Matt Katz is in pursuit. His quarry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, moves at a surprisingly breakneck pace given his large stature. Katz, an up and coming reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has been on the governor’s trail for a little over a month now, dashing from press conference to town hall meeting to budget address and back again.
“Some of it is like The Amazing Race,” he remarks, taking a brief break from his duties as Christie correspondent to speak at the Kelly Writers House. “There’s an element of just chasing this guy that’s completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced.”
Beyond the frenetic schedule, covering the Christie beat can be a blessing and a bane for a journalist. Almost anything the bold, blunt-talking politician and rising GOP star does commands a voracious reader appetite; recent buzz about a possible presidential run has only added to the flurry of media coverage.
And yet writing about such an overexposed public figure presents its own challenges. With reporters from all the local press corp and many national outlets assigned to the same beat, Katz often wonders what unique perspective he can bring. “How do I contribute to this conversation?” he muses, gesturing upward with his hands. “Am I just screaming into the wind like everyone else…or can I find a way to distinguish my voice and actually do some journalism?”
Despite the demands of the job, it’s easy to see that Katz, who cuts a very young thirty-two years of age with his straw blond hair and black tortoise frames, is in his element as a reporter. Growing up a self-described “journalism geek” in Great Neck, he spent breakfasts and dinners poring over the Kid’s Day insert that came with his parents New York Newsday subscription.
“I’ve always been really interested in any sort of interpersonal communication and interaction. Maybe it’s because I was an only child so I had more time to think about these things,” he jokes. Katz understands that “people want to relate…they respond to stories about other people.”
In high school he wrote a regular column for the student newspaper called “The Katz’ Meow.” One of his most popular pieces described the different ways people greeted each other in the hallway and the nuances of male-female interactions. “You know some girls you give a hug to, some girls you give like an air kiss—” He pauses. “Actually I don’t know if you give air kisses, that’s not right.”
At George Washington University Katz studied political communication, which allowed him to combine journalism and a budding interest in politics. But an internship working for a legislative campaign left him disenchanted with elected office. “It just didn’t seem uh, real?” his voice veers upward, searching for the right adjective. “I had this idea it was all about the issues. I thought the congressional candidate would sit around talking about what his policy was going to be on taxes and the Middle East. But the fact is he’s just, you know, trying to figure out who he has to call that night for fundraising.” And so Katz realized he belonged on the other side of the table.
Nevertheless, his fascination with the world of politics and Christie in particular is obvious. He readily acknowledges why the governor’s story is so compelling: “His political instincts are really that good…he’s got a gift.” Of course, Katz also recognizes the danger of getting too caught up in the public image Christie’s team has so carefully crafted. “I mean how much do you follow the media message that he’s creating? At some point it’s part of the story and it’s part of who he is, but at the same time, are you feeding into him, are you celebrating him…somebody did accuse me of being celebratory.”
Eventually it comes back to finding that unique reporting angle, something Katz still hasn’t completely figured out yet. On his blog, “The Christie Chronicles,” he adopts a more colloquial tone, referring to his subject as “gov” and making use of parenthetical comments. “I try to write a little more like I’m dashing off an email,” he explains.
The stories are harder. They’re less about establishing a certain style and more about tightening in on a perspective that other journalists might not have. Here, Katz’ advantage might just be the sheer amount of time he spends with the governor: “I’m around him more than almost anybody in the press. So I want to be able to look at his rhetorical and political tendencies and notice changes that other people wouldn’t notice because they only come by once a week.”
At a recent press conference, for instance, Christie fielded a question about his reaction to proposed federal funding cuts for Planned Parenthood. Considered the first pro-life governor in New Jersey’s history, Christie switched from pro-choice after his wife became pregnant with their first child. “He could easily have delivered some pro-life talking point,” Katz recalls. But instead he responded “no comment” and immediately called on the next reporter.
“It happened so quickly that I had to go listen to my recording to figure out what he said,” Katz remembers. “It indicates some level of nuance or softening…that I think is pretty telling. And I hope that by being around him so much, I’ll be able to notice these things more and more.”
On his daily drive home from Trenton, Katz keeps an audio journal on his iPhone. The details will be useful for the book he hopes to write if Christie decides to run for President some day. In the meantime, despite the barreling pace, nonstop deadlines, accusations of groupieness, and the challenges of carving out his own journalistic voice, Katz is exactly where he wants to be. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”