Issue #7 "50 cents a word is not a living wage"

A conversation with journalist and author, Nina Munk.

Photo by Yarden Haddi.

What was it like to work in the golden era of magazine journalism, writing about some of America’s most powerful CEOs? We caught up with Nina Munk, who has been there and done that. Currently the John and Constance Birkelund Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, her journalism has appeared in Vanity Fair, Fortune, The Atlantic, and other major publications. She’s also the author or co-author of four books. We reached her in Manhattan. 

🔊Listen to the full discussion here.

Ziv: In our email exchange, leading up to this conversation, you mentioned that you see the industry moving away from long-form journalism to rapid-fire journalism with social media and the internet being the main culprits of this. What do you mean by that?

Nina: I think a lot of trends have conspired against thoughtful, slow, deeply researched magazine journalism in the past decade or two. The advent of the internet, generally, undermined the magazine business model. The fact that people are less and less willing to pay for journalism along the way, I think, has been one of the biggest difficulties. Then you combine that with social media and with the rise of Twitter, and the so-called democratization of journalism where just about anyone who’s on the scene can effectively be a reporter. We get our news now not just from one-deep thinking official source, but from so many different places. All of that has had some fantastic consequences and in some ways I think has been undeniably good for the business of newsgathering. But it has had some really negative consequences too. Looking at it from the very biased perspective of a magazine journalist, our entire industry has been undercut. I look back to when I started in the journalism business. I went to Columbia University School of Journalism. I got out in the early 1990s and I was lucky enough to get a job, first, at Forbes magazine and then at Fortune magazine. This sounds silly, but I look back now and I realize we really had such solid, middle-class jobs with pension plans and stock options. These are unimaginable benefits for journalists today. We received really good salaries. I’m almost aghast when I think back and I was making, at Fortune magazine in my twenties, in the 1990s: $150,000. I mean, it’s unimaginable to make that kind of money in magazine journalism today. I wrote a lot of big, heavy-hitting cover stories but I wrote four, maybe five stories a year. It was thoughtful [journalism]. There were a lot of opportunities to do very serious and intense research and when I left Fortune and joined Vanity Fair, it was exactly the same thing; I was paid very generously. As anyone who has attempted to sell a magazine story in recent years can attest, you’re lucky these days if you can get 50 cents a word for an article. I mean, 50 cents a word is not a living wage. Back in the day, at Vanity Fair, I was routinely paid five dollars a word. And I have no doubt that there were journalists with bigger names than me who were being paid even more than that but if you said that to someone [today] they would think you were out of your mind. Beyond the pay, what was so critical to the system we had in magazine writing and the system of staff jobs was the support. We had real, well-paid editors who knew how to draw out stories, who knew how to help guide our reporting and help navigate ethical issues that came up or problems with sources. These were experienced editors with whom you developed a relationship with over many, many years. Great journalism is really difficult and it’s also expensive in a lot of cases and so I think that without that support system, both the financial and the professional support system, it’s very hard to do what was once done on that front.

Yarden: How do you view the difference between newsrooms back then to the more modern media environments we have become accustomed to today?  

Nina: I wonder sometimes: if I hadn’t had the tremendous benefit of working [as a staff writer] for the kind of magazines that I worked for, would I be able to pull off the kind of work that I continue to do, today, as a freelancer? I think of the training we had working in a magazine with other staff, where we sat around and had intense editorial discussions about whether stories deserved to be run or whether they were well reported enough, and where we worked often as a team. The benefit of working as a group was quite extraordinary and there was a real richness and depth to that. We had each other's backs, in many cases, in terms of making mistakes and in the process of fact-checking. At Forbes magazine, we had entire teams of fact-checkers. I started my career as a fact-checker where you literally would get fired because you had misspelled a CEO’s name and not checked it. You learn to be extremely precise and I do that still today. There was a kind of rigour and we could afford that rigour because you had a whole team: you had full libraries and librarians to help you, you had research staff, you had layers of editors. Today, I write an article and I’m very much flying alone. I’m lucky if I even have an editor looking at it all that closely. In general, there’s a sense that because things are going live digitally, for the most part, if there is a mistake you can always change things after the fact. The pressure and the emphasis today is on the speed and on the quick turnaround and on breaking the story before someone else breaks it and that has pluses. But from my perspective, if you do what I love to do, which is investigative and deep-dive, slow-moving journalism, well, it’s very hard to do that kind of work in today’s environment. 

Ziv: You’ve covered so many different kinds of stories over the trajectory of your career in journalism. What are the stories that interest you today?

Nina: I started out my career as a journalist covering business, finance, and Wall Street and that wasn’t because I loved those things. I was certainly interested but it was just happenstance as so many of these things are when one is starting out a career. When I was at Columbia Journalism School I happened to stand out as someone who was especially good at reading a balance sheet and understanding how numbers work. I think a lot of journalists almost intuitively have a tendency to shy away from finance and numbers; it's not typically an area that they feel really comfortable with. Maybe because my father [the late Peter Munk] was a businessman, because he was an entrepreneur and because I grew up where every day at the kitchen table the discussion was about business, about financing a startup company, about trying to refinance the debt…you know, whatever it was that was bedevilling my father’s company at that moment was what we’d discuss at the dinner table, and at the breakfast table. Without even knowing it, that sort of seeped into me and it came naturally to me. So when I went out of journalism school to look for a job, [business journalism] was kind of a no-brainer. Wall Street, in the 1990s, was exploding and there was a tremendous demand for financial journalism and so it was an opportunity. The first people who offered me jobs happened to be in this area. Might have I preferred to write about politics? Perhaps. But practically every other person I was at journalism school with wanted those jobs and so this was a niche and I got a job and I was damn lucky to get a job, as far as I could tell. Once I started, I found a kind of poetry in [business], for lack of a better word. The stories were so exciting. My editor John Huey, at Fortune magazine, one of the best editors I ever had, was someone who could see the sex appeal in business. He was one of the people who, in that period, really played up the glamour of business and the whole idea of CEOs as celebrities. That was very much pushed by Jon Huey. He really understood that you could create a marvellous story that was really about power and glamour and all the things that many people who don’t think they have any interest in business are interested in. Graydon Carter, the long-time editor of Vanity Fair, understood this right away. He was running a mainstream magazine—it wasn’t a business magazine—and yet he was delighted to hire me to write business stories with [as he put it] “sex appeal”, which meant writing about glamorous CEOs. I wrote about Steve Wynn, the casino magnate, for Vanity Fair for example. I did a major piece on the disastrous AOL-Time Warner merger, which turned into my first book. Graydon Carter saw those stories as not just business stories, but stories that were of interest to any Vanity Fair reader. 

Ziv: When reporting stories about these celebrity-like CEOs, how invested were you in understanding the psychological side to them? 

Nina: The most interesting part of writing about CEOs is to understand how people in power act and what motivates people. I think that’s what I loved the most about my business reporting and about writing these profiles of CEOs. I was very much influenced by having grown up with a father who was an entrepreneur and a businessman and who was very single-minded himself. One of my books is about Clairtone, the first company that he started. It was an infamously terrible failure and catastrophe. The company went very high, and then it crashed. My father was humiliated and he would go on to say, for the rest of his career, that [Clairtone’s collapse] had more influence on him than anything else he ever did because of the humiliation combined with the lessons of failure. Growing up with a father like that I was so acutely aware of the drive for power and success. It was familiar to me, whether I was with Steve Wynn, or whether I was with Mickey Drexler, who was then the head of Gap Inc., or Leonard Lauder. They all had a lot of characteristics in common, which I found fascinating. I wasn’t so much impressed by it at all because it was very familiar to me. But I was interested to see how it propelled them forward, in what ways it would often end up being an Achilles heel, so to speak, and they would trip up. There was the psychological part of it, there was the power of it...how it shaped them and how it shaped the world around them. I found that marvellous to write about—until, after doing it for as long as I did, it began to feel a little rote.

Yarden: In your opinion, who was the most interesting or notable CEO you’ve written about?

Nina: I have such fond memories of just about every major article I’ve written and every CEO I’ve tagged along with. As anyone who’s had a journalist write about him or her knows, it’s an incredibly intrusive process not just because we journalists are asking way too many questions but we basically demand [a lot]. If you're the kind of journalist that I am, you just demand access. I have spent days and days with all of the people I’ve written about like poor Jeffery Sachs [the economist]. I travelled with him for weeks at a time. In the case of Mickey Drexler, I was with him for days. I flew on his company’s private plane with him. In the case of Steve Wynn, I was in three different cities with him. I went with him, not just to Las Vegas, I flew with him on his plane to the ski resort where he had a home [and] I skied with him. In each of those cases, you’re trying to be with your subjects in all the places where they’re most likely going to reveal themselves for what they really are. You're trying to see them, observe them, and write about them in places where they’re going to be as natural as possible. You’re never going to be a fly on the wall—the situation is always somewhat artificial—but you do the best you can to try to be a fly on the wall. So you come away having spent that kind of time with these men (and I’m afraid to say [my subjects are] pretty well all men in my case) and you have soft spots for some. Some you just can’t stand and you can’t wait to get away from them. You’re just done with it. It’s suffocating. Some you come away with a tremendous respect for, although you might not like them personally. I kind of have soft spots for just about all of them—even while many of them have trash-talked me after the fact. Jeffrey Sachs, who’s really one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever interviewed, has had nothing but bad things to say about me since my book [about him] came out. I understand where he’s coming from. My book is very tough on him. My book calls out his big plan for saving the world and so I understand his degree of vulnerability on that front and why he was not happy with it. Interestingly, someone else I was very tough on [in another book] was Jerry Levin, the former CEO of Time Warner. But to Jerry Levin’s credit, he actually said: “You know Nina...you got it exactly right”. I was so taken aback, I nearly fell off my chair because I thought he was going to kill me when he [read] what I’ve said about him. 

Ziv: How did your father’s difficult experiences, surviving Nazi-invaded Hungary and becoming a refugee, inform the way you approached your journalism over the years? 

Nina: That’s a really interesting question that I haven’t thought about before. You grow up hearing about what your family has had to endure to get to where they are. My father constantly talked about the experience of escaping Hungary under the Nazi occupation, in 1944, and the remarkable journey of getting out [on the Kastner train] and making it, eventually to Canada, as a young man. He depended on the kindness of strangers to get to where he was. It’s a very humbling experience because you’re always reminded that you need to be grateful for where you are, that nothing is to be taken for granted and that I think, more than anything, things can change in the blink of an eye. Maybe that makes you much more aware of injustices in the world generally. I think it makes you more aware of some sense of urgency to try to accomplish something, to try to do something that you feel proud of that feels to you like it matters. I think I have felt that the pressure my father put on me was that you were supposed to be aware of just how lucky you were and how much had been given to you in so many ways and a lot was expected. I try, in a very small way, to satisfy that within myself and to make sure that what I’m doing feels like that it’s contributing to something larger than myself.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

About the creators:

Yarden Haddi: Student of the Image Arts Centre at Ryerson University.

Ziv Haddi: Graduate of the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at Western University. A former intern at 680 News at Rogers Media and q on CBC Radio. Currently, he produces a current affairs program on Zoomer Radio.

Made with chutzpah in Toronto.