Why I'm still scribbling for a living

When a stock trade cost me my job writing about Silicon Valley, everyone assumed I would join a dot-com and get rich. But I'm a newspaper journalist.

Published March 14, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

You know, I thought about it. I did. I really did. After seeing myself portrayed in the newspaper where I worked as an end-of-millennium Internet stock slut, it occurred to me: I could really cash in on all the hard work I'd done for the San Jose Mercury News. I could turn the tables on my tormentors by taking a job at a dot-com; hell, I could start my own firm. I might be good at it; I'd almost certainly get a villa in the south of France and the chance to return to doing something I love: sitting around doing nothing.

Last summer, for far too long a period, the intricate details of my professional and financial life were on display for all to read. That's because I made $9,000 buying and selling some stock.

I bought the shares when a friend of many years put me on a "friends and family list" -- a chance to buy stock during his company's initial public offering; he'd included me because, well, he, his wife and I are friends. I never wrote about my friend. I had no plans to write about my friend. But, as a notebook-carrying chronicler of Silicon Valley's social, economic and political life, I knew I had an obligation to tell my editors and give them the chance to advise me against the purchase if they thought it was unethical.

In general, journalists are discouraged from owning stock in companies that they write about or even companies in industries they write about; the rule stems from a newsroom desire to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest. But unlike a lot of business staff writers, I don't cover markets, specific companies or products. I write about rumors, conversations and parties. "You don't write facts," said one CEO in the valley. "You write emotions."

And I didn't think I would get rich, but I figured the whole process -- getting on the "friends and family list," selling the newly issued stock just after it began trading -- offered a unique view of the dot-com IPO lottery. I quickly turned my experience into a story for Fortune magazine. I told the Merc about that, too.

Before that story could appear, though, Mercury News publisher Jay Harris read about me and my stock trade in the Wall Street Journal, and things took an ugly turn. The paper was clearly concerned that it would come under attack by those who believed my trade transgressed traditional ethical lines, and my editors quickly adopted a new story line: I wasn't a journalist at heart.

"You and I both know what you want to do," executive editor David Yarnold told me in our one conversation about the matter. "I suggest you think hard about whether or not you want to do it here."

But despite the newspaper's best efforts to convince me and anyone I might want to work for that I had failed -- ethically, morally and deliberately -- at a craft I've practiced for almost 20 years, I couldn't jump to the start-up Yarnold seemed so sure I wanted. Instead, within five months of being stripped of my Mercury News column and sent into exile at the paper's Redwood City bureau, I was back penning a weekly gossip column about Silicon Valley for the New York Post.

"You could build something," a friend said to me on the phone the other night, asking me if I'd thought about leaving journalism. Yes, but there are plenty of ways to build a career, and they aren't all based on corporate or individual profit. Sure, in my job you tell other people's stories. But if you're clever, you get to do it in your own way, offering up your take on the world. Rather than take dictation, jotting down the musings of CEO, engineer or venture capitalist, I try to ask questions that make people think about what they're doing. And why they're doing it.

As corny as it sounds, that's why I like being a reporter. I think it's an important job -- and in my book it's a career, not a steppingstone to a job someplace else.

On the East Coast -- Washington and New York -- where I've lived most of my life, journalism is a job that comes with a decent paycheck, some prestige and a few perks. Like many people who started in this business as newspapers were closing in city after city, I couldn't plan the steps of my career as neatly as I would have liked. But I've followed a steady path -- from a college stint as a research assistant for a Wall Street Journal reporter to covering Congress. And when I decided to move to California, it was to take what I considered a national reporting job as the Merc's Silicon Valley gossip columnist.

But when I landed in California, it quickly became clear that I had entered a world where journalism wasn't a career but some sort of job people took while waiting for something better to come along. Venture capitalists and CEOs, even other journalists, seemed to think the business was filled with people wanting -- in fact, often asking -- to work for the people they interview. Of course, some do: Rebecca Eisenberg chronicled in her San Francisco Examiner column her own decision to become a VP at a start-up; former Wired magazine editor Todd Lappin joined the Guru.com team; Peter Gumbel jumped from the Wall Street Journal to Business.com -- and there are dozens of other examples. But people move around for lots of reasons.

In Washington, I never heard anyone tell a talented political reporter that they should run for office, become a lobbyist or seek a judgeship. Yes, there is an odious trend to jump from political observer to actor and sometimes back again -- but people interested in politics understand that reporters have a role to play in that process.

But newspapers in Silicon Valley, particularly the local dailies -- the Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle -- have no such sense of their role in their world. That's why they go largely unread by the dot-com crowd and other hangers-on like me, who read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for features and analysis, get their breaking news online and read the trades for everything else.

Both local papers, in their own ways, exercise judgments that undermine their credibility. The Chron's technology coverage harps on the same tired theme of amazement. My God, says the local paper, look at the wizards and their wonders. The Chron should just run the same daily headline: "More Cool Stuff From Those Young People in Palo Alto." The Merc regards the area's newly wealthy as curiosities from another planet. The Merc's recurring headline would say, "They're Rich. They're Young. What Does It Mean for People Who Are Poor Like Us?"

Silicon Valley is now well on its way to becoming an affluent, fast-paced urban environment, stretching from San Francisco to San Jose. It is sophisticated, it is cutthroat and it is one of the most amazing places on Earth right now. And while many staffers at those two papers know things have changed, the papers sure aren't telling that story.

Recently, David Yarnold discussed the phenomenon of technology journalists' leaving journalism with Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi for a piece in the American Journalism Review: "Let's not make any bones about this," Yarnold said of those leaving newsrooms for dot-coms. "The people who are leaving are not leaving for a higher calling."

The thinly veiled contempt in Yarnold's comment is a fine articulation of the view that many people in the newspaper business claim to have about money: It's evil and therefore undesirable, so, thankfully, it's unattainable. That's how people in the newspaper business have always comforted themselves: Who needs money when you can have a voice, some influence in your community? That's the thinking that is supposed to make up for the financial drawbacks of sticking with the poorly paying news business. But that's where these papers are failing dramatically.

One former editor at the Merc once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Oracle CEO Larry Ellison at a banquet, but couldn't bring himself to say a word to the billionaire. He told me later he didn't know what to say to Ellison, whom he noted was at the time the wealthiest man in Silicon Valley.

How is it possible for an editor to be so awed by power, money or influence that he could not even shake another man's hand? Such insecurity in the face of the area's increasing wealth and sophistication is a sad commentary on the people who should be telling the valley's stories. While Silicon Valley tries to form itself, the one thing that brings people together is business. For better or worse, right now, money is the bond -- and if they're going to do their job, journalists can't be cowed by fantastic wealth or power.

No wonder reporters in Silicon Valley are abandoning the local newspapers. Often, they work for people who believe it's a sin to make a living. And the people they're writing about are puzzled, even insulted, by that point of view. So they're left with the short end of two sticks: They have little prestige because their employers hold no power or influence and they have no money because they work for people who think -- or at least say they think -- that money is corrupting.

A lot of editors and reporters leaving papers aren't abandoning journalism; they're just moving to online news outfits. It's increasingly clear that no one in this business can thrive off-line, and in Northern California in particular, online news services like CNet's News.com, CBS Marketwatch, Wired News and others are respected sources of information. People check them several times a day, and many readers interact with writers -- flooding e-mail boxes to express their opinions about what they've read.

This change has its own problems. Many of these sites were set up to serve business people. Reporters, happily covering a bull market, spend little time with the people outside the high-tech business. They are ignoring people that newspapers have traditionally served: people without brokerage accounts, the poor, the disenfranchised, people readers might not meet but should know. So the belief that money can solve all problems, that government is for the silly and that only the stupid get sick, lose their jobs or don't thrive in this New Economy creates a kind of weird and potentially ugly bond between both sides of this equation. That many of these journalists are profiting from their dot-com careers at a pace that outstripped their former earnings reinforces that self-centeredness to create a kind of hothouse journalism that's just as difficult to swallow as what the local papers produce.

But you can hardly blame technology reporters for wanting to work at the places that have found ways to participate in their communities -- places where they can have some influence and a voice in what happens.

During the tumultuous summer after my suspension and reassignment, people called, wrote and e-mailed me. Many of my friends at Net companies assumed I'd jump the fence and join them; I'd be rich, they said. I'd be happy. Well I knew that wasn't true. I didn't want to use their yardstick to measure what I do, nor did I want to use the gauge of a provincial paper.

That's why it makes no sense for me to "get out from behind this desk and do something myself," as my former colleague Jodi Mardesich put it in a recent essay, explaining her decision to jump to a start-up just after profiling the company in Fortune.

I'm doing it right here, right now, thank you. Having worked so hard for so long, having come to such a unique place at such an interesting time, I'd have to be a fool to forsake what I do for a dot-com that could be rolled up tomorrow by a ROI-minded venture capitalist. As a freelancer whose work appears in the New York Post, I've got the perfect setup: a weekly appearance in a big gossipy New York tabloid that tries to entertain as much as it informs its readership of media people, financial types and subway riders. On top of that, they write great headlines.

In Mardesich's sappy goodbye column, she promises to keep a record of her journey. Well, I write a similar sort of diary, a gossip column that aims to entertain. It aims to amuse and it aims to do what I like to think I do well: tell you a little bit about this world and our place it in. And that's why I'm still scribbling for a living.

By Chris Nolan

Chris Nolan has been covering Silicon Valley for more than three years. Her weekly Internet gossip column appears in the New York Post.

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