I know of R. Walker as a writer for the weekly column, Consumed, of The New York Times Magazine. He’s a keen observer of our consumer culture and seeks out subjects that we may not be aware of (the phenomenon of Buddha Machines) to everyday things that we have overlooked (the noisy graphic design of international phone cards). What he says is always interesting, or at least he unearths the interesting for us – and he stops just short of being a critic (though you can get a dose of his opinion on his blog, murketing) or an economist trying to make sense of trends and behavior.
I have always wanted to chat with Rob, and get a glimpse of what goes on in his head. Turns out, there is quite a lot, and every bit of it interesting and worthy of your time. Before you go on and read the interview, I should tell you that, sorry, but Rob offers no shortcut at being good at what he does (he just writes a lot and pays really close attention to everything around him). And aside from being a first rate writer for a first rate publication, Rob sounds like a normal dude: he watches TV (a fan of Top Chef and Sopranos), listens to music (eclectic is the word that comes to mind), and he even reads blogs (and uses flickr!).
I asked Rob for five theme songs for the five sections of this interview, an idea I took from his murketing newsletter. It’s not required of you to listen to those songs while reading the interview, but you can try (and let us know how it goes).
I. “Journalism is the only thing I’ve ever done for a living.”
Theme Song: “Destroyer,” The Kinks
Hear, Hear: Who are you?
R. Walker: My name is Rob Walker. I’m a journalist. I write a column called Consumed, which appears weekly in The New York Times Magazine, and I write for my own site, Murketing.com. I’ve also written freelance for lots of other publications, and before that I was an editor. A book of essays I wrote, Letters from New Orleans, was published by Garrett County Press in 2005. I’m finishing another book now, something more in line with my main professional topic of consumer culture; that should be out next year. I live in Savannah, GA, with my wife, E, and our dog, El Rey de los Perros. I’m 38.
Hear, Hear: How did you become a writer, as you are today, with published book and a column in NY Times Magazine?
R. Walker: I got interested in writing in college. I guess I thought I would be a fiction writer—Stephen King, that was my basic model—but then a few months into my freshman year I wrote a record review for the college paper, and got paid $15. (This was for the University of Texas at Austin’s paper, The Daily Texan, and the review was of Depeche Mode’s “Music For The Masses”.) I started writing about music and books and the arts and whatever for a bunch of newspapers etc. in Texas, and my first job after college was the Dallas Observer, an alt weekly. That completed a transition to more newsy writing, things driven by reporting. I was there for about a year, and got the money together to get to New York, where my first job was at a trade called The American Lawyer (run by Steve Brill at the time) and then sort of switched to editing, working at a bunch of business magazines, then finally at The New York Times Magazine.
After having spent about eight years in New York, I quit the Times Magazine and E and I moved to New Orleans, and I started freelancing. I wrote for lots of publications, and I was doing a column for Slate. That involved a bit of a return to criticism, through the Ad Report Card. That’s also when I started the focus on marketing and consumers and so on, which led to the Times Magazine’s editor, Gerry Marzorati, offering me the Consumed column gig. While there was obviously no master plan, I think it worked out pretty well that I had this mix of business and cultural reporting and criticism behind me when I started doing the column, in January 2004.
Hear, Hear: How did you make a living before you “made it”?
R. Walker: Journalism is the only thing I’ve ever done for a living. Actually even before the Observer, while I was still in college, my first “professional” job was a part-time reporter gig for a paper in Georgetown, Texas, The Williamson County Sun. And I started that full-time Observer job ($14k a year to start) two days after my last final. Basically from that first record review to today, it was just a long, slow grind, with a lot of ups and downs. It’s hard to point a moment and say, “This is when I made it.” Frankly I think I’m still trying to get to that moment. Maybe it never comes.
Hear, Hear: How do you get over the “downs”?
R. Walker: It’s an interesting question. I think when you’re having a down period, you’re not so much thinking about getting over it as getting out of it. I’m paranoid, so I’m always kind of planning for what I’ll do when a given situation falls apart. I came into the job market in 1991 or so, which was a time when the zeitgeist was: “The old paradigm is dead, the whole notion of job security is dead, and you will scramble for work for the rest of your life.” So that’s been my mindset in ups and downs alike. My worst ever down period was after 9/11, when I was freelancing and every story I had going was spiked, every pitch was spiked. What could I do? I started pitching again. And for about a month, I read Anna Karenina. And woke up sweating in the middle of the night. Then an assignment came in, and I got back to work.
II. The cinematic truth about being a writer.
Theme Song: “Home,” Eleni Mandell
Hear, Hear: What do you do aside from writing?
R. Walker: Nothing very original or interesting, I guess. I read, listen to music, see a movie every so often, and otherwise goof off. The sad truth is, while I write for a living, I also write for a hobby. Just different kinds of writing. Examples of hobby writing are the International Review of Wine Packaging and Aesthetics, and the recent-ish zine Where Were You? It’s writing I can’t get paid for, basically.
Hear, Hear: Do you separate work writing and leisurely writing? As a small business owner I sometimes find myself obsessed and can’t break from the work mode, which is unhealthy. Do you have problems like that, how do you relax and take a break from it all?
R. Walker: I’m not good at the separation thing. It’s possible I’m a little bit of a workaholic, although I also believe that I’m a first-rate loafer. I basically have more ideas than time, and often the separation between work writing and non-work writing is hard to distinguish. I try to strategize and make the non-work writing sort of get in sync with things that result in money, but it doesn’t always play out. It’s a bit of a struggle for me, actually.
The way I take a break is really just every once in a while, I don’t know, I just can’t take it, and I goof off, watch a movie or whatever. My problems with work-day structure might be why I’m well suited for the freelance life. The thing that used to drive me crazy about my years working in offices was “looking busy.” You know? Like I really don’t need to do anything, I really am not going to be productive on anything, but it’s between certain hours of the day so I need to sit at a desk and be visible and apparently busy in case the boss walks by. Now, if I’m in that mode, I can just go lie down and read a magazine, whatever time of day it is, and nobody cares, as long as I hit my deadlines. Which I always do.
Hear, Hear: Writers are romanticized in movies and novels. Is it really so? Tell us the truth.
R. Walker: Are you kidding? For one thing, I now think of myself more as a journalist than a writer, and nobody romanticizes journalists these days. Either way, most of what I’m doing is sitting alone in a room, occupied by the extremely mundane business of getting people on the phone, organizing my notes, moving sentences around to find the right structure for a given column, trying to make whatever I have to say fit into the allotted word count, worrying about deadlines, and so on. Those are more like practiced craft skills than a magical and romantic process. So, I’m proud to have developed those skills over time, but there’s no particular glamour in it. Sometimes I write something I’m really pleased with, and that’s exciting for me, in a way, but it falls pretty far short of cinematic moments.
I’m sure there are writers who play the lifestyle part a bit more—going to parties and making witty remarks. But I’m not good enough at that sort of thing to figure out how to make it pay the bills.
Having said all that, it’s not like I’m breaking up rocks in the hot sun all day. Writing is a good gig. It beats working for a living. (That’s a joke. Sort of.)
Hear, Hear: Writers, or the press, are powerful in that they can really influence how people think. Great powers come with great responsibilities. Do you feel that weight on the shoulder, do you find that annoying?
R. Walker: Media influence is a really tricky subject. The world is more openly “interactive” now, but media consumption has always been a collaborative process, in my opinion, in the sense that the reader/listener/watcher makes decisions about what they consume, and what they think about it—what it means, basically. Media is often a reflection of its audience—Fox News would be an example of something that I see as existing because the audience for it exists. Similarly, I think it’s fairly complicated to tease out the influence factors in, say, coverage of the Iraq war: To what extent does the changing tone of that coverage reflect a change in how Americans feel about the war, and to what extent is the way Americans feel about the war a result of media influence? That’s a contemporary example, but my basic point is that, long before the Internet, audiences were more complicated than people seem to assume. Just because a person doesn’t start a blog or upload videos to YouTube doesn’t make them “passive” in the sense that that word is often used. (Susan J. Douglas’s book “Listening In” is quite good on the subject of radio listening as a non-passive activity, and John Fiske’s book “Television Culture” made an interesting case for “active” television consumption back in the 1980s.)
Consumed has a form of influence, and I take that seriously, but I wouldn’t call it “power” in the sense that there’s some kind of mindless audience out there waiting to be told what to think. Of course I have responsibilities—to be fair, to not make shit up, and so on. The obvious things. And the same things, of course, that I’m responsible for on Murketing.com, where the audience is way smaller, and what I’m writing isn’t backed by a major media brand.
Beyond that, I’m interested in the reader coming to his or her own decisions and ideas about whatever subject I’ve dealt with that week. I’m not interested in saying, “this is great” or “this sucks,” because there’s enough of that out there already. I want the column to have a point of view, but that is not the same thing as just having an opinion. And I think there’s an audience that really responds to that.
Of course I’m also aware that there are people who don’t respond to that at all. Ambiguity of any kind drives some people crazy. To some people, “interactive” means something more blunt. Like when a million people crash HBO’s servers to complain that the ending of the Sopranos was too ambiguous. That what an “active” audience means now, according to some observers. Anyway, I’m off on a tangent with this, so I’ll stop.
III. Blogging, typing, writing.
Hear, Hear: Seems that there are certain people who put “blogging” as a lower form of “writing”. As a writer who does both, what do you think? Does the medium matter? And how does external editing (I mean editing by an editor who is not you) affect your writing?
R. Walker: Of course it’s silly to put any writer above or below another one based on what medium that writer happens to be working in. It’s like having a preference for novelists who do first drafts in longhand vs. those who use a computer. Even when Truman Capote said “that’s not writing, that’s typing,” about Kerouac, he wasn’t literally criticizing the tool, he was criticizing the work that resulted. (And of course plenty of people would say he was dead wrong.) Good and bad writing can happen in blogs, in books, and in weekly magazine columns.
On the other hand, while you’re right that some people look down on blogging, plenty of people right now go the other way, and basically seem to see blogs as intrinsically better than, say, magazines. I think we’re still in this moment when there’s a lot of medium/message confusion, and that will sort out in time. Blogging software is a tool, and there is no tool that can give you something interesting to say, which is what writing (or art, etc. etc.) is ultimately about.
Anyway, when I first started to pay serious attention to blogging in around 2000, I guess, it interested me as a reader, but not as a writer. At the time I was writing for Slate, doing short, topical, opinionated stuff. I didn’t have anything else I wanted to say that I thought would work in the blog format.
However, I was quite interested in playing with other Web-enabled writing experiments, and that’s how Letters from New Orleans came about. That was a series of essays that I started in 2000, distributing them by email and posting on my first Web site. They were more in the 2000-word range, and they had no “hook” or “news peg” or whatever. They were personal, but not confessional. They didn’t fit any genre or market category that I was aware of. I don’t think any magazine would have paid me to write those pieces. And for me, that was the whole point: I could do something and maybe get an audience on this sort of niche scale, without dealing with the middleman of a publisher, etc., etc. For the three or four years that we lived in New Orleans, that was my hobby writing, and it did end up finding an audience. And eventually became a book.
When that was over I started doing a different email newsletter called The Journal of Murketing. But for various reasons I pulled the plug on that. Meanwhile, a couple of other things happened. One was that I left Slate to do the Times Magazine column. The other had to do with an essay in the New Orleans book about the song “St. James Infirmary.” That particular essay was heavily shaped by reader feedback from the online audience. I did a couple of different versions of it, working in this feedback and tips I was getting from these random readers from all over the place. And when the book came out, I was still getting email from people, with more feedback and tips, and I didn’t know what to do with it, since it’s not like we were going to republish the book every time I got an interesting email. So I started a blog—the world’s leading “St. James Infirmary” blog, I would argue. Then I did another Web spinoff from the book, called MLK BLVD, which is a sort of open-source thing that’s moved in fits and starts ever since.
I think that I was missing certain things about the online audience I’d had at Slate. So anyway, I finally decided to revive the Journal of Murketing in the form of a Web site. (And in fact the email newsletter is back too, in a different form, as an adjunct to the site.) So it’s been pretty interesting for me to write about these issues and ideas in the column, the site, and the book-in-progress, and to kind of explore different ways of getting them, different tones, in each medium. I’m not sure how that will all play out in time, since the online writing tends to be more blunt and opinionated, and the book is definitely advancing an argument. So I don’t know how that ends up affecting the column in the long run. I do see it all as an interrelated and consistent project that is going somewhere over time, and that may have some influence if it all works out. But I’m happy to be patient with it, and see where it leads.
IV. “It’s easy to let stuff drift by, the whole trick is to notice.”
Hear, Hear: What is your writing routine, if you have one? How do you go through all the things you read, and come up with new ideas? Do you write under the influence?
R. Walker: Under the influence? I’ve certainly never been asked that before. Do I write like I’m on something?
The “where do the ideas come from” question is everybody’s favorite, and I understand why. I’ve written more than 150 Consumed columns, and the range is very wide. It can be soap for Third World consumers one week, and donks the next. So, basically, it’s my life, I’m looking for ideas all the time. It’s a constant process. Something I learned when I was a young reporter at American Lawyer is you just have to make the search for story ideas a part of your constant, daily routine, you’re looking in every conversation you have, everything you overhear on the street, every article you read, just keeping in mind, “What’s catching my attention? What’s weird about it? What questions does it leave me with?” It’s easy to let stuff drift by, the whole trick is to notice. And with Consumed, the extra trick is in timing. What’s the right time to write about something? I want to catch something when it’s hit this certain sweet spot of relevance to the reader. When it’s just the thing that will make them pause and say, “That’s interesting, what’s up with that?” And I have to be able to say something, there has to be some idea there that will last for 700 words. So I can’t just write, “Yo, these are some fuckin dope new kicks,” or “this set of napkins is SO CUTE.”
The routine is that I do try to spend some time early in the day just seeing what’s up, reading the WSJ, and my local newspaper, and checking the Times online, and a whole bunch of online sources, just taking the temperature, and maybe looking for patterns or whatever.
I also read trades, and a lot of magazines and whatever. One thing I do that’s maybe surprising, or not, is that I read a lot of writers and commentators, online and off, who I think are total idiots. People who I disagree with ideologically, or who are just stupid. But I want to know what they’re thinking about, what’s catching they’re attention—and what they’re flat out drop dead wrong about this time. Sometimes that’s a good starting point for a column. (No, I”m not going to give you an example.)
I also try to talk to people a lot. I have my sort of informal experts that I consult on things, just friends or colleagues or acquaintances who I think are good gut-check type sources. So I’ll just ask these people at random, “What do you think of this?” And that both leads to stories, and saves me from things that probably wouldn’t have worked. Sometimes these friends or acquaintances will bring something to my attention—the donk column was almost entirely a result of Kate Bingaman bringing it up. (I originally “met” her, if I’m not mistaken, through Flickr, of all places. Sometime later I wrote about her, and I try to keep track of her, she’s always up to interesting things.) Most of all I talk to my editor, Vera Titunik, and she’s incredibly helpful in guiding me toward what will make a good column, and what won’t.
I carry a notebook sometimes, but usually if I really have a good idea for something, if something clicks, I’m not going to forget it.
I do save a ton of material, I have files and files and files, both on my computer, and physical files. That pays off, but keeping it organized in such a way that I can put my hands on the right thing when I need it, that’s the challenge.
Finally (had enough??), while I try to keep an eye on what “everybody” is reading or talking about, I also like to make sure I’m always reading or looking at something that I figure hardly anybody is reading or talking about. Old books, history books, old magazines, stuff like that. I don’t even qualify as an amateur historian, but I think having some kind of context like that is crucial, because so much commentary now is ahistorical. So it’s nice to be able to drop something in the column that links Martha Stewart to, say, Edward Bok. Bok was a huge tastemaker in his day. Recently on eBay I bought a 1939 issue of Fortune, and it’s pretty interesting to read through things like that, to see not only what’s different, but what’s much the same.
Hear, Hear: What are some daily tools you can’t live without (could be anything from coffee, to a painting you have in your work room, or a certain pen)?
R. Walker: Despite the controlled substances answer above, I do start out with coffee every day. That’s a ritual. Beyond that, the best answer I can come up with here is that I probably depend on being able to chat with E periodically through the day, sometimes about what I’m writing, or maybe just something I’m thinking about that I may write about eventually. It’s not a formal thing, I don’t make her read drafts or whatever, but in some way just talking to her is part of the process.
V. Piggly Wiggly, Schama and the best publication in America.
Theme Song: “The Monkey,” Dave Bartholomew
Hear, Hear: What are the last 5 (memorable) things you’ve consumed?
R. Walker: Lemon fennel doughnuts with black plum sorbet, at Perilla. This is the restaurant opened not long ago by the first Top Chef winner. We’re Top Chef watchers, so there was some weird meta thing about going to this place (which happens to be on the same block that E lived on when we first met), but the food was actually really good. I gather he doesn’t do the desserts, but this thing in particular was fantastic.
“Thérèse Raquin,” by Émile Zola. A pretentious-sounding answer. But E’s been after me to read this for a while, and she was right. It’s a page-turner. Zola is as good as any melodramatic soap opera, and I mean that in a good way.
“Shakey Jake,” Joe McPhee. Probably all five of my answers should be music related, because that’s really where most of my discretionary dough goes. Anyway, I’m not a jazz expert at all, but it’s something I’ve explored very slowly for a long time. One recent round of CD’s included Nation Time, by Joe McPhee, which is all great, but this track in particular I just love.
Piggly Wiggly T-Shirt. Purchased at Piggly Wiggly. An outstanding item.
Simon Schama’s The Power of Art. Schama is the new hot shit. It’s all about Schama.
Hear, Hear: Final question – What do you think of News Corp’s offer to buy the Wall Street Journal?
R. Walker: Well. Two things. First, when I got involved in journalism in college, I was pretty heavily influenced by the culture of what was then called “the alternative press,” which still exists but has been sort of replaced or superceded by the blog phenomenon. What I mean is that things like the Village Voice and The Nation and so on were the alternative to the mainstream; the dynamic now is “the mainstream” on one hand and this “citizen media” (or whichever term you prefer) on the other. I don’t really know how the traditional alternative press (!) fits into that dynamic. Anyway, the point is, a big part of the alternative-press critique at that time was: Too much media consolidation, too many media outlets falling into the hands of too few owners, and those owners increasingly are conglomerates with far-flung interests who are more interested in media as a profit source and a business, with little interest in the public service function. Among other things, news gets dumbed down as a result. That was the critique.
The consolidation trend of course has only accelerated over the past 15 or 20 years. The counterweight now is a million blogs and so on, which is certainly not something I ever could have imagined back then, and which is a whole other topic that I’m not going to get into here. The point is, Murdoch buying the WSJ would be yet another example of this consolidation.
Second, The Wall Street Journal is, in my opinion, far and away, bar none, no competition, the best publication in America. Probably the world, though I’m not qualified to say. As a reader, I’m a huge, huge fan. I love it.
So I’m not very excited about the prospect of it changing owners. If you’ve followed this, then you know that Murdoch has said he won’t louse it up and thinks it’s great (except, you know, some of the stories are too long, and other little side comments that indicate that he doesn’t actually think it’s that great), but he’s said this kind of thing in the past and the promises have not been borne out.
The most optimistic spin is that he’s nearing the end of his career, and he wants this prestige publication and he’ll be smart enough not to water it down and have his obituary begin with “here’s the guy who ruined the Wall Street Journal.” Maybe that’ll prove to be true. Even so, there’s going to be a period where some good people flee the Journal because they don’t want to be around to see what happens, which could weaken the paper to some extent even if the new ownership doesn’t change things much.
I’m not big on predictions, so I’ll stick here with hope: I hope that if it changes owners, the quality of the publication stays high, and it doesn’t get watered down.
Thank you for your time, Rob!