University of Southern CaliforniaAnnenberg School for CommunicationOnline Journalism Review
Online
Journalism
.com
Contents

Frontpage
Features
Departments
Columns
Opinion
Tim Cavanaugh
News Analysis
Matt Welch
Editorial
Commentary
Letters
Resources

 
 
Search OJR

Enter keyword(s) below:

 
OJR Newsletter

Get it direct to
your inbox, free!

 
About OJR
OJR Forums
Purpose
Privacy
Disclaimer

 
Matt Welch Posted May 03, 2001
The Web's Most Curious Man

15 Questions for Online Journalism Pioneer Tom Mangan
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version


Matt Welch:
08/01       Media Criticism Gone Horribly Wrong
07/01       The Webbys' Ode to San Francisco
06/01       Suck.com: From Oasis to Mirage
05/01       The Web's Most Curious Man
03/01       Off-Campus Speech v. School Safety
FREMONT, Calif. -- Once upon a time, before Steven Brill knew Jim Romenesko's e-mail address, before The New Yorker discovered Weblogs, the best source for information about what journalists were doing on the Web sites was Tom Mangan, a full-time copy editor for the Peoria Journal Star.

In October 1996 Mangan launched Newsies.com, a collection of links to and descriptions of what would eventually total 391 journalist Web sites, from simple resume/clips/personal pages to comprehensive moonlighting news-related publications like the Morrock Daily News Current, OnVideo and the late News Mait.

From 1997-98, Mangan showcased the best of his finds in a weekly column for Editor & Publisher's mediainfo.com. In 1998 he began asking his newsie friends seven e-mailed questions, typically well-researched and gently provocative, then publishing the interesting results. The SevenQuestions project soon expanded to include an eclectic mix of amateur archaeologists, American truck drivers in Japan, and soon-to-be-famous Webloggers.

In all, it was a rich vein of Web-surfing intelligence and potential story ideas (I, for one, probably squeezed five articles out of discoveries first encountered through Newsies and SevenQuestions), peppered with Mangan's own sensible media criticism, essays and bloggings.


Tom Mangan

Mangan's considerable extracurricular activity attracted the attention of the editors of the San Jose Mercury News, who uprooted the midwestern boy in the fall of 1999 to the heart of the Silicon Valley action he'd so long been tracking. He works on the Merc's features desk, where his exhaustive online knowledge comes in handy for lighting-fast double-checks of actor names and photo captions. "Definitely it's a huge tool that we never had before," he says.

As NASDAQ nosedived, so did Mangan's online activities, events which were closely related. Still, it is easy to spend hours trawling through his nearly five years' worth of curiosity, and this month a new weblog seems to be taking root. I spoke with the 39-year-old Mangan in Fremont Central Park, not far from his home, on the very day that Mercury News Publisher Jay Harris ended up announcing his surprise resignation. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

So when you wake up in the morning and read another story about Jim Romenesko, do you go "Damn!"?

I discovered that man. That's right: I think I was the first man who interviewed Jim Romenesko. I'm sure he would probably counter that. ... At the time his Web site was simply The Obscure Store ... and it was before he'd made a real Weblog out of it. ...

I think it's really cool that he's become so successful. It was funny, because I would have my little Web site getting maybe 1,000 hits a day if I was lucky, so I'd send him an e-mail saying "What kind of traffic are you getting, man?" And he'd say, "Oh, 20-30,000 a day," and I'm thinking "Man, you can make money on that, couldn't you?" And he's like, "Well, if I really wanted to. ..."

I was probably a bit of a late adopter to the MediaGossip page, because I was so into what he was doing with his cool links to the crazy stuff -- he would always find stories that I was just fascinated with.

He has a great way of [going through] a paper the size of the Journal Star, and finding the great story about the high school teacher caught sniffing a jockstrap.

Yeah, I think he gets much less of that on the MediaGossip page. [But] I am glad that when he changed it to "MediaNews," that it still maintained the "gossip" component of it. ... It just seemed to me that it was a lot sexier when it was "MediaGossip," that it was so much more like what the Internet was about. ... But really, he's maintained the spirit of it really well.

I find it getting a little bit more into Establishment Journalism, and a lot less into the 'zines. ...

That probably was the disturbing aspect of it, because some of us knew him when he was into this really cool, really quirky stuff, and now he's posting links to Andrew Sullivan and people like that -- lions of the Establishment that are sort of irrelevant to the rest of us.

Do you rue the fact that you didn't somehow cash in on Newsies or SevenQuestions, to have your own little Poynter-paid gig?

The fact is I could have done that if I would have had the ambition, but I just didn't really have the ambition, so I can't blame anybody but myself. ...

What's it been like to read all these things over the last six months about "Journalists are increasingly [creating] Weblogs and their own personal pages! It's the new trend!"?

I think these people are actually lamer than I am, you know? Just like, I went to Andrew Sullivan's page the other day, and he's got some kind of Shockwave thing going on, some kind of music playing ... and I thought "Mister, how clueless can you be?" Now mind you, I'm sure he's a fine newsman and everything, but I saw that and ... it just didn't impress me, put it that way. But I'm a nobody and he's a somebody, he makes lots of money and I'm a zero, so my opinion doesn't matter that much.

What was the culture clash like, both in terms of going from 50 to 400 people, and from Peoria to San Jose?

You know, we lived in a suburb and we moved to a suburb. We get all the same cable channels, and I get a better Internet connection, so I can actually spend more time online, because our apartment is wired for T-1.

How about within the newsroom?

Well it's different because you've got a lot more people who are really good at their jobs, frankly. ... You find yourself much less likely to find stories where there's big long gaping holes in them, stuff like that. And as far as the newsroom culture goes, it's remarkably similar how journalists, especially newspaper journalists, think alike. They have the same conversations, they have the same words in their language and everything -- I mean they really do think alike, talk alike, act alike. ... But it's not like it's Peoria is 50 and these guys are 90, it's more like that Peoria was about 70, and these guys are about 85. ...

The other difference is the feeling that you've got some resources at your beck and call. ...

I notice you've been reading a lot of gloomy Web sites recently, and you even link to Steve Gilliard ... from Netslaves about how the media, and especially the dot-com media, in fact were complicit in the pumping up of the bubble. What is your fascination with the gloomy stories, how do you think that the media has been complicit, and to what extent?

When I came to the Mercury News, ... they were still touting all these companies that weren't making any money, and by just before the crash they ran a story which said, "Maybe profit and P/E ratios don't matter anymore." And of course the market crashed within a month after that. I guess when they write those "P/E doesn't matter any more" stories, that's when you know it's about to go.

When everybody started doing Weblogs, that's immediately when I stopped thinking that a Weblog was the right thing to do.

I think all the media have been complicit because they haven't really understood the technology, and therefore they haven't understood its limitations. ... Television works much better than the Web in terms of sending lots of information fast. I mean, you can't do streaming media, really; people are trying and they're all failing. And most of the existing media do better, except for things like message boards, and e-mail, and downloading music from Napster -- those are the things that work really well on the Internet. ...

Right now my fascination with the market is, everybody wants to be there and watching on the day when Black Monday happens again. ... I probably lost, like everybody else has on paper, lots of money in the market, so I shouldn't have this fascination with it, but it's kind of like watching car crashes but nobody's getting killed. ... The chance to witness a world-historical event at the time it happens, that's why we get into journalism. ...

The other thing is, I'm paying $1,560 a month for a one-bedroom apartment; I'm hoping the economy crashes so my rent will go down.

There seems to be a lot of gloom and grumbling within the Merc right now. Do you find that to the case?

I mean, any time they announce layoffs, yeah. ... Right now they're in a process of deciding who has to go, and who doesn't go. The thing is that their revenues were way up last year, and like everybody I don't think that they anticipated the degree to which [they would collapse]. ...

I think I could probably speak for most of the newsroom in saying that it's kind of galling to us that we have to accept staff cuts to essentially meet Knight-Ridder's profit goals, because the paper is not losing money ... these numbers are essentially arbitrary. ...

I still think, though, that the paper is still committed to doing good journalism and being one of the best papers on the coast. ...

It's always troubling to the people on the newsroom floor when people are going to lose their jobs, and I think people are going to grumble about that, but I mean journalists grumble more than anybody on earth, as far as I can tell.

You wrote something interesting recently: "The realization that I'm a prisoner of prejudice, despite all my delusions to the contrary, was the main thing motivating me to take a break from all this and rethink what I've been doing online." What's that all about?

Gosh, I've probably actually kind of forgotten what motivated me to write that.

It's in your Frequently Asked Questions, and it's "Why are there not more women and people of color on this." Is that the main reason you cut down drastically on your....

Not really, to tell you the truth. But it played into it, because it troubled me that I basically was interviewing Web-centric white guys and the people who tolerated them. ...

When the big NASDAQ crash happened last March, a lot of the enthusiasm went out of it for me. It was kind of like the air went out of the bubble, and my enthusiasm level kind of went down with it too. It all seemed fun and great when the Internet was happening, but ....

Really? So did you take a huge personal beating?

No, it was just -- I did go through what I would say was a critical reappraisal of everything I'd done, and I felt like that I kind of fell [for] the CB radio craze all over again. ... I mean I was always a cynic, so I'm sure I didn't bite to the extent that some people did, but still, there was such enthusiasm about it, and after that happened, it kind of took some of the enthusiasm out of it as far as I'm concerned. It just didn't seem as sexy.

The other thing was, was I had done this for so long, and I was just kind of tired and looking for an excuse to lay off for a while, more than anything else. It was strange that when I was doing SevenQuestions, just about the time that I started getting a lot of popularity and a lot of hits, was about the same time that it started becoming so much work and so much maintenance to keep all that up. You would get letters from people who would say, "Oh please interview me, please interview me" ... some of them would be OK and some of them weren't, and so you'd have to explain to somebody, "Well, I don't think I want to do you." And it's hard for it to be fun when you have to reject people, you know? And sometimes you just have to. ...

What really happens when you start attracting an audience is it takes over your life. You end up doing stuff that you wouldn't normally do, just to keep the site going. You end up feeling like, "Well, I've got to update my site today, and the next day, and next day, and next day." And then you look back to your logs and find out, well, 12 people looked at the page yesterday. So it's hard staying motivated keeping a personal site, unless you're so involved in it it's bordering on obsession. ... I guess everybody has that obsession who becomes successful at anything, but it's hard to maintain. ...

I just can't imagine how a guy like Matt Drudge -- he probably gets 100,000 e-mails a day, how does he handle all that? But it's all he ever does.

There are people all over the world who dream about developing their own Silicon Valleys, or moving to the Silicon Valley. As someone who came here after hearing about it for so long, what would you tell those people?

I'd say if you're a computer programmer, or an engineer of any kind, you've got a good shot. If you're the kind of person who's very creative, who can come up with really new and interesting ideas, you may have a shot. If you're a person who's very persuasive and has a lot of charisma, you may have a shot. Because this is the kind of place where you really can make a lot of money if you've got a good idea that somebody can profit from. ...

But on the other hand, the cost of living is extravagantly high, the traffic is pretty nasty. On the other hand, the weather's wonderful, and when I drive into work every day I've got these nice rolling hills in the background and everything. It's so much more beautiful than any place I've ever lived before ... I've got a good-paying job for a reliable employer -- generally -- and a job that I like doing, and I don't have to fight the weather, I don't have to fight the traffic, don't have to fight a lot of the headaches, and I live in a nice quiet area, so I think it's a pretty good place to live, frankly. ...

There are negatives here, but what they've found ever since the Gold Rush was that people come and they don't leave. In every other boomtown, just about throughout history, people came, but they all left. The Bay Area is the only boomtown where they ever stayed, really.

Besides Los Angeles. ... You once wrote something interesting to me about how part of the problem of media criticism is the only people with the skills [and] knowledge ... to properly skewer the media are the ones who rely upon it for a living. It's a pretty interesting thought, that the people who really know the truth and also would be able to disseminate it, have to fear for their jobs. How would you assess the ability of people who work for newspapers to speak freely about anything?

I have to tell you that it's changing, and the Internet is probably changing it. There was a story -- that actually you wrote -- about the 16-year-old kid in high school who's writing all kinds of stuff about his administrators; that would never be done before. And if I decided to go on some big ripping tear about the Mercury News, I probably could, and might even be able to get away with it. Because I think there's a feeling that the necessity of supressing this kind of stuff is not as strong as the necessity of avoiding the publicity that would come with putting yourself in the position of being a censor. ...

There are some sardonic bits on your site about arriving in Silicon Valley two years after the fun was over, and just missing out on trends here and there. Are you just having a bit of fun, or do you feel like you've run into some bad luck and jumped at the wrong time?

No, it's not necessarily bad luck. But when I first got online in like say '96, 97, there were lots of people who had all started creating their Web sites, and there were all kinds of people doing really cool stuff, and they were all doing it around '97 and '98, and I thought "Wow, it'd be so cool to be out there amid all that." And by the time I had got out here, the culture had changed, even that quickly. Quirky little personal sites had gone by the wayside, and everybody was turning into capitalists and trying to start companies ... everyone was trying to make a living at it, and trying to cash in, so the psychology had changed. The fun part of the Web, of the invention and creation of the Web, in a lot of ways had passed: it had gone from the kind of new and experimental phase, into the hard-core capitalist phase, and it probably hit that phase way too fast. ...

When everybody started doing Weblogs, that's immediately when I stopped thinking that a Weblog was the right thing to do. Though I think they're a very valuable tool, really -- even when people like Andrew Sullivan are doing them.
 
During Mangan's tenure running SevenQuestions, it seems like niche sites moved from obscure to ubiquitous. Has ubiquity removed the intrigue and innovation? Tell us in the OJR Forums.
 



Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


[ Frontpage ] [ Opinion ] [ Matt Welch ] [ Back to Top ]
Copyright 2001 Online Journalism Review
work for newspapers to speak freely about anything?

I have to tell you that it's changing, and the Internet is probably changing it. There was a story -- that actually you wrote -- about the 16-year-old kid in high school who's writing all kinds of stuff about his administrators; that would never be done before. And if I decided to go on some big ripping tear about the Mercury News, I probably could, and might even be able to get away with it. Because I think there's a feeling that the necessity of supressing this kind of stuff is not as strong as the necessity of avoiding the publicity that would come with putting yourself in the position of being a censor. ...

There are some sardonic bits on your site about arriving in Silicon Valley two years after the fun was over, and just missing out on trends here and there. Are you just having a bit of fun, or do you feel like you've run into some bad luck and jumped at the wrong time?

No, it's not necessarily bad luck. But when I first got online in like say '96, 97, there were lots of people who had all started creating their Web sites, and there were all kinds of people doing really cool stuff, and they were all doing it around '97 and '98, and I thought "Wow, it'd be so cool to be out there amid all that." And by the time I had got out here, the culture had changed, even that quickly. Quirky little personal sites had gone by the wayside, and everybody was turning into capitalists and trying to start companies ... everyone was trying to make a living at it, and trying to cash in, so the psychology had changed. The fun part of the Web, of the invention and creation of the Web, in a lot of ways had passed: it had gone from the kind of new and experimental phase, into the hard-core capitalist phase, and it probably hit that phase way too fast. ...

When everybody started doing Weblogs, that's immediately when I stopped thinking that a Weblog was the right thing to do. Though I think they're a very valuable tool, really -- even when people like Andrew Sullivan are doing them.
 
During Mangan's tenure running SevenQuestions, it seems like niche sites moved from obscure to ubiquitous. Has ubiquity removed the intrigue and innovation? Tell us in the OJR Forums.
 



Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


[ Frontpage ] [ Opinion ] [ Matt Welch ] [ Back to Top ]
Copyright 2001 Online Journalism Review