The adventure began the summer Mr. Guo graduated from Yale. “Before college, I had never been outside the country, well, except before I moved here,” Mr. Guo explained. His family moved to America when Mr. Guo was six, and he spent his youth mostly in Greer, South Carolina. He showed a aptitude for computers early on, winning an award in 2003 from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, for creating a novel spam-filtering algorithm. At Yale, he studied economics. But after college, the diligent student transformed into a globe trotting adventurer.
As Mr. Guo explained in an interview with the local blog We Are NY Tech, the day after graduation, he flew to Amsterdam, then on to Tehran, where he’d agreed to teach a class on entrepreneurship at the University of Tehran. Due to the growing unrest, the class was cancelled.
“I ended up couchsurfing for the summer, working at a local hedge fund by day while running with the Iranian youth opposition by night,” he wrote. “I started writing about my time with them, and in the process accidentally became the last Western journalist in Iran.”
The clips Mr. Guo landed during his summer in Tehran earned him a spot at Newsweek International, where, according to Newsweek staffers, he was personally recruited by the newly appointed Fareed Zakaria.
Mr. Guo was, depending on whom you ask, an intern, a fellow, a correspondent, a staff reporter or a compulsive liar. “He was a strange egg, that’s for sure,” said a former staffer who worked with him. “He would disappear for weeks at a time, then call up saying he had an interview with Hugo Chavez or pirates in Africa. Then he would be back at the office, I would see him sleeping under his desk. People joked he was a spy.”
Mr. Guo arrived at Newsweek during a troubled time. The venerable magazine was losing large sums of money and shedding staff. Talks of a takeover rattled bull-pen morale. “It was kind of crazy, for sure,” Mr. Guo told The Observer. “They needed a young guy like me who would go anywhere, produce a lot of copy and not worry too much about whether my job would still be waiting for me when I got back.”
More than 30 pieces from this time now appear on the Newsweek/Daily Beast website. They are an odd mix of reportage: international conflicts and human rights on one hand, luxury lifestyle coverage on the other. A piece on the Russian occupation of Georgia sits next to a story on a $10,000 ski trip at an five-star Helsinki hotel. A interview with Chinua Achebe on Nigeria’s future is paired with a feature on luxury hunting resorts in South Africa.
“I worked for a section at Newsweek called The Good Life,” explained Mr. Guo. “It was basically, you know, advertorial content that they would pair with some really expensive ads.” Newsweek International, short on reporters, was hungry for content and revenue. Mr. Guo would buy a plane ticket and head off. “Basically I would just do things and worry later about expensing them.”
In addition, Mr. Guo would often claim a story had been assigned in exchange for free flights, hotel stays and merchandise. “I didn’t have an apartment, so it was always nicer to be on a plane or in a hotel,” said Mr. Guo, who confirmed that he would crash under his desk during his rare visits to New York.
“Sometimes if I wanted to make a trip work, I would just figure out a way to get The Good Life involved,” he said. “So I wanted to go to Tibet and report on the conflict there with China. You couldn’t get into Tibet from the Chinese side, so I just called up this ridiculous yoga retreat on the Indian side, told them it was a piece for The Good Life, they let me stay for free and next thing you know, I’m talking with the Dali Lama about human rights.”
Both the interview with his Holiness on conditions in Tibet and “UpMarket Facing Dog,” a zippy roundup of high-end yoga spots around the globe, ran in Newsweek International.
Like many news organizations, Newsweek had a longstanding ethics policy that expressly forbid reporters from accepting flights, hotel accommodations and merchandise in exchange for coverage. But current and former Newsweek staffers who worked alongside Mr. Guo said that during his tenure at Newsweek International, Fareed Zakaria changed that policy, specifically for reporters working on The Good Life section.
“It just begs the question, why did Fareed implement these new rules?” said a current Newsweek employee who worked alongside Mr. Guo. “Nobody objected, because Jerry filed good copy. It seems crazy now, but he basically just played within the absurd rules of the time.”
Mr. Zakaria emailed Betabeat to explain the change. The Good Life, he said, was “an effort to provide a service for our readers and attract new advertisers. It is quite common in that world for reporters to, say, go to a special tasting at a new restaurant or attend a weekend retreat at a new hotel. I relaxed our rules on this stuff for those two pages. In retrospect, it was a mistake—my mistake—and I regret it. We should not have been in the business of covering luxury goods—that world is so different from the traditional world of news reporting. I was always uncomfortable with it but was trying to help to help the magazine survive through tough economic times.”
Follow Ben Popper via RSS.