Chris Rovzar ’03 exemplifies a new breed of media personality. Rovzar just finished a four-year tenure as a senior online editor for New York Magazine’s Daily Intel. He writes amusing, original content that rarely goes more than a paragraph without a pop culture reference (or seven). He is written about on key online news sources. He’s on the cusp of his thirties. All of this adds up to make him uniquely qualified for a successful career in web journalism.
Together with Jessica Pressler, Rovzar was critical in the development of Daily Intel, and starting next week, he is set to head up Vanity Fair’s Web presence. This is a departure for the ages. “Intel Chris” and “Intel Jessica” made their mark with popular analyses of everything from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the hit television show “Gossip Girl” (or, as Daily Intel puts it, “The Greatest Show of All Time”). Now, Rovzar has moved on.
But before the success and prominence, Rovzar was just making his way down Cross Campus like any of us, panicking about finding a QR or a finishing an Arts & Living story for the News (he is a former A&L editor). WEEKEND spoke to the rising star about turning news into narrative, the value of snark and how he finds the same things funny now as he did when he was a college kid.
Q. Daily Intel isn’t as established an institution as The New York Times, but many consider it their primary news source. How did you achieve that status?
A. We strove to make it so that if, in an ideal world, there were someone who only read Daily Intel, that person could be well-informed and have good conversations. We focused on making the news entertaining and cutting out the extras.
This took a lot of hard work. Four years ago, when Jessica and I started at Daily Intel, it was a blog about New York municipal news, like transit strikes or subway station closures. We changed that – we decided to shift the focus to personalities. That meant that, for instance, instead of writing about the MTA as a whole, we would talk about the commissioner. Or that we used Mayor Bloomberg to represent City Hall. So we created a narrative of characters who basically became our Daily Intel characters. We then broadened our base, discussing national news, financial issues, etc., and that led us to major news stories.
Q. Did you face any opposition from the old guard?
A. We sat down with the editor-in-chief of the magazine to discuss our idea. And we found that it dovetailed with the way that the print magazine covered news. I mean, this style can be viewed suspiciously by people who haven’t read many blogs before. It can seem flippant about what are important matters. But people seemed to embrace our voice. It spread to Vulture [New York’s blog on the entertainment industry] and other parts of the site. Sounding affectionately amused really caught on.
Q. That kind of humor can often lead to inflammatory comments about key people. How do you walk the line between poking fun at someone and being excessive?
A. The thing is that we only write about true stuff. When everything’s true, it’s much easier to avoid pissing people off. And it can lead you to a method of being funny without being too harsh. At Daily Intel, we have a great love for the people we write about. There are sites, like Gawker, that people see as “cruel” and “snarky” (though I personally don’t see snarkiness as all that negative). But we’ve never encountered situations like that.
Q. Your “affectionately amused” Daily Intel posts touched on a range of topics. Which was your favorite to write about?
A. I’ve done some of my most fun writing for Daily Intel. But it’s also … very important that it’s allowed me to be serious. Covering the legalization of gay marriage in New York for the blog was very meaningful for me. I’m gay, and I volunteered for the pro-marriage equality group [called] Empire State Agenda. Still, there was never an issue about conflict of interest. The magazine never even questioned how “right” marriage equality is. I appreciated that. [Still,] we did give all sides, even [those which] some might consider “bigoted.”
Generally, I just like finding fun in ridiculous situations. The race to be the Republican nominee [for president] has been a great one. So are many incidents involving crazy media personalities. And I love quirky stories about, say, animals [for example, Rovzar extensively investigated a panhandler dressed as a sad panda] or weird crimes.
Q. Were you ever worried about only attracting a niche audience?
A. That’s a great thing about New York. I was never forced to imagine a stereotypical reader. And I’ve never heard of the magazine asking people to write certain pieces just [to accumulate] more hits, which I hear happens at a lot of other news outlets. And we do actually have some conservative readers. The essential focus for the blog was something Jessica or I would like to read ourselves. That often overlapped with what many well-read people are interested in. So, while I don’t know that our magazine will ever be very important in Omaha, I would emphasize that its appeal is really not limited. The vast majority of our readers and subscribers are outside the city. What we really attract are the people who want to know what people in New York are thinking, who see the city as this central place the way I did as a kid in Maine, and who want to kind of feel like a New Yorker.
Q. One characteristic of Daily Intel – and many other more humorous news blogs – is its coterie of loyal commenters. How do you feel about them?
A. I guess “loyal” is one word for it. [Mo]st of them are from outside New York and are very intelligent. A couple of conservatives post regularly, and so that can launch spirited debates. After a while, you just get to know them really well: I can recognize a post by rebeccarose, one of our oldest commenters, and the bratty Upper-East-Sider persona of sacrcasticmeow. I know that seamus99 loves cats. But what can be problematic is that commenters can get an inflated sense of ownership of a site because they participate so aggressively.
Q. Looking to the future, what’s your vision for Vanity Fair’s website? Their style tends to be more serious than that of Daily Intel.
A. I would hesitate to talk about a “vision” just yet. But it’s a very different situation from Daily Intel, even though we basically cover the same thing, which is power. They have a lot of great original content. And their VFDaily, which is written by the obscenely young Juli Weiner, is very funny and similar to Daily Intel. For me, though, the experience will definitely be really different. It’ll be less writing and a lot more steering and decision-making. That’s something I’m very excited about.
Q. Is it difficult to move between two institutions with different philosophies? Do you feel like it influences you in some way?
A. I’ve worked at various places, including my last employer, the New York Daily News, and you know what? It hasn’t changed me. I still find the same things funny [now] as I did when I was 22.
Q. That makes me think about how recently you graduated – just eight years ago. What’s it like to be a Yalie in the media industry today?
A. There [are] a bunch of Yalies from my class in the industry now, many of whom are far more successful than myself. They include the Washington Post’s Obama reporter, a girl who writes for The Times and someone who won a Pulitzer for their work at the Boston Globe.
I’ve never gotten a job through a Yalie, but I have heard about this working out. And everywhere I go, I find Yalies to work with.
A huge amount of people from my graduating class went into banking, law – the paths that are set out for so many of us. The people who just plow through with journalism really make me proud.
Q. Yet many still see writing professionally as an unreliable career choice. What’s your message to the hundreds of Yalies who want to make it in journalism? Are they doomed?
A. I think they need to think about three things:
1) The connections they make. These can be critical in finding where jobs are and securing them.
2) There are jobs … for young people who want to get into the industry. News organizations, especially those with strong web components, need young people who know how the Internet works and how they should speak to their audience. The average age of the people I’ve hired over the last few years is definitely under 26. So take it from me: you can get a job where people see and recognize your work. In fact, that step might be even easier today; you’ll rarely have to … start off as an assistant.
3) Start a blog; that’s what I did. I wrote it for my friends, and when New York [Magazine] asked for a writing sample, I handed them some posts. That’s the way to make your quips and really show people and employers your voice.
The way the Web has developed has really helped young people. And there is a wave that people like you should ride.