Zack O’Malley Greenburg is the senior editor of media & entertainment at Forbes. He has authored three books: 3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise; Michael Jackson, Inc.; and the Jay-Z biography Empire State of Mind. Zack’s writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Billboard, Vibe, Sports Illustrated, and McSweeney’s. Zack has served as a source for BBC, MTV, and 60 Minutes, and as a speaker at TEDx, Princeton, and Harvard. He has since penned Forbes covers on Richard Branson, Kanye West, and others; he also broke the news of the Wu-Tang Clan’s secret album. Zack pioneered Forbes franchises including Hip-Hop Cash Kings and the 30 Under 30 Music list while expanding existing ones such as the Celebrity 100, creating new properties beyond editorial like the Under 30 Music Festival. He lives in New York with his wife and cats.
From starring in the ’92 film Lorenzo’s Oil to graduating from Yale University, what led you to entertainment reporting?
I’d gotten into the media and entertainment domain at a very early age so I kind of gravitated towards that world. I grew up in New York loving hip hop. When I first started out at Forbes, an editor walked into my cubicle and she said, “Hey, you’re under 30, you know about hip hop, do you want to help me put together the first-ever list of top-earning rappers?” and I said, “Yes, I’d love to!”. So that year, 2007, we did our first hip-hop cash kings list and that was my entrée into the world of writing about entertainment. The editor left the job shortly thereafter and advised me to make this my thing. I’ve done it every year since and it has mushroomed out into books about music and the broader entertainment world.
Which of the three books that you have authored to date been the most memorable? Have the writing processes differed for all three?
Choosing a favorite book is similar to picking a favorite child. I think the Jay-Z book resonated with a lot of people because he came from humble beginnings and was able to really live out the American dream. I think a lot of people read that because they wanted to see what it was that he did and how he made his moves because they wanted to emulate it themselves.
As far as my process goes, I think it’s a little different every time. The first time I wrote a book, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I learned a few things about that along the line. At some point, you get into a rhythm and have an idea of when and how you work best. For me, I work best late at night. A lot of the process became trusting in what I know works and just making sure I can take some time in the night to work on the book.
Over the past few years, you’ve reported on a vast array of topics: from tourism in Sierra Leone to the earning prowess of the likes of Jay-Z, interviewing personalities from Toby Keith to Justin Bieber in the process. Has a situation ever suddenly taken a turn for the worse?
There’s always a turn for the worse (laughs!), and you have to be prepared. In terms of an interview, when things take a turn for the worse, I think it’s important to push people and to push your sources and to stand your ground. I also think that people appreciate it when you ask the tough questions. But you know there’s also a time when it becomes clear that you’re not going to get an answer on that point so you should be ready to move on to the next question.
How do you deal with work-related stress?
It’s really important to make time to not be thinking about work. A couple of things that I find helpful are meditation and yoga. I wish I were better about doing it every single day because it puts your mind in a place where no matter how cloudy it is, you can stick your head above the clouds. I find yoga helpful and I try to go at least once a week. Just making time for friends and family, and keeping that sacred, as you can, even when things are swirling around is the key to dealing with stressful times.
Which story in your portfolio are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of a story I co-wrote called Revenge of the Record Labels. It revealed this open secret of the music business about how the major labels were accumulating pieces of the streaming services that were starting to take over the business without compensating the artists for it. The story did really well and ended up contributing to an uproar that eventually led the labels to agree to compensate the artists when the likes of Spotify went public. The most fun was when I did a cover story on Katy Perry and I went to Rome to interview her. It was a lot of fun; they had decoys to avoid the paparazzi and she was wearing disguises. It felt like a spy novel!