By Kyle Austin
A few weeks ago the blogs were alive with chatter about a call between Steve Jobs and New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. If you didn’t catch the run-in, I can paraphrase by saying, Nocera picked up the phone and heard this from Mr. Jobs:
“You think I’m an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he’s above the law, and I think you’re a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong.”
At the time, I was trying to track down Nocera for a Q&A session and I didn’t get to include his recollection of the call for my post. I finally tracked down Nocera – back from drinking rosé under a walnut tree – and he kindly agreed to answer my questions on his run-in with Jobs, the media industry and his blog.
RaceTalk: So Joe, I guess I have to ask you first if the call from Steve Jobs caught you completely off-guard?
Joe Nocera: It most certainly did catch me off guard. This is the fifth column I’ve written about Apple since starting my column three and a half years ago, and it is the first time Jobs has called me–and the first words out of his mouth also took me by surprise, to say the least. It’s not every day a CEO of a major corporation calls you a slime bucket!
RaceTalk: Some are blaming you for letting him talk off the record and spin another story – in the form of an ambush call. In my mind it seems to be a flawed PR strategy and one that is going to alienate every reporter they view as neutral or friendly. It also doesn’t read well when played back in a column like yours. As for his opening remark to you, when was the last time the two of you spoke? During your Fortune days? In reading your stories earlier this year and late last year on the iPhone and backdating scandal it doesn’t appear like you chatted?
JN: I don’t know what an “ambush call” really means. Certainly, if he was trying to talk me out of writing the column, it didn’t work. If he was trying to keep me from saying he had another bout with cancer, well, I wasn’t going to say that anyway: my own reporting suggested that that hadn’t happen. I think he was trying to turn a potential adversary into a potential ally–by whispering in my ear, he would somehow be co-opting me, and in-so-doing, turn the argument I was going to make in my column in his favor. But I strongly disagree with his central belief–that he and only he has a right to know about his health. So while I listened respectfully–and made several attempts after the call to get part of it on the record–he didn’t sway my views. I’ve answered some of this already, but to be clear: I never spoke to Jobs either while at Fortune or at the New York Times (until a few weeks ago). At Fortune, I edited several stories about him, but it was always the reporter–and sometimes John Huey–who spoke to him. I did write a story about him in 1986, for Esquire, which is reprinting in my new book, Good Guys and Bad Guys. I spend a week with him as he was starting up NeXT, and he was incredibly accessible, even though he wasn’t selling anything. It was an amazing experience, but one that I’ll never have again–and I doubt any other journalist will either. Jobs now only makes himself available when he has a new product to peddle.
RaceTalk: You recently launched your new blog on the New York Times Website, which you have named “Executive Suite.” Can you talk about what your hope is for the new blog and how it will assist in keeping the dialogue going with your readers?
JN: The blog does several things: it allows me to write shorter pieces in which I can throw out ideas or comments without having to fully develop them as I have to do with the column. It allows me to comment much more than once a week, too, which is nice because there are often points I want to make about something in the news, but have no forum to make them. Now I do. And I think it does wonders for my dialogue with readers. Before the blog, readers had to send email comments to me directly–and I would wind up having 100 conversations a week that were two-way only. Now they can comment on the blog, and readers can interact with each other. It makes for a much better debate and discussion, and I’m enjoying reading all the comments–even the ones that aren’t very nice to me!
RaceTalk: What is your overall thought on the changing media landscape? Do you fear that someday “America’s paper of record” will only be available online?
JN: Someday, some newspaper will go online only, but it won’t be the New York Times–not for a very long time. There is still a lot of loyalty to the paper version of the Times, and it still generates a lot more advertising than the online paper, despite the shrinking ads in all newspapers. What’s really happening here is that there is a melding of the Website and the newspaper, as the Times becomes increasingly “platform agnostic”. The point is to get the best stories in print as quickly as possible–and that matters a lot more than whether they appear online or in the newspaper.
RaceTalk: A few weeks ago I was at Fortune Brainstorm: TECH, with some of your former colleagues, and one of the big general themes was a change in corporate thinking around utilizing customers to shape where the business is going. Michael Dell spoke about what they are doing with Dell’s IdeaStorm and the “My Starbucks Idea” example was tossed around. What’s your thought on corporate willingness to exchange in this new type of discussion and what have you heard from CEO’s on this potential change?
JN: I haven’t really heard much from other CEO’s about this kind of discussion–then again, I haven’t really asked. I’ll start looking into it. Thanks for the blog tip!