I’m repulsed by the incestuous world of New York journalism, a close-knit circle of writers and editors who socialize together and play musical chairs with jobs at interchangeable glossy magazines whose content is virtually identical,” writes Russ Smith, the self-styled Everyman of media outsiders.
“And it’s my opinion,” he adds, “that journalists like Joe Conason, Eleanor Clift, Margaret Carlson, Eric Alterman, Jonathan Alter, and Katha Pollitt, to name just a few, as well as buffoon filmmaker Michael Moore, are beyond contempt.”
Jimmy Stewart often played the anti-insider role, and you do think of Jimmy Stewart when you see Russ Smith. Affectless. Flat. Genial – nice in an out-of-towner kind of way. A tad disconnected. Even the business model for his free weekly paper, the New York Press, seems a paragon of small-town virtues. Don’t borrow. Don’t take investors outside your own family (he’s reluctant to admit that his brothers have helped him). Grow slowly. Ignore the build-brand-take-market-share-grow-by-acquisition-leverage-IPO modern-media business model. Smith would be notable only for his 1940s sort of normalness if he weren’t so eccentric too.
For starters, Smith marshaled his outsiderism and started a newspaper in Manhattan (sort of Jesus among the money changers). Add to that rather rare accomplishment that he’s built the newspaper around himself. Not only is he editor-in-chief and publisher and CEO, but he also writes the single largest chunk of the paper in his “Mugger” column. This is more than just cheapness (although when the owner writes a significant part of the paper himself, and a goodly amount more of the paper is taken up by free letters provoked by the owner’s mince-no-words opinions, you’ve got a sound economic deal). It’s a calling.
Smith’s weekly 5,000-to-11,000-word column (making him, undoubtedly, the most prolix journalist in New York) is about the media. It is occasionally about his family life (Smith writes about himself in the third person as an avuncular old-fashioned family man) and the restaurants he’s been to, and is punctuated by his conservative politics. But, written under the nom de plume “Mugger,” the column is mostly about New York media personalities – it may well be the most exhaustive and exhausting coverage of that world – and how loathsome he finds almost all of us. It’s a diary or, even, something of a weekly directory, of boldfaced names (an average of more than a hundred per column) who, on a sliding scale of vileness, are taken to task for their insiderism. He is an outsider, but he obsessively follows the writings and appearances and random utterances of everyone he considers to be an insider. He has a stalker’s attention to detail.
If you do this long enough, and Smith has now done it for eleven years – NYPress boxes have inexorably spread throughout Manhattan, now even to the Upper East Side – and if you in fact manage to remain enough of an outsider to keep uninhibitedly abusing the insiders, people (insiders among them) actually start to notice you. Sort of. Eagerly skimming “Mugger,” I find myself pleased to be complimented or flayed (he has, of course, attacked New York Magazine with relish); there is, at such great length, an undifferentiated quality to the praise and the opprobrium. Obviously, there are complex resentments at work here – the fury of the outsider but equally the fury of the outsider pressed awfully close to the glass. “Violent spankings alternate with great praise,” says Kurt Andersen, whom “Mugger” has closely monitored since Andersen launched Spy more than ten years ago (indeed, Andersen points out, “Mugger” was among the first media writers to take notice of Spy).
A favorite saying among hard-core media outsiders – that is, dedicated media buffs who see themselves as excluded from or philosophically opposed to the “media” world – is that there is freedom of the press only for those who own one. That is both a rationale for the have-nots to despise the established media (DIRTY AS A SULZBERGER was a recent NYPress headline) and a rallying cry for getting your own media outlet (a magazine or Website or drive-time call-in show).
Starting a weekly newspaper is actually quite an outsider’s idea of what New Yorkers (i.e., insiders) do. In the seventies, every city where there were restaurants, nightlife, and retail establishments and not enough low-priced media to promote them had its imitation of The Village Voice.
Smith, now 43, grew up in the sixties as the youngest of five brothers in a working-class family on Long Island, reading the Voice (reading The Village Voice in the suburbs was a particular sort of Voice experience); went to college at Johns Hopkins in the working-class city of Baltimore, where in 1977, disillusioned by a short stint at the Baltimore Sun, he started the alternative City Paper. Baltimore, in fact, remains, arguably, the psychic home of Smith’s NYPress, now on Seventh Avenue in the West Twenties (many of the ads in the tenth-anniversary issue of the NYPress were from well-wishers from Baltimore). Smith’s Baltimore paper pioneered a new form of journalism: free journalism, a hybrid of throwaway retail “shopper” and underground newspapers. In 1981, he launched City Paper in Washington. In 1987, he sold both papers for a personal take of about $3 million – then, moving to Manhattan from Baltimore, he decided to do it all again.
Smith is a conservative Republican who appears to believe that the moment in time that we should conserve, and against which we should judge all else to be a liberal corruption thereof, is the sixties. One of the purest representations of the sixties, he believes, is The Village Voice of that period. Now, you might think this is a serious case of turning both conservatism and the sixties inside out, but in fact, the sixties Village Voice was very much a when-men-were-drinkers-and-women-were-their-women paper. It was the anti-correct-behavior paper, espousing, without knowing the word, something like libertarian beliefs – which is how Smith characterizes himself and his intellectual heroes (from P. J. O’Rourke to Lucianne Goldberg).
Smith is obviously right that the Voice changed. He believes it went to the opposite extreme from live-and-let-live libertarianism – that, in fact, it became the insider organ of correct party-line behavior. So, from the beginning, of all the targets Smith had in mind to take on, the one he was especially gunning for was the Voice.
Whether or not the 110,000-circulation NYPress has seriously threatened the Voice, it has certainly given prominent space to old Voice writers like Alexander Cockburn and Lucian K. Truscott IV. (The Voice, in response to the NYPress, was forced to adopt a free model, and while it lost significant newsstand revenue, it was able to raise its Manhattan circulation from under 140,000 to 235,000, which has helped it substantially increase advertising revenues; Voice owner Leonard Stern became so enamored of the free-weekly model that he acquired several more free weeklies across the country.) What’s more, the NYPress, as wildly uneven as it is, has brought back the kind of strong-story-line, first-person urban narrative – some of my favorites have been a bulimic’s paean to bulimia, and a young male writer’s bedroom scene with a female writer 37 years his senior – that the Voice used to offer and lost along with its sense of humor. In addition to resurrecting old faces, the NYPress has developed its own stable of signature writers, including editor John Strausbaugh (from Baltimore), who writes a weekly column about independently published books; sex columnist Amy Sohn; and sort of sex columnist Jonathan Ames (of the aforementioned Oedipal scene), all of whom you could easily imagine as guests at a dinner party veering helplessly out of control.
The oddest thing now about the NYPress is how seamlessly it fits into the Manhattan media landscape. For many years, you could pick up the paper and not be able to fathom the journalistic and business rationale that allowed it to exist; it seemed like a beyond-interpretation vanity-publishing proposition. In fact, it has not changed so very much from its earliest days. But since then, the cult of the media outsider has become an accepted journalistic and business model. Smith stands very much with Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Matt Drudge, Lucianne Goldberg, and the various ranters and ravers up and down the cable dial. Outside of Manhattan, indeed outside of a few million square feet in midtown, there is a loaded way that people say names like Frank Rich and Tina Brown and Si Newhouse (they are the Jewish bankers of our time) that gives you a clear window into the hot if inchoate resentments people harbor toward the media. Smith’s “Mugger” reflects that temper as well as anyone.
Of course, the success of the paper – Smith says the NYPress broke even in 1995 after an investment of $4.5 million – together with the rise of conservative media, threatens to make Smith, at the very least, a media insider of the right-wing stripe. He now contributes to the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page and to Rupert Murdoch’s conservative opinion journal The Weekly Standard. He seems even to be looking for influence in the 2000 Republican race (the live-free-or-die-but- I-really-hate-Bill Clinton libertarian wing of the party vs. the religious right).
Still, as for the media, the liberal media, he continues to insist, sitting stiffly in a heavy wool suit in his overheated office, “I don’t know any of these fuckers. We don’t go to cocktail parties and exchange résumés. And we recommend to our writers not to consort with other people in the media.”
When Smith’s protégé, Sam Sifton – son of publishing doyenne Elisabeth Sifton and grandson of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr – told Smith he was leaving the NYPress to join the launch team of Tina Brown’s Talk, all hell broke loose, including tirades against Sifton and Brown in the “Mugger” column. “I don’t begrudge anyone a bigger paycheck,” says Smith, “but doing lunch, going to cocktail parties, and schmoozing is not what I think Sam should be doing.”
And yet, when reciting the paper’s claims to success – its circulation gains, its coverage in the press, the writers it has attracted – Smith cites, too, the fact that Tina Brown is now hiring his people.
Part of the paper’s honesty (and humor) is that it lives a precarious existence between the pain of rejection and the fear of co-optation. The inside, of course, is always romanticized most from the outside. Outsiders, in fact, are the only ones for whom there really is an inside. You can’t read “Mugger” and not feel strongly that Smith would love to be inside. (When pressed, Smith tells me, “off the record,” the name of his “best friend” in the media business. The person in question, when I relate this, seems momentarily nonplussed before saying, “Well, Russ Smith is my best friend in the alternative media.”) Smith wants to be invited, respected, courted. But he’s stubborn enough – prickly enough – to refuse to make the first move. He is no shameless media hustler. The man has his pride. He’s waiting for you to beg him.