JON FRIEDMAN has written the widely read Media Web column for MarketWatch.com since he joined the website in 1999. He explores the media, popular culture and entertainment landscapes and discusses the people, companies and trends that shape our lives.
Writing “FORGET ABOUT TODAY: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution” proved to be very gratifying work. It’s fun to stretch your thinking and approach a subject in a new and original way. Dylan is a monumental figure in our times. His longevity, pedigree and brilliant work are all rather mind-boggling, when you think about it. And I have thought and thought and thought about this unique man.
Working on a book is a lonely and adventurous process. You’re in it by yourself, though your support group helps keep the fires burning. The author never knows if he or she is actually on the right track — or if the product is really any good. Or if anyone will review it. Or if the critics will be kind. Or if anybody is going to buy it.
As I have written more than once on Facebook: Why would anybody want to write a book!?
In my case, the answer is easy: I love to write. Always have.
I am a compulsive writer and journalist. If I somehow could no longer type with my fingers, I’d tap out my stories by banging my head on the computer keyboard (not recommended). I have been writing for publication since the eighth grade. Early on, I was fascinated by sports and considered becoming a sportswriter. It’s probably a good thing that never came to pass, for the problem with sports journalism is that the writer is forced to live in an anti-Peter Pan state. That is, you could keep getting older as your subjects get younger.
That’s the same problem with writing about rock and roll as a vocation. The music gets increasingly louder and the lyrics are harder to understand. It’s pretty sad to encounter a rock critic who has to keep adjusting his darned hearing aid — bad for the image. The bands you grew up on and loved inevitably break up. And, anyway, as someone who helped me a great deal with “FORGET ABOUT TODAY,” and preferred to remain anonymous, once told me: “It’s probably better not to meet your heroes.” The guy, who knows Bob Dylan well, had it right.
I went to college at Stony Brook University, majoring in English. But I really focused on writing for the school newspaper, The Statesman, about everything from being tripled on my first day on the campus (having two roommates, not one) to sports and … rock and roll music. (Apparently, old habits die hard). It was a heady time. When I served as the sports editor, I had a lot of responsibilities (though, granted, Stony Brook wasn’t exactly Penn State or UCLA in the scope of its athletic prominence). I might have been a brilliant editor, except I never could quite figure out the physics of laying out a page.
I’d often trudge back to the dorm after two in the morning, the shank of the evening for the guys who played in the all-night poker games. They went at it almost nightly in the end-hall lounge of the dormitory, James College, and they were a trip. (James was a much-desired residence because it had a bar in the basement, and served up lots of cheap beer, and it had a great pinball machine called Lady Luck). Eventually, I spent so much time observing my pals that I worked up enough material to write a piece of fiction, and entered it in the campus contest. I won! Of course, history will note that I engineered the contest, so, as it turned out, I had the lone entry. Hey, it wasn’t exactly a sin of the proportion of the the Watergate dirty tricks, OK?
In an insane decision, I then applied to only one graduate school: Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism — one of the very best programs in the world. I had sensibly decided by then that it was high time to leave the New York area and the East Coast (plus, I was anxious to try out the vaunted deep-dish pizza of greater Chicago). Amazingly, I got in. To this day, I advise young people to write the six telling words that I included on my application: I do not require financial aid. More likely, I had the good luck of having a letter of reference from a New York Times reporter, whom I had met by chance on the campus.
Medill marked a turning point in my life and the real start of my career. Thrown in mostly with kids approximately my age, early 20s, who were similarly obsessed with becoming professional journalists, the quality of my work improved dramatically. So did my approach to the world. I began to THINK like a journalist, surrounded by ambitious classmates. Like a tennis player whose game suddenly improves when he or she has to compete against a better quality of opponents, I began to develop better work habits. Spending one quarter as a 22-year-old Washington correspondent was the best experience I could have ever hoped for.
Once I graduated from Northwestern, armed with a Masters of Science in Journalism, I proceeded to launch my career. It all started with a wild and woolly summer internship at the now-defunct Buffalo Courier Express, an afternoon paper.
As the saying went, it was an exciting paper to read because you never knew where you might find a page one-worthy story. Of note, I worked the police-fire-hospitals beat, toiling from 2:30 to 11:00 p.m. five nights a week, for a few months. I had no close friends to pal around with, and I didn’t know many women to date. So, the local entertainment consisted of going to the nearby Granada Theater, on Main Street, which showed “The Last Waltz” every night at midnight. Perfect. I reckon that I saw The Band, one of my favorite rock groups to this day, play that gig in the flick about fifteen or twenty times that summer.
The job was something else. Jimmy, the night editor, once shrugged off my animated bulletin that I was on the phone with the cops. Thy had just told me that there was a serious car crash on the New York State Thruway. There was blood everywhere, and the highway was a mess.
“Any deaths?” Jimmy asked me anxiously, as the deadline approached.
“Any fatalities?” I parroted to the cop. Negative, the officer answered.
“No!” I reported back to Jimmy, quite relieved that no one had died that night.
“Then hang up!” Jimmy barked back. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Sentimental. He knew his job was to put the paper to bed, fatalities or not. He taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten: Get the story, no matter what.
On my first day on the job, I had proven my mettle to the editors by following instructions and intruding on the wake of a miner (so the Courier could obtain the dead man’s photograph for the next day’s editions). I had also managed to publish the wrong address of a store that had burned down. But in the end, the editor in chief offered me a job on the copy desk — the desk! — where, the guy purred, “If you join the union and stay here for six years, you MIGHT someday earn $21,000 a year.” Wow, I politely exclaimed. Then, I decided to get back to where I had once belonged.
In the words of Bob Dylan himself, I might have then concluded: “I’m going back to New York City. I do believe I’ve had ENOUGH.”
To the astonishment of those who knew that I could barely balance a checkbook, I gravitated to business journalism upon my re-arrival in New York. Over the next two decades, in one form or another, I focused on writing about Wall Street. It was a strange and wonderful beat. The men and women down there were pretty much equally tough and obsessed with money, of course,. But mostly, they wanted to win. The bonus was their scorecard. They took the greatest satisfaction in beating their foe to a deal or a trade or a client. They wanted to pulverize their enemies, and then brag about it. As someone once said of Michael Jordan’s competitive nature, He’d want to rip out your heart and then show it to you.
There was seemingly a major scandal a year to ponder, which made the reporting job great fun. The world loved seeing those jerks get their comeuppance. These folks were exceptionally image-conscious, so they distrusted reporters on general principle. But they were such egomaniacs, too, that they couldn’t resist the limelight — even if it consisted of a write-up in humble McGraw-Hill’s Securities Week newsletter.
From there, I advanced to USA Today, the New York bureau chief position at Investor’s Business Daily and then BusinessWeek (many years before Bloomberg acquired it).
I then co-wrote a book called “House of Cards: Inside the Troubled Empire of American Express” (1992). Up to that point, writing that book was the most exhilarating and terrifying experience of my life. I freelanced for a year following its publication and then joined Michael Bloomberg’s then-fledgling organization, Bloomberg News (or, Bloomberg Business News, as it was known). Mike was everything you’d want in a boss in those days. He paid his people well, and he and his editor Matthew Winkler expected them to work till they were feeling ’bout half-past dead, to build the best journalism organization around.
Happy memories at the start. I had more fun (for the first couple of years) during and after working hours with my new Bloomberg buddies than I’d ever experienced in any job. David Halberstam once came by for an interview with me for Bloomberg’s video network, The Bloomberg Forum, and it was a thrill for me, as he was my journalism idol. He later sent Mike a note saying how gratifying it was for him to encounter so many young, sharp and ambitious journalists in the same newsroom. As usual, Mr. Halberstam said it right.
I spent six years at Bloomberg as a Wall Street reporter, and I sort of wrote a column.
Then, fate interceded. I got the biggest break of my career in journalism when I joined a little-known company called CBSMarketWatch.com.. Of course, I knew all about CBS — but what was MarketWatch, and what was the web all about? This was the summer of 1999. I had heard a little by then about the Worldwide Web and the Internet. I had no idea that it would change and ultimately overtake the way I would view my work and the journalism industry. Before long, the so-called prestige that I had always so admired in the old media seemed false and shallow. The Internet was informal and loose. It was brand new. This was an exciting period.
Plus, in 1999, MarketWatch gave me a plum assignment: media reporter/columnist in New York. The reporting allowed me to learn on the job all about the media world. The column gave me a true writing voice. I had a license to kill — well, within reason, of course. The media beat is a lot of fun.
On Wall Street, you see, everyone is an egomaniac but they didn’t like to be quoted, which complicated the job somewhat. In the media world, EVERYONE wanted to be quoted — and their prodigious egos put to shame those of the Wall Streeters.
Eventually, in January 2005, I was offered an opportunity to be MarketWatch’s full-time media columnist. I jumped at it. It’s still the best assignment I have ever had. I work for great people, and always enjoy the camaraderie and the collaborative element of the creative process (OK, OK, nearly always). It’s a big challenge to come up with three (now two) columns a week, making sure to have original ideas and approaches and not flinch when I have to rip someone a new one, in print. I like to joke that these columns — maybe all columns — are either a) cautionary tales or b) finger-wagging exercises. Over all, it’s a lot of hard work — and a lot of fun.
And isn’t that what a job should always be all about, anyway?