Please Mr. Link Man

Journalism big shots are pleading for the attention of one drowsy guy in St. Paul. James Romenesko discusses the power of indie weblogs and how he found the bogus millionaire-dog story.

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You could call this column a shameless plea for James Romenesko’s attention. I probably would. But it wouldn’t be the first one. At the Obscure Store and Reading Room and its new offshoot, MediaGossip.com, Romenesko directs 5,000 to 7,000 readers a day to bizarre news items and media-biz tidbits across the Web. He exemplifies a trend in online publishing: the increasing influence of metajournalistic referrer sites, from major commercial enterprises like Yahoo Internet Life to weblogs (link-list pages) like Romenesko’s. A well-placed link means thousands of page views, which mean bucks, and online publications, smelling the traffic like your dog smells ground chuck in the groceries, have started “suggesting” stories to such sites — flacking them by e-mail, in some cases dedicating staff members to the job.

The reach of Romenesko’s media-heavy content is intensified because journalists love to read about themselves. Andrew Zipern, CyberTimes producer for the New York Times on the Web, “read[s] the Obscure Store every day, and increasingly, everyone I know in the media biz with a slightly campy or navel-gazing sensibility does as well.” (“We do not refer stories to him,” he stressed.) Romenesko is also well-loved by radio morning-show producers, who use him as a
pro bono service bureau for wacky news briefs (“Woman: Jesus Gave Thumbs-Up on Murder”).

An Internet columnist for the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, Romenesko gets up at 5 a.m. and reads every damn thing on the Web, or something like that, collecting curios from newspapers large and tiny, webzines and TV sites. (It used to be 7 a.m., before a plug in Brill’s Content upped his readership and he felt obliged to offer more copy: “But that’s it. I’m not getting up at 4:30.”) He posts his links, with short descriptions, by 8:30 and corrects typos over lunch. He makes little money off the site — so far — but his sway over readers and his concentrated audience of opinion shapers make him an unseen and silent power broker. So I called him up to let him hold forth on his site, and the new ecology of online news, in his own words.



If he wants to link to this story, that’s, you know, entirely his own business.

Obscure Store is an offshoot of a print zine, which you started in, what, the late ’80s, 1990?

I started Obscure the zine in ’89 as kind of a trade zine for the fanzine world … I wrote about legal issues in the publishing underground. I’ll be putting out the last print Obscure this week, actually.

Why? Lack of time?

Yeah, time, and … I did 45 issues in 10 years. For a zine that’s a pretty good record, I think. I feel kind of disconnected from the fanzine world now. The Obscure Store’s turned into more quirky mainstream rather than underground.

Why name the new site “MediaGossip.com”? Media writing tends to break down into criticism and gossip/business news, and I suspect in my heart people are more interested in the latter.

Frankly, I thought that “mediagossip” would have been taken, so I first searched InterNIC for “medianews.” That was taken. Sometimes [the site is] gossip and sometimes it’s serious media issues.

In Milwaukee Magazine I wrote a media column, “Pressroom Confidential,” for 13 years, and it was widely read — the best-read column in the magazine, according to our reader surveys. It even topped restaurant reviews. And that was despite people at the Milwaukee Journal saying that only insiders will read that. People who wanted to disparage the column would call it a gossip column — not to toot my own horn, but it won national awards three consecutive years — but people have a very intimate relationship with what they read in the newspaper and what they see on TV. When I was a Milwaukee Journal reporter, I went to get my VCR fixed. The guy says, “No charge, free. I like your stuff in the Journal.” I mean, he watched my byline — the guy in a VCR shop.

Does the Obscure Store or MediaGossip.com have any sort of critical or commentary purpose? Or are you just pointing out stuff you think is fun?

I think it’s a combination. After Columbine, I tried to round up a lot of the stories about href="http://chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/chapman/">school kids being harassed by officials. I think it was pretty obvious to people looking at my site for several days that something was going on in this country — not only the various scares, but the crackdowns on kids wearing trench coats or having blue hair.

Your Pioneer Press column is about the Internet business, and the “.com” in the name “MediaGossip.com” seems very characteristic of the Web circa 1999 — like Salon, after being online almost four years, is suddenly “Salon.com.” What do you think of the prospects of Web publishing as a business?

I’m kind of amazed at the content sites doing IPOs — TheStreet.com, Salon — and I really wonder if they can make it as a big-time business, as Slate found out with their subscription model. That doesn’t fly, and — I hope they last, but a good metro paper has 250,000 readers daily, and I just wonder if an online specialty zine site can get that kind of traffic. I get 5-7,000 visitors a day, and I think, “Gee, there should be more people interested in quirky stories going to my site.” Granted I don’t have a marketing budget, but they can see me being linked to on MSNBC, for example.

The other question is online publishers’ business model — not just can they get the traffic but can they make a profit in any way that isn’t sleazy or doesn’t breach the church-state wall.

You look at the New York Times-Barnes & Noble relationship. [The Times, like Salon, has a sales-referral partnership with bn.com.] href="http://ojr.usc.edu/sections/features/99_stories/stories_nyt_042499.htm">The cynics are saying that’s why they’ve been going after Amazon.com [for selling favorable placement on the site]. [The Times] can argue all they want and say they have this separation, but the perception is there. The journalistic codes of ethics used to say, “Even avoid the perception [of conflict of interest].” But apparently that’s been scratched off the list. Certainly the cozy New York Times-Barnes & Noble relationship wasn’t even disclosed in the early stories about Amazon. It’s going to be tough … The Pioneer-Press [online] is partnering with a local TV station. Well, what position does that put the TV critic in?

At your own site, you’re soliciting advertising or sponsorships. Any nibbles?

Just over the weekend I had an inquiry about sponsorship — I have to send something off this week. Frankly, I haven’t pursued it very diligently. I sell some fanzines on the site — I’m perhaps the first and only e-commerce weblog.

Would you accept ads or sponsorship from a publication you link to? Would that present a conflict?

If a publication sponsored the site, I would offer it a small logo placement, say on the left of the site, and put two or three daily story links below the logo — making it clear to readers they are sponsored links.

You mentioned when you linked to Scott Rosenberg’s column on weblogs [see here for a related letter] that news webmasters realize the power of these sites. Do people pimp stories to you a lot?

Yeah, that’s just started happening in the last five months. That’s pretty much when my traffic increased. The first came from a New York publication I won’t name; they said, “Can we send some stories your way?” I said, “Look, I look at your site all the time.” They’re noticing on their [referrer] logs that traffic is starting to come their way from my site … That’s one of the things that I look at in the long term; if I can drive thousands of readers in one day, maybe people will notice and say, “Hey, maybe we should advertiser-sponsor this.” I have also received more than a few e-mails from individual writers suggesting their pieces be highlighted on the site — I just got one this morning from an alternative newspaper writer — which is fine, because more often than not they’re worth posting.

That’s the aspect of href="http://www.drudgereport.com/">Drudge’s influence that people don’t talk about much. He generates huge traffic to things like entertainment news.

And there’s the Slashdot effect [in which sites play up certain tech stories in the hope that slashdot.org will direct its obedient geek army their way]. That’s the power of indie sites.

Speaking of which, do you think that the Web is actually democratizing people’s access to news?

Yeah, I think it is. As more individuals start doing logs, it’ll increase.

But professional sites are adding their own weblog-type features …

Salon’s href="/media/col/shre/1999/06/04/ad/index.html">Alt column is sort of an example.

… and search engines and portals have been around — and have been offering more and more-specialized content — for years now. Do you think indie weblogs will have more or less influence as time goes on?

The thing is, if you go into those portals, they have links to the same stories that I see in my morning newspaper, stories I’ve heard on the radio in the morning. They don’t offer anything fresh. They don’t offer anything different. That’s the secret to weblogs’ growth and survival.

My site had the story about the millionaire dog buying [Sylvester] Stallone’s home before the wires got it. It turned out to be bogus, but I had it. You remember that? I remember clearly: It was Monday morning — Monday’s a tough day for me, because nobody works Sundays, so I have to work harder to find stuff. Well, I check the Miami Herald, and there’s a story about a millionaire dog buying Stallone’s home. It was a weird story I found in the local section. It was my lead story; I had a picture of the dog. The next day it hit the wires. And then the next day they found out it was bogus.

In a sense, you’re creating your own newspaper, like a wire editor. Newspapers pay people full-time salaries to do that sort of thing.

Well, there’s a certain talent to finding the most interesting links out there, as opposed to just arbitrarily picking 20 links and saying, “Go for it.”

With a weblog you get someone’s personal perspective.

With a good log, you get to know the person behind it a little bit, the person’s taste, the person’s attitude toward society.

You’ve been in newspapers since the ’70s. Have you found media writing or people’s attention to the media to have changed much?

The one thing I’ve found, and maybe it’s because I’ve changed markets, is that people are less engaged with their daily newspapers and more engaged with broadcasting. I mentioned in Milwaukee the VCR repairman would recognize my byline. Well, now my face is on my column once a week, and I’ve only been recognized three times [in more than three years].

People spend less time with their newspapers, it’s less a part of their lives. The impact is diminished. People just scan stories; they haven’t read stories that you think they would. There’s more of a “Just give me the lede” mentality … In the late ’70s, we used to write 50-inch stories on county meetings and people actually read them. Now meetings aren’t even covered.

But couldn’t you say a site like yours contributes to that attitude? You give short little blurbs for the stories, you put key phrases in boldface …

Yeah! [Laughs.] I guess I’m catering to today’s media customer.

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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