Turned Off by the New York Times

Question: What was your first job at the New York Times like? 

Michael Wolff: Well it was the only job I ever wanted to have, I wanted to work for the New York Times and that seemed to me the zenith of anything that you could accomplish and so I was quite pleased to have gotten this job. Now, oddly for the zenith of all things to accomplish, I sent them a letter and said I'd like a job and 24 hours later I got a phone call from them and they said, "When can you start?" 

So life was different at that point in time. But I just felt on top of the world when I got this job and I arrived there and within 10 minutes I knew that this was all wrong. I had miscalculated everything. I never experienced a more depressing place, and I can remember it still vividly of gray filled with smoke up and row upon row of editors all seemingly with facial tics. And I thought, not only if this is not for me but if this is life I knew I was not going to make it. 

Question: Did you learn anything there? 

Michael Wolff: You know, I'm struggling now to remember. What could I have possibly learned except the really most important thing, which is that I did not want to work at the New York Times? Beyond that, I learned how a newspaper works. I learned that a whole set of skills which have not been the least useful in my professional life. 

Question: How did your story on Patty Hearst jumpstart your career? 

Michael Wolff: Reaching back. I was working at the New York Times ruing every second of my life, thinking how was I ever going to get out of here, and thinking that one could only do it the way newspaper people have always done it. I needed a scoop and I would go out and I would dream upon coming upon fires or the sky falling in front of me or anything. And lo and behold, one day my mother called me; my mother was a newspaper reporter herself, and she said, "Did you see the news?" I said, "I probably had but what did she have in mind." And she said Angela DeAngeles, who was a girl who grew up with me in my hometown of 7,000 people in New Jersey kidnapped Patty Hurst. "She's the girl who kidnapped Patty Hearst," my mother said. And I said "Whoa!" and my mother said, "This is your article!" which had not crossed my mind. And I kind of just stopped and I thought, "My God, maybe it is." The newsroom at that time at the New York Times was on the 3rd floor and I ran up to where the magazine was, the New York Times Magazine, which was, if I remember correctly, the 9th floor. I knew one of the editors there and I went and I was very young; I was 19 years old actually. I quickly told him this story and he said, "Okay. We'll commission it." 

And that was it. And I wrote this story; it actually turned out to be a very successful story and I sold the movie rights and it gave me actually the wherewithal to leave the Times and become a freelance magazine writer, which I seem to have been ever since.

Recorded on May 19, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

Michael Wolff remembers his first time walking into the "depressing, smoke-filled" newsroom after he was hired—and knowing it wasn't a place where he wanted to work.

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