This article ran in CJR’s May/June 2013 edition as a sidebar to Ben Adler’s cover story on how millennials get their news.
Ben: Tell me about your media diet when you were young.
Jerry: As a kid, I read the newspapers that my father brought home: The New York Times and his evening papers of choice, the World-Telegram and the New York Post. There were seven papers in New York back then, segmented somewhat by class, politics, and religion. The Times was the more liberal morning broadsheet, compared to the Herald-Tribune, which was the moderate Republican paper. The Daily News and the Mirror were the morning tabloids, pretty much the voices of right-wing Irish Catholicism. The Post—ironically, in light of what it has become—was the liberal, Jewish working-class afternoon paper. I loved those papers. The columnist Murray Kempton was my hero, as a writer. A Sunday New York Times in those years was immense.
Ben: Was that because of the ad pages or because of more content?
Jerry: Both, but probably more to do with the ads. There were pages and pages of classified real-estate ads, and a thick “Help Wanted” section. When I looked for a job in journalism after college, I found one by answering an ad in the Times. (I believe the category was called “Help Wanted—College Graduates,” although it could have been “Help Wanted—Male.”) I listened to the radio, I guess, and watched the network news broadcasts, which sometime in the ’60s, I believe, went from 15 minutes to half an hour.
Ben: By the time you became a journalist there were only three papers in New York City, right? Had anything else changed?
Jerry: I listened to the radio more. All-news radio [which caught on during the 1962-63 newspaper strike] was the start of the 24-hour news cycle, as far as I was concerned.
Ben: So how do you get your news now?
Jerry: I still get the Times delivered every day, but it’s the only print newspaper I read with any regularity. I’m at the computer most of the day, and I check a handful of sites frequently—either because there’s a story I want to follow, or just because there’s no water fountain at home to walk to. For breaking news, I go to CNN or the Times or (for local stories) NY1. I like TPM, New York’s “Intelligencer,” and Slate for analysis. I don’t use Twitter very much, although I’ve been told I should. A fair amount of stuff comes to me through links posted on Facebook.
Ben: You still listen to the radio when you shave in the morning, like you did when I was a kid?
Jerry: Yeah, CBS. Although Charles Osgood has turned into a right-wing crank.
Ben: I remember how a West Coast sports score wouldn’t be in the Times. But you used to get the results on the radio and tell me.
Jerry: Well, call me when you wake up and I’ll still tell you.
Ben: Nowadays, when I wake up, I can just look at my phone and find out.
Jerry: Really? Your phone can do that? Just kidding. I know it can.
Ben: I guess part of what Newsweek had all those bureaus for was just to have someone reading that town’s paper and watching/listening to its local newscasts?
Jerry: The editors went back and forth over the years on whether they actually cared about this stuff. In general, they felt like it ought to be good for the magazine . . . but then, faced with the reality of running a four-column story on a scandal in the Houston school system or whatever . . . they’d punt.
Ben: You mentioned checking websites because there’s no water cooler to walk to, now that you work from home. I remember you used to pace all the time when you were writing. Do you think that the Internet has made it harder to focus on reporting and writing without getting distracted?
Jerry: For writers, as for shortstops, the legs go first. Look, the Internet has made my job as a writer immensely easier in countless ways. It more than makes up for the marginal increase in time-wasting it facilitates. I’m working now on a story for Smithsonian about human evolution, and I needed a scientific paper from 1995, and I found it in under a minute. It cost me $8, admittedly, but I was happy to pay it. At Newsweek, I could have had a research librarian track it down, which might have taken two days. Working from home, 20 years ago, I would have had to find it in a library, which would have taken half the day.
Ben: Do you worry that interactive technology means young journalists will learn to game systems, from search engine optimization to getting attention on Twitter, instead of learning how to become better reporters?
Jerry: I was speaking to a college journalist at The New School recently who said the preferred strategy for his generation is to stay up late on Twitter and retweet comments from [established] journalists, hoping to catch someone’s attention that way. This guy applied for a job with a prestigious online news outlet and was told, “You have great clips, but we’re looking for people who know how to run a website—and if they need to learn journalism, we’ll teach it to them.”
Ben: How much do you consume news on your phone? You have an iPhone, right?
Jerry: I have an Android phone. As a subscriber, I get emailed news alerts from the Times when a story breaks. Not, actually, when it breaks—half an hour to an hour later, but that’s good enough for me.