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Satellite Dish

From his studio apartment deep in the heartland, Jim Romenesko supplies New York's media mandarins with their daily fix of industry gossip. And all he asks in return is a modest wage (forget the stock options), a fast Internet connection -- and ten cups of coffee a day.

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The world headquarters of MediaNews.org -- the white-hot nerve center of the media world, the Website that industry types scan obsessively to see what media writers and gossip columnists everywhere know that they don't know -- is a 500-square-foot one-room condo.

Cream-colored walls, light-beige carpeting. No bookshelves, a few stark black-and-white photographs on the walls (an albino, a cemetery, that sort of thing). A black leather chair and ottoman in front of a 36-inch RCA projection TV. An L-shaped desk with two computers, an iMac DV and a G3, connected to the Net via DSL and a 56K modem.

And, six steps away from the computers, a queen-size futon (black comforter, black sheets), where the sole employee of MediaNews, founder Jim Romenesko -- who made it onto Forbes's "Power 100" list of masters of the media universe, along with Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, and the Backstreet Boys -- sleeps at night.

"I make my bed when the sun comes up," Romenesko says in a flat midwestern accent that can bring to mind the movie Fargo. Office hours begin at 6 a.m. -- he doesn't even shower and shave until he goes out later in the day. That's a good thing, because there are several thousand media junkies who fully expect Romenesko to have combed the entire Internet -- literally hundreds of sources -- for the most irresistible items or stories of the day. Rick Bragg of the New York Times indiscreetly tells a reporter for the Metro Pulse in Knoxville that the Elián González saga is "the dumbest thing I've ever covered" and that he "definitely made a mistake" in taking the Miami-bureau-chief job? An NBC cameraman accuses a New York Post reporter of stabbing him with her pen? Times Mirror chairman Mark "Cereal Killer" Willes is spotted crying on publisher Kathryn Downing's shoulder after the Tribune Co. buys out his company? Romenesko's read about it, summarized it, and posted a link on MediaNews by the time James Truman has bused his breakfast tray in the Condé Nast cafeteria.

And then there are the constant e-mails from journalists, which find their way onto the site if Romenesko deems them worthy. Journalists plugging their own stories, journalists passing along industry gossip, journalists complaining about other journalists. The big event last month was a torrent of gripes about the controversial anonymous confessional "My Mentor, My Rapist" in GQ. And Peggy Noonan, former Ronald Reagan speechwriter and author of The Case Against Hillary Clinton, chose MediaNews to air her grievances against book reviewers who have been less than charitable to her. Romenesko's site has become the place for journalists to see and be seen -- sort of like a virtual Michael's or Elaine's.

Romenesko's Website has become the place for journalists to see and be seen -- sort of like a virtual Michael's or Elaine's.

If the media world is a society of self-proclaimed insiders -- think high school with money -- suddenly it seems like all the cool kids want to sit at Jim Romenesko's table in the cafeteria. Except few Manhattan media types seem to realize that his table is in Evanston, Illinois.

It's a measure of how long I've known Jim Romenesko that when I see him every now and again -- once every year or two, usually here in New York -- neither of us can quite remember anymore how our customary greeting is supposed to go.

"Hey, Jim, you asshole!"

"Hey, Simon, you bastard!"

"Or, wait, is it 'Jim, you bastard' and I'm the asshole?"

"Um, I don't know," Romenesko says when I first greet him at Peet's Coffee in Evanston (his satellite office, where he often sits with a stack of newspapers and a cell phone), around the corner from his apartment. And then he lets out his great, haw-haw laugh.

He looks about the same as he's always looked, which is to say slightly worn around the edges -- thin build with a hint of a gut, thinning sandy-blond hair -- and at 46, he's got the same terrifically endearing perma-grin on his face. Not the I-know-something-you-don't-know smirk of a media insider but an open, honest near smile that suggests he manages to find things pretty consistently amusing.

We've stayed in touch since we worked together at Milwaukee Magazine in the late eighties. I was a cub editor; he was the veteran police reporter who also wrote the most popular thing in the magazine, a column called "Pressroom Confidential," which consisted mostly of naughty bits about newsroom politics at the local papers and TV stations. He did the column his entire thirteen years at the magazine.

Then, of course, the Internet happened. Last time I saw Romenesko, almost a year ago, he was still working as a reporter on the new-media beat at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he'd gone after leaving Milwaukee Magazine in 1995. He'd launched his new part-time hobby, then called MediaGossip.com, just a few weeks earlier, and he was already getting a lot of traffic, but Romenesko was more excited about telling me that he'd recently supported himself for an entire month (he put his Pioneer Press paychecks right into savings) by selling from his stockpiles of vintage fanzines and magazines on eBay.

Fast-forward to this year. Suddenly, it's as if media luminaries who were seduced, then burned, by Matt Drudge -- who threw some serious stinkbombs in the media cafeteria -- have finally found an Internet gossipmonger they can stand. This new kid, Romenesko, they like.

"I'm obsessed with his site," confesses Jeannette Walls, the MSNBC gossip maven and author of the new gossip-world tell-all Dish. "I love it. It's such a must-read for me. He doesn't have an agenda, and so many sites do."

Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson, who was on a Mississippi riverboat retreat last week, confessed his addiction to Romenesko's site by firing off this e-mail: "We're floating down the river with our staff for two weeks, and whenever I get a good Internet connection, I go to the MediaNews page for a quick fix."

And Noonan says she got hooked on Romenesko after "a friend of mine at Entertainment Weekly told me it's the first site she goes to in the morning, and that's true of most of the people she works with. So now I visit regularly." Then, measuring her words carefully, she adds, "I like it that he worries about journalistic standards. The way I see it, the site is a public service."

Tom Prince, executive editor of Condé Nast's Allure, speculates that "getting picked up by the site is the new bragging right among gossips." Walls agrees, saying she feels "validated" when Romenesko links to her MSNBC column. Prince adds, "I know when I look at it and someone whose column appears that day hasn't been picked up, I think, Wow, now I bet they know what Haley Joel Osment feels like."


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