of a news service.

OJR: Do you keep close tabs on who's reading the site?

Romenesko: Yeah. If you look at the domains the readers are coming from, at the top they're all media institutions. NewYorkTimes.com, latimes.com. But you have Bank of America and technology companies and a lot of academia, too. People like media on media. My audience is more than just the players. I get e-mails from people who say 'I'm interested in journalism, I'm not a journalist.'

OJR: Ever tried putting many ads on the site?

Romenesko: No. I'm a terrible business man. When I was a paperboy they used to make me sell seeds and greeting cards. That soured me.

OJR: Were you really a paperboy?

Romenesko: Oh yeah, for four years.

OJR: Your media career started early.

Romenesko: Oh, it has been incredible. When I was a little boy I put out a paper at home. I must have been about 9 or 10. Each issue had a different name. One week it would be the Family News. The next week it would be the Romenesko News. I think I was test-marketing titles.

OJR: Did you cover important Romenesko family gossip?

Romenesko: Oh sure. The dog drinking out of the toilet. My sister reminded me recently that when I was putting one together, my tooth fell out and blood splattered the page. And of course, I circled it and wrote 'Actual Tooth Blood' and wrote the story about it, hot off the press.

OJR: That's fantastic.

Romenesko: (Laughs.)

OJR: Your scope has broadened a bit. You get lots of news off the Web, but you also get a lot of news via e-mail and over the phone, right?

Romenesko: Yes. I'm always tempted to use it and sometimes I do. I got tips from three people this morning about David Kuhn. I got a nice tip from someone at the New York Times when Robert McG. Thomas died, the obit writer who I thought was just great, so I was able to put that up. I appreciate tips.

OJR: Journalists love to gossip, don't they?

Romenesko: Oh yeah. When I was doing my "Pressroom Confidential" column in Milwaukee Magazine column, I always got envelopes with no return addresses. I got calls from people disguising their voices. Even to this day, people call or send e-mails and every paragraph is prefaced with, "Off the record."

OJR: Real cloak-and-dagger stuff.

Romenesko: That's the nature of the business. That's why we go into journalism. It's the fine line between gossip and news. That's why people become reporters. They're inquisitive and their inquisitiveness doesn't stop at some line that divides gossip and news. I posted a link to a story the other day about a sports reporter for the Idaho Statesman who killed himself. It was really a nice profile of the guy. And the story generically said, "He grappled with some problems." Of course, right away people were like, "What were the problems?" And of course I wondered the same thing.

OJR: You gets lots of e-mails from reporters seeking links to their stories?

Romenesko: Yeah, there are people who are very regular. Every time they have something published they'll e-mail me and let me know. Every once in a while some of them e-mail me and say, "Why didn't you link?" That's the thing I hate. I hate to have to explain, you know, why their story didn't make it. Then there's one guy who, if I don't link to him, sends a reminder, like he has to be linked.

OJR: So begging doesn't help?

Romenesko: I can't put up sympathy links.

OJR: Damn.

Romenesko: I do hear people say, "Your link brought thousands of people to our site." I like to hear that. One of the things I like is sending people to good stories and bringing traffic to sites that deserve it.

OJR: You've got a busy pager. Are you the sort of guy who can't go long without checking your messages?

Romenesko: Oh yeah, it drives me crazy. I know I'm missing an e-mail from someone telling me I spelled a word wrong. That drives me nuts.

OJR: Last question: Each day you come down here to the coffee shop and read several papers, including the Wall Street Journal, and look for news about the media. Today, the Journal has a short piece about your MediaNews site. What's that like, to cover media news and then find that, as your own site has grown, you yourself have become the subject of media news?

Romenesko: I hadn't thought about it. It's kind of funny. When the New York Times ran the piece about the site last August it was nice. But I thought, I should be more excited about this. I covered the Jeffrey Dahmer trial. I remember walking to the courthouse thinking, I should be more excited to be covering this trial. Maybe it's because I've been in journalism for 23 years. I don't know. It's nice to get the publicity.