Dot-Com Spy’s Virtual Journalism Makes Big Trouble at New Yorker

It was the magazine debut of the year. Rodney Rothman, a 26-year-old former head writer for The Late Show with David Letterman , became an overnight darling of the print world after The New Yorker published “My Fake Job,” his ode to his brief, aimless stint posing as an employee at an anonymous dot-com company in Manhattan. In the Nov. 27 piece, Mr. Rothman claimed to have walked into a nameless Chelsea Internet company, renamed himself Randy Ronfman, taken a desk, gotten an office massage, sucked down free soda and kvetched with fellow employees–but besides that, did basically jack nothing for two weeks.

Mr. Rothman’s piece, which was immediately seized upon as a hip, hilarious deconstruction of the Internet economy myth, generated enormous buzz for The New Yorker , a publication unused to such rapt attention from techies and glib twentysomethings. A new comic hero was born.

Well, so much for that .

This week, Mr. Rothman’s unbelievable tale was exposed as quite a bit too unbelievable for The New Yorker ‘s taste. Faced with a growing number of questions about Mr. Rothman’s piece and its veracity, the embarrassed magazine quickly distanced itself from “My Fake Job” and its Wunderkind author. In a terse Dec. 11 editors’ note, The New Yorker declared it “does not disguise details or mix fact and fiction without informing the reader (not even in a comic piece like this one), and we sincerely regret the error.”

So how did it get to this? According to sources at The New Yorker , Mr. Rothman’s story came to the magazine’s attention in the middle of the summer, e-mailed in the form of a pitch to the magazine’s editorial director, Henry Finder, by David McCormick, a literary agent for I.M.G. in New York. Later, Mr. McCormick followed up with a more detailed sketch of the piece, featuring some 2,000 words of notes taken during Mr. Rothman’s phony assignment.

Although it was not immediately pegged as such, Mr. Rothman’s piece seemed to be a natural–albeit offbeat–fit for The New Yorker’ s upcoming “Digital Age” special issue, which Mr. Finder oversaw. The question of whether or not Mr. Rothman had committed an ethical transgression by sneaking into the company in the first place was considered, but sources said the point was declared moot because Mr. Rothman had already completed the piece by the time The New Yorker accepted it. The article, which was generally well-written and grammatically clean, was then submitted to the magazine’s fact-checkers.

Confirming the events depicted in “My Fake Job” proved to be a challenge for The New Yorker ‘s vaunted fact-checking department. Since Mr. Rothman had essentially reported his story through subterfuge, it was nearly impossible to corroborate facts by contacting members of the dot-com company, who were not aware they had been duped. As a result, Mr. Rothman himself was relied upon to confirm the essence of his tale–and that, in the end, would prove to be the piece’s undoing.

But when it was first released in mid-November, Mr. Rothman’s story was an unadulterated hit. Praised by media critics far and wide, the piece became the subject of endless speculation as readers tried to guess which one of Manhattan’s Silicon Alley outfits had been snookered. The cherry on top was a report that Mr. Rothman and his representatives were being flooded with interest from Hollywood about a cinematic adaptation of “My Fake Job.”

Mr. Rothman was thrilled about the attention. Having a piece published in The New Yorker represented a career highlight for a precocious writer who had already had his share of pre-30’s highlights, from landing a job with the Letterman show at age 21 to becoming, at age 24, the youngest head writer in the show’s history. Among his many contributions, Mr. Rothman was the mastermind behind Fresh Step, a faux boy band that had launched, Spinal Tap-style, on the Late Show .

Elsewhere, however, Mr. Rothman’s piece wasn’t met with such great enthusiasm. Employees in the New York offices of Luminant Worldwide–a Dallas-based e-business firm that helps companies plan their Internet strategies–began to speculate that Mr. Rothman had infiltrated one of their divisions. Certain passages of “My Fake Job” provided tell-tale clues–the description of a lobby, the text printed on a company T-shirt, the page of Moby Dick stuck on an elevator door. Soon accusations about accuracy and guesses about the location of Mr. Rothman’s opus began plopping onto online message boards such as vault.com and fuckedcompany.com.

The most significant accusation was that Mr. Rothman wasn’t the only Rothman in the building. “I would like to point out one more minor itty-bitty little detail that Mr. Rothman seems to have left out by mistake,” read one Nov. 28 posting on vault.com. “His mommy worked there.”

By then, questions about Mr. Rothman’s piece had begun to filter into The New Yorker ‘s offices on Times Square. Several days after the initial postings on the Internet, the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, began to worry about how fake “My Fake Job” was. He telephoned Mr. Rothman–who was now working in Los Angeles as a writer for a new, still-untitled sitcom by the creators of Freaks and Geeks , developed for Fox by DreamWorks SKG–and asked him if, in fact, his mother had worked at the company he described in the piece. According to Mr. Remnick, Mr. Rothman conceded that yes, mommy worked there.

But that wasn’t really what set off the meticulous author of The Devil Problem and Lenin’s Tomb . Mr. Remnick recalled: “I asked him, ‘If there is anything else in the piece that is problematic, that we need to know … tell me now.'” According to the New Yorker editor, at that point Mr. Rothman said he had changed details and the description of the office to disguise the company.

And there was one more thing: Mr. Rothman admitted he never got that office massage, Mr. Remnick said. Mr. Rothman’s account of the massage had been one of the more evocative passages in the piece. “Melissa’s hands are rubbing my shoulder blades,” he had written. “‘You have a lot of tension in your neck and shoulders,’ she says …. [As] she navigates her knuckles around my back, I meditate blissfully.”

But now pressed, a contrite Mr. Rothman told Mr. Remnick he had, in fact, stood in line for a massage, but actually chickened out at the last minute.

It wasn’t Mike Barnicle or “Jimmy’s World,” but it was enough to push Mr. Remnick to the edge. “What concerned me, above all, was describing something as if it happened and it didn’t happen, and that’s just no good,” Mr. Remnick said. “And the hell of it is there is no excuse for mixing fact and fiction and disguising details without informing the reader, and it doesn’t matter if the piece is comic or not.”

Efforts to contact Mr. Rothman yesterday in Los Angeles were unsuccessful. Messages left at DreamWorks went unreturned, as did messages left with Mr. McCormick, Mr. Rothman’s literary agent.

But Mr. Rothman’s manager, Mr. Minor, defended his client and didn’t seem to know what to make of all the fuss. “Everything was true. There were massages there … he chose not to have one … why that became an issue, I have no idea,” Mr. Minor said.

Added Mr. Minor: “Rodney won’t be getting a job at Dateline , but that’s not what he was setting out to do.”

Meanwhile, executives at Luminant, now convinced they are the company described in “My Fake Job,” are mulling their options. The company’s executive vice president for corporate development, Richard Scruggs, said his colleagues at Luminant found Mr. Rothman’s article amusing at first. But their thoughts quickly turned to the issue of security, and how the author had managed to worm his way into their company without it coming to their attention, he said.

“If he did everything that he said he did in the article, he was trespassing,” Mr. Scruggs said. “And there was disappointment that The New Yorker seemed to condone that kind of behavior.”

The company is now reviewing its security procedures as a result of the piece, he said. And Mr. Scruggs was unable to confirm whether or not Mr. Rothman’s mother had been a Luminant employee, other than to say there had been an employee with the same last name. He was also unable to corroborate a report that Mr. Rothman’s mother was no longer with the company.

As for Mr. Rothman and The New Yorker , that dalliance appears to be over. “You know, I would have to think a thousand times before ever accepting a nonfiction piece from someone after something like this,” Mr. Remnick said. In other words, Rodney Rothman’s once-skyrocketing stock at The New Yorker has been, as they say, de-listed.

After a decade in the media badlands, the Madison, Wis.-based satirical newspaper The Onion is getting ready for the big time.

The Onion is planning to open an office in New York sometime next year. New York distribution of the humor weekly will likely follow, which means that people who have only giggled over The Onion online will be able to pick one up on the street corner along with The Village Voice, New York Press and East Sider . Outside Madison, The Onion is distributed free in Milwaukee, Denver and Chicago.

The Onion ‘s circumspect publicist (based in New York) said, “They are looking to open a New York office. They are looking into having a New York edition.” But staff and sources familiar with The Onion ‘s plans say the editorial staff is already apartment- hunting in New York City.

Ben Karlin, the head writer for Comedy Central’s Daily Show and an Onion alumnus who keeps in touch with the folks in Wisconsin, said, “They’re still going to do what they do, just changing geography.” Mr. Karlin, who worked at The Onion from 1993 to 1996, eventually left for Los Angeles to try to make it as an entertainment writer.

“I think after going through several cycles of rising profile, it’s pretty clear what you can and cannot do based out of Madison, Wis.,” Mr. Karlin said. “Other successful ventures out of non-entertainment cities eventually had to come to Los Angeles or New York and have to deal with the industry.”

Represented by 3 Arts Entertainment, The Onion has, over the last couple of years, been more aggressive about inking book and movie deals. Two Onion books, Our Dumb Century and The Onion’s Finest News Reporting , have both gone on to be best sellers.

Last month, DreamWorks bought the rights to a 700-word fake news story, “Canadian Girlfriend Unsubstantiated”–about a high- school boy who falsely claims to be dating a girl in Canada–as well as a spec script based on the story written by former Onion writer Rich Dahm. In May, DreamWorks also bought the rights to “10th Circle Added to Rapidly Growing Hell” and signed Onion writer Todd Hanson for the script.

Moving along with its ambitious plans to become a player in television news, on Dec. 4 The New York Times announced the appointment of Michael Oreskes, currently the Washington bureau chief, as assistant managing editor responsible for electronic news, a new masthead-level title at the paper.

The creation of the new title and The Times ‘ plans to focus on producing television programming were reported here last week. In a staff memo announcing the promotion, Times executive editor Joe Lelyveld wrote that Mr. Oreskes would “play the leadership role in the newsroom on our various TV initiatives as well as serve as point man on all our joint undertakings with New York Times Digital. Since one of our basic reasons for getting into television is to prepare for the broadband future, there’s an obvious value in having one person constantly targeting our efforts in these two converging spheres.”

Washington editor Jill Abramson will replace Mr. Oreskes as bureau chief when he leaves the post in January.

Less than 12 hours into his new role, Mr. Oreskes said he would “be involved in the planning and the launching” of a New York Times nightly newscast on PBS, jointly produced with MacNeil-Lehrer Productions. “We will want to use the newsgathering and newswriting of The New York Times to make the show special,” he said. The Times and MacNeil-Lehrer are negotiating with an underwriter to finance the show; an anchor will not be hired until the underwriter is secured. For the record, Mr. Oreskes said, he is not in the running.

Mr. Oreskes said he is working with NYT Television, a production company owned by the New York Times Company that produces Trauma: Life in the E.R. , a documentary series about emergency rooms carried by the Learning Channel, and that will produce Science Times for the National Geographic Channel. “It is … our goal to make them more at home in the newsroom,” said Mr. Oreskes, “and make people in the newsroom at home with them, and work them more closely on television that proudly carries the name The New York Times .”

Aside from working on the “Political Points” daily Webcast that is produced by The Times and ABCNews.com, Mr. Oreskes doesn’t have much experience in television. “I’m a newspaper guy,” he said, adding that his new position is about transforming The New York Times from a newspaper to a multimedia news organization.

“[ Times publisher] Arthur [Sulzberger Jr.] has been very clear about the idea that we have to begin thinking of ourselves not as a newspaper,” Mr. Oreskes said, “but a newsgathering and distribution organization that is agnostic about whether we reach our audience through paper or the Internet, or over broadcast or cable television or on the radio.

“Our real core competency is in the gathering and distribution of really high- quality news and information, and what we have to learn to do is achieve the same standards of excellence that we’ve mastered in the production of a newspaper in the production of television programming.”

That statement is a huge shift for The New York Times .

Luckily for Mr. Oreskes, he has plenty of friends in the television world. He said he would be taking tours around the studios of three of the major networks.

For a company that reports on the strengths and weakness of media companies, Inside.com–the all-media Web site that is, according to The New York Times , terrorizing Variety –hasn’t been terribly specific about how it plans to make a business out of itself. Public details about Inside.com’s business have been scarce. On Nov. 26, Inside.com founder Kurt Andersen told the New York Post that in less than a year of existence, the company has already spent about half of the money they’ve raised so far. And a while back, Inside chief executive Deanna Brown told The New York Times that the company fell short of its goal to sell 30,000 subscriptions to the site, which are priced at $200 a year.

So the question remains: How is the site going to make it, especially now that Inside has begun publishing a biweekly magazine? Well, at least for the near-future, Inside.com will be surviving the old-fashioned dot-com way: on venture capital. Last month, the company raised an additional $7 million from its original investors, Flatiron Partners and Chase Capital Partners, as well as Goldman, Sachs & Company, Lehman Brothers, Rho Capital Management and The Industry Standard , which is also a business partner on Inside magazine.

Fred Wilson, a managing partner at Flatiron, said that the new money raised by Inside.com was to help pay for the additional costs of publishing a magazine. “There were some investors who wanted to put more money in than the company was prepared to raise at that time, at that price,” Mr. Wilson said of the initial round of financing. “Then they made the decision to launch the magazine, and they realized that the expenses associated with the magazine were going to increase the capital requirements of the business and that extra capital would finance the magazine.”

Dozens of Internet content companies have gone out of business in recent months–you may have read about them on Inside.com–after being unable to raise new money from investors. Mr. Wilson has seen Flatiron’s investments in some content companies flounder lately–Urban Box Office went out of business and TheStreet.com laid off 20 percent of its staff.

Mr. Wilson said that as long as Inside.com continues to meet its business goals, Flatiron will continue to support it with capital. “You can’t build a profitable media company overnight,” he said. “To get our support … you have to execute. If you start to do what you say you’re going to do, then … we’ll put in more money to finance it. That’s how we’re approaching Inside.com.”