Readers of The Black Table and mediabistro.com will recognize Aileen Gallagher’s name, since she's a Managing Editor and frequent contributor to the former and newly crowned Associate Editor of the latter, where she will remain once a new mediabistro editor-in-chief is hired. The 27-year-old Pennsylvania native has been in New York for five years, and along the way has written for everyone from Radar Online to The New York Post and worked New York Press, where she served as Research Editor before moving to her current position in July of this year. Here, she expounds on her undying love for newspapers and assesses their future in the digital era, her favorite day at the racetrack, and what she learned from working on her college paper and what dog shows and Lollapalooza have in common. (Full disclosure: I write for mediabistro, and Aileen is my editor there, and have written for The Black Table, but I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions before interviewing her.)
Aside from school assignments, what was the first writing project you undertook for fun?
Hmm. Which story is lamest? I used to play "office" when I was a little kid. No tea parties. Just office. I remember my parents gave me a ledger and all these office supplies one year for Christmas. I'm sure I wrote stuff at that time. And there was my obligatory poetry period in high school, but that's not original.
And a confession: I don't think writing is fun. It's satisfying and great and I'm happy to make my living with words, but it's not fun. Talking to friends is fun. Movies are fun. Nothing that requires you to spend so much time in your own head can be considered fun.
You wrote for your college newspaper at Syracuse University. What was that experience like and did it prepare you for the job you have now as Associate Editor at mediabistro?
My school paper, The Daily Orange, was a great time. We took ourselves too seriously, but I think everyone is guilty of that in college, to some extent. But most of all, it was an exciting time for me. I fell in love for the first time at The D.O., with the art director. While that hasn't happened at mediabistro, stuff I learned at The D.O. I use every day. How to get along with people, how to listen more and speak less, working a beat, covering your angles. But with the exception of The Black Table, I've never cared about a job as much as I did The D.O. There was a great sense of ownership there, and the dreaded p-word—passion.
Considering that you've spent much of your career writing for websites such as your own The Black Table, Radar Online, and now mediabistro, what draws you to newspapers? Is there a qualitative difference between the output of online and offline content?
Had I been posed this question five years ago, I would have said online is the minor leagues. I don't feel this way now, perhaps because I've worked online most of my career and don't feel like an amateur. But also because the notion that online writing is "less than" doesn't make any sense. Good writing is good, wherever it is. Bad writing, same thing.
But newspapers, they're the best. No other medium in history has been so effective at making people aware of the world around them. And you can say the Internet is better at that, but so much of what people are reading online is content produced by newspapers. Plus, I'm curious about everything and reading newspapers is the most efficient way of satisfying that curiosity.
Where do you see the future of newspapers going? Are they dying out as people turn to online sources for faster, more up-to-date content?
Newspapers got hit by a lot of things at once, including ownership by publicly held companies, Craigslist and eBay killing classified revenue, and a general stagnation of readership. But they won't die, they'll just change form. Some brave newspaper will one day stop printing on paper and be completely online. And considering that newsprint is a paper's second-highest expense after payroll, they'd save a ton of money.
If anything, the web has taught us that people aren't afraid of opinion. I can read news from conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist, whatever sources I want. Or I can read stuff directly targeted toward me. That's why Metro and amNewYork excite me so much. Here are two papers that are read by a young, upwardly mobile audience. There's no need to dance around that fact. Cater directly to them and the advertisers will follow. There's so much potential out there and newspapers, as much as I love them, are slow to change.
What had been your interaction with mediabistro prior to joining the staff?
I've found something like three jobs (including my current one) through mediabistro. When I got out of college, when mediabistro was called HireMinds.com, I used it to look for jobs. And it was certainly a site I was always aware of and read its content. But I'm not much of a joiner, so I didn't go to any of the cocktail parties etc.
You came in to mediabistro as Associate Editor to Elizabeth Spiers, and are running the place in the meantime. Are you going to stay in charge indefinitely? Is there a plan to replace Spiers?
There will be a new boss and I will return to my comfortable position of underling. When that will happen, I'm not sure. I'm just trying not to ding up the rental car. So far, so good.
What's a typical day for you like? Is most of your work editorially-focused, or are you also involved with the business side of things?
My typical day is not going to be typical for that much longer, and I'm happy about that. I edit and send the daily media newsfeed in the morning (poor David Hirschman starts doing that around 6:30 or 7 every day). I update the front page. I make sure Revolving Door is updated, check in with the bloggers, and there goes my morning. In the afternoons I write and edit, assign, and do interviews. I'm hoping that with an editorial director I'll be able to spend a lot more time doing the afternoon stuff.
Like all small companies, mediabistro expects and encourages people to contribute in a variety of ways. So if I have an idea for the business side of it, there's people to talk to. And I work with other departments to see how we can work together. We love synergy.
You're sometimes called upon to report information about people you know and are close friends with, such as the recent breaking news about Gawker shutting down Oddjack, which was edited by your roommate and Black Table co-editor A.J. Daulerio. How do you go about handling sensitive information of that sort—do you do anything differently than when reporting any other kind of story?
That's new for me, as I've never covered media before. I'm not crazy about it. But I work in a small industry and sometimes there are no outs. In A.J.'s case, I didn't run anything until he asked me about it, because I've lost jobs and I know how bad it is. But when he did (and rightfully so, so people would know he was on the market again), I asked him what happened and then asked Lockhart [Steele] and [Nick] Denton. Denton gave me a statement and I ran that. I thought it was fair, as did Denton and Daulerio. Reporting that story any differently would have been a mistake.
In general, I don't like to be in these positions. But I also have a strong sense of loyalty and don't believe in screwing people over to get a "scoop" on a story that, in the great scheme of things, isn't all that important. This will likely doom my chances at further employment, but it's something I take seriously. I've never regretted it. And I don't foresee a life as a media reporter, so I'm hoping to avoid the problem entirely in the future.
What's your favorite part of the job?
Talking to as many interesting people as I do. I speak to editors and agents and authors and researchers and reporters from all different places. It's a kick. I've learned a lot.
What's your least favorite part of the job?
Answering the door. Don't ever sit near the buzzer. It kills your workflow.
mediabistro runs events throughout the country, but its main focus is on New York City, since this is where most magazines and publishers are located. Is most of your audience in New York, or spread across the country?
Our audience is from all over, as are our contributors. The web means you can be anywhere. So people who before may not have had a shot with some New York-based publications etc. now have that opportunity. The information mediabistro provides is valuable if you're in New York or Indiana or Sydney.
You're also an editor at The Black Table. How'd you get involved with them and what do you like best about working on it? What's your favorite piece you've written for The Black Table?
I have been friends with Eric Gillin since college. A.J. and I sat next to each other at our first jobs in the city (RIP, ALM News Service), and Will worked with Gillin at Ironminds during the heady days of the boom. I cannot imagine anything more fortuitous than the four of us becoming friends when we did. And working with them is the best part about The Black Table. We challenge each other, push, pull, mock, goad, dare, insult, and inspire. We did more with a drunken idea Gillin wouldn't let anyone forget than I could have imagined. The Black Table has made me a better editor, a more imaginative writer, and really expanded my definition of what's possible in journalism.
I basically want to know the same thing about The Black Table as I did about mediabistro—how New York-centric do you think the site is? Do you have readers outside of New York, and do they get the content?
From the beginning, we made a concerted effort to not focus on New York. We definitely have New York sensibilities, but you don't have to be a New Yorker to get The Black Table and enjoy it. We kill stories that are too New York and embrace ones that we simply consider "Black Table stories." I can't explain exactly what that means, but the four of us are great at identifying them. And those are the ones our readers like the most. We've gotten mail from all over the world, so our initial inclination was the right one.
I thought you were kidding when you told me you used to work as a private investigator—was that job at all as exciting as it sounds? What exactly were your job duties, and did you ever come across incredibly juicy information that you were hard pressed not to share?
Of course it was as exciting as it sounds. I drove around in unmarked white vans and went through famous people's trash. Actually, I sat at a desk and utilized several databases and conducted interviews to do background investigations on money managers. I was happy to find that 80 percent of the people I investigated were decent folk. And of the ones who were bums, only a couple were great stories. I talked about them in very general ways, i.e. "I had a guy who . . . " The person wasn't as important as the story, so I could tell the tale without giving anyone away. But it was a great job. I love doing research and I turned out to have a mind particularly suited to it. Knowing how to do all that has also made me a better reporter.
Another former career involved writing children's books about everything from hepatitis to muckraking to Walter Payton. How'd you get that gig and where did these bizarre topics come from?
An acquaintance from college is a designer at Rosen Publishing, and had written a book for them about The Rolling Stones. He kindly gave me contact info for an editor there. The editor had a kid at Syracuse, my alma mater, which helped. My first assignment was a biography of Walter Payton. I told my editor that I didn't know jack about football, but she was French Canadian and knew less than I. In total, I wrote five books for Rosen. It was a great learning experience. And the best part about it is being in the Library of Congress. For a dork like me with a history degree to be included among the total published output of this country is an honor and a thrill.
Do you have any plans to write a novel or nonfiction book?
I don't know. I'm a concise writer by nature and feel most things out there could be pared down, so a book is a daunting idea. But I found my career works itself out in spite of my plans, so I'm open to anything. I'd be a fool not to be.
You've written about everything from Jon Stewart's hypocrisy to being a mean girl to an auction of jazz items. Is there an overriding philosophy or influence that informs your writing, or is it just whatever's currently on your mind?
I'm not a freeflowing idea person. I'm more of an execution person. And while that's a tough realization to come to as a writer and reporter, I have learned to be quicker to act on the ideas that I do have. But I've never been assigned something I couldn't turn into a cohesive, interesting story. And that's everything from banking privacy laws to title research. There is something interesting in every topic. You just have to find it.
But almost everything comes down to a simple, central idea that either inspired me to do the story or was revealed during reporting: Dog shows are hilarious. Lollapalooza was cancelled because the fans are too old to stand around at an outdoor festival all day. Auctions of historical items can take knowledge out of public circulation. Then it's a matter of building the story around that notion.
And for the record, I'm not generally mean. A.J. wouldn't let up about that one.
If a high school student wants to follow in your footsteps and someday be editor of a site like mediabistro, what advice would you offer them?
Spend high school and college expecting to be a beat reporter at a newspaper in wherever. Then decide to take your chances in New York. Get laid off a few times and work at a bunch of different jobs. Contemplate moving back to Philly or going to law school once every 18 months, but always stick around to see what happens. That's what got me where I am today.
Tell us about your horseracing fascination. What's been your greatest day at the track?
Early May 2004. Seventh race at Belmont. I had a $2 exacta box on horses 3 & 4, meaning that those two horses must take either first or second place. The favorite was No. 1, who blessedly stumbled coming out of the gate. My horses came in and I won nearly $210 on that race alone. It was easily one of the most exciting moments of my life. My parents were there, because it was around my birthday. I kissed my boyfriend, kissed my parents, and got a ridiculous adrenaline rush. My mom kept saying how happy she was to be there for such an important moment, and a longtime friend snidely (and correctly) referred to this being "another Gallagher family milestone."
I like horse racing for the same reason I like poker: You can critically evaluate your options, make a smart decision and still be wrong. Or make a bad decision and be right. I like it because my dad and I found a common interest. Plus, you spend the day outside drinking and every half hour or so you wave your furled-up program and shout for two minutes. It's a great time.
Do you have a strategy when you go? How much time do you invest in studying the horses' histories and performances?
Handicapping a horse race is one of the most difficult things I've ever tried to do. There's a ton of information to consider and I only understand the basic rudiments of it. The learning curve is steep. But racing can be a cheap form of fun (you can make dollar bets), so I'm not losing more than $40, if that, when I go to the track. But winning is preferable.
It's something that interests me enough to invest the time to get better at it. But the easiest thing to do is spend some time at the track with someone who knows more than you do and ask them tons of questions. I have yet to meet anyone who spent a day there and didn't want to go back. But maybe I just have degenerate friends.
Rumor has it that you collect old typewriters. Do you use them? How many do you have? Which one's your favorite?
My "collection" numbers three, but that's three more than most people have, so I guess that counts. I've fiddled around with them, but I don't write with them. They're on my bookshelf. I have them because I think they're beautiful machines. And as someone who types fast, the physicality of using one of these things efficiently is far from my fat ass parked in front of a laptop. I wonder how much better a writer I would be if the sheer effort of putting words on a page made me think carefully before I wrote. Thanks for nothing, MSWord!
-- Photo by Jim Cooke