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Keith J. Kelly: 'The Ideal Media Story Astounds the Insiders'
The New York Post's influential media reporter describes his column as "a hungry monster that must be fed" and confesses: "I'm not trying to be well liked; I'm trying to break stories."

I Want Media, 12/11/01

Keith J. Kelly covers the media beat for the daily tabloid New York Post. Known for its many scoops, Kelly's column is widely regarded as a must-read in the media industry. Kelly, who joined the Post in 1998 after covering media for the New York Daily News, also has reported for Advertising Age, Folio: First Day and the former MagazineWeek magazine. Kelly spoke with I Want Media about his favorite scoops, which media company he finds most difficult to cover, and why he respects Tina Brown for calling him "the devil incarnate."

I Want Media: Following the anthrax scare at the New York Post, how's the atmosphere in the newsroom today?

Keith J. Kelly: There does seem to be less tension in the air and a sense that the worst has passed. But in these troubled times, you never know. I did wear gloves to open mail the first day after it was resumed. It is amazing how little I actually missed the mail.

IWM: Any updates on the Post employees who tested positive for skin anthrax?

Kelly: There were three here exposed -- one mailroom worker and two people on the op-ed section. All three seem to have responded to treatment. We have not had our weekly anthrax meeting for some time now, which is good because it means no new cases have developed.

IWM: What's your impression of the New York Sun, the new daily newspaper launching next year?

Kelly: Looks fairly low budget -- $15 million to $16 million sounds more like an ad budget for a major launch, not the full bankroll of a major daily. I believe we don't know the whole story yet, but I wish them well, if only to give jobs to some of my out-of-work dot-com friends.

IWM: Considering the current marketplace, does this seem like an odd time to launch a daily newspaper?

Kelly: It seems suicidal, but [the Sun's financial backers] seem to have money to burn.

IWM: Do you see the Sun as competition to the Post?

Kelly: I don't think it will have the critical mass for the long haul, but they have some good people associated with it. If they get their turn at bat, I'm sure they will get some hits.

IWM: Why is the media beat important to the New York Post?

Kelly: You'd be better off asking the editor-in-chief and the publisher, since I am the beneficiary of the strategy, not the originator. My read is that media is a big important industry in the Big Apple, and by covering the media we have become a first-read for many of the influentials in the media world.

IWM: How is your approach different from other media reporters?

Kelly: I like to break news; I want to be first. The ideal story astounds the insiders and has something that the man in the street can follow as well. We don't regularly do every earnings report, and we don't regularly do big ponderous thought pieces a week after a story has appeared somewhere else.

IWM: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Kelly: The column is a hungry monster that must be fed often. Returning to media after September 11 reporting was not easy. Also, people have to understand that I don't have grudges -- there are no companies or people that I like or that I hate. I just have stories that I think are interesting or controversial. And then it is on to the next day.

IWM: You have a reputation for being an aggressive reporter. Do you ever get the feeling that you're not well liked by some of the companies you write about?

Kelly: Yep, I do. But I think I would worry more if they like me. I'm not trying to be well liked; I'm trying to break stories.

IWM: New York Magazine media columnist Michael Wolff, who once described you as "the most influential media reporter in New York," said your column may have helped David Remnick get the editor job at The New Yorker -- and cost Michael Caruso his job at Details. Would you agree?

Kelly: At the end of the day, I'd like them to say that I'm aggressive but fair.

IWM: You stirred up controversy last year when you reported that Conde Nast's Steve Florio was about to fire Glamour publisher Deborah Fine. However, the day your article came out, Fine was promoted to VP. You later explained that Fine was promoted because her replacement suddenly became unavailable, and Conde Nast, in order to "save face," promoted her. Do you truly believe Fine was promoted because of your column?

Kelly: In retrospect, we should have left ourselves some wiggle room in the original story that said she was going to get the ax that day. My source was convinced it was going to happen, however. But we tried to predict the exact day, and that is always risky. Things can always change at the last minute. And I do believe she was promoted solely as a reaction to the story. The mag's ad pages were tanking at the time. The proof is that she was eventually let go some months later. I guess in the end, all we did was help her get a better severance package.

IWM: Did you ever hear from Deborah Fine about the incident?

Kelly: No, I have never heard from her.

IWM: Of all of your scoops -- and you've had plenty -- which ones make you the most proud?

Kelly: I kind of have one favorite for each company.

For Time Inc., we nailed that they won the derby for Times Mirror Magazines, which became the big M&A story on the beat in 2000. Only the Post had an "on the record" from Time Inc. CEO Don Logan confirming the deal. That may have been a stroke of luck to get him, but we'll take luck.

At Gruner + Jahr, we nabbed that they had given the green light to launch Rosie O'Donnell's magazine. The company had to hurry up and call a news conference the day the story ran to announce that, yes, that was the case.

On vacation in 1999, I was running neck and neck with the New York Times in reporting Disney's pending divestment of Fairchild. I don't recommend that you try this on your own vacation. [The Times] had at least one good source who leaked the exact price, but was erroneously reporting that Fairchild was going to merge with Conde Nast. On the same day, we were more accurately reporting that Advance Publications, which owns Conde Nast, was negotiating to buy Fairchild.

At Primedia, we predicted accurately that the former CEO [William F. Reilly] was having his job head hunted by Henry Kravis. "Reilly to get the old heave ho?" was the headline. The company went ballistic. They sent a scathing memo around to all employees, which concluded, "the fact is, he is a tabloid journalist who has been wrong many times." They sent an angry letter to our lawyers, who told them to buzz off, basically. But Mr. Reilly was indeed canned and the search was on. [Editor's note: According to Primedia, Reilly took early retirement to pursue private investment opportunities.] And Reilly's friends say it ultimately worked to his favor since he basically doubled his severance package.

One of my favorites came only a few weeks after I had moved to the Post. Conde Nast announced that the legendary Ruth Whitney was retiring [from Glamour] and Cosmo editor Bonnie Fuller was moving over to take the job. I was the only reporter to interview Whitney at home, and I found that she was not happy about the development. On the flip side, we were the first to report that Bonnie Fuller was out years later.

At Hearst, we were the first to report that Oprah was in talks with Hearst about launching a new magazine and later that the magazine was going to be called "O."

For Tina Brown and Talk, we reported that Hillary Clinton had pulled out of an interview with John F. Kennedy Jr. and George [magazine] to appear in Talk's debut issue. We ran nice big photos with the column. Later that same day, Mayor Giuliani [who at the time was running opposite Clinton in the race for New York's U.S. Senate seat] kicked the Talk launch party out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Coincidence? I don't think so. Of course, it eventually turned into one of Tina's finest hours when the party was switched to the Statue of Liberty. And we made the front page of the Post when we reported Giuliani had signed a $3-million, two-book deal with Talk Miramax Books earlier this year.

IWM: Ever get any "gifts," or bribes, for ink in your column?

Kelly: I think I'm on the standard list for the usual trinkets and goodie bags. Actually, I think it would be more likely that people would give me bribes to stay out of the column, but they haven't done that either.

Martha Stewart baked chocolate chip cookies [for me] recently. She did personally call to make sure that the package had gotten by our security in this age of anthrax. Which they did -- and were eagerly devoured by myself and colleagues.

IWM: What was the best, or most outlandish, "gift" you ever received?

Kelly: Pretty low level stuff. I signed off with one company president by saying, "Don't send me anything; you can buy me a Sam Adams [beer] the next time you bump into me at an industry function." The next day, a case of Sam Adams arrived. I was in a quandary as to what to do. Send it back? Hand it out to colleagues so I was not personally benefiting? I figured I'd store it in an editor's refrigerator while I pondered what was the right thing to do. When I went to check up on it a few weeks later, I found that my colleagues had subsequently drained the stash. I didn't even get the empties for the deposit. So my integrity was intact.

IWM: What's your biggest beef about PR people?

Kelly: That they don't read the paper that they are pitching.

IWM: What can PR people do to make your work easier?

Kelly: Call with important news, not the newest associate editor. Call with news that has some intrigue or money angle or some element of clash with the competition.

IWM: Ever get any threats because of your reporting?

Kelly: Not physical threats. Some people have written angry letters to our lawyers, but I've never been sued.

Carl Bernstein once got his undies in a knot over [an article about] his Pope book. We had some language saying his Pope John Paul II book was a big disappointment. He can be a very cranky guy, but we since got over it. I bumped into him coming out of the Conde Nast building, and it was hail fellow, well met. Which is the way it should be -- have it out, and then on to the next match.

IWM: Which media company or person do you find most difficult to cover?

Kelly: Hearst likes to go on witch hunts to find employees who talk to the press. I can't understand how a media company, especially one that owns some big and important daily newspapers, can be so repressive, paranoid and just plain petty. They seem to have problems comprehending the First Amendment. As a journalist, I stand opposed to that type of behavior.

IWM: Which media company or person do you find to be the most impressive?

Kelly: Time Inc., for all its turmoil, still has very high journalistic standards.

Tina Brown has called me the devil incarnate and the bane of her existence. But one thing I admire about her is that she'll say it to your face. Not like some companies that are all sweetness and smiles and then sneak around behind your back.

IWM: Was the merger of AOL and Time Warner this year a good business move?

Kelly: It was not such a good deal for the print properties, I fear. It was a good deal for AOL, which would have tanked big time without the link to Time Warner. To justify their $1 billion cost savings, [AOL Time Warner is] probably going to have to fire still more people. Which is a long way from the company of "hugs and high fives" that Gerald Levin proclaimed when he announced the merger those many months ago.

IWM: What were the most important media stories of 2001?

Kelly: The obvious ones -- the dot-com bust, September 11 and its impact, and the recession.

IWM: What do you expect will be the big media stories of 2002?

Kelly: More of the same. Remember, in the last recession it took a good five years for [ad] paging to return to its pre-1990 level. I anticipate a similar long slog this time around, made even worse because an entire industry has disappeared. It is not a matter of the dot-coms resuming ads when the market improves. They are gone.




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