Jack Shafer is the prolific media critic for Slate, where he intelligently thrashes the more ludicrous elements of the journalism world.
After editing alt-weeklies in DC and San Francisco, Shafer landed at the nascent Slate as an editor in the mid-1990s and today still turns out several of his "Press Box" columns each week. He spoke to PRWeek about annoying "hall monitors" and man's critical nature.
PRWeek: How and why did you get into journalism?
Jack Shafer: I don't know. The problem with those kinds of questions is that when we look at the past, or our motivations-- there's a great Paul Auster quotation that says, "Memory is the place where a thing happens the second time." So when you ask somebody like me, who is now 54, how I got into this business and why, you're asking me to ask somebody who's in his twenties, "Say fellow, why did you do this?" And I would say happenstance, good luck, need for ego fulfillment, vanity, and the desire to say, 'Hey, I'm here,' which I think underscores practically everything we do. So I don't have a real good answer.
PRWeek: Slate is such a unique publication - do you find it to be similar to working at alt-weeklies at all?
Shafer: I think that the degree to which alt-weeklies are mainstream are overlooked. They abide by most of the journalistic conventions, if you include magazine journalism as conventional. So I wouldn't say that there was any huge methodological leap to go from an alt-weekly to Slate.
PRWeek: How do you feel about PR pros?
Shafer: Well, I have found, with only rare exceptions, that PR officers are impediments to journalism. They are the people who man the barricades, who salt the earth before you can get to it to plant your story. The number of times in my career that I have responded to somebody doing outreach PR, trying to convince me to do a story, and turned that overture into a story, you might be able to count on two fingers. And it was only because I was already planning or desiring to do a story and it was just a coincidence. And I'm certain that in no case did I ever write the story that the PR officer wanted. I'm certain that the PR officer would have just as soon that I'd never been born. I don't feel bad about saying this, as I don't think PR people like me any more than I like them. They're time-wasters, hall monitors. I just want to call up the person I want to talk to and not go through this incredibly long dance with a PR officer in order to get to my quarry. Their interests are so alien from mine. That said, it's not that every person manning a PR office has blocked my efforts to do a story. But it's only the rare one that's willing to aid you in getting access to the story you want.
PRWeek: If you accept the fact that you have to deal with PR people...
Shafer: I don't deal with PR people. As best I can, I will avoid PR people. If they won't allow me to talk to the person that I need to talk to, then I have to do the story by other means.
PRWeek: In other words, you don't talk to spokespeople.
Shafer: You know, the spokespeople that I do end up talking to, I'd much prefer talking to somebody who's in the decision-making capacity and is not the spear-chucker for the person in the decision-making capacity. I will default to quoting the spokesman if that's all I can talk to, in the interest of fairness. But I don't consider it any great coup when some spokesman presents some obfuscation as some sort of corporate apology.
PRWeek: What do you think when you see the White House press corps yelling questions at Scott McClellan during a press conference?
Shafer: It depends on who's in the press corps that day, what questions they're asking, and whether he's responding or, once again, just blocking. So I'd take that on a day-by-day basis.
There are many loons down at the briefings. You can tell that by reading the transcripts. Sometimes they deserve McClellan, and he deserves them.
PRWeek: How do you envision the future of the newspaper industry?
Shafer: I see it as a long, steady, and profitable decline. And this is a decline that started in 1920 when radio arrived... the newspaper industry has gotten used to having quasi-monopoly positions in most of the major markets, and now that they have competition, they are screaming like spanked little children about their losses.
PRWeek: Where do you see it hitting a plateau?
Shafer: I don't know. I'm really bad at predictions. Every prediction I've ever made has turned out to be false. But if you go back and you look, people said that radio was dead when TV arrived. And people said that AM radio was dead when FM arrived. And people said not long ago that the broadcast networks were dead because cable had arrived, and videotapes. And the fact is that every one of these mediums repositions itself, and retools itself, and refuses to die. They're sort of like your grandfather or your grandmother, where they have so many fucking ailments that you can't believe that they're still living, and then pretty soon, the next thing that you hear, they've gone off to Bermuda for a three-week vacation. So I would pin a date to it, but I'm almost certain to be wrong.
PRWeek: Do people just have a bigger appetite for media these days?
Shafer: I think that people consume media in places they didn't consume it before. I listen to books on the subway ride in. I used to read books. So some say, "it's the death of the paper book, because Jack Shafer's listening rather than reading." So I think that if you look at these companies as being in the advertising business-and this is not to denigrate great newspaper chains, or great newspaper owners like the Sulzbergers or the Grahams or anything-but they're essentially in the advertising business. If you look at what the Washington Post Company has done, as circulation has declined, it has created a bunch of specialty publications that are free: job publications, automobile publications, they now have that free daily tabloid in Washington. So they can still reach their advertisers. So maybe you'll see more of that. Print is a very affordable and flexible and useful advertising medium, and one way to get people to pick up an advertising medium is to put content along with it. I see all media morphing. There isn't a medium out there that doesn't have somebody chewing on its ass right now, [somebody who] has it on the run. And if you're in the web business, you've just got a million and one web competitors.
If you look at what has happened in the last ten years on the web-for somebody to start up a calendar service, or even a webzine, in 1996 would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of computers, and the bandwidth would have cost you up the wing-wang, and all of the publication tools would have cost so much. You flash forward ten years, and those computers cost pennies compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and so do all the software tools, and so does the bandwidth. So a place like Slate is constantly sort of fending off new competitors, the most recent ones being bloggers, who suck up a lot of eyes. There's nobody who's got a safe position.
PRWeek: What do you think of the state of media criticism today?
Shafer: When I ran the alt-weekly in Washington, DC, I considered every issue a volume of media criticism because it was essentially saying, "Here's what you should have read in The Washington Post, or the Washington Times, or the Washingtonian, or seen on any one of the TV stations, or read on a wire service."... man is a critical beast, and I think that what the web has made possible is for independent voices to criticize larger media.
PRWeek: What critics besides yourself do you find particularly good?
Shafer: Dan Kennedy, who recently retired from the business to go teach, from the Boston Phoenix, is superb. The guy who came back and took the job at the Phoenix, who used to have the job, Mark Jurkowitz. William Powers of the National Journal, Tim Rutten of the LA Times... Tom Scocca, of the New York Observer, and Erik Wemple, who runs the Washington City Paper. I think they all do good jobs.
PRWeek: Do you think Romenesko has really changed the power of these smaller, regional outlets and writers?
Shafer: Absolutely. He's been a great leveler. If you go back 20 years, you essentially have only David Shaw writing about the press consistently, for the LA Times. The press wasn't very introspective, it didn't look at itself...and I think that what Jim Romenesko's site has done is put [for example] Erik Wemple, the guy who does his business at an alt-weekly, on the same plane as Howie Kurtz [of the Washington Post].
PRWeek: Any New Year's Resolutions?
Shafer: Pick more scabs.