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Real News w/ Ross Schneiderman, Deputy Editor of Newsweek
This episode, our guest is the legendary Ross Schneiderman. Ross was the Deputy Editor of Newsweek, a magazine that we’ve all heard of but maybe not have read in print form. Ross, thanks so much for coming on. It’s been a real treat getting to know you. One of the things I love about editors is that they’re very snappy, clever and curious people, and you’re no exception. I’m super happy to have you on. Besides being a Deputy Editor of a major well-known publication, which is an incredible position to hold, do you have any career highlights?
Other than working in Newsweek, I’ve worked as a journalist in Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, ESPN The Magazine. This is technically my third or fourth time at Newsweek, whether or not you count internships. I’ve worked on a couple of books, one of which was a memoir by Nina Khrushcheva. She’s the great granddaughter of the former Soviet Premier and a friend.
You also did a story in the magazine about spies. I thought was super fascinating.
I worked on a story called The Almost Americans. It was in the magazine about a year and a half ago. It was about two FSB defectors who came to the United States and worked for the FBI and the CIA. They ran into their own troubles with the American agencies in terms of being able to stay here and work. It’s a fascinating story. It’s super relevant for these times when everybody’s talking about Trump and Russia and spies. We’re going to try and turn it into something else, whether a television show or a movie. We’re still trying to figure it out, but I think it’s going to go somewhere.
When people discover what you do, what’s the most common question?
“Are you fake news?” People ask me that all the time.
Are they serious when they ask or is it like a joke?
Most people, it’s a joke. Some people, it’s half serious. The answer I would say is, “No. We try hard not to be.” Everybody makes mistakes. The fake news usually refers to people who are fabricating stories on purpose for a nefarious purpose. Everybody gets things wrong, which is something totally different. The other thing that people sometimes ask me is, “Who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever interviewed?” The most interesting story I’ve ever done involved is when I went to an underground card counting tournament where the best card counters in the world get to compete unbeknownst to casinos to see who is the best and they all get a certain price. Some of those guys were some of those fascinating people I’ve ever met.
How did you even find out about that?
It was through another story when I was interviewing a guy in Las Vegas. It was a story on plastic surgeons doing reconstructive surgery on MMA fighters that they don’t bleed as much. Somehow, I came across this guy who ran this card counting thing and he invited me to come as a journalist, as long as I didn’t tell the location of the house. I went with a buddy of mine who was a poker player in Vegas and immediately, he shows up and checks in on Facebook and everybody gets pissed at me. They got over it and it was all right.
For your time as a journalist, it seems that you’ve covered everything from doping in baseball to spies to poker to like literally everything that one could imagine. It seems that you’ve gotten a lot of opportunity to interview people. Is there some question or something that you ask people that put them at ease or make them open up? What’s your approach?
Every journalist has their approach. My approach is always to make it a conversation and to be as friendly and nice as possible. I don’t think that that approach works for everybody. Everybody has different personalities. Some people are feistier, more combative, and more in your face. That’s never worked for me because that’s not who I am. I once heard that Bob Woodward has a private kitchen in his house where he has a chef who will cook dinner for people over interviews and gets to know him. He’s friendly and tries to be authentic. He has a conversation with somebody and gives people the sense that you’re actually want to hear them out and hear what they have to say, even in a scenario that’s potentially antagonistic.
They don’t always talk to you. It’s not always in their interest to talk to you, but I think if you do that, if they feel like you’re trustworthy and you can show them that and truly mean it, they’re more willing to talk. You’ve been interviewed by many journalists, but it’s kind of a scary experience to talk to a journalist and then not be in control of writing that story and then seeing how someone describes you. A lot of times, you don’t like it. It’s like not a great feeling. For a lot of people who don’t want to be in the press, who don’t want to talk and you try to convince them that it’s in their interest to, you have to make them feel comfortable and feel like, “I can trust this person to represent me in a way that’s at least fair.” I try and convey that to people.
I remember Cal Fussman, who is an amazing storyteller, shared a story of interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev. All he had was five minutes and the question he asked him that got him to open up was, “What’s the greatest lesson your dad ever taught you?” I was super inspired by this. I got this opportunity to ask Sam Bee a question. I asked her, “What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from your mom?” She goes, “What is this, Oprah?” She’s in comedy mode and not ready for a serious question that I totally fouled it up. It was one of these amusing moments where I thought, “It’s such a good question. I learned from the best,” and then fell totally on my face.
I was at Obama’s inauguration as a reporter. At the time, when I worked at the New York Times as a web producer, I wasn’t a staff reporter. I got to write but I had to scrap for clips. I wanted to go to the inauguration mainly to impress a girl that I wanted to be my girlfriend, but who wasn’t. I started hustling to try and get on the list for as many parties as I could for inauguration. I was going to take a day off from work and go down. As it happened at the time, so many other people we’re doing the same things that some of the actual New York Times reporters couldn’t get on the list for all of the parties. They sent a staff email out around, “Is anybody going to be in the inauguration and into these parties? Can you help us with reporting?” I was actually allowed to do it. I go down there with this girl that I want to be my girlfriend. I was on the list for Diddy’s inauguration party but I had to try and get an interview because this was going to be part of the story on the blog and part of the inauguration roundup. I asked a friend of mine, I was like, “I’ve got to ask Diddy one question. What should it be?” He scrawled on the piece of paper the best question ever. The question was, “Do you think Obama will wear your cologne?” I’m thinking like, “This is great. He’s going to answer this. This is funny, it’s not an antagonistic.” The bouncer looks at it, crumbles it up, throws out on the floor and tells me, “Get the hell out of here. He’s not answering that question.” It was an epic fail.
Your industry is changing so rapidly these days. What do you see it’s going on? Where do you think the potential is? Where will things pan out?
For most legacy media brands, things will be fine. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, they’ve shown throughout this that they’re still producing exceptional journalism and they’re growing. If they’re not making money, they’re very close to profitable or they’ve got backers who are able to continue pumping money into them. You’re going to see them expand into all forms of media and continue to dominate. I do think there are going to be some smaller startups, like the web only publications that are trying to expand, the BuzzFeeds, the vices who survived this tumultuous time. There was an internet media bubble for a long time. A lot of these places were never going to make the type of money that they were for a brief period of time or live up to their hype and a lot of them don’t, unfortunately, have such a reason to exist. Some of them do, so it’s going to continue to be tough. It’ll continue to be consolidation, but the main networks, the main legacy publications, a few of these upstarts, they’ll be fine and there still is going to be excellent journalism out there. There’s also going to be a lot of crap. With the pace of the news cycle and everything, journalists are going to have to work a lot harder for less money and there’s less room for mistakes in light of the political climate.
I read a book once about innovation and how in the initial stages of innovation, there are a few people who tried to experiment with it. Then it gets super popular and they flood the market. In the first round of cars, there was a hundred companies trying to make cars and only a handful of companies really survived. Then it turns into an oligopoly where a handful of companies really control all of it, whether that’s snack, foods, or drinks. What eventually happens is that these craft beer shops come out, AB In Bev sees them, they either battle them on the store shelves for control of the store shelves and push them out or they just acquire them. They’re just controlled by the six major brands. It seems that it was popular for a while to launch your own media outlet. All of a sudden, you get a bunch of places that each have a million, two million, ten million uniques a month, and you still have the study ones like the BuzzFeeds that are in the hundreds or The Huffington Post. Considering the low margins and profitability in these industries, are we going to continue to see a lot of small media outlets?
Only if they can figure out a way to have more local news work. I don’t think these small media outlets with national reach. We’re going to see a lot of them continue to fold or dwindle. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner, to be honest. It seems like a lot of smaller outlets just trying to target millennials and then sell to bigger outlets who they assumed didn’t understand millennials and they would get snatched up before those bigger outlets would realize, “You have three reporters and you’re not producing anything that’s really all that quality.” You’re secretly buying most of your traffic anyway and you’re not making any money. The places with actual business models that actually were making money and that were not entirely dependent on Facebook or social in general, but most traffic on social is driven by Facebook, those places survive and the ones that don’t have that will not and probably shouldn’t because there’s so much news and there’s so many outlets. As a consumer, I’m overwhelmed. As a reader, I’m overwhelmed.
I read that column in The New York Times about what it’s like to only get your news from print and it sounded so liberating. I’m not trying to be like a technophobe and say that the web sucks because it doesn’t. The web is amazing and there are a lot of stories you would miss if you only read one print newspaper a day and there’s a lot of amazing media experiences that you would miss. There’s also a lot you would gain just by doing that. That’s something that publications should remember and should learn.
I took almost the identical policy, which is instead of reading only print, I read absolutely nothing. I get my news from conversation and I read a lot of books. I read a ton of mostly behavioral science-based books, but I found that I ended up a lot happier and I don’t end up in the bubble in the same way.
That’s true and I’ve done that periodically at times where I’m just like, “I’m only going to read history books and novels. I’m not going to care about what’s happening in the next month or the next three months. I’m only going to care about what’s going to happen in the next five years or what happened five years ago.” It forces you to take a longer view of things and there is a certain amount of wisdom you gain from that.
I was talking to the President of Hearst, the media company and he was saying, “People in our industry keep shouting about how hard our industry is but if you’re in hotels, your entire industry has been disrupted by Airbnb. If you were a car company, your entire industry has been disrupted by Uber and Lyft and by not only car sharing in general but electric cars. It’s constantly disruptive. If you’re in the travel industry, your entire industry was flipped upside down by companies like KAYAK, Travelocity, Google.” Fundamentally, every industry is changing to its very core right now, so it’s not just a matter of the print industry is having a tough time. It might be very pronounced in the print industry or the media industry because it’s media and we all consume media in some way. We don’t necessarily all consume flights or hotels or cars.
The reason it gets so much attention is one, journalists are the ones writing about it. It’s their industry, but I also think that there’s maybe a civic reason to. Our industry has been disrupted necessarily more than any of those others, but we’re supposed to be the industry. We were supposed to be the parts of American society that are the Fourth Estate, the watchdogs on government corruption and things like that, and so there is a fear that, along with that, will come a certain civic decline. You can argue that there has been this civic decline. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily because of the problems in journalism, but I think that’s part of the fear. That’s part of what everybody’s talking about. That and most journalists are narcissists and are really focused on themselves.
What are the insight industry secrets nobody talks about? The people who go into journalism are idealistic. There’s this element of wanting to be heard, wanting to make a difference, wanting to tell a story that needs to be known. There’s this almost civic mindedness that you referred to.
It’s also mixed with a certain amount of self-importance and a desire to be in the forefront and feel like you’re a player that you have access. You are important. Journalists are paid mostly in prestige, at least in New York and DC. When you tell somebody you’re a journalist, their response is usually positive. People think it’s cool and I think that that’s part of, at least initially, why some people get involved along with more altruistic reasons. I definitely think that that’s a part of it and that’s a part that I feel most uncomfortable with as a journalist. This is the only podcast I’ve ever done aside from an interview we’ve done at one of our events, I never speak in public. I absolutely hate it. I hate people thinking they know what all of my political views are. I hate getting into Twitter wars with people. It’s why I became an editor because I don’t feel uncomfortable with being a brand and people caring about what I say. I feel really uncomfortable about it. To be a journalist these days, you have to be completely comfortable with it and embrace it and love it. That’s just not me. I always thought it would be but it isn’t.
If I wanted to get into your industry now, what would be your biggest recommendation?
I would recommend probably the same thing that was recommended of me. You’ve got to learn how to write and you’ve got to learn how to interview people. By writing, I don’t mean like writing pretty sentences, I mean really learning how to structure a news story or feature story. The structure of stories is so important. It’s often overlooked especially by young writers. Understanding the way social media works, the way to sell yourself and brand yourself, those things are important. Learning how to write and how to interview people are still the elemental aspects of being a journalist. You have to be curious and you have to enjoy going out and talking to people, going to parties, learning about weird things going on in other people’s life and then asking yourself, “Are the things that are going on in my life interesting?”
I remember one time, I was dating a woman who was talking about how she didn’t want to wear a particular outfit out because she’d already had photos of herself taken in that outfit on Facebook. This was maybe 2006, 2007. It didn’t dawn on me until much later like, “That’s a great Sunday style story for The New York Times.” This is this one conversation that happened in your life and you have to be able to think about it and say, “If I’m thinking about this, I’m pretty normal average person. Other people are maybe thinking about this too,” and then investigating and being willing to go down and take ten leads but nine of them not pan out in order to get one of them to work and have the stamina and curiosity to continue with that.
I’m sure throughout your career and personal life, you’ve gotten to come across some interesting people or some celebrities. Any favorite stories?
When I was a freshman in high school, a friend of mine got Indiana Pacers tickets and said, “We have an opportunity to be the ball boy at the Pacers game.” I lived in Ohio so it’s only a couple of hours drive. He drove with his mom to the game and I’m super excited because I love basketball. I was terrible at it but went to the type of high school where anybody can make the team. The problem was I wasn’t thinking that day, but I actually wore Chicago Bulls Jersey to school because I wear jerseys every day because this is the ‘90s. I had nothing else to wear. I had a white t-shirt underneath, but the white t-shirt I’ve worn during the day was dirty, so I had to borrow one from my friend. The only clean white t-shirt he had was a Malcolm X t-shirt. I turned it inside out because I’m not going to be the white guy in the Malcolm X t-shirt. I’ve got the t-shirt under the jersey and it’s inside out. I go to the game and I’m in the locker room. I see Rik Smits, the Center for the Indiana Pacers. Rik Smits takes one look at my jersey and goes, “Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan, take that off.” He takes the jersey off of me, throws it in the trash can, and then walks away. I’m like looking around with my inside out Malcolm X t-shirt. Finally, somebody gives me an Indiana Pacers official ball boy shirt then I proceeded to be the ball boy of the game and get hit in the head at least four times by the balls coming through.
If people want to find out more about you, be in touch with you, are you on Twitter, Instagram? Where can people find you?
Is there an organization that you support, non-profit or something that you’d like to bring some attention to?
As a journalist, I don’t do that but I support all people doing charity and good works.
I couldn’t thank you enough for coming on, sharing your stories, having some fun with us. Thanks a ton for joining us.
Thanks for having me.
To the audience, stay tuned because next we have the anonymous interview. If you can figure out who it is, you can win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers. Good luck.
About Ross Schneiderman
Tracksuit enthusiast, Jiu-Jitsu novice and hat collector. Loves Philip Roth and Ghostface Killah. Deputy Editor of Newsweek. Dayton, Ohio native. Ex-NYT/WSJ
Anonymous Guest Interview
For my favorite part, the anonymous interview, we have a legend of the tech world, Reese. Thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you for having me.
Let’s give the listeners some insight on who you are. First of all, where did you grow up?
Near San Francisco.
You stay there your entire career or did you move around?
Mostly I stayed here, although I spend time in other places.
In your early career, you worked on technologies, is that right?
Was there somebody who inspired you or some moment that made you want to go down that path, maybe a teacher or an experience?
I had a couple inspiring teachers and mentors that had me go down the various paths I’ve gone.
Is there a particular story or somebody that you’d love to call out?
I would say Richard Dawkins has been an inspiration. Richard Schultes, an ethnobotanist who’s somewhat obscure but most famous for having traveled through Central South America and up the Amazon learning about the co-evolution of plants and human societies. He has a famous quote, “Monoculture breeds disease,” highlighting the importance of diversity in all things.
As far as your career, you’ve had many accomplishments but is there one that you’re most proud of or that has gotten you the most notoriety?
One of the things that I’m most proud of inventing is the way that Ethernet and computer networks run over telephone wires in the wall. The blue wire that most people are familiar with, that they plug their computers into the wall with, it’s commonly referred to as Ethernet originally ran on a coaxial or tri-axial cable like television wire. I modified it to be able to run on unsheathed telephone wire. Now, that’s used by billions of people 24 hours a day. That’s something that has turned out really well and I’m proud of that.
Part of the infrastructure is what allows the internet to run. A lot of it is like the last mile issue, like how do you get it to connect to your specific computer, you invented or evolved.
The internet is complicated, but basically how you attach your computer to the internet and then how all of those computers are attached together and how the information flows, those various parts of that that I worked on, along with thousands of others. That’s something that’s evolved over time and more popular now as people move. Attaching people to wires doesn’t make sense, but attaching computers to the internet wireless closest to the people, whether that’s Wi-Fi or cellular and then wires as it gets further in and then fiber optics as you get further deeper into it.
Just to give people a sense of what you look like, who would play you in a movie?
Some people have said I looked like Ricky Gervais.
I can see that. You are a more scientifically astute version.
Some people have said I look like the character who played Gladiator.
Russell Crowe. It’s the beard. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done that has led to your success?
In the early days of the internet, one of my hobbies was phone hacking and one of the activities that the phone hacker gang did in Berkeley was gather at a place called Top Dog that had two pay phones out in front of it. When you make a sound into a phone in the dialing process, you can make the global network go into maintenance mode. The hobby/task was to start at one of the pay phones and dial first the East Coast and then Europe and then maybe Asia, and then back around to the pay phone right next to you and connect your call going around the world maybe multiple times. The fun part was saying hello into one phone and listening to your voice go around the world and come back out delayed on the other phone.
Back then, it was called phone freaking.
Phone freaking or phone hacking are sort of similar things but playing with the complicated global phone network in ways to make it do unexpected things to try and understand how it worked and figure it out as a hobby.
I remember building my first tone dialer when I was only about fifteen with a soldering iron, changing the crystals in it so that I could get free phone calls. I remember thinking how cool the entire experience was. Was there a moment that you felt like you had arrive to some degree that you’ve done something that people really have taken note of and you’ve earned some clout?
There’s a social software service called Clout that reads all of your social media posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and whatnot, ranks you relative to other people as far as your clout on the internet. When that first came out, it labeled people as being different characters of influence and labeled me as being a pundit.
What hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?
What does brain research and the homebrew computer club have to do with each other?
For the audience, you’ve got plenty to go on and hopefully some of you can figure out who Reese is. If you can, you can win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers and hang out with industry leaders, inventors and creatives like Reese. Good luck.