James: The way I got into this business, I had started working for
“The Atlantic.” I’d written for The Atlantic as a freelancer when I
was in my mid-20s down in Texas when my wife was in graduate school
there. I was working for the “Texas Monthly.”
I joined the Carter administration. I worked for him for three
-and-a-half years as a speech writer.
As I was preparing to leave the Carter administration and
work for The Atlantic, I’d seen just as a little glimmer of
The White House is bringing in these Linear Display Writers,
which were these 1970’s-era, very crude by modern standards, word
processors. I thought that was a promising step for the people in
the writing business.
In the springtime of 1979 when I was first on The Atlantic’s
payroll, two things happened. One is I was doing a very, very long
series for The Atlantic. This was probably 25,000 words in total
about why I thought the Carter administration was having trouble.
I realized I was typing the name Zbigniew Brzezinski about a
thousand times both because I was mentioning him so often and
because I was retyping drafts. I thought there has to be a better
way to do this — apparently a macro key for a real typewriter,
just set her up.
I’d been doing that, but about the same time my father-in-
law, who is now dead, had been a business man in the machinery area,
who was working in Ohio and Kentucky said he had come across in a
peanut warehouse in Kentucky, an optical eye system was able to
sort darker from lighter peanuts as they were coming down the
The brains behind this was something called a Processor
Technology SOL-20, which was, by my lights, the first real
personal computer. It was before any of the Apple models were
It was after the Altair, but the Altair wasn’t really a
personal computer. It was famous as the only computer that was made
out of wood. It had these beautiful walnut housings.
I went up to the place in Ohio, I bought this computer from
the peanut warehouse people, and spent the next while setting it up
so I could use it to write with, and that involved, first, figuring
out, or I could do it, how to use both, capital and lower case letters.
That was something that had to be figured out. There was a
software program called, The Electric Pencil, by a guy named, I
think, Michael Shrayer in Palm Springs, which was the first word
processing program that I had ever seen.
The disc, the memory storage then was literally a Radio
Shack tape recorder where you’d store things on tape and it would
take hours to store them and it may or may not take. Starting in 1979,
this was how I did my work.
I always had scientific and technological interest, so I
found this interesting. I taught myself some of the earlier
programming languages, partly because you had to, to make things
work in those days.
As the late ’70s, early ’80s were on, we were in DC for the
years of ’79 and ’80. We went back to Texas, to Austin, Texas in ’81
and ’82 just as part of a reporting exercise.
That was when, I think, Michael Dell, he was probably still
in college then, but the Compaq business was just getting going.
The TV series, the “Halt and Catch Fire” series, that was
just that time in Texas when we were living there. I was involved
in covering Compaq for Texas Monthly.
It was interesting to see, at the same time, as one other
log on the fire, I think in, maybe, late ’79, I did a long
reporting project for the Atlantic where I spent about six weeks on
the road, but half the time in Detroit and half the time in
I saw the young Steve Jobs at Apple when they had their
first little office in Cupertino. I got to see Gordon Moore, Andy
Grove, and I think, Noyce.
I never got to Noyce, but Moore and Grove were there at
Intel. The HP people were then a big source of the high end
Maybe what Google is now, HP was then in terms of being a
huge burnished place that could afford extra resources. This was
interesting to see as a culture and as a phenomenon. The business
aspect of it were interesting, mainly, in the micro-sense of seeing
PC Magazine, which went from being 50 pages to 500 pages.
It was so interesting to read all these things, from Gateway
computer in the Dakotas and all these…Eagle computers in
California, all these other things that were Alta Vista starting up
around the country.
It was really interesting that as a culture, as an era, as a
tool of possibility, because I liked these things. I liked doing
the programming. As things went on, and momentum developed, I
started doing articles in the Atlantic.
I did one, I think, in ’81 called, “Living with a computer,”
which I think was one of the, if it was not the first, it was an
early article in a general magazine about what personal computing
might mean for how we think and how we work and all that.
I described some of the adventures I had with the Processor
Technology SOL-20. Through the ’80s I did a number of what we’d now consider
Ars Technica-type things of “Here’s the way you can recode a certain
part of WordStar.”
“Here’s how Word Perfect shows
you to reveal codes.” “Here’s why Lotus Agenda is the holy grail of
informational software.” I’ve remained very interested in this whole
realm as it’s diverged to become all of life.
I’ll just add a couple of other stations along the way. The
only unhappy time I’ve had as a journalist were the two years I was
editor of US News and World Report under the controversial, I’ll
call him, owner Mort Zuckerman.
When that came to its fated end, I thought, Well, I’ve
always been interested in software. One, I’ve worked in it for a
while. For six months I was on a program design team at Microsoft
for Word, for what became Word XP.
I was working on the “track changes” feature which we all use
every day and on something called, “One Note,” which was a research
tool. It was interesting to see. I had been a foe of Microsoft on
antitrust grounds but I had liked the people there.
There was only one person who I really didn’t like. That’s a
whole separate thing, but most of them I liked. I enjoyed being
part of that team. I’ve stayed in touch with the people.
As the software business has diverged into being a gigantic
business, I’m less interested in that than some other people are.
I don’t really care whether Yahoo is going to be able to
survive or how Google and Amazon work, even though one my sons now
works at Google and a lot of Google people are friends of mine.
The business is of passive interest to me the way some other
corporate events are. The effect on the journalism business is, of
course, of very direct interest to all of us. My essential line is
journalism is in crisis and always has been, and it’s a different form
of crisis we’re having now and some result will come.
At The Atlantic we were talking three or four days ago about
the lost Golden Age of the Blog, which is we considered it was
2009. We’re looking all the way back to 2009, 2010 as this Ralph
Waldo Emerson-type episode.
When the Industry Standard was a magazine, I was living
on the West Coast. Actually, to finish the Microsoft story, I was
in Seattle ’99 and ’00 at Berkeley, teaching at the Berkeley j-school
with Katie Hafner, you probably know for a year or so.
John: Yes, I know Katie.
James: The Industry Standard then was the fattest
magazine in America and publishing one year before it went out of
business. I was a columnist for that with Larry Lessig and with, I think
Steve Levy might have done that.
I don’t remember, but it was a fun thing to do. Fred
Vogelstein was there. There was a memorable retreat for the
Industry Standard staffers who, like most young reporters, a
mid 20s to early 30s crowd.
It was at the PlumpJack Resort in Lake Tahoe. This would
have been, probably, Christmas of ’00 or somewhere right around
that time. I had bought my first little propeller airplane by then, so
I flew up from it.
I’ve been flying for quite a while, but this is the first
time I had a little plane. I flew up there from the Concord airport
to the Lake Tahoe airport.
I gave these people a speech saying, “Look around you.
You’re complaining about having to generate too much copy to space
out these ads, et cetera. This is not how it normally is. Notice
this, be grateful for it. This is not how your life as reporters is
always going to be.”
I think about a year later, the magazine was out of
business, having been the largest one ever. I’ve stayed in touch
with all of those people, too.
The business of the Internet is not so interesting to me. The
effect on the journalism business is interesting. The
possibilities for writing is sort of a solved problem in terms of the tools
and the Internet. The program Scrivener is the solution.
That’s the best program there has been for writing. The
Holy Grail of organization, idea-manipulation software, that is
ever revolving, too, and it’s interesting to me.
Some of the personalities in the business are interesting
because I’ve known a number of them.
It’s now, I think it’s been published so I can say, when
Larry Page did his, the letter for Google’s IPO, I helped him write
that. Essentially, on the point of why Google was setting up an
ownership structure that was different from other public
corporations so they could do the kinds of things they’re doing
I’ve never had any financial dealings with Google. It’s the
shape of the world we’re in. I think if the question, “Is the
implications for journalism,” that was not. I didn’t sense that
It was more the other implications for the way people would
be able to travel around the world or the way that your
intelligence would change when spot knowledge would become a
commodity, and to what other things would replace spot knowledge.
That, I just think, is interesting. That’s my opening
John: OK. Did you have any “Eureka” moments, specifically?
Something that you said, “Aha, tech going to take over the world is
no longer a boast, I can see it happening.”
James: To me it was more incremental just because I was first
starting to see these people in the late ’70s, so it was brick by
brick by brick. There was a time when, suddenly, most people you
knew had word processors and there was a time when most people had
I got on this system, this oddball system, called, MCI
Mail, in the early ’80s, which was something that you could send
to other people on MCI Mail, and that had its limitations.
I guess, as there’s been one connection after another, when
email systems became interactive and connecting.
I do remember — I can’t recall the exact year, but it
would be sometime in the ’80s — when on some bulletin board I was
dealing with, it could have been about OS/2.
It could have been about the Victor 9000 computer, which I
was using then. It could have been about some other research stuff.
Somebody said, “Holy God, I’ve just seen this product Netscape,
from these students at the University of Illinois.”
I guess it would be the precursor of whatever was the
precursor of Netscape, that was the first time you could do
John: It might have been Mosaic or something like that.
James: Yes, it was Mosaic. They were referring to Mosaic and
saying that. At that time, it was too hard to set up on most
computers and the connections were too slow. But hat was something
As email became interactive, as Mosaic came on too, one began
to see what that would be. The impact of portability. I got one of the
very first Compaq and Osborne gigantic suitcase ones.
When we moved to Japan in 1986, I took one of the Compaqs
with me, the size of this huge sewing machine that was on the plane
to get over there and lug it around.
I think the first portable I got was…that Compaq was not
a portable. First of all, what we think of as a plausible portable
was a Toshiba, that was then in the late ’80s. And Radio Shack.
The first time I thought, “Here’s an elegant product” was
the Radio Shack model 100. I don’t know if you’ve seen those in
That remains an elegant machine. I have a fond spot,
retrospectively, that hit a certain plateau in combining design
with function. The Radio Shack 100 was one of them.
The MacBook Air, which I got when I was living in China in
2008 was another.
There’s something that I was going to say on the Eureka
front. It was more incremental just seeing one by one by one, the
spread of the machines and the things they were able to do.
I guess the main thing where I was an early scoffer, but I
have an excuse, was when the first Mac came out in 1988, as we
I was living some place, I guess I was still in Japan then.
I’d had, by that point, about six generations of non-Mac
machines. I had the Processor Technology SOL-20. I had some
Gateway. I had, maybe, an Eagle.
Then I had the Victor 9000, which was this really elegant
machine, too, and then some Compaqs and all that. The very first Mac
was simply not capable. It couldn’t do things. It was too slow.
It was too clunky, so I said, “This thing needs to be
better.” I think even the Apple board of directors didn’t see the
way this could fully evolve.
I did remember a couple of years after that when Steve Jobs
was introducing the Lisa, I went on a sales call at Apple
headquarters and saw him show off this Lisa, which looked like a
much more impressive thing.
One of the trade shows I was going to then I saw him in his
NeXT machine incarnation of seeing what does this look like. By then, I
could see this was going to happen. The very first Mac was in 1984.
That was just before I moved to Japan. I was always more in
the mode of saying, “This is interesting to me.
“It matches my pattern of how I think and stuff I’d like to
do,” as opposed to, “I’m Balboa on the peak some place and saying,
I see the new world.”
John: At the beginning, in the early ’80s, there were a handful
of people covering tech. It blossomed when PC Mag and all those
came in. How has that culture of coverage that you’ve seen changed?
James: I guess it’s changed in a predictable way through the
mainstreaming of things.
There was a time when I first started writing about this in
The Atlantic in the early ’80s. It was as if I was describing
travel to Burma. It’s very much the way I feel now writing about
The great majority of people know nothing about aviation
and are afraid of it, so you had to explain all of the basics.
“Here’s why having an aileron fall off would be a bad thing.”
That’s how it was with personal computing. Most people
didn’t know anything about it. You’re in the role of the classic
middle man, going from a realm where people who had expert
knowledge and you’re conveying that to people.
The journalism then in mainstream publications
like the Atlantic, you could have what we think of as an incredibly small-minded,
news-you-can-use-type emphasis of “This disc drive, which can hold
five megs, costs you $99,etc.”
Early on it was just sort of that pioneer-era journalism. Then
there was the PC Mag period with John Dvorak. I don’t know if you’ve
talked with him.
John: I’ve talked to him.
James: He was exemplifying the cool kid phase of the cool
kid slash asshole phase.
John: That’s right.
James: There was a lot of Robert X. Cringely and all these people.
I was interested to read that but it was all of these
little wars in the Valley. I always had friends in the Valley, but
I was not living in the Valley. I knew these people. Probably 50
times in my life I look back on it and say, “If I made the business
choice then, I would now be a billionaire.”
My wife and I were there when Larry Page and Sergey Brin —
and we’d known them for a while — invited Eric Schmidt, who we’d
also known for a while, into the Google office in Palo Alto to make
a deal with him. So I was arm’s length from the Valley.
I felt about the Valley intrigues the way many people feel
about the Beltway intrigues. It just was not that interesting to
me but I did love reading the magazines just because the baseline
of performance was so relatively low that each month’s new
increment in software or products or performance or the fast-
grindings of Moore’s Law made a difference. You actually wanted to
buy something every six months.
The journalism was corporate intrigue, wars within the
Valley, user guides. Edward Mendelson, who was writing for PC
Magazine then about writing and computing, I felt some kinship with
him. There’s also this guy Peter McWilliams. I don’t know if you
have come across references to him.
John: I haven’t.
James: He’s dead now, I believe. For anybody who may see this any
later period of time, what I’m about to say I haven’t looked up. I
think Peter McWilliams may have died during the early AIDS era. I
think his role was as a non-out gay man. I think I recall that.
He had very interesting books about computers and your
soul, computers and your personality. Mendelson had these works
about how you think with a computer, and he was interesting to me.
Peter McWilliams I actually met one time and went out to his place.
I met a couple of other people who I found interesting as
thinkers. There’s Bill Gross. I don’t even know what his latest
company is called. Not the PIMCO Bill Gross but the guy who
invented Lotus Magellan.
Lotus Magellan was one of several early programs that
thought this is brilliantly elegant and it really was. I’ll circle
back to that.
I stayed in touch with Bill Gross through the years because
I like the way he thinks through these tools. Also, Bob Frankston
and Dan Bricklin of VisiCalc. I don’t know them as well, but I met
them in those days, too, and really liked what they did.
Mitch Kapor I knew better, less because of 123 and more
because of Lotus Agenda, which was also a really elegant, a
timelessly elegant, program. Did you ever use Agenda?
John: Yes, I did use Agenda. That’s why I smiled.
James: I spent a lot of time in the Agenda forums. Eric Schmidt I
met in the same way when he was at Sun Microsystems. I remember
very clearly having lunch one time with him out on Palo Alto. This
would have been just before Java became popular as a concept. This
is probably the early ’90s.
I was having lunch with him and Wendy and he was saying
they had this whole new idea of how you could store the programs in
a non-physical computer but somewhere outside your computer in a
cloud of data and programs and what it would mean to have these
Java programs. I wrote a piece about that for the Atlantic.
I never felt one day, ‘Oh, life is all different because of
the Internet and because of the tech revolution.’ I feel, in an
ongoing process of 500 different ways, that things are different.
Last year, for example, meaning 2013, The Atlantic held a
conference we do usually in San Diego with UCSD called “The
Atlantic Meets the Pacific,” where the theme has largely been
health sciences and information science and the convergence of
those two things, wearing sensors, having ways to have your own
personal genome. That will be a profound change, but it’s one of
I think the analogy would be to electricity or gasoline or
aviation or something else. I think the three of those as opposed
to television where a new, enabling technology changes everything
in different ways.
I’m not in the camp of the Internet changed the world. I’m
in the camp of the Internet changed the worlds and different ways
It means one thing for us in journalism. It means something
else in political management or whatever.
John: You just mentioned three of the things. You wrapped up
three or four of the things people have said. Number one, they feel
that tech journalism has become more like Washington, like there’s
There’s the question of access. There’s the question you
brought up of distance. There’s a question of covering something
where wealth is thrown off in huge amounts to people you cover.
As a journalist, how do you balance all of those things?
James: To go through these in maybe a different order — and you
can remind me of ones I’m leaving off — on the wealth, my view
here is this is the latest version of an ongoing issue, both in
society and for journalism.
For example, when I was living in Texas, both in the late
’70s and the early ’80s, I lived in Texas both before and after I
worked for Jimmy Carter because my wife was getting her graduate
degree at University of Texas Austin.
I was working for Texas Monthly when it started, and then I
went back there with The Atlantic. There was the same question then
about the energy business.
T. Boone Pickens was getting going. You had these
wildcatters who were making what were then big fortunes. The
question was what was this wealth doing to this community?
When we were in Seattle in ’98, ’99, and ’00 it was what is
Microsoft’s wealth doing to Seattle? Again, that’s a tech world.
It’s a different scale from what current Internet wealth is.
We were in Pittsburgh. My wife and I recently had a
reporting project. 100 years ago it was what is coal wealth and
steel wealth doing to Pittsburgh? American history — I’ll confine
it to America — is the story of a lot of these things happening
over time. A lot of different technologies have made a boom.
I think of that in that context of it’s a second Gilded
Age. The strains are very similar to what they were in the late
1800s, early 1900s. One hopes the solutions will be similar to what
they were when you had a wave of reforms, both in civic society and
I think of covering the wealth as being you look at it now,
you see how much there’s a bubble, you see what it means in San
Francisco, but this is a story we have seen before. That doesn’t
blind you to the parts that are new, but it’s context worth bearing
John: How do you personally strike that balance? You, Markoff,
all these people. You were working with Microsoft, working with
people that became wealthy on a scale that we as journalists
James: This may just be me. I’ve always felt lucky to have enough
money, and I never really have cared that much. I have some good
friends who are journalists who are really concerned about the
money they’re leaving on the table, but my theory is if you’re in
this line of work you’re not fundamentally motivated by money.
I’m very glad to have enough money. I have a nice house you
see behind me. I have a propeller airplane. I feel very fortunate.
I sent my children to college. I was thinking I know seven or eight
people as friends who are billionaires.
I have at least one very close relative who is very, very
prosperous because of this whole world, but that’s, to me,
interesting rather than upsetting.
I am more upset by people I know who are incorrectly
respected for what I view as crappy writing. That doesn’t bother
me. I find it interesting. Are you bothered by that?
John: No. That wasn’t my calling. I’m here to bear witness.
James: If it bothers you, you should get in the business. There’s
plenty of room. There’s plenty of people. I know a ton of one-time
journalists who now work for these tech companies and that’s what
they should do.
John: How about maintaining distance, to follow on in the rocks
you’ve had to navigate around?
James: Daily newspapers will cover these things, and I’ve done
daily newspaper work over the years. I’ve had two different roles.
One is with The Atlantic and the other is with The Industry
The Industry Standard I was a columnist where my job was to
have analysis or opinions about things. Both there and The Atlantic
I find you can go a very long way by just declaring interests.
So whenever I’ve written anything controversial involving
Google I’ve said for the record, I’ve known Eric Schmidt, Google’s
current CEO, since worked there. Recently I’ve added a
caveat and one of my immediate relatives works there. I have a son
who sold his company to Google so he now works there.
I think that if you tell people anything that if they knew
it later on they’d think, ‘Why didn’t I know that?’ If over time
you seem simply to be in the tank for one company or another, that
would be a problem.
I’ve found it relatively easy in my Atlantic life to say
you should know that my son works for this company. Nonetheless, I
think their Gmail has gotten better here but I don’t like what
they’ve done with their maps.
John: How about the comparison with Washington versus the Valley
in terms of clusters of reporting?
James: I’ve spent now, in the 40 years since I got out of graduate
school, about half my time living in DC in this very house and half
living other places. That’s been intentional.
It’s been usually two- or three-year periods where I’ll be
in DC for a couple of years and go someplace else. In that time,
we’ve been to Japan and China and to Malaysia and Texas and
Berkeley and Seattle and other places.
It’s because while I like DC physically as a city, I’m from
desert California so this is as cold an East coast climate as I can
stand. We have friends here we have known for 40 years.
It’s a physically pleasant city, I think. The journalistic
culture in DC I hate and I hate it because 95 percent of the
effort is on 1 percent of the news.
There should be nobody going to White House press
conferences or maybe eave the White House press conferences to C-SPAN.
This was a way of saying for the past year and a half now my wife
and I have been flying around the country in our little plane just
trying to say “What does the current state of the American economy
look like if you’re covering a place like Sioux Falls, South
Dakota, Sioux City, Iowa, Greenville, South Carolina, Allentown,
Not because there’s just been a disaster there like the
gas pipe explosion or not because somebody did a campaign swing
there, but just to say if you’re covering this as a real place,
what does it look like? How do people think about it? That is so
much more interesting.
I think the coverage in the Valley is probably better.
Number one, I may think that because I’m not there. I don’t have
the same intimate exposure to its problems. Second, there’s more
real change, in a sense.
Change in DC is periodic. You and I are talking two days
after a midterm election. Starting two days ago, two days minus one
hour ago, was “what’s going to happen in 2016 elections?”
I think that no prediction about elections should ever be
written or published, because they’re wrong and there’s no
accountability for them. Reporting the polls, that’s fine. The
culture of DC journalism is worse than the culture of Silicon
Valley journalism. I say that knowing nothing about Silicon Valley
journalism, but it can’t be worse.
John: How about this? You adopted tech as a writing tool.
You dove into it because it would help you hone this craft better.
Did you ever feel that it becomes an existential to the craft, to
the craft of journalism, not writing?
James: To the business of journalism. I’ll be precise what I mean
here. We all know that the business of journalism is under threat
for reasons, we all could point to 90 articles on this, the
business of newspapers, in particular.
Let’s have a spectrum. On one side there’s simple business
concerns of keeping your publication, finding a way to pay writers
On the other is the intellectual craft of writing, and
there is a lot of, in my view, horse shit that was fretted about in
the late ’70s and early ’80s about “we’re going to have a certain
ear. It’ll just be different with a screen.”
I think that’s not true. I think if it were true you’d have
some market test for it, that books would be more successful
written by people who didn’t use computers. There’s nobody now that
doesn’t use a computer except some kind of George Will character
who wants to have a quill pen.
I think the market has spoken on the fact that people will
be good or bad writers and have their variety of voices independent
of the medium. For each person there’s a different balance.
In terms of the craft of journalism, I view that as, again,
I categorize that in two ways. One is being able to have people on
the scene, whether it’s in Burkina Faso or Allentown, PA or name
your locale. That, again, is a different version of an old problem.
As far as I can tell, journalism has always had a problem
of paying for reporting. What you would think of as serious
reporting, whether it’s international or state house or
investigative has never paid its way. It’s had to find different
host bodies to latch itself onto.
Whether it was the evening tabloid 100 years ago people
could read in the subway or whether it was, when I was a kid, the
Los Angeles Times was 500 pages per day because it was the only
real way to reach the advertising market of the southern California
basin. Even my hometown was 70 miles from Los Angeles but still it
was the main advertising vehicle.
That continues to change and a new host body needs to be
figured out. We’re in the process of that. I think the craft of
describing the world may actually be improved now. If you have a
combination of professional reporters as as you can find ways to
pay them with the skills they have and real-time, opportunistic
video and reportage.
For example, as we’re speaking, the democracy protest in
Hong Kong or in the recent past, they were covered in a way that
would not have been possible even a decade ago because of all the
Twitter feeds and the on-scene video.
The combination of professional reporters, opportunistic
video, a forum for people who would not have been able to get
through the filter of op-ed pages or whatever else.
You can have some guy at Hong Kong University or some woman
at the University of Seattle say, “I know about Hong Kong and I’m
going to give you my blog posts and people can get to it,” along
with all the other chaff, too.
The news has been….We tend to have a view of it as being tidy and Edward R.
Morrow is giving us the truth. I think it’s always been fairly
chaotic, and the overall chaos may be somewhat better in its
overall mix than what was the case before today.
John: Do you feel that, when you talk about filters, the falling
away of institutions as brands and journalists becoming more brands
than institutions? Is that good? Is that bad?
James: It’s good and bad and different. My meta point here, as I’m
sure you all have inferred, is I have a view of journalism as I do
of America as being like the sea — always changing and yet always
Journalism has always been in some kind of crisis. People
of my vintage, being older than yours, but probably yours, too,
there’s a reason people tend to forget that.
For maybe two decades after World War II there was this
artificial authority and stasis which was not how the news had
normally been. The play, The Front Page, was written the way
it was for a reason. The William Randolph Hearst, “Get me the
picture, I’ll get you the war,” however that slogan goes. That’s
the business we are a part of.
Just as American politics is terrible now and has usually
been terrible. The late 1800s had many of the political problems we
have these days. It doesn’t mean you don’t fight against them.
I think that the falling away of filters makes the news
business different, both better and worse. I think my personal
philosophy is to look for ways to encourage the better.
The Atlantic site, for example, our magazine, the oldest
publication in the United States now — even more than your august
newspaper — has completely repositioned itself to be a successful,
going concern that involves a lot of three-ring-circus-type of
stuff. We have this huge events business which means we spend half
our time not reporting or writing but being emcees or talk show hosts.
We have this website that puts out hundreds of articles per
day, a very small portion of which would have been in The Atlantic
magazine of yore. We have The Atlantic magazine of yore and current
The question is whether the moving average of all of this
can trend in a positive direction. I think that, for our
publication, it does barely. I think for the media, in general,
information has been a “more is better” proposition since the time
of Gutenberg. We’re a part of that movement, too.
John: The interesting thing about the time of the Gutenberg and
this Gutenberg parenthesis that some people talk about is your
relationship with the audience now.
When you began in this work you were on a mountain. You got
a letter in the mail once every three weeks or something like that
from a reader. Now it’s constant. Plus or minus?
James: Both. It’s a huge plus in the sense that, for example, when
I was living in China. I could hear from people both across China
who cared about China in the rest of the world, those in China who
get to a VPN to get around the firewall, in a way that just would
not have been possible back in the olden days.
Even before the Internet, I would get lots of physical
letters from people, but they were slower, it was harder to answer
them, I was less likely to answer them. For me, personally, on
balance it has been a clearly positive thing.
The main negative is the feeling that you never have any
rest. Everybody is a slave to the 10,000 messages you have that, in
theory, you should look at and answer.
I know a lot more about more parts of the world because I
can be in touch with people this way. There was this silly
Panglossian moment in the early days of email where people thought,
‘Oh, you can send a message to anybody. Therefore, anybody’s going
to answer,’ as if there were no finite limit on time.
I think John Seabrook did a piece in “The New Yorker” about
email with Bill Gates who was all, “Oh, Bill Gates answered to my
There’s a finite limit on people’s attention and a finite
limit on people’s time. The fact that you can send an email to
everybody does not mean they can answer all of it. I reached, a
couple years ago, peace with the idea that most email that I get
I’m not even going to look at because I just couldn’t.
But the stuff that I look at is, you may have had some
experience with that part of my operating philosophy yourself,
But it’s necessary, just as in past life you couldn’t see
everybody down the street. On balance, it’s more good than bad, I
John: Do you think that the news business could have ever seen
this coming? Was there anything they could do, this media that
destroyed their world?
James: Yes and no. I’ll say that The Atlantic actually did. We
started a website 20 years ago in 1994. Scott Stossel, who is now
our magazine editor, was just out of college then as a college
He and I, and Gwen Stevenson and Lowell Weiss — they were
all in their 20s, I was then in my 40s — we put together our first
I think that if you want to have a case of somebody that
saw it coming it would be us, probably because of our marginal
existence all the way along. We thought we’ve always had to
scramble to keep going.
Another extreme, I think, would be the poor Washington
Post, which is a tale of 100 unfortunate turns along the way,
including, I think, the big one of whether Don Graham could have
signed on when he became a pal of the “evil” Facebook people. I say
it partly just in quotes but partly not, “attached” the Post to
Facebook, which would have given them permanent existence.
I think if you take the long landscape of incumbent
institutions reacting to fundamentally different technologies, the
news business has done about as well as existing institutions do.
It’s still around.
I have always said, about The New York Times, in
particular, that the Internet is simultaneously making it more
influential than any other single news organization has ever been
and also having the worst business challenges that it’s ever faced.
I think that contradiction will be resolved in favor of the
former. The fact that the New York Times has been allowed by the
Internet to be international dominant, that will be monetizable at
some point, as opposed to the business problems overwhelming the
influence. The Times,like everybody is in the process of figuring that
Is there a counter-example of a business that saw things
coming better than the news business? Saw the Internet?
John: No, I can’t think of one off-hand, especially existing
James: That’s the point. I think, again, I draw this analogy that
the United States is always in decline and yet always dominant. I
would liken the United States to the existing news organization of
having all sorts of challenges but responding to them, in the case
of the US, better than other incumbents have.
The jury’s still out on the Roman Empire, which lasted
longer than the US did, but that’ll take another hundred years.
I think the news business, if you compare it with… There’s a difference with the Big
Three automakers. People needed to buy
cars, you could never get cars for free the way you get news for
free. They had a more manageable challenge, but they were
blindsided by the airlines and had problems.
I think the news business you can bewail the fact that it
was caught by surprise, but show me an incumbent industry that did
a lot better. Except The Atlantic.
John: Last question. Looking back over the 30-odd years, 35
years, you’ve been dipping your toe in these waters, how do you
think we, as journalists, did covering this era?
James: I think, overall, pretty well. To me, because I’ve spent a
lot of my time overseas or in oddball places, I’ve had a two-part
test about journalism, both how I think about it’s being done and
what I should do. The test is, what do I know by being someplace
that I didn’t know just by reading about it?
You always want there to be some gap, because that’s the
arbitrage advantage you have as a journalist, but if there’s too
much of a huge gap you think, ‘What’s wrong with the journalism and
how it’s been casting things the wrong way to me?’
For example, you talk to anybody living in China for the
last five or six years the version of the gap, until about a year
ago, why is everybody talking about China as this world-conquering
superpower when you look around the place is about to fall apart?
What is all this China uber alles stuff?
When it comes to the tech world, I don’t know that there’s
the same kind of gap between what you come to learn about the place
and what we’ve read about it all the way along. It seems to me that
journalism has followed both the technological innovations.
Most people know about Moore’s Law, about Moore’s Law for
10 years. Most people have a sense of some of the ripple
implications. The science sections in the Times and other pages
have done a good job. Most people know all the business drama.
I think this is something that in terms of an ongoing
revolution, journalism has done OK, I think. Is there a strongly
contrary view by other people?
John: There is a somewhat contrary view because they view the
evolution of many of the journalists, they’re viewing it much more
on ground level. You’re stepping back.
They’re almost saying we’ve evolved into much more of a
cheerleading force than a prodding force looking at things. Some of
the anthropological things we’ve fallen down on, is what some of
the people said.
James: I’m sure in the range of journalism there’s been better and
worse, some of the fanzine-type magazines that were there during
the boom. TV has been generally terrible on all of this.
I think that if you wanted to look back over 20 or 30 years
of journalism, was it basically telling you what was going on? I
think it’s basically been telling you what’s been going on, so that
seems OK to me.
John: Great. Thank you very much for…
James: My pleasure.
John: …giving your time.
James: I think my only camera/computer cam session I’ve ever
consented to do.
John: That’s wonderful. Thanks again. I’ll get the
transcript all done and send you a copy. All right. Thank you very