On Media Rivalry

When the news of the death of Josh Ozersky came across Twitter on Monday night, this tweet encapsulated the place my mind went: to the pleasure of having a good rival in media. In memory and honor of Josh, some thoughts on that era, and the value our rivalry created for all of us.

At Eater, we knew Grub Street was coming long before it was called Grub Street. Or even existed. That’s because New York Magazine had signaled its intention in the space by making an offer to buy Curbed and Eater early in 2006. It was incredibly flattering but not the right fit at the time — a story for another day — but we understood that Adam Moss and his team saw the value in restaurant blogging and that they would likely pursue it regardless of whether they bought Eater. And so for Ben Leventhal and I it became a parlor game, to ferret out whatever information we could about what they were working on at NYMag.

One day Ben came up with the scoop. “They’ve hired Cutlets. Mr. Cutlets!” I didn’t know who that was, but Ben did: Mr. Cutlets was Josh Ozersky, a meat expert and sort-of-known food writer who went by that handle. We girded for battle, and then it came. Grub Street launched on September 18, 2006.

Except we didn’t refer to it as Grub Street on Eater. Ever. We called it Cutlets. Like, “Cutlets has the word that…” or “According to Cutlets…” This amused us to no end. “I remember it was very obvious that we were going to nickname it Cutlets — and would have continued calling it that long after his departure if Ben Williams didn’t make a personal appeal to us to call it Grub Street,” Ben recalled to me earlier today via GChat.

Ben also reminded me that on Grubz’ launch day, Cutlets promised posts ON THE HOUR. Given Eater’s semi-leisurely pace at this point in September 2006, this scared the shit out of us — but also gave Leventhal the fuel to do what he does so well. “BREAKING: Cutlets Misses Noon Post, 1 PM in Question,” screamed an Eater headline. “Other NYM servers appear to be stable. If anyone has info as to Cutlets’ whereabouts, and if he’s hurt in any way, please let us know and/or call the authorities.”

Man. The things rivalries drive you to do. (This still makes me laugh hysterically, btw.)

It’s often talked about how having rivals pushes you to a higher level, certainly in sports, but yes, for sure in media too. Students of Nick Denton’s memos over the years can trace the way with which he cannily sets new rivals as a way to motivate his troops. (It’s flattering that Vox Media was positioned with Buzzfeed as Gawker’s top rivals in his December 2014 “Back to Blogging” screed.)

But let’s be real: the marketplace clearly has room for Buzzfeed and Vox Media and Gawker Media, as well a bunch of other big digital media properties that have reached scale. We’re still going to fight tooth-and-nail, of course, because we are better than the next company on this list. (Fact.) But when rivalry is at its most intense is when it appears that the marketplace may not have room for more than one winner. When failure is an option, and maybe the more likely one. When it’s you or them.

Which is why Grub Street’s launch led us to up Eater’s game. I know from conversations long after the fact with Ozersky that this was probably harder on him than it was on us: Ben and I loved cranking out short hits, while Josh’s style was longer-form; getting used to the blogging grind is really hard. But for better or worse, for the next couple years, our metabolism soared as we worked liked crazy to get every scoop onto Eater as quickly as possible to beat the other guy. Every minute mattered. Hell, every second mattered.

“In that frame,” Ben continues, “I will say that 100% were it not for the arrival of Cutlets on the scene, I would have been much more lax about Eater’s pace. We needed Cutlets to, as I put it in an email to Peter Meehan, dated 12/4/06, ‘Get the blood flowing.’”

In the end, both Eater and Grub Street found their place in the ecosystem, and both thrived. But it’s a telling point about the power of rivalries that I can’t tweet a Grub Street link to this day.

The Grub Street-Eater rivalry never ended for Ozersky, either. Just a few weeks ago, after reading my interview with Lucky Peach in which I bragged about how Eater had beaten Grub Street on the opening of The Dutch in summer 2010, he couldn’t resist tweeting back at me:

Great rivalries never die. But great competitors, unfortunately, do. RIP, Josh Ozersky.

UPDATE: Here’s a great bookend to my story, on the early days of Ozersky and Grub Street as seen from the opposite trenches, by Daniel Maurer. And there you have it: I have linked to Grub Street.