Fall 2013

Friends and rivals

Decades after Pipe Dream, they’re on assignment in Hong Kong

Feature Image
Tom DiFonzo
Ken Brown ’86, left, studied art and design at Binghamton. Gerry Mullany ’84 was a history major.

Gerry Mullany ’84 and Ken Brown ’86 worked together at Pipe Dream in the early 1980s, both becoming editor in chief as seniors. Now they are in Hong Kong, working for rival news organizations: Gerry is on temporary assignment running The New York Times’ Web coverage of Asia, and Ken is the Hong Kong bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.

Binghamton University Magazine asked them to sit on the other side of the interview for a change.

Q: How did you become friends?

Gerry: Through our work on Pipe Dream, spending many late nights at the office. And we were neighbors in Johnson City. I lived on Willow Street in a house with people from WHRW, and Ken lived in a Pipe Dream house on North Broad Street and then on Corliss Avenue.

Ken and I worked at the Fire Island News after college, then we worked together at United Press International and then at The New York Times. This craziness stopped about a decade ago when he went to The Wall Street Journal. When I got the Hong Kong job, he e-mailed me saying he was already here. I hope he gets assigned to Paris next.

Ken: I started at the paper as a photographer when I was a freshman. Gerry was one of the top editors already, and I was completely intimidated. Like the other Pipe Dream editors, he looked like he hadn’t slept all semester and had subsisted on the legendary midnight food runs that the Pipe Dream staff used to get them through the night.

Q: What was your best Pipe Dream story?

Gerry: I didn’t do it, but during my time there, we published all the professors’ salaries, which got everyone very mad. Now all that information is online.

Ken: That was a great story. We recently met President Harvey Stenger in Hong Kong and he even mentioned it. I wrote a few investigative pieces for the paper, but my favorite was a story I wrote with Adam Weipert on Binghamton’s worst landlords. We convinced the city housing code officer to let us search his files, and we had access to every complaint about every landlord. Some of them were pretty outrageous. The story caused a huge stir in the city.  

Q: And your worst Pipe Dream story?

Gerry: I have a career to protect, so on the record, I never did a bad story.

Ken: It was one of my first stories at Pipe Dream, and I had a clear conflict of interest, which violates one of the basic rules of journalism. I was covering an annual grant giveaway by Off Campus College, which funded worthy programs on campus and in town. At the time, I was volunteering for an organization in town that offered apprenticeships to local students. They asked me to represent them at the meeting and present their request. We got the grant, but my story was critical of the process, which was not very rigorous, especially because they were giving away student money. Off Campus College complained, and I think we ran a correction or explanation in the paper. It was a good lesson, and I still deal with similar conflicts with my staff.

Q: Print or web?

Gerry: The Web is far better, because it means millions of new readers, but you have to work harder and be quicker off the mark. Ten years ago we had fewer than 100,000 readers in Asia, reading our sister paper, the International Herald Tribune. Now we have millions; Japan and South Korea are among our top five markets in terms of mobile readership.

Ken: Gerry’s right, The Wall Street Journal Asia edition has a small circulation. On the Web we get millions of readers every month, and we publish in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other languages. We know that our next million readers are more likely to come from Asia than the United States. Being out here means trying to figure out what Asian readers want. I pretty much know what American readers want, but I don’t claim to know much about what a Chinese businessman or a Japanese government official wants to read.

Q: You work at rival news outlets. Are there are other rivalries between you?

Gerry: Institutionally, yes, and when we’re hanging out Ken will walk away and hide when taking a call from work, but there’s enough market share for both of us here. If you’re in the business world you have to read the Journal, and if you’re a news junkie into general-interest news, ditto the Times.

Ken: The Times is a must-read for me every day, and if we get scooped by them, it’s a bad day in the bureau. That’s especially true in my area, which is business and finance, because that’s not their top priority. Same is true if we scoop them on a big Washington story. We compete more now that the Journal spends more time covering general news and has a New York section. That was a real broadside at the Times and it’s been fun to watch the rivalry. I know I don’t tell Gerry what we’re working on, and I’m sure he keeps lots of secrets from me.

Q: What part of your job do you struggle with?

Gerry: I do some reporting, and it’s a sharp learning curve. The other day I did a piece on the Mongolian elections, and let me tell you, the issues are far different from a Republican primary. Every country is different out here, which makes the job fascinating.

Ken: Explaining what’s going on in Asia to a global audience that knows what’s going on in general terms but doesn’t have time to learn the details. We need to tell them what is important and why. At the same time, we have to write stories that have meaning to Asian readers.

Q: What impact did Binghamton have on your career?

Gerry: Binghamton doesn’t have a journalism school, but it always turned out more than its share of really good journalists. David Kocieniewski graduated around the time I did and won a Pulitzer for the Times last year. It’s a campus of smart, nosy New Yorkers, so that’s why you get people like Tony Kornheiser from ESPN.

Ken: Binghamton didn’t really prepare me for living abroad. I wish there had been more opportunities to learn about the world — I might have moved overseas sooner. For my career, Pipe Dream was the best training. The stories I wrote got me my first job.

Q: Favorite class or professor?

Gerry: German history by Professor George Stein and a political economy course that was a critique of free-market economics. The professor would ask, “They can put a man on the moon but they can’t make a razor that won’t wear out? Because it’s not in the corporation’s interest.” I always think about that while shaving.

Charles Eldred was my drawing teacher; he talked slow and had a gravelly voice, probably because of all the cigarettes he smoked in class. I also liked astronomy, taught by Professor Robert Pompi. Everyone thought it would be a joke science course, but he treated it as a serious physics class and made us work hard. I briefly thought about becoming a physics major after that class.

Q: If you were 18 again, what would you study?

Gerry: Languages and arts courses, and computer courses and statistics — since they’re great for the job market.

Ken: Definitely languages. When I hire, I always put reporters who speak different languages ahead of others. Economics is important because it gives you tools to understand big changes in the world. And math. The general public, reporters included, are woefully ignorant of numbers and what they mean.
Q: Do you have a chance to hang out?

Gerry: We see each other once or twice a month.
Ken: Hong Kong is such a busy place, so you
need to make time to see people. We often meet at the historic Foreign Correspondents Club. When President Stenger was here, he hosted his dinner at the club. We also hike together. People don’t realize Hong Kong has these amazing mountains right inside the city. We love talking about stories, but there’s so much news we don’t need to talk about the things we’re working on. And there’s enough journalism gossip between our own newspapers and the rest of the media industry to keep us busy.