Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is happy to shine our spotlight on Dan Kennedy, who will be visiting our 65 James Street store on Thursday, March 8, at 7:00 PM with his newest book, a look at the current industry of newspapers, The Return of the Moguls.
Dan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press.” He also writes for WGBHNews.org, the Neiman Journalism Lab, and other publications. Previously, he’s written media columns for The Guardian and The Boston Phoenix.
Thank you so much for being interviewed on our blog, Dan. For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe what you write? What can readers expect from your books?
In my last book, The Wired City (2013), and in my new book, The Return of the Moguls, I explore how we might save the journalism we need to live in a democratic society at a time when the economic underpinnings of the newspaper business are collapsing due to technological and cultural change. The Wired City focuses on hyerlocal journalism. The Return of the Moguls tells the story of how Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and wealthy financier (and Red Sox principal owner) John Henry are working to reinvent their newspapers — The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, respectively. I also examine why Aaron Kushner, a Boston-area entrepreneur who led a group of investors that bought the Orange County Register in 2012, failed in his quest to rebuild that paper.
What kind of research went into writing this book? What is your favorite research story? What cool facts and findings didn’t make it into the book, but you loved discovering?
Essentially The Return of the Moguls required multiple on-the-scene interviews and massive amounts of research. Although I was unable to meet Bezos, who rarely speaks to the press (including Washington Post reporters), I was able to interview the Post’s top two leaders, executive editor Marty Baron and chief technologist Shailesh Prakash. I also interviewed John and Linda Henry and many other Globe executives as well as Kushner and his business partner, Eric Spitz.
My favorite story: In March 2015, I was just about to head out to Orange County to do some interviews when Aaron Kushner finally responded to the messages I had been sending him and agreed to sit down with me. On Tuesday of that week, I was meeting with some folks at the Los Angeles Times when someone rushed over to tell us that Kushner had just been forced out by his board. I immediately emailed Kushner to remind him that we were scheduled to meet the next day and that I hoped he’d consider sitting down with me to tell me what had happened. He decided against it, and for many months he turned down my follow-up invitations. He did finally agree to be interviewed, and proved to be gracious and as candid as he ever gets in two long phone interviews in the fall of 2016.
What was the inspiration for The Return of the Moguls? What were the steps you took to bring it from initial inspi,ration to the finished book?
It was literally one weekend in August 2013. On a Friday, we all learned that John Henry would buy the Globe from the New York Times Company. That Monday, Bezos announced that he would purchase the Post from the legenday Graham family. Kushner at that point was the toast of the newspaper business for the investments he had made in improving the Register. I thought following the three of them would make an interesting book.
What was the biggest challenge in writing and putting out The Return of the Moguls? How did you overcome that challenge?
By far the biggest challenge was following a rapidly moving target given the long deadlines that characterize book publishing. That was especially the case with the Globe. In March 2017, when I was wrapping up the chapters on the Globe, Henry and his top executives seemed to have a solid plan in place: move the editorial and business offices to downtown Boston and open a new printing plant in Taunton that would be cheaper to operate than the old Dorchester headquarters.
Unfortunately for the Globe, the plan was horrendously executed. For whatever reason, the Taunton plant wasn’t ready. Here we are many months later and the situation still hasn’t been solved. Printing quality is often poor and home delivery is frequently late. I was able to get at many of those problems during the editing and proofreading stages, but it’s an indication of how difficult it can be to write a book about such a rapidly changing situation.
What draws you to the particular genre or style that you write? What do you think draws readers to these kinds of books?
I have been working since 1994 as a reporter who specializes in media issues, and that morphed into my research specialty once I joined the faculty at Northeastern in 2005. I hope that people who care about the future of journalism — and, thus, the future of democracy — will be drawn to my work.
Incidentally, The Return of the Moguls is actually my third book. My first, Little People (2003), is a memoir about raising a daughter with dwarfism. What I have enjoyed about all three books is that I was free to do deep research in subjects that interested me.
What is your favorite part of being a writer? Of the whole writing and publishing process? What do you think has been your greatest lesson in the journey thus far?
Traveling, interviewing people, and doing research is my favorite part, but it’s also more than a little scary. What if you come back empty-handed?
What piece of advice would you want to share with other writers?
You cannot make a living writing books. I have been very lucky — I got an advance and a leave of absence from The Boston Phoenix to write Little People, and Northeastern takes research seriously, giving me the time and resources I needed to write The Wired City and The Return of the Moguls. I also had the good fortune to be selected as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow for a semester at Harvard’s Kennedy School. My point is that you need to find someone to subsidize your book-writing. Otherwise you’ll end up in the back of your car feeling for quarters under the seat.
How important has the New England setting been to your writing?
I am a native New Englander and can’t imagine living anywhere else. But it has not been important at all to my writing.
What has been your favorite adventure during your writing career?
In 2009 I attended a dubious academic conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which I thought might be useful for a book project that I later abandoned. While I was there, my friend Danny Schechter — the legendary “News Dissector,” who died a couple of years ago — reported on a protest staged by some young activists who were angry that the authoritarian government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev was proposing measures to censor the internet. I interviewed one of the activists and made her the subject of my column in The Guardian the next week. (With her permission, I should add — I didn’t know what trouble she might get into if I didn’t check.) Needless to say, I have not been invited back.
While you’re writing, do you prefer music, silence, other? Please elaborate!
I don’t mind writing in a loud coffee shop with music blaring. But if I’m writing at home, I generally prefer quiet.
Do you have any favorite foods or drinks that must be in the vicinity (or must be avoided) while you’re writing or editing a piece of work?
I drink a lot of coffee.
What do you consider the most challenging part of the writing process? And how do you overcome that?
Procrastination, of course. It’s gotten harder over the years. With my last two books, Facebook and Twitter have been constant temptations. What I try to do is tell myself, OK, I’ll write another 100 words, and then I’ll give myself a social-media reward. It’s ridiculous. My New Year’s resolutions for 2018 is to spend less time on social media. I’ve been somewhat successful, I’m happy to say.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned, thus far, in your writing career?
I will never be David Halberstam.
Are there any groups, clubs, or organizations that you would recommend to other writers that have helped you in your career?
No. I’ve never participated in a writing group, for instance, and I wouldn’t want to. I spent most of my career as a newspaper reporter, so I tend not to think of writing as a literary calling that you talk about. It’s just something you do to pay the mortgage.
I don’t mean to sound like an artless hack. I’m teaching a course in opinion journalism this semester, so I assigned William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” to my students — and re-read it myself for the first time in years. It’s such a great guide, and it has helped reorient my thinking to what might be called first principles. My last few columns for WGBH, I think, have been simpler and more direct as a result of my reacquaintance with Zinsser.
Where can people find your work? (Besides ABSW ;)–though they should totally check here first!)
My blog, Media Nation, located at dankennedy.net, links to all my work.
How can we follow your work, share your awesomeness, or otherwise stalk you in a totally non-creepy way?
In addition to my blog, you can follow me on Twitter at @dankennedy_nu; on my public Facebook feed at facebook.com/dan.kennedy.355744; and on Instagram at dankennedy_nu.
Thank you, again, for joining us, Dan! We look forward to having you at our 65 James Street store on Thursday, March 8, at 7:00 PM to talk more about journalism, newspapers, and The Return of the Moguls.