UPDATE: AOL Editor who fired Mr. Guo in 2008 writes to say he regrets not doing more to warn others. Story here.
Jerry Guo considers himself a modern nomad. The 24-year-old Chinese-American stays in a different apartment each month, couch surfing or subletting, whatever works best. “Moving around makes it easier to find cool new venues,” Mr. Guo explained. His recently launched startup company, Grouper, sends six users on platonic group outings to lux hotspots around New York, so maintaining a fresh supply of trendy locales is key to Mr. Guo’s success.
“I like to keep moving,” Mr. Guo told Betabeat, hunching down into a leather chair at our Midtown offices. He wore a purple sweatshirt, jeans and yellow-trimmed topsiders with no socks. Over the last two years the rakish Mr. Guo has touched down in exotic locales on practically every continent on earth. There was a rare trip inside North Korea, which Mr. Guo wrote about for the Washington Post. And the time he spent running with the rebel forces in Iran during the summer of 2009, which he chronicled in The New York Times. It was his Chinese passport that allowed him access to nations typically hostile to America*.
“Jerry is…I think the best word is irreverent,” said his co-founder at Grouper, Michael Waxman, who met Mr. Guo when the two were freshman at Yale in 2005. “After all the crazy shit he has done, he’s lucky just to be alive, so he kind of brings that to the table as an entrepreneur.” Mr. Waxman is the CTO/CEO of sorts, while Mr. Guo handles partnerships, operations and marketing. “He has the kind of charisma you can’t learn.”
Mr. Guo’s charisma—and his irreverence—were on stark display in the spring of 2011, when he reached out to Adam Sachs, CEO of the very successful group dating site, Ignighter. He told Mr. Sachs that he was a freelance journalist who had been commissioned to write a piece on Ignighter for The Atlantic Monthly, and sent along some of his clips from his time at Newsweek by way of credentials.
“It was really strange,” Mr. Sachs said. “He showed up to the interview with this other guy, who I later learned was his co-founder. They asked a ton of questions and we talked for maybe an hour.” A few weeks went by and Mr. Sachs heard nothing, so he emailed Mr. Guo to ask about the story. “He told me it was still being edited and that it would come out soon.” Another month or so passed. “Then all of a sudden I see Grouper.” Both companies relied on users’ social graphs to choose clusters of people they would send on group outings.
Mr. Sachs emailed editors at The Atlantic, who informed him that Mr. Guo had indeed pitched the story but that it had never been assigned. He emailed Newsweek, who told him that his complaint was just one of many they were sorting through involving Mr. Guo. Mr. Sachs was upset, but he didn’t feel threatened by Grouper, and he decided to let things go. We thought the incident warranted a closer look.
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.”
The fun came to an end in December of 2010, when Newsweek merged with The Daily Beast. Mr. Zakaria had left by then for a position at Time. Mr. Guo’s internship had already gone well past its allotted time, and the incoming management decided not to renew him.
A few weeks later, the complaints started to arrive. One came from the Tourism Board of Thailand, which wanted to know why they had paid for Mr. Guo and a photograher to fly to Thailand and stay at deluxe hotels. Others involved an expensive watch and a some Gore-tex gloves Mr. Guo had requested. About ten or twelve letters arrived at Newsweek’s legal department.
“After his internship ended, Newsweek International received a number of complaints about Jerry Guo, all of which were dealt with accordingly,” said Andrew Kirk, director of Public Relations at Newsweek & The Daily Beast.
Mr. Guo, meanwhile, had moved on to the world of tech startups. As he navigated the new scene, he continued to employ many of the tactics that had worked so well for him in the world of print media.
When Jerry Guo is nervous, he flushes red and hides his eyes behind his bangs. In a small office at Betabeat’s building on West 44th Street, when we asked him about what happened with Ignighter, he looked at the floor and scratched his scarlet neck.
“I think the story here is, like, what happened to journalism,” said Mr. Guo, who had grown accustomed to exchanging coverage for access and gifts. “Coming from that world, I thought essentially, Adam wouldn’t have time to talk to us and that this was a great way to get a meeting: ‘Hey I’m a writer so in return for this meeting I’ll write about your startup.’”
Mr Guo has since apologized to Mr. Sachs, who said he doesn’t see the two companies as competitors. Mr. Guo is now eager to put the lessons he learned as a news hack behind him, and focus on growing his company. “Some stats: 93% want to go on another Grouper, we’ve arranged 1,000+ drinks this summer, and we’re already profitable,” he wrote to The Observer in a chipper email a few days after our meeting. He recently went to a secret rave in New York with a friend he met through a Grouper. And at the first New York Meetup for the prestigious startup program Y-Combinator, Mr. Guo, as he always does, made an impression.
“I really like companies doing things with online to offline,” said Justin Kan, founder of Justin.tv and a new partner at Y-Combinator, speaking on stage before 800 hopeful young startup founders. “I met this startup tonight that arranges people into group dates. It’s called like, Grouper or something. That seemed very cool.” In the audience, Mr. Guo beamed from ear to ear.