Gabriel Sherman on Getting Thin-Skinned Journalists to Talk

The New York Observer reporter talks about cracking the New York Times and Conde Nast, and getting linked by Romenesko.

Gabriel Sherman

Gabriel Sherman is a media reporter at the New York Observer, where he has covered Judith Miller’s resignation from the New York Times, Newsweek’s retracted report on Koran desecration at Guantanamo Bay and the Valerie Plame leak investigation, among other stories. Most recently, he has reported on the Times’ flawed coverage of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the paper’s decision to hold the NSA wiretapping exclusive for more than a year.

Liz Cox Barrett: Many of your stories include multiple unnamed sources from some big-shot media organization or another recounting juicy details about some closed-door staff meeting and/or dishing or griping about his or her coworkers. What major media outlet has been the toughest to crack? And, what’s your secret for cultivating such well-placed sources?

Gabriel Sherman: I’ve found that all of the media outlets on the beat are tough to crack in their own ways. Conde Nast’s intensely private culture is a big reporting roadblock, while the sheer size and complexity of the New York Times presents its own specific challenges.

As leaky as the New York media scene appears, getting journalists to talk can be a tricky proposition. By nature we have thin skins. And as much as reporters like to go out and find the story, journalists are among the most reluctant to be a part of one. In my reporting, I play it straight with my sources and protect their confidences 110 percent. Honesty and integrity are among the most important tools that establish trust with people. My goal is to report fairly and accurately on the media organizations on my beat at a critical transition in our media culture, and I’ve found sources respond to that mission.

LCB: I’ve probably answered my second question in my first question, but: There are plenty of people covering the media out there, so what do you think it is about your stories in particular that Jim Romenesko finds so link-worthy?

GS: The mystery of what Jim Romenesko finds link-worthy is perhaps the biggest secret (and obsession) for media reporters! If I only knew. But judging by what he’s linked to in the past, I think Romenesko first and foremost responds to pieces that contain news. Breaking news is the surest path to landing on his media digest. Also, the pieces of mine that seem to get linked are the ones that get deep inside media organizations, or pieces that have insightful or illuminating quotes from interesting media personalities.

LCB: Back to sourcing. I’d like to get your thoughts on the following passage from Jeffrey Toobin’s New Yorker piece this week in which he is quoting the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus: “‘The whole subject of confidential sources has gotten mixed up between gossip, opinion, and fact,’ he said. ‘I cover intelligence, and people are really risking their jobs and perhaps their freedom by telling me information that they know is classified. That’s very different from people going on background to tell you that Britney Spears is pregnant, or that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t run for the Senate because it will hurt her chances of running for president. Just because someone asks for confidentiality doesn’t mean you have to give it to them. And just because someone tells you something, even if it’s true, doesn’t mean you have to put it in the paper.’” And, what are the rules on anonymous sourcing at the Observer?

GS: I agree with Walter. Anonymous sourcing is best used to uncover factual information that is of vital interest to the reader. It’s not meant as a conduit for gossip or opinion. For my beat, being able to convey these powerful media institutions to readers is my primary goal. In doing that, I often need people to provide confidential information.

First, when someone seeks to go on background or off the record, I always ask myself, “What are this person’s motivations for talking to me?” Anyone who wants to get information into the pages of a newspaper without standing behind it by name has an agenda of some form. Understanding that motivation is crucial before deciding whether the information is viable for a piece. I view the use and misuse of anonymous sources in the bigger context of presenting a fair and accurate piece to the reader.

LCB: Let’s say you woke up one day to discover that you were no longer Gabriel Sherman, media reporter for the Observer, covering a very leaky New York media scene but that you were Gabriel Sherman, member of the White House press corps, covering a somewhat less leaky administration. How do you think you’d fare? Are any of the skills you’ve honed in your current position transferable? What story or source would you go after first?

GS: Interesting question. Undoubtedly, Washington is an intensely competitive journalism environment. Down there you have the Washington Post, New York Times and every big city daily, news magazine and television outlet fighting for exclusives. Not to mention blogs. It’s brutal. But in certain ways, covering the media in New York has many of the same competitive qualities. While DC is a political town, New York is a media city. The media reporters here are all very talented and driven, and the competition pushes everyone to find better sources and produce better [stories]. Having covered some hotly chased stories recently, from Judy Miller to Bob Woodward, I think my experience here would be an asset down in Washington.

The Washington story I’m most intrigued by is the obsessive secrecy of the Bush administration. As hard as it is to find out what’s going on inside the Conde Nast cafeteria, cracking the leak-proof White House would be a thrilling challenge.

LCB: Over Thanksgiving, Gawker asked you what you and some other media people what were thankful for. One of the things you indicated you were giving thanks for in 2005 was the New York Times’ Thursday Styles (we’re also very happy it exists). Pretend I’m a Thursday Styles editor and you’re pitching a story to me. Go.

GS: Hmm. Can’t I just have Alex Kuczynski’s “Critical Shopper” column? I’ve always wanted to get paid to spend money.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.