USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

The Early-Bird Media Critic: Scott Shuger of 'Today's Papers' 

Scott Shuger writes the first words that thousands of Internet users read every morning. As the writer and editor of Slate's "Today's Papers" column, he provides a window on the coverage of the day's top stories by five of the country's top newspapers: the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and USA Today.

But Shuger does more than summarize the papers' offerings; he takes first crack at the major forces in the newspaper industry. In a world becoming crowded with media critics, he adds his own brand of wit to the mix, criticizing the coverage when it is unbalanced or incomplete and lauding it when it is just, interesting or insightful.

Sometimes, Shuger gets in trouble for his strong opinions. Earlier this month, outraged readers labeled him an "idiot" and a "racist" for his comments regarding a New York Times article about a survey that showed a wide disparity in computer use between students at private colleges and those at traditionally black public institutions. The New York Times, of course, covered the brouhaha between Shuger and his disgruntled readers.


Credit: Michele Botwin

But at other times, Shuger's opinions go largely ignored by the mainstream media, particularly when he suggests that they are not operating under the same rules they apply to political leaders. In the fall, Shuger directed his Slate readers to a piece he'd written for the independent Mojo Wire, detailing how in the late 1980s, Los Angeles Times reporter Edwin Chen and Toronto Star reporter Bob Hepburn plagiarized -- yet were retained in good standing at their respective papers. Shuger had pitched the story, which was originally published on the now-defunct Forbes MediaCritic site, to at least 12 other publications before the Mother Jones site picked it up.

In early February, OJR's Michele Botwin sat down with Shuger in his small home-office in Culver City, Calif., where the widely read writer does all his work for "Today's Papers" from about 8 p.m to 3 a.m., five days a week.

They discussed, among other things, Shuger's five-year stint in the Navy, his association with Matt Drudge and his predictions for online journalism.

Michele Botwin: How did being in the Navy fit into your career as a journalist?

Scott Shuger: The thing is, I never worked at a daily newspaper. One of the things that's great about the Navy for a writer is that there's a tremendous emphasis on accurate information, quickly. So it really serves the function of that kind of cub reporter experience. I don't feel that I missed a beat in that respect.

I worked on admiral staffs where pretty high-powered people wanted stuff "now," and I had to get it from people who weren't necessarily happy to give it to me. I mean, debriefing pilots who just three minutes before almost killed themselves flying into the back of a ship on a moonless night... They don't really want to talk to some kid about where they were at 7:30, and what they saw. Those are pretty tough interviews. So I learned a lot about reporting.

There's actually a format to military message writing. In fact, when this project, "Today's Papers," was first suggested to me, I got it immediately because it was very similar to the kind of morning briefing that they published for the senior officers in the Pentagon.

Botwin: How did you go from working in intelligence in the Navy to becoming an editor at the Washington Monthly?

Shuger: After the Navy, I quickly conceived of a book basically about my experiences, but all of them making points about what was wrong with the Navy and what needed to be fixed.

I then called up Jim Fallows because I knew his work. When I was in the Navy, I used to brief his first book, "National Defense." So I told him a rudimentary version [of my book idea], and he suggested I send it to the Washington Monthly, a magazine that I had read for a number of years.

I sent them some stuff, and they did publish it. And that began my now pretty long association with the Washington Monthly. I've written for them now for 16 years.

We were living in Arkansas by this time, and I was struggling to find writing jobs there. It wasn't supporting me. About that time, an editor at the Washington Monthly asked if I wanted to be an editor. I said, "Yeah, how do I do that?" [Laughs] I was an editor for about two years. I think we put out a very good magazine when I was there.

Botwin: How did you become involved with the Internet?

Shuger: I worked for Amazon on the ground floor as a book reviewer. When people bought books, we would identify their interests and then we would send them book reviews of new books in those areas. Again, it had that same feeling of why I knew the briefing thing of "Today's Papers" would work. It's the same feeling of, "Here I'm getting this thing that's made for me, it's based on my interests." So I wrote book reviews for Amazon for about two years, and that's when Michael Kinsley called me.

I knew Mike from Washington. I've always admired him. I hope this ends well. I think he's great. He's a wonderful editor, he's a wonderful columnist, and he's a very deft manager, and I think he's made a hell of a magazine. It's actually kind of good that he's writing a little more -- he's been very prolific lately -- because one of my only drawbacks to Slate was that it took him out of the writing game for a little bit.

Botwin: You were among the first to write about Matt Drudge. How did you come to know and write about him? What were your first impressions?

Shuger: My claim to fame... I actually haven't seen him in a while. At one time, I would say he was my friend. And I'm kind of a booster of Matt to a point. I've actually defended him three times in my column. The journalistic establishment gives him the back of their hands unfairly a lot. But I've also chastised him.

I found his column just surfing the Net. It was cool -- he was writing as if he had this big national following when he didn't. I've always been impressed with people like that. He found his metier, and he was carrying on as if the world was hanging on his every word. And sure enough, they soon were.

I played a part in that. I pitched The New Yorker a story [in 1996] about Matt Drudge. Nobody had written about him then. I thought he was very good -- he was filling a role. Now he wears the hat and everything, I kind of hung it on him. I'm not saying he never had it, but I said, "This guy is trying to be Walter Winchell," before he was wearing the hat.

The New Yorker commissioned the piece, I wrote the piece, they bought the piece, and they never ran it. And I don't exactly know why, but I'm sure they regret that. And I sold it immediately to Los Angeles Magazine. Then I sold a piece to Salon. David Talbot had some good suggestions about changes. It's the only time I've ever talked to him. I've never pitched Salon anything else, and now I can't. They're the Evil Empire... no, we're the Evil Empire, that's right.

When I found Drudge, he had an interesting range of things he wrote about. He'd read every newspaper that was online. He would get on the phone, take calls, go through this huge amount of e-mail. He was the first reporter to really use e-mail as a legitimate source for stories.

I mean, this whole thing about "Matt Drudge just sits there and gets e-mail." What does a newsman do at The New York Times? He gets on the phone with people. What's the difference? [Drudge] definitely works leads, and very intensely.

But I don't understand his obsession with Clinton. I didn't understand it then. He had some Clinton items, but the unique thing that he had was a sensitivity to stories that were about the interface between Hollywood and Washington, which is a really fruitful area.

Botwin: Didn't Drudge recommend you for "Today's Papers"?

Shuger: The job was first offered to Drudge. I think he correctly assessed that he had found his thing, and it wasn't this. So he turned it down, and I think he mentioned that I might be good for this. The fact that Mike knew me, and that Drudge suggested it, made it the next call.

Botwin: What's your perspective on the more mature Drudge? Has he made it? Has he become a journalist or is he simply a purveyor of gossip?

Shuger: I think he used to be more of a journalist. Now I think he's a transmission belt for the Lucianne Goldberg-Jonah Goldberg rumor mill. And there's a place for rumor. Rumors are tips. It's what you do with them.

The initial establishment press reaction to Drudge was ridiculous, to say, "He gets tips on the phone and he just publishes them." Newspapers do the same thing, so that seems silly.

I would say that he's less of a journalist now because he's just reprinting a lot of undigested stuff. The thing where he is being sued by Sidney Blumenthal, he did do something [wrong] that was pretty basic: When he was told that there was this domestic violence incident, he didn't check it out. He didn't go look in court papers -- which is sort of Journalism 101. And there was no reason to not do it, except that he didn't think of it.

So he's probably prone to making that kind of mistake again, maybe not that particular one, but now he's really quickly publishing stuff that people give him. Again, there's nothing wrong with acting on stuff people give you, but there's something wrong with just being a transmission belt. That's not journalism.

Botwin: Will he break if he's left behind?

Shuger: I don't know. I would say that he's got a very clear idea of what he wants to do, and he's been pretty successful about making it happen, which is admirable. He has the problem that he's created a persona for himself, which may or may not be him. That's a little tough to live with.

I think he's coming to a rubicon, which is: What does he do after Clinton? The half-life of Clinton's sex life as a serious story is just about gone. And so he's got: "What do I do now? What's my second act?"

My guess is that he will try to recreate that kind of sizzle with something else when it's not appropriate and get himself in big trouble. Or, just as the American public is sort of bored with this topic, people will just be bored with him because he hasn't figured out a way to re-center himself.

I would say he has it in himself, because of what he did before all this, to become a very viable columnist. I don't know whether he wants to.

Botwin: Why do you focus solely on five mainstream papers in your column?

Shuger: It is at some level just an arbitrary choice to do a column based on five papers. I'd find it a little hard to leave out The New York Times -- I think it's the class act in many ways. But you could find four other good papers and do an interesting column.

The problem is that so much of the news is driven by those papers. If you look at most television news broadcasts, they are definitely driven by The New York Times and the Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal has a pretty good reach, too.

The thing to me about USA Today that makes them incredibly special is that they don't have any jumps on their front page, so their news stories are terse and get the high points in. Sometimes, but not too often, I read The New York Times, which is [generally] very good on context, and I still don't exactly know what happened.

But I find many times that if I'm a little hazy on what actually happened, USA Today stories solve my problems. So I think it's a very important part of this mix.

The L.A. Times is probably the one where people could give the biggest argument. I happen to think that Los Angeles is sufficiently different than many Eastern cities that it often produces stories that the L.A. Times gets that are really worth having in there. They had a great one the other day, for example, regarding an anti-fur ordinance up for the vote in Beverly Hills.

Now, could we add other papers? I would love to add the Chicago Tribune, I think it's a very good paper. The Washington Times is very interesting. I physically cannot do the column [with more]. I hope it doesn't read thin now, but I sometimes feel that I'm just about stretched to transparent getting it out now with five papers. I could never do six. I would need an assistant who was pretty much an able editor and writer himself. I'm about maxed out.

Botwin: What about a column that looks at online publications? Is the industry ready for that kind of analysis on a daily basis?

Shuger: I always figured that my column was open to evolving in that direction. One of the things that we decided was that we would be writing about the hard copy newspapers because that's what people are reading.

There already have been a couple of times when papers -- The Wall Street Journal comes to mind -- have broken stuff online and then they pick it up the next day in the hard copy. So that leads us to talk about the online papers. One of the principles of the column I have is this: "Today's Papers" is about the papers, so whatever the papers are about is fair game. If the papers tend to evolve more in an online direction, then this column will do that too.

Botwin: What are the advantages and disadvantages of online journalism?

Shuger: My prediction is that online journalism is the salvation of the newspaper business. It gives papers what they've never had, and what has constantly bedeviled them, which is the immediacy and the flexibility of television, but with the content of newspapers. It's brilliant. It really solves a lot of problems.

Of course, you do have what Mike [Kinsley] calls "the john problem." You know, where can you read these things? I think most people still would rather read a paper in their hands.

The main problem is quality control, which I don't think is inherent. It is true that culturally the people who have been there first online have operated pretty much without adult supervision. That's sort of a knock on Matt Drudge, not necessarily always fairly. It's a knock on me. I'm the most unedited published magazine writer in America. So it's all on me to be responsible. I don't think you could automatically expect everybody to step into that job and be as responsible as I am. It doesn't mean I don't make mistakes.

I have a little time in the system. That's the thing, anybody can do it. You have a computer and suddenly you can do this, so there's a problem of quality control. But I don't think it's an inherent problem, it's just a cultural problem. Twenty years from now, if all [online] newspapers or online news are as viable as their hard copies, that won't be a problem.

Botwin: What are your favorite sites?

Shuger: For basic news, I like CNN quite a bit. When I'm there, I think AOL is a pretty good portal site. Of the papers, I like the Chicago Tribune. I think The New York Times and Washington Post are excellent. USA Today is actually good. It's so different than their paper, and it's also sort of sports-crazed, which is lost on me since I'm not interested in sports, but I can see where it would be great for people betting on games. For entertainment news, the E! Online site is kind of fun. I used to go to more underground sites when I had more surf time. I don't have that much surf time anymore. On weekends, I don't even read the newspapers until Sunday afternoon. I save them all. I try to get the hell out of here.

Botwin: What about Salon?

Shuger: If I were them, I'd worry about appearing to become a partisan, liberal rag. I think that what's good about Salon is it's a lot of fun. Slate could do well to try to go in that direction more, to use the medium's inherent sense of fun.

Botwin: What's your working process? Has your writing been improved by the concise, 850-word format?

Shuger: It's a great exercise. Everything's completely lubricated. I don't have trouble starting the column, I don't have trouble seeing it's structure, I usually almost always know what the punch line will be. I never fumble around for words.

I used to have file folders, now I just have folders in my head, things that I know I'm interested in that I've spent some time reporting on in my life and I usually can pull some kind of angle on. Military is an obvious one, but I try not to "John Wayne" it.

I have a kind of formula. My first paragraph is always written as if it were the only thing that somebody saw, so you come away knowing what every paper's lead is. That way there's no atmospheric leads, maybe one sentence about the whole tempo of the day, but I try to avoid that, unless it's really screamed at me.

If it's a lead that I think is more interesting in one paper, then I'll write a couple of paragraphs about it, developing that story.

The next two to four paragraphs are developments of the leads, the stories of the day that are covered in more than one paper, compare and contrast. Readers love this, and I think they've found it amazing that the story is not actually the story. I think everybody in journalism knows that, but this seems to be news to readers.

I read them all and I notice the commonalities. Then I'm looking for the unique selling proposition: What is it that this story has that none of the other stories have?

Then I'm looking for other stories that are importantly played in the papers that strike me as really important for readers to know. My bias is: I'm generally not interested in "on the one hand, on the other hand," some say 'yes,' some say 'no'' stories. I don't think the reader takes much away from that, and if there's not that much cash value for the readers, I don't do it.

I have a bias toward stories about stuff that's actually happening in the world; I have a bias against stories that are telling what might happen. So you'll almost never see me write about [those things], unless they lead. If it leads, I have to write about it. That's my marching orders, to myself.

Botwin: What understandings about journalism have you come to as a result of doing "Today's Papers?"

Shuger: Really rubbing my nose in the papers like this for almost two years has shown me that there's just a lot of quality there. I still think that journalists have a real problem with exempting themselves from the standards that they apply to everybody else. That's a big thing with me.

But here's something I've learned: Because I got to visit the papers I write about -- with the exception of the Washington Post, which hasn't asked me yet -- I have learned that the process of selecting and evaluating stories is actually quite thoughtful, although these things are done very fast, under difficult circumstances. It's not as if I'm applying standards to the papers that they don't apply themselves.

The actual ethos at these papers is to make it "as good as we can every day." I'm impressed with that.