Andrew Malcolm’s media career began when he was introduced to a Foreign Correspondent at his Prep School in the late 1950s. Since then, he has been able to surmount multiple media platforms from his print media days as an Editor, Columnist, National Correspondent, Foreign Correspondent and Bureau Chief in Tokyo, Toronto and Chicago for The New York Times, Press Secretary for First Lady Laura Bush, writing ten books and then blogging for the Los Angeles Times and finally at Investor’s Business Daily. Andrew is also widely known on Twitter and other social media platforms and is the Tuesday Co-host of the “Ed Morrissey Show.”
Politisite Politics and Entertainment writer, Jennifer Williams, had a chance to speak with Mr. Malcolm for an extensive interview covering a wide range of topics including his start in Journalism, covers his print and multimedia career, his political outlook and his advice to beginning bloggers and journalists.
We believe this interview to be the quintessential guidebook of sorts for anyone interested in new media, journalism and political blogging.
Jennifer Williams: You harnessed digital and social media pretty well. Are you surprised at your success in those mediums?
Andrew Malcolm: No, because I never contemplated failure. I got into Journalism because I wanted to learn something new every day and I thought that is why everyone got into Journalism. I realized after many years in print, that I was wrong. Many of my colleagues got into Journalism because they wanted to know what they were going to be doing every day at 3:10 pm in a certain meeting and that’s not me. What surprised me was not my success. As I said, I never thought “Well, am I going to succeed or fail?” Going into it, I talked to one of my sons who is a webmaster and he gave me a lot of advice and guidance. But, I went into it thinking “How am I going to succeed?” not “AM I going to succeed?” And what really surprised me was the obvious success we had and the fear of my print colleagues in trying it themselves. I had one colleague who come up to me and said, “I would kill to have your traffic.” And he had an on-line column for a newspaper. I said, “Well, I’ll be happy to tell you how I do it.” You make friends with five or six dozen other sites. You know what they like and you send them your stuff that might fit into theirs. And then you publish some of their stuff. You go back and forth on Twitter and so on. He said to me. “ I don’t have time for that.” And I said to him jokingly, “Okay. Well, do you have time to be unemployed?” We both laughed, but now he IS unemployed. This is some years ago, but you could see it coming. What surprised me was that people in the profession who I thought were eager to learn, were really more eager to be comfortable. I’m not criticizing them, but that is not a recipe for success in this new age. I can tell a story anywhere I want on-line. And I don’t have to have the fights with Editors like in the monopoly-days. About whether “you can use this quote or not? If we can use quotes like this? We don’t have this kind of construction! What it is the most important thing?” I did a lot of reading of American novels in my schooling and came away with one of my biggest, most important lessons… the power of the relevant detail.
And I remember one scene in “All The King’s Men,” where these guys were meeting and Robert Penn Warren was describing at length this spider web up in the corner and this evil-looking spider. Of course, it was foreshadowing what was going on in the room, but who in the newspaper business would think about writing about an insect that wasn’t something that was going on in the story. There was a time when one of my colleagues said, “Jeez… this guy comes from the era of hot-type!” It’s true, I do. I do come from that era, but in that era you couldn’t write about some relevant detail like that because it wasn’t relevant to the inverted pyramid-style of writing.
Jennifer Williams: Some of your cultural references have a “Dennis Miller” feel to it. Highly intelligent cultural references from a historical basis which make people want to know more about what you are saying.
Andrew Malcolm: In newspapers during the old days, they didn’t want to do that. I once had a discussion with an Editor about that and he said, “Nobody’s going to understand it.” Well, I said “screw them.” Too bad, but you can always Google something, right? You can always figure it out if you’re that interested in it. If you really do it right… if you start off a joke by saying this is the funniest one in history… it’s not going to be funny at all. If you start off setting something up, even though you may not have heard of this group or this incident in history, you will know what the intent of using it is. But, that takes time. Fortunately, I have Editors now who have enough confidence in me. I do what I do and there seems to be a market for it.
Jennifer Williams: While your column is from a Right-perspective, it also includes a lot of humor. How difficult is it to write like that on a regular basis?
Andrew Malcolm: It is challenging. I mean, there are days where I don’t see something to write about. When I was writing more off the news at the LA Times. You’d start the day with six little ideas… you’d write six little things and you’d end the day with eight more ideas. But, when you’re writing a column like this… it’s harder in the sense of what you’re going to write about. I have to have a connection to it for it to work.
Jennifer Williams: Being a filmmaker, we are told that you should always write what you know.
Andrew Malcolm: Exactly! I have to write what I know. I have to have a reaction to something in the news to write about it. People arguing over certain points of the Healthcare Law. I’m falling asleep. But over how Obama is trying to SELL it is very exciting and I can tell a story about that. I wrote a story of how they were paying Los Angeles teachers to teach kids how to sell ObamaCare enrollment to their families and then I was on Fox News to talk about it. I read tons of stuff and as I’m reading, maybe one or two things will pop up and I’ll say, “Well, maybe there’s something in there.” So I’ll go and look up some more information on it. But, there are occasional days where nothing works. And I’ve had enough experiences to know that forcing it would… make people say, “What the hell is he writing about this for?” That’s my nightmare. I figure that it’s better not to write something I don’t really believe in or feel some connection to.
Jennifer Williams: Is it harder to write an objective piece rather than a subjective piece?
Andrew Malcolm: I think the objective piece is much easier. Because when you do it enough in Journalism as I did for many years… if there’s something in the news, it usually is pretty obvious what the most important thing was. Whether it was a new release or a speech or something like that. There are always elements of decision-making and interpretation that always fit in. But the objective one is easier because the most important point or two will leap out at you if you’ve done it enough. And you go and write that and depending on how many words you get, you go down and then you go lesser-important, lesser important, lesser-important and you throw in some quotes. That kind of stuff is easy. Sitting down and seeing a pattern changing in Obama’s fundraising speeches or perceiving a pattern is harder or more fun. In the end, it is worth more for readers because it’s something that they wouldn’t get somewhere else.
Jennifer Williams: It’s getting the value of your perceptions and point-of-view.
Andrew Malcolm: Yeah, that’s the point. And I don’t mean to sound immodest by saying that there is a point-of-view, but there is. If you do it in certain ways. It can be entertaining and enlightening and hopefully, people will find it. So, you use Twitter and the other Social Media to call attention. That’s the other thing that makes my old print colleagues very uncomfortable is selling their stories.
Jennifer Williams: Because that’s against tradition?
Andrew Malcolm: Oh, absolutely! That may be changing now. I haven’t been there for years, but you write the story the best you can and you argue for it. Maybe you get it on the front page and the editors screw around with it a little bit. You argue with them. It ends up almost as you wanted and it’s in the paper and it’s right there! And people should read it. But I’ve got to tell you, twenty-six years at the New York Times… outside of my Family I never saw one person reading my story.
Jennifer Williams: That’s amazing. I’m sure that would surprise a lot of people.
Andrew Malcolm: Now, there were three billion people at that time so this is obscene that I had zero. That was surprising. But, you write an on-line story and within thirty to sixty seconds you can see the re-tweets and you can see that there’s a lot of them… you know that there’s a lot of interest there and the headline really worked. Within fifteen to twenty minutes you can see the nomenclature of the readers. There were times at the L.A. Times that I would post a story and within fifteen minutes, the numbers would just explode. Now, I wasn’t the only one. It would happen to other people. I just love to know why things happen, so I tracked the numbers and I’d watch it a lot more than my colleagues would. I figured out at the end of the day, that there were some stories on good days where thirty new readers were arriving on my page to read a new story every second.
Jennifer Williams: That is outstanding.
Andrew Malcolm: For hours at a time. Now, if you are a storyteller or writer and you’re not aroused by the idea that people are falling all over themselves, thirty of them every second to read your words, then you are in the wrong business. I would never tell my boss this, but that is better than a paycheck!
Jennifer Williams: It would certainly keep you fresh.
Andrew Malcolm: That’s right. You go “Okay! People want to see this.” My thinking is not “Wow, I can go home now.” It’s “how can I top that?” And so you try to and over time, you build up people who follow you… a lot of people came over to the Investor’s Business Daily (IBD) website from the L.A. Times. The LA Times very kindly said, “You can take the column title with you if you want.” Because nobody ‘s going to be doing “Top Of The Ticket” the way you did, so you can take it if you want. I told IBD that and they said “Great. That would be nice.” Then, they went and talked to the Owner/Publisher and he said, “Well, when we announced that Malcolm was coming here, we got all that media coverage. Did any of them mention the name of his column at the L.A. Times?” And they said, “No.” And then he asked, “What did they mention?” “They mentioned Andrew Malcolm and the owner said, “Well, I think you just got the name of your column.” So, they named it just “Andrew Malcolm.”
Andrew Malcolm on Humor
Jennifer Williams: Is the ability to write with humor difficult to master or to paraphrase Lady Gaga.. are humorous people just born that way?
Andrew Malcolm: Some people are and I would be pretty poor at self-analysis on this. I’ve always loved to tell jokes. I’ve always loved to entertain people with stories. Whether it was my parent’s dinner parties or show-and-tell in the sixth grade or my high school or college newspapers. Writing books, giving hundreds of speeches and so on. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories and I love the reaction of people if they laugh at certain points that I want them to laugh at. I guess you can say I do work at it, but I have the initial interest in doing it. If somebody comes along and says, “Okay, we want to make you a comedy writer.” I don’t know if that’s going to work! But, if you get somebody who says, “Aw yeah. Have people laugh at what I write… that would be fun to try.” Then you’d have somebody with the motivation and I’ve got the motivation. I love making people laugh. I have at various times in my career proposed that I write a humor column. Fortunately, no Editor took me up on it because those are tough to write.
Jennifer Williams: It’s hard to be funny every day.
Andrew Malcolm: If you sit around a group of people and somebody says something funny then you can play off it. Then it is a lot easier to be funny. It is a lot easier to play off the news. I do try to do that and I try to put in little pieces of information or trivia so you go away thinking, “Oh, I didn’t know that!” And you kind of remember it was a fun site when you went there. I try to put in funny little expressions like calling Obama’s time a “Reign of Errors.” Not that that is the best one, but its little twists that people wouldn’t expect to find in newspapers. It is very satisfying for me because that is the exact kind of stuff that would’ve gotten whacked from my newspaper stories. And did. I think that it would be very hard to write a humor column regularly, but to see humor in something regularly is really easy. I see it all the time and it’s not always worth a separate column, but it can be something I work into a column. That was the appeal of getting the late-night jokes because they’ve got writers who are paid a huge amount of money for writing funny things. I started publishing them and not everybody is on Twitter, so I pulled together a lot of the jokes and I run a collection of them on Monday or Tuesday. That’s really very popular. So you try to read the audience and come up with ideas…
Jennifer Williams: Keep them entertained.
Andrew Malcolm: Yes. I have a picture with every one of my columns and if it is over 500 words, I’ll have two pictures. There’s always some kind of a little joke in the captions. The people who read the captions get a chuckle. I enjoy thinking that “I’m laying a little surprise here behind the bushes and we’ll see who finds it. I have fun with life.
Malcolm on the Media
Jennifer Williams: The sale of the Washington Post to entrepreneur Jeff Bezos this past summer has re-ignited some national discussion on the role and the future of print media versus digital. Where do you think we are today and what landscape do you foresee in ten years?
Andrew Malcolm: I try to stay out of the prediction business, but it will be different in ten years than it is now. That’s guaranteed. I hope that the large news-gathering organizations survive in some form, because news gathering is a very expensive process and you need the resources to do it right. A lot of the news organizations have been gutted or certainly slimmed down to the bone in terms of the resources they can use for original reporting. I think that it is very important that we have that. You can disagree with their political opinion. You can disagree with what they chose to focus on and a lot of the disagreement is true. I mean, when a Republican President comes in… you can predict that in several months, there will be a lot of stories in the news media about the homeless problem. As if it just happened upon the Inauguration of a Republican President. Those kinds of things you can have disagreements with. And I do! But, I do hope they survive in some form and they’re going to need a successful business model.
The Washington Post just went behind a pay-wall. Certainly, the new owner has been successful in the new on-line world of marketing. There will be traditionalists in the newspapers who will think that you can’t translate it, but my answer is “Well, why not try because what we are doing now isn’t working!” And that is why the New York Times ended up selling the Boston Globe for $70M, when they paid $1.1B for it. A 93% loss. I hope someone figures it out and fresh blood [comes in]. People say “Oh, he’s not from the traditional media background!” Well, maybe that is what we need. We don’t want the traditional media anymore. And what has happened with these family organizations [such as the New York Times) is that you’ve got the founders from maybe the 1800s or early 1900s and then their kids’ are inculcated in the newspaper business and then their kids… and then before long you get the default 5th Generation. For most of those kids it is just an investment and so that is what happened with the Chandlers (owners of the Los Angeles Times} before they sold it to the Tribune Company. Whose crime was overpaying for it because they wanted to get out and make some money. The Chandlers were one of the last people to make a whole lot of money.
So I imagine that Bezos is going to come in and he’s going to have a lot of new ideas of how to sell the Washington Post. And he’ll probably run into some resistance. But I see for the sake of stability he’s keeping the management team, the publisher and the editors, I certainly understand that. I understand that the New York Times says every day that it is not for sale. Which of course makes you think that it may be some day. But the Times has a strange, protective Stock arrangement. Where the Class of Stock that really controls the Times is held by the Family. Anyone in the Family who wants to sell it has to offer it to the Family first.
Jennifer Williams: So, the major players like the L.A. Times, New York Times and Chicago Tribune will survive, but a lot of the more local newspapers and smaller operations… won’t survive ten years from now as everything heads online?
Andrew Malcolm: There have been a whole lot of newspapers leave already. The first newspaper I worked on was the Memphis Press-Scimitar which was a Scripps-Howard afternoon newspaper and it died along with many afternoon newspapers. That was with the move to morning newspapers and we went through that era and now there are some newspapers that are done with the editing-process at dinner time. That means that if you watch the TV news at 10 pm, you are getting much fresher news than in the newspaper that you wake up and go out in your driveway to get at 6 am. What that requires the news institutions to do is provide a product people can’t get at 10 pm. So, that requires more analysis, the insightful enterprise stories, the kinds of things you can’t get somewhere else. To make that paper have value. The new owner of the Orange County Register, who bought the paper two years ago out of bankruptcy has hired more than three hundred journalists and graphics artists in the last year. His philosophy is “you get what you pay for.” So, if you’re willing to pay for a newspaper, you’re going to get a pretty good newspaper. His thinking is that people are drifting away from newspapers because newspapers are drifting from them in terms of the product they are giving.
Jennifer Williams: It certainly happens on a local basis around the country.
Andrew Malcolm: Yes, yes. I hope somebody figures it out. I think they will. This is the free-enterprise system… for a while anyway. I think someone will figure it out and learn how to make money at it.
Jennifer Williams: You served on the L.A. Times’ Editorial Board for a good while and you were obviously successful at it. Many readers, not just myself, wonder how an Editorial topic is chosen, let alone written about. Especially when we don’t agree with what was written! Can you take a moment to explain the process to our Politisite readers and de-mystify the Editorial process a bit for us?
Andrew Malcolm: I can only speak for the L.A. Times who I was with in the early 2000s. I don’t know exactly what it is now, as it changes all the time… but it is a committee of very intelligent people who have expertise in different areas and who gather every day to chew over the news, toss out ideas and go over what might be worth writing about. Whether it is in their area of expertise or not. And other people will criticize it or praise it and they’ll feed off it. It is sort of like a mini-brainstorming session. Even though it is in the morning. Then people go off to write their stuff. Of course it is all colored by the fact that you’ve got to write those columns every day and there are some things that have to be written about. Like the Mayor is doing something drastic on the budget. Well, someone’s got to write something about it. My assignment at the L.A. Times, as the Editor put it, was to write about whatever I wanted to write about as long as when he saw it in the morning… he would be surprised.”
My Editor lived up to it 100%. So I would go to say something about what I wanted to write about and there would be complete silence at the table. Because they wanted to be polite unless they thought it was a completely cockamamie idea. So, I would go off and write an Editorial and they would publish it. Because of the context of Editorial pages being so “sermony,” the fact that there would be something so different, hopefully entertaining and typically much shorter and off-beat really stuck out!
Six months after 9/11, they had me go to all of the sites and write about the experience of being at these sites six months later. That was one of the Pulitzer nominations and so it was fun. It was a good challenge as a writer. I learned of the joys of trimming. For example, you end up writing forty-eight lines and that means you have to cut off six “widows” or cut off parts of six sentences because you have to get back to the Times’ forty-two lines rule. That was great disciplining. I came to enjoy it. I enjoyed the collegiality even though I was sort of a “duck out of water” for sure. And at least politically, I was in a distinct minority. I was the minority. It was an interesting and great chapter in my professional life. It was very satisfying and the L.A. Times was very good to me.
Then, when they asked me to take on this brand new challenge of blogging, who would have thought at my age, that I would be asked to take on something new?
- Andrew Malcolm Interview – Part I – 11/5/2013
- Andrew Malcolm Interview – Part II – 11/6/2013
- Andrew Malcolm Interview – Part III – 11/7/2013