Not fazed by the rigid business world he covers, MarketWatch's Jon Friedman provides an edgy take on the pop culture of the media beat, both inspiring and bringing his subjects to life.
The offices of MarketWatch, where media columnist/editor/reporter Jon Friedman plies his trade, are in the opulent World Financial Center complex, close to the site of the former World Trade Center. The location is closer to Wall Street than to the tony Midtown headquarters of many of the media companies that Friedman covers - a reminder of the business-oriented audience that makes up his base.
But the Manhattan-born Friedman is hardly a bloodless numbers guy. When a visiting reporter apologizes for not having worn a suit to meet him for lunch, he waves his hand dismissively. "Forget it," he booms in his thick New York accent. "If you had worn a suit, I would have turned around and left."
Friedman does have a solid pedigree in business reporting. He graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and worked at a series of small magazines and newsletters before moving on to USA Today, Investor's Business Daily, and BusinessWeek. After being laid off at the latter, he left the weekly grind to co-write a book, House of Cards, about corporate intrigue at American Express. Then, following a freelancing stint, he spent six years at Bloomberg News covering Wall Street, and finally moved on to MarketWatch.
Somewhat strangely for a man who is one of the most prominent media writers in the country, Friedman had never covered the industry before landing in his current position.
"(MarketWatch) had an opening. They knew my work from Bloomberg. The editor-in-chief and I went back from Bloomberg and before, actually," he explains, smiling. "He was smart enough to realize, very shrewdly, that it would be a good fit - me, in the media beat, in New York City would be an excellent fit. And he was absolutely right."
Now, Friedman is in a position that many of his colleagues would envy. He has several columns each week to fill, essentially as he sees fit. His business reporting pedigree demands the respect of the suits he covers, but he is hardly constrained by the typical rigid guidelines of the business beat.
"I try to write on the pop culture of the media beat," he says. "I don't try to be a columnist of record. I don't worry about every single story that occurs. I'll give people what they want, hopefully, which is a bit of an edge - either humorous, critical, or biting. And mostly I try to inspire people in the media beat. If they're being pompous or foolish, I criticize them. If they need encouragement, I try to give them a pat on the back."
Despite his own history in the print world, Friedman says he loves writing for the web (his current column is web-only). He compares it to the nimble world of indie filmmaking, running circles around the hulking giants of the past. He even goes so far as to wish he was born 20 years later, so he'd have more time to take advantage of the new platform. "I curse my parents for this," he jokes.
Indeed, he is a fully formed believer in the web's power to transform the media as a whole. He lavishes praise on new media sites like Gawker.com, saying that recently "it's gotten less mean, less cutting, and more witty, and takes the high road, which I try to do, too." (Gawker, in return, recently posited, after reviewing Friedman's year-end column, that he is "smoking crack.") He also speculates that the rise of blogging will threaten not only mainstream media, as is the conventional wisdom, but also other institutions like journalism schools, as people embrace the concept of free-citizen journalism.
"What we're seeing is a trend toward do-it-yourself," he says.
Ken Auletta, who covers the media for the New Yorker, says that many on the beat too often act like "firefighters," rushing from breaking story to breaking story at the cost of covering the big picture. But he has praise for Friedman.
"Jon works harder than most reporters and bares none of the arrogance that usually emotes from [a] media cop. He has the humility to listen... yet he also sometimes displays sharp opinions and is critical of those he interviews, suggesting that he understands that he writes for his readers, not his subjects," Auletta says via e-mail. "He has this odd quirk, though: He doesn't use a tape recorder and relies on a prehistoric pen and notebook."
As media criticism and coverage proliferate along with all other forms of internet commentary, many both inside and outside the industry have accused it of excessive navel-gazing. But Friedman feels that the growth in the beat is just a response to an unfilled need.
"I get e-mails [from] all over the world, on a regular basis, from readers," he reports. "I think people are fascinated by what we do. A lot of it is gossip, unfortunately. [People] like gossip; they want to read about the latest Hollywood romance, which is stupid. But that's part of it, too."
Dawn Bridges, the SVP of corporate communications at Time Inc. - a company that Friedman has often covered, sometimes in an unflattering light - has known the writer for "years and years." She remembers him for being one of the first and most aggressive reporters covering the massive AOL-Time Warner merger and places him high in the pantheon of current media writers.
"Because Jon's [platform] is really daily, it gives him a lot of room to cover many different industries and characters," she says. "And I think that he often tries to not only figure out what the industry trend or hook is, but also to personalize it in terms of who some of the characters are, who some of the people are, and really bring them to life."
Friedman does not seem to be preparing to change jobs any time soon. (Asked about his future plans, he says, "I'm going to lunch.") He could be appearing on a new rack in the bookstore in the near future, however, as he is taking another crack at fiction writing.
"I wrote a novel a couple of years ago," he admits. "The world yawned."
Writing 'House of Cards' and freelancing
Investor's Daily (now Investor's Business Daily)
USA Today, New York bureau