It's the equity, stupid.
Journalists who were once content to write about the exploits of multimillionaires are now trying to barge into the exclusive club themselves. And that means grabbing a piece of the action in the sizzling Internet economy.
Those who cover business news have watched seemingly ordinary mortals turn fledgling Net companies without a penny in profits into zillion-dollar paydays--and some are slapping their foreheads and muttering, I could do that!
When Dave Kansas left the Wall Street Journal in 1996 to become editor of an online financial site, TheStreet.com, "I thought it was extremely risky. I couldn't sleep at night, I was sick, thinking what a terrible decision. People would frequently tell me I'd thrown my life away." The operation, he said, was "four people sitting around a broken table."
Kansas viewed his equity stake as "nothing more than scratch-off lottery tickets" and asked for a bigger salary instead. But when TheStreet.com went public last month, Kansas's chunk was worth $9 million (now about half that because the stock has declined). Not exactly the $200 million reaped by co-founder Jim Cramer, but a tad more than the average Journal reporter.
"Having a piece of the action--a stake in success and failure, if you fail--makes the experience that much more intense, and sometimes rewarding," Kansas said.
Big media names are also hearing the siren call of cyberspace. Lou Dobbs, who quit CNN last week, abandoned both his "Moneyline" anchor chair and the presidency of CNN Financial News for a company that doesn't yet exist--a Web site called Space.com--but which could blast off if Wall Street embraces the concept.
Not long ago Peter Arnett, who was eased out of CNN, signed on with an equally speculative (and more modestly financed) Web venture called foreignTV.com. Brand-name journalists lend an important degree of credibility (or celebrity) to Net ventures that could make them rich.
But the non-famous also can hit the virtual jackpot. Larry Kramer, a former editor of the San Francisco Examiner (and onetime Metro editor of The Washington Post), founded a financial Web site that became CBS Marketwatch. When it went public in January, Kramer was suddenly worth $18.5 million.
Kramer said his financial backers understood that "to get talent in the Internet world, you had to give people a stake. . . . If the companies being put together are media companies, I don't see why journalists shouldn't be part of creating that and shouldn't be rewarded for that. What we do is valuable."
When he founded Marketwatch, the CEO said, "I had the idea of taking it mass market." But, he said, "I didn't put in any money. I didn't have any money."
Of course, some reporters have always found second-career wealth, such as Steven Rattner of the New York Times, who became deputy chairman of the investment firm Lazard Freres. But now they're doing it by reporting, editing and managing--in another media venue.
"Journalists who see these 'ink-stained wretch makes millions' stories are looking at it with interest," Kramer said.
Hmmm. . . . How does MediaNotes.com sound?
Brill Goes to War
Perhaps only Steven Brill would compare the media's coverage of Kosovo to the Monica Lewinsky story. The press, writes the founder of Brill's Content, is "consumed by a frantic desire to find some new twist, even if it's not there."
To liken the generally serious reporting on the war to Monica madness seems a stretch, even if it provides Brill with a splashy cover (Lewinsky's Gap dress riddled with bullet holes). But he does fire some serious shots at the New York Times and Washington Post.
Brill's Exhibit A is The Post's lead story on April 24, headlined "NATO Softens Conditions." After the first edition, when a White House spokesman called to challenge the story as inaccurate, the piece was slightly rewritten and the headline changed to "NATO Amends Conditions," with the spokesman's strong denial added. National security adviser Sandy Berger told Brill he was "stunned" by the original headline.
The Post story said a 17-point communique from NATO "represented a series of compromises" that "softened" (later changed to "modified") the conditions for peace. The change, it said, was that NATO was prepared to suspend its airstrikes once Yugoslavia "has begun--rather than completed--a withdrawal of troops and security forces from Kosovo."
Brill noted that an earlier NATO communique said that Slobodan Milosevic had to "ensure" the withdrawal of forces but did not say the pullout had to be completed. Ergo, he says, this was a "false story."
But Thomas Lippman, co-author of the Post article, said the conditions were clearly milder than the rhetoric from the likes of President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He said background interviews and briefings with various NATO officials meeting in Washington made clear that the document "was different from what we had been hearing for weeks."
"Brill completely missed the point," Lippman said. While saying the story should have mentioned the earlier communique, he added: "I think the way it came out was defensible. I might not have chosen that approach with a month of hindsight and a moment of leisure, which we didn't have."
Brill also picks apart the Times's lead story on April 30, headlined "Bombing Unites Serb Army as It Debilitates Economy/ Yugoslav Rift Heals, NATO Admits." His main beef is over a quote from NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark that despite the bombing campaign against Milosevic, "you might actually find out that he's strengthened his forces in there." Brill says this was out of context because Clark had answered a question about forces in Kosovo at a briefing three days earlier. Clark's spokesman says the general was "very unhappy" with the handling of the quote.
James Gow, a London professor quoted in the story, told Brill he had spent most of the interview strongly disputing the article's premise but was not quoted to that effect. Blaine Harden, co-author of the Times story, said Gow's disagreement was represented by better-informed sources: "We talked to a lot of people who were in a very good position to know. The story was true, remained true and was subsequently confirmed by all manner of NATO generals and other people."
Harden, a former Post reporter, said Brill had "figured out what he wanted to write. . . . It was an unusually combative interview where someone has his conclusions drawn before the questions are asked."
Brill, for his part, allows there has also been "a lot of great journalism" in covering the war.
Pictures Sometimes Lie
Lamar Alexander was none too pleased with last week's front-page New York Times photo showing him addressing a mere dozen people in Tennessee--and the tart caption saying the presidential candidate "has yet to arouse many voters." He got the Times to run an editor's note acknowledging there were about 200 people in the crowd--just outside of camera range--and that "the caption should not have suggested that the scene reflected on his support."