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.”
Washington Post and CNN media commentator Howard Kurtz, another daily MediaNews addict, says, “I think the clever and sometimes sardonic way that Romenesko packages and presents his daily media download has a lot to do with the site’s charm.”
It’s a colicky time for journalists, competitive types who used to obsess about prestige and prizes but now have to worry about “eyeballs” and “branding,” not to speak of stock options – watching others get them, or watching their own tank.
But if you’re Jim Romenesko you can rise above it all, from a refreshing remove, because shortly after you founded your little part-time MediaGossip site, a dull but worthy journalism teaching-and-research institution based in St. Petersburg, Florida, called you up wondering if it might pay you a living wage to do your hobby full-time. Romenesko got that call from the Poynter Institute’s online editor, Bill Mitchell, last August and flew down for a weekend interview because he didn’t have any vacation days left at the Pioneer Press. By that Sunday, Mitchell had offered him $65,000, which topped Romenesko’s newspaper salary. And Mitchell met Romenesko’s only condition: that he would get to telecommute from a location of his choice, which happened to be Chicago, where there’s no chance at all of running into Steve Brill. Romenesko went on Poynter’s payroll last October, and the transition became complete when MediaGossip got the more respectable URL, MediaNews.org, on February 1.
When Romenesko made the Forbes “Power 100” list and the magazine cheekily listed his Internet earnings at “$0.06 million,” the trade publication Media Central (a Website owned by Primedia, the parent company of New York Magazine) called to offer him a job at a better salary. Poynter, which has funding from the now-deceased founder of the St. Petersburg Times, who willed his stock in the paper to the institute, promptly counteroffered with $80,000. Which is not bad money at all in Evanston, Illinois. (Romenesko’s studio apartment cost $52,000.)
His technical employment by Poynter notwithstanding, Romenesko still essentially works for himself. “He updates the site live,” says Mitchell, “which is certainly an approach that’s open to debate.” Romenesko alerts the home office in St. Pete’s after he’s updated the site, and “occasionally we’ll find a typo, but Jim is so careful that I’m completely comfortable with the way we’re doing this.” In the half-year Romenesko’s been on Poynter’s payroll, he says, the institute has never once censored him or asked him to remove or reword an item. (It’s worth noting, though, that a New York Times editor once called Romenesko and asked him to take down a link to NewYorkMag.com, where an article by this magazine’s media columnist, Michael Wolff, contained a line about Alex Kuczynski that the Timesman objected to; Romenesko declined to remove the link.)
“The highlight of the police thing was sitting next to Jeffrey Dahmer at his trial. Not getting excited made me realize it was time to move on.”
It’s an exceedingly solitary existence, and while he doesn’t have a sunlit loft office in the Starrett-Lehigh Building and stock options to keep him motivated, Romenesko does have … coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. “Let’s see,” Romenesko says when I ask him to do the math. “Usually when I’m putting the page together, maybe four of five cups. And then at like 11:30, I go to Peet’s and have maybe three more.” Occasionally, he’ll crash midafternoon – “Every once in a while, you know, I’ll, like at 4:30, knock off for an hour” – but by 6 or 7 p.m., he’s had ten to twelve cups.
Jim Romenesko is the kind of guy whose professional life – all those years as a police reporter – always seemed so all-consuming and weirdly fascinating that it never occurred to me to think that he might have any interest in, or time for, a personal life. In fact, I’ve never thought to ask until now.
Significant other? None to speak of, at least lately. Friends? Since he moved to Evanston from St. Paul only recently, “they’re mostly from Milwaukee, mostly from the old days. I drive up to Milwaukee on the weekends and hang out there.”
Hobbies? Leisure time? Much of it is spent scouting items for his other cult media product, the news-of-the-weird site ObscureStore.com, which Romenesko founded in January 1998 and still updates daily. (Sample headline: REPORT: SILICON VALLEY NANNIES CAN GET $80,000.) In the “Store” part, he sells old-school paper ” ‘zines” (remember ‘zines?) like Angry Thoreauan, Jersey Beat, Temp Slave, and Teen Fag, which he keeps in neat piles in his studio’s walk-in closet.
Okay, family? His dad, Merlin, was a school superintendent in his hometown of Walworth, Wisconsin, and his mom, Rosemary, was a homemaker – Romenesko had nine brothers and sisters.
And all those siblings? What do they do?
“Well, let’s see, one brother is a CFO for a company in Chicago,” Romenesko says. “Um, most of ‘em are accountants, actually. And one owns a hardware store.”
What about those five sisters?
“Uh, they’re mostly schoolteachers. One … two … four of them are schoolteachers, yeah,” he says before crumbling into laughter, seeming to realize for the first time that all but one of his sisters are schoolteachers (the fifth is in marketing).
It’s as if Romenesko had just been waiting all his life for the Internet to get invented: “The Walworth Public Library got the Sunday New York Times, which arrived on Wednesday, and I was always the only person who touched it or read it.”
He studied journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee, then went to work for the Milwaukee Journal, which had its Pulitzer Prize-winning heyday in the sixties and seventies. “Graduating and getting hired was like the greatest thing in the world,” he says. “I mean, I just remember springing out of bed in the morning, anxious to go to work. I actually held two jobs when I was there. By day I was the suburban reporter, and by night I was a police reporter. They got around it by paying me per story for my suburban stories and paying per hour for the police job.
“I was a police reporter pretty young and saw this side of life that I never saw when I grew up. In Walworth, Wisconsin, probably the most riveting thing was a truck went the wrong way around the village square – and this is the truth. The picture was in the paper,” he says, laughing. “So that was my police-news experience. Then you’re thrown into a situation where, you know, people are stabbed 55 times and you get to go to the morgue and look at the Polaroid snapshots – in color because they’re murder, black-and-white if it’s an accidental death.”
Milwaukee was a rough-and-tumble, heavily segregated, fading Rust Belt city with a (somewhat peculiar) population of just over 600,000 at the time. “I remember there were a lot of autoerotic misadventures. I remember the perky secretary at the morgue asking me if I could take seeing an autoerotic misadventure, and not knowing what it was at the time.”
And your reaction?
“Um, pretty fascinated,” he says, laughing. “It was a guy who had handcuffs around his genitals and his wrists. He was like mid-twenties. It was Case 258 – it became a classic. Classic Case 258. He had a motorized barbecue skewer that would control the rope around his neck. And supposedly the skewer switch failed, and instead of loosening the rope it tightened it.”
Romenesko had such a knack for sifting through the crime blotter and finding the stories that had a gruesome, irresistible quality – a certain creative depravity, you might say – that his legend in the newsroom quickly grew. “A lot of my little stories would end up on the AP wire and I’d see ‘em in the Sunday New York Times – the little one-’graph, two-’graph fillers.”
Of course, not all the weird characters were strictly criminal. Take one of the coroners at the Milwaukee morgue: “We used to call her Young Frankenstein’s daughter. She was a great source, but she was kind of a frightening character. She was collecting men’s testicles at home and got busted for it.”
“Yeah, after autopsies, she would collect men’s testicles and would take them home.”
One day, an acquaintance who took care of her dog while she was away found the testicles.
“I mean, there were jars of them. She claimed that she was doing experiments to see if the testes of drug users differed from non-drug users’,” Romenesko says, almost hyperventilating with laughter. “But when they busted her, they pointed out that she didn’t have a control group.”
By the time Romenesko was 28, he had seen enough to compile Death Log, a self-published book subtitled A Police Reporter’s Collection of Coroners’ Reports on Some of the Most Unusual Deaths Ever. But Romenesko – anticipating the Smoking Gun Website by over a decade – also included a section called “Morgue Reports of the Stars,” which reproduced the autopsy write-ups of everyone from Marilyn Monroe and Lenny Bruce to Sharon Tate and Freddie Prinze, which he got by filing Freedom of Information Act requests.
Ask Romenesko about what attracts him to all this stuff, and he really begins to sound almost frighteningly like the male version of Marge Gunderson, Frances McDormand’s benevolent cop character in Fargo: “Oh, I have a minor in psychology, so I’ve always been kind of interested in motivations and mind-sets and so on and so forth.”
So, five years at a newspaper and thirteen years at a magazine covering the heartland freak show.
“The highlight of the police thing was sitting next to Jeffrey Dahmer at his trial for three weeks,” Romenesko says. He had a front-row seat that he shared with a Vanity Fair writer. “I remember thinking that I should be more excited about being there, because people were standing in line at three in the morning trying to get a seat. People, you know, just dying to get in there. Covering that and not getting excited kind of made me realize that it was time to move on.”
The minute he got on the Internet, in 1990 – Romenesko taught a course at a local college and taught himself unix so he could use the school’s mainframe – “I knew that that was where I wanted to be, that’s what I wanted to do.”
And, of course, it allowed him to come full circle, doing what amounts to an all-knowing, all-seeing version of his old Milwaukee Magazine “Pressroom Confidential” column.
The touching, almost anachronistic thing, really, is that Romenesko actually seems to care about journalists and journalism, which is the answer to everyone’s obvious question: “What would make a guy read hundreds of articles about journalists every single day?”
“I think that the classic journalists are pleasantly eccentric, a lot of them. I mean, going back to the days of the Journal, I think of the oddballs who were in there” – “in there,” he says, as if it were some sort of asylum. “You know, the drama critic who was literally very obsessive and washed his hands every five minutes; you’d just, like, watch him go back and forth, back and forth. The near-deaf advice columnist who kept her phone in her desk drawer and it’d be ringing and ringing and people’d finally have to go take it out.
“And,” he adds, “when you start talking to journalists, we all kind of seem to have a similar background in some respects. In high school, we weren’t usually the real popular people… . Journalists, I think, are just smarter people, more interesting people, basically.”
You thought the Manhattan media freak show was a shallow, callow world of shameless self-promoters? Guess again. Jim Romenesko is willing to overlook your personal trainer, Tina Brown, and your bespoke suits, Graydon Carter. Because Jim Romenesko knows that somewhere, deep inside, you’re a smart high-school reject – and he likes that about you.