The troubles roiling the highest corridors of power at the New York Times this week owe at least part of their notoriety to a man in his bathrobe who surfs the Web while sitting in a one-bedroom apartment in Evanston, Ill.
Jim Romenesko, 49, is an unassuming former Milwaukee magazine media columnist who maintains a no-frills Web site that has become the dominating voice in the five-week media circus surrounding one of the most influential newspapers in the country. The Web address is fairly anonymous -- www.
poynter.org/column.asp?id=45 -- but it's known in media circles simply as Romenesko.
Essentially Romenesko's take on the day's top media stories, with links to the articles in question, the site is a first-read for thousands of people in the media. In recent weeks, it has posted a dozen links a day to stories about the New York Times controversy, along with a lively letter debate, leaked internal e-mails and even a limerick contest on Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who started the chain of events when he was caught plagiarizing and fabricating information. The site was certainly the first stop for many journalism pros Thursday morning, when New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines stepped down.
The brouhaha has been to Romenesko what the first Persian Gulf War was to CNN, a defining moment. "If this had happened 10 years ago, when the Internet didn't exist, Raines would still be running the place. The Times staff would be just as unhappy, but they'd be unable to instantaneously organize and vent their displeasure on Romenesko and elsewhere," wrote another Internet columnist, Slate's Mickey Kaus, who had recently started a "Howell-O-Meter" on the Raines situation. "It was this suddenly transparent internal opposition, more than the constant pummeling from bloggers, that brought Raines down," Kaus wrote Thursday.
"He has moved the center of gravity for journalists and journalism from West 43rd Street [home of the New York Times] to Florida [home of the site's parent Poynter Institute]," says Tammy Haddad, a Radio America host and longtime TV news executive producer. "Before we would follow the Times' lead and now he's messed with that."
Romenesko is more modest about his role in the debate. "I just post the stories," he says.
Nonetheless, he knew the discontent was reaching a flashpoint when he began to get e-mail from reporters inside the New York Times, something that hadn't happened before, perhaps out of their pride, he says. "Before this happened, I had posted maybe three letters from New York Times people, so I knew when they started writing to me that there had to be some frustration going on," he says.
Recognizing the future
Romenesko was an early convert to the potential powers of the Internet but it took awhile before reality caught up with his dreams. "I saw it as something that was gonna change the world," he says.
In 1994, he put an ad in Editor & Publisher, the weekly trade magazine of the newspaper business, offering himself up as an Internet reporter, and didn't get a single response. "I think I was too early," he says. In 1996, the St. Paul Pioneer Press hired him to write a column on the new technology.
In his spare time, in 1998, he started a Web site called the Obscure Store, which posted an odd mix of strange news stories and media stories, which he calls "my interests." The media part of the site broke off as Mediagossip.com in May 1999.
He owes some of his success to the newspaper whose turmoil the site has chronicled. An August 1999 New York Times article about Web logs mentioned him and caught the eye of Bill Mitchell, editor of Poynter Online, the Web site of the St. Petersburg, Fla., Poynter Institute. The nonprofit training center for journalists had been working on a similar idea.
"I was stunned to read about this site, because I thought I was a reasonably well-connected guy," Mitchell says. "I thought, 'Holy cow, this guy not only has our idea, but he's doing it better than we could imagine it could be done.' " He lured a reluctant Romenesko to Florida 10 days later, on a Saturday, and by Sunday, Romenesko was an employee of Poynter.
Romenesko, who is single, says he told Poynter he couldn't move to Florida, "but that I'd go as far as Chicago," a short distance from where he grew up, in Lake Geneva, Ill. That's how he ended up in Evanston, just a few blocks from Northwestern University, with its well-regarded Medill School of Journalism. More important, from Romenesko's perspective, Evanston is the home of the storied Chicago-Main Newsstand, a longtime destination for media junkies drawn to its thousands of out-of-town newspapers, obscure magazines and free publications. His new apartment is just an eight-block walk away. Despite making his living via the Internet, "reading in print is still my favorite way of reading stories," he says.
Rise and work
His work habits are quirky. Romenesko checks his e-mail when he wakes at 5 a.m. even before he gets out of bed, so he knows what kind of day he's going to have. He tries to have material posted almost immediately for the East Coast crowd getting in to work, relying on a few good tipsters, as well as bookmarked pages from top newspapers' Web sites around the country.
Often, he doesn't shower and dress until early afternoon, when he treks to the newsstand and a Wi-Fi-connected Starbucks coffee shop, or out for a quick swim in the pool in the new condominium building to which he recently moved. Advances in wireless Internet technology, he says, have made the site "more mobile"; in other words, he can have more of a life outside his apartment.
But his dedication is such, Mitchell says, that in the four years they have worked together, Romenesko only took his first vacation last winter, a week off between Christmas and New Year's. He took a second break the Friday before Memorial Day, and a major development in the New York Times saga took place. "People were at a loss. The trees were falling in the forest but nobody was hearing it," Mitchell says.
Thursday, when Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd resigned, the site got just under 50,000 user visits. More typically, it gets about 33,000 visits per day (a figure that includes multiple visits from individual users), or 30% of Poynter Online's overall traffic. "Not only has it given us greater visibility, but it's given us greater urgency and currency," Mitchell says. "We're able to engage issues as they arise. You bet he makes a huge difference. Poynter's mission is to help journalists get better at what they do, and to do that you've got to know what you and colleagues around the country are doing and what people are saying about it."
That might be too highfalutin a concept for some users who like it because it helps them stay connected to the latest gossip. It also gives media writers an important visibility they didn't previously have, particularly if they work at smaller papers.
A Web site's power
Romenesko's decision to post an article -- or not -- can make or break a journalist's day, such is his power as an arbiter of what's newsy or well-written. Some journalists e-mail him their work, hoping to get linked. A strange one came Thursday, from the New York Observer, promising a "phenomenal news break" later in the day, and adding, "I will keep you posted." By day's end, he still hadn't received a follow-up.
He once received an angry e-mail from a public relations executive from a "major magazine" demanding to know why an editor's name wasn't in bold face, a decision he had made merely for aesthetic reasons.
Now, he says, "I boldface them all."
He won't say how he chooses stories, admitting there's "a method to my madness, but I don't explain too much." He rejected pleas to add more Martha Stewart items, regarding her recent travails as "a business story," and he likes items about high school and college papers. He was "real interested" in the Tribune Co.'s 2000 purchase of the Los Angeles Times' parent, Times Mirror, he says.
Three people have told him he posted too much about the New York Times, but he says, "I suspect that there are people out there who couldn't read enough about this. It's just the kind of personality I am, all or nothing." Then he laughs when it's noted that that's the same "flood the zone" strategy that brought the Times' Raines so much success -- and controversy. "I basically just post stories I'm interested in," he says.
Despite his role in the saga, he's not interested in a high profile. CBS News called him Thursday to see if he'd discuss the brouhaha on camera; he said no. He politely declined a Los Angeles Times request to send a photographer or even a researcher to observe him in his element. "It's not pretty," he quipped.