Ta-Ta to ‘Teetering Tabloids’: Keith Kelly Signs Off
The happiest man in Midtown Manhattan last Monday morning might have been Keith J. Kelly, the longtime media columnist for The New York Post. It was the first day of his retirement and he was puffing on a Cohiba while perambulating down West 55th street.
“I’m actually surprised how good it feels,” he said, beaming. “Normally I’d be like, ‘Oh, crap, the editors are calling me.’ But now? I got all the time in the world.”
And yet here he was, spending it with a newspaper reporter, back at Michael’s, the power lunch spot favored by the media elite whom Mr. Kelly, 66, chronicled for his 23 years at The Post. He stubbed out his cigar on the restaurant’s brick wall, walked inside and plopped down at a primo table usually given to the money men Jim Chanos and Paul Singer.
“I do feel like I went out on a winning note,” said Mr. Kelly, sipping an iced tea.
His column, Media Ink, appeared on Wednesdays and Fridays and became a must-read for many in Manhattan, especially those in magazine publishing. It was where you might find out that your editor in chief was about to get “the ol’ heave-ho,” to use Kelly parlance, or that the publication you worked for was getting sold.
“You would dread seeing that he called, he just had sources everywhere,” said Janice Min, the former editor of Us Weekly, and later The Hollywood Reporter, in a phone interview. “When I worked for Jann Wenner, Keith became obsessed with Jann’s clean-office manifestoes, which caused huge panic, and I would often learn about the coming desk inspections in Keith’s column before the company memo would even land on my desk.”
Mr. Kelly’s favorite subjects were the feared and fabulous editors of Condé Nast, the ones known by just their first names: Tina, Graydon and Anna.
“All I remember is how many times I just got through the door in the predigital days, only to pick up the phone and have his voice asking me why someone had quit,” said Tina Brown, who edited Vanity Fair and then The New Yorker. “The trouble was his biggest source at Condé was Steve Florio, the president, so half the time he knew stuff before any of the people concerned. He covered Condé so much that he was attuned to everyone’s habits and schedules, so he knew that when Si Newhouse went away for the Christmas holidays in Vienna, he would come back dying to fire people and did. Keith would start calling around on Jan. 2.”
Mr. Kelly, his white hair tousled and his blue polo shirt rumpled, recalled those days with relish. “I used to love the fact that Condé Nast used to run their entire company based on what The Post would say about their company,” he said, with a rascally laugh.
Time Inc. was also paying attention. Jim Kelly, the former top editor of Time magazine (and no relation) and now at Air Mail, said: “The genius of Keith Kelly is that he treated the media beat as a police beat. He was available 24-7, he had good guys and he had bad guys. And he always wanted to make people into characters and give them nicknames.”
Asked who the good guys were, Keith Kelly said simply, “The guys that would give me stories first.” (The other Mr. Kelly confessed that, when he ran Time, “I’d always try to give him something that I heard about Newsweek.”)
Ms. Min said that in many ways, Mr. Kelly “served as a surrogate for people who wanted their vendettas to play out through his column.” More than one editor has compared Mr. Kelly to a jolly version of J.J. Hunsecker, the voracious, rat-a-tat newspaperman of “Sweet Smell of Success,” who sees a brawl and drawls, “I love this dirty town.”
But Mr. Hunsecker had the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster. Mr. Kelly described his own reporting philosophy as: “I only use a rumor story if I believe the rumor is true, and then you can deny it, but if my gut tells me it’s true, I’m going to run it with a denial.”
‘Wow, That’s a Good Scoop’
Mr. Kelly would ride his bike to the Post newsroom each morning from his rent-stabilized apartment in Stuyvesant Town, the housing complex on the East Side, where he has lived “since forever,” and where his brother lives as well.
Mr. Kelly lives with his wife, Pat Walsh, a nurse at Sloan Kettering who came from the village of Knocknagoshel, in County Kerry, Ireland. He has three sons; one a marine, one a lifeguard, and one a bartender. “All throwbacks,” their father said.
One gets the feeling that, if he could, Mr. Kelly would eat newsprint for breakfast. The son of a pressman for The Daily News, Mr. Kelly was born in Brooklyn and delivered the papers as a boy. His very first scoop came in 1980, and it was a big one.
Interested in the sectarian conflict raging in Northern Ireland then, he decamped to Belfast to try his hand as a freelance foreign correspondent. Soon afterward, a source close to the Irish Republican Army told him that a hunger strike was being planned within the walls of the detention center of Long Kesh.
Mr. Kelly’s report, headlined “Jailed N. Irish to Use Hunger” went out on the Catholic News Service wire, helping to break the story. This hunger strike and subsequent ones, during which Bobby Sands, Raymond McCreesh and others died, became some of the most enduring episodes of the Troubles.
Mr. Kelly’s scoop earned him just $50, but it paid dividends 17 years later, in 1997, when he landed an interview with Pete Hamill, a champion of Irish America and the editor of The Daily News at the time. “Pete was going through all my clips and he said, ‘Wow, that’s a good scoop,’ and it helped me get the job,” said Mr. Kelly, still proud.
He displayed Irish loyalty for Mr. Hamill. One night, in 1997, a former Fleet Street editor named Wendy Henry (nickname: “the badger”) turned up at a News party, still smarting over some tabloid beef, and threw a drink in Mr. Hamill’s face. Seeing this, Mr. Kelly quickly whipped up an unholy concoction — “it was, like, crème de menthe, the cheapest whiskey, some Kahlúa and cream,” he said — to dump on Ms. Henry in retaliation. But a colleague grabbed him and warned that he would end up on Page Six, the Post’s gossip column.
He did ultimately land at The Post, but a few pages away, poached in 1998 and given a media column after reporting a juicy item that its owner, Rupert Murdoch, was dumping his $2 billion stake in TV Guide. (He then began referring to The News as a “teetering tabloid.”)
Does Mr. Kelly have a relationship with Mr. Murdoch? “He kind of knows who I am,” said Mr. Kelly, slurping up gazpacho. “And that’s all you want. You only want him to be dimly aware of who you are, you don’t want him calling you up.”
How about sending a laudatory message through a representative? “Keith defined the industry he covered,” wrote Mr. Murdoch, whom Mr. Kelly in fact was known to buttonhole boldly in elevators and shake down for information like anyone else. “He worked stories hard, as his sources well know, always unabashed to report the truth. I’m grateful to him and wish him the best in retirement.”
Mr. Murdoch is sentimental about print newspapers, which can be pesky to manage and difficult to draw a profit from. Some readers worry that, once he’s gone, The Post will go too.
But not Mr. Kelly. “I’m thinking Lachlan has more of a connection to The Post and newspapers than a lot of people think,” he said, referring to Rupert Murdoch’s son and heir apparent. Both he and James Murdoch, his brother, grew up in New York, Mr. Kelly reminded: “Guys at The Post before me said when they were down there on South Street, Rupert would come into the paper on Saturday and bring James with him, and he’d run all over the newsroom, knocking stuff over. So, they have printer’s ink in their veins.”
King for 24 Hours
Mr. Kelly came up in an age when a handful of glamorous editors in glittering towers told the country how to eat, think and dress. Today’s media landscape is an artless and unsexy place by comparison, a lowveld of SPACs and substacks. Newsletters badly in need of editing lard inboxes, while journalists spend their days flinging mud on Twitter. As Ms. Brown put it, “He will be sorely missed, but the world he covered has vanished into the mists of time.”
What does Mr. Kelly think, watching his beloved industry go all Axios to the maxios? “People want personalities, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” he said. “There’s a new force going up with digital publishing, but it’s more diffuse.”
“Anna and David are probably the last two of that ilk,” Mr. Kelly went on, referring to the chieftains of Vogue and The New Yorker. Of Condé Nast, he said, “It would not surprise me if it gets sold within the next two years.” That’s when Ms. Wintour would bow out, he predicted.
“The thing is,” he said, “She’s still the most well-known person in the fashion world. Roger Lynch is the C.E.O., but if he makes an ad sales call, Ralph Lauren or whatever, they don’t care. He’s a guy in a suit.” Mr. Kelly recalled Steve Florio, who “had a bit of a personality, so they kind of cared. But Anna, they still care about.”
Kirk Douglas as Charles Tatum in “Ace in the Hole” said about newspapering that even if you’ve got “a good story today, tomorrow they’ll wrap a fish in it.” Mr. Kelly observed how Twitter has accelerated that dynamic. When he started, he said, if you had a great story “you’d have 24 hours where you were the king. Now, you got an hour before everybody catches up.”
He sympathized with all the midlevel editors ditching publishing to toil in the content mines of Silicon Valley and for Netflix’s in-house magazine and whatever other ventures are being cooked up by the Lords of the Cloud, but wondered: “Is it fun? Is it exciting? Working at a tech company — ‘Oh, I’m the chief content officer of something’ — nah, that sounds like a boring as hell job to me!”
Mr. Kelly said one of his “dreams” is to buy a hyperlocal newspaper that covers his part of town. “I think it’d be fun,” he said. “I got young reporters that I could hire, and plus I would do such a better job than the current management.” He doesn’t want to name the publication he’s got in mind, because that could “jack up the price” or “get some other chain swooping in.”
What would he cover? “There’s a lot of commotion down there,” he said, “the Little League just had a tremendous season.”
But first he is setting off on a different adventure. An old high school friend and former clown for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus would meet him on the Hudson River in the morning. They planned to sail down the coast to Virginia. “For some reason he’s going to Richmond,” Mr. Kelly said. “I don’t know why, maybe they got cheap docks.”
His phone started to buzz. “If this were the old days, I would have had to answer this,” Mr. Kelly said. He put the phone back in his pocket and ordered chocolate chip cookies instead.
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