It’s been almost a year since the untimely death of New York Times “Media Equation” columnist David Carr sent shockwaves through both sides of the journalism grinder, and today the paper announced his replacement. Jim Rutenberg, a versatile reporter with a writerly style, will take over the column in the coming weeks. Rutenberg is currently chief political correspondent at the Times Sunday magazine, for which he will continue to write in addition to his new role, he said.
In a conversation this afternoon with Deadline, Rutenberg, 46, acknowledged the daunting proposition of following Carr, whose wide-ranging pieces, typically conversational and knowing, became as important as first coffee every Monday morning. In addition to regularly breaking news, Carr had a gift for imparting a considered overview without seeming to speak from On High that helped build a readership beyond the confines of news geeks happy to parse every line and tidbit. Nevertheless, Rutenberg comes with his own history on the beat, having been hired by the Times in 2000 as a media reporter from the New York Observer, where he also wrote about journalism and its malcontents.
“I’ve always loved the beat,” he said, “though I love the magazine as well and will continue to write for them. But I thought it was time to try something new.” Asked about the multi-pronged discussion in media circles about Rolling Stone, Sean Penn and his secret interview with the recently re-captured Mexican drug lord El Chapo, Rutenberg admitted the subject interests him, but he probably won’t be able to address it.
“Sure, I think I’d want to weigh in on Sean Penn,” he said, “but we’re going to take some time and I probably won’t start the until the start of spring or late winter.” Asked what he predicts will be the top issues he’ll grapple with over the next six months, he replied, “the growing pressure on mainstream journalism and” — roger this — “the role of satire in this election year when we’ve just lost or two top satirists,” Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He added “technology and media” to that list, saying, “I hope to stay in three or four lanes” with the column.
The announcement of his appointment came in a joint memo to the staff from executive editor Dean Banquet and business editor Dean Murphy. “Our hunt for David’s successor has been exhaustive, and we were privileged to have had extraordinary candidates from both inside and outside The Times,” they wrote. “Jim brings to the job a passion for the story, a track record in covering the industry and the experienced eye of an astute observer.”
Canny choice of word, that was: The Observer was a remarkable cauldron for talented if unformed writers that graduated to significant postings at first-tier news organizations. Does Rutenberg consider himself a protege of the Observer’s late defining editor, Peter Kaplan? Himself a former Times reporter who covered television, Kaplan had a gift for nurturing seasoned pros while cultivating their distinctive voices.
“I absolutely do,” Rutenberg replied, adding that his Observer colleague Jim Windolf is a Times editor. That was a brief but formative time for me at the Observer, and I learned a ton from Peter.”
“Peter delighted in the New York view — the mix of power, money, personality and pettiness, especially in the media.”
Speaking of personality, I wondered if the column would continue to be called The Media Equation. That hasn’t been decided, Rutenberg replied. There are some who think it should stay, as part of David Carr’s legacy, and some who think, for the same reason, that it should change. “So I just don’t know yet,” he said.