‘Journalist’ and ‘Influencer’ Are Different Jobs
Welcome to The Fine Print’s free weekly digest! If you’d like to get this emailed to your inbox every week, please sign up here.
ICYMI: Click here to request a subscription discount for underpaid media workers at $4.99 per month or $49 per year!
I’ll be honest: I am deeply skeptical of the creator economy. That’s not to say I don’t think it exists or that there aren’t massive opportunities for people to make a lot of money amassing big digital followings. Social media has commodified fame, making it much easier for more people to attract enough attention that being an influencer is as viable a career path as, well, being a freelance writer. (Alas, probably more so…)
But that doesn’t make it a brand new occupation. People have been famous for being famous for quite a while. And historically, cranky journalist types have long begrudged them. Primetime TV in the 1980s and ’90s was full of “special guests” who were, at that stage of their careers, mostly famous for appearing on Hollywood Squares, The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and, well, as the special guest stars on Punky Brewster and The Facts of Life. So were tabloid gossip columns. From this late ’80s milieu of the shameless celebrity, the world first learned of Donald Trump. And it was also the long-held journalism disdain for this particular kind of fame that made so many savvy media types quick to dismiss his presidential ambitions.
Journalists have long been prone to getting huffy and envious about their colleagues who go on to be famous (and rich) talking heads. It’s one of the main plotlines of 1987’s Broadcast News, where Holly Hunter plays the hard-charging TV news producer and William Hurt is the empty-suit anchor willing to fake tears on air. That intramural war over authenticity and celebrity in journalism was also fought shortly after the turn of the millennium when blogs launched the media careers of personalities as far-flung as Paul Krugman and Perez Hilton.
The emergence of new platforms has always been followed by boundary-drawing battles over who’s a real journalist and who’s not. But instead of wading into the resentments and recriminations over which side possesses moral superiority, I’d like to offer the proposition that everyone would probably be better off if they agreed at the get-go: Being a journalist and being an influencer are two different jobs. Someone could be, say, a “plumber massage therapist” and live a fascinating life. But there would be no confusion that these are two different occupations and skill-sets.
It’s no mystery why lots of journalists want to be influencers. Their industry is decrepit by comparison to the free-flowing crypto-powered creator economy. And no one will get rich as a mid-level editor or long-tenured news reporter.
Journalists can be pretty snooty about who belongs in their club. And while selling out is no longer the career-killing sin it once was, there’s still a sense of apostasy whenever a journalist takes a job in a related field like advertising, public relations, content marketing. That played out recently in a traumatic experience at The Cut for Andrew Nguyen, who, as Gawker’s Tarpley Hitt reported, was told by his bosses that he would have to choose between his job as a fashion news writer and taking a lucrative offer to appear in a branded video series for Target. Nguyen’s bosses told him he would be fired if he took the gig, in what sounds like a heart-wrenching decision, he took it anyway, and when the videos came out, he was fired.
There are, of course, no doubt plenty of journalists who have cashed in on their fame. Malcolm Gladwell has achieved the rarified status as GM pitchman. But he’s an exception that proves the rule: Those journalists who are famous enough to rake in speaking fees and endorsement deals have reached the kind of cultural escape velocity that allows them to, well, no longer have to do journalism to make a living.
Some of the excellent media reporting you may have missed in The Fine Print…
By Andrew Fedorov
When Gus Wenner first came to Rolling Stone as a summer intern in 2007, it was never explicit that he would succeed his father. Jann Wenner had built the magazine from the ground up and turned it into a sprawling publishing empire. Though he had grown up the son of the baby food king of the Bay Area, much of the early money had come from the family of his wife, Jane Schindelheim, who stayed on as an executive at the company after they separated in 1995. “When Gus started as an intern,” former managing editor Will Dana told The Fine Print, “let’s just say people all knew that there was a better chance they’d end up working for Jann’s kid than Bruce Springsteen’s son or Kurt Cobain’s daughter, other interns from around that time.”
In 2012, Jann appointed Gus (born Edward Augustus), the youngest of the three sons he and Jane had together and then a fresh Brown grad, first to work on Rollingstone.com, then a year later, at age 22, to be the head of the site. In 2014, Jann would promote his son to be head of digital for all of Wenner Media, which then also included Men’s Journal and Us Weekly. “It was just like, ‘here’s my son, he’s in charge, he has a corner office,’” recalled a longtime Wenner employee who marveled at the ridiculousness of the situation but acknowledged that family-owned companies sometimes operate like that. “I know that that’s gross and not the way things should work, but it is Jann’s business. It is Jann’s baby.” … >> READ THE REST
The lingering questions about the future of BuzzFeed News since the company went public last December turned into existential dread on Tuesday with the announcement that its current top editorial leadership was resigning and staff cuts are coming. Editor-in-chief Mark Schoofs informed the newsroom that he was stepping down and that a corporate mandate for profitability “will require BuzzFeed News to once again shrink in size.” He also announced the departures of deputy editor-in-chief Tom Namako, who is going to be the executive editor of NBC News Digital, and executive editor of investigations Ariel Kaminer. About 30 people in the 100-person newsroom — primarily reporters and editors on the investigations, science, inequality, and politics teams — are being offered voluntary buyouts.
BuzzFeed News has been getting smaller in recent years — under founding editor-in-chief Ben Smith, who left in 2020 following a previous round of layoffs, its headcount was once as high as 250 people — and there has been a steady stream of high-level departures. Last week, managing editor Sara Yasin was named the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. And there’s been signs that BuzzFeed Inc., whose stock has traded lower than hoped following its stock offering, is putting less emphasis on the BuzzFeed News brand, which was spun out to its own site in 2018. Last week, it said it was shutting down the dedicated BuzzFeed News app. “We’ve found that most of our audience lives on the main BuzzFeed app,” read the announcement. “That’s where our journalism reaches the most people, so that’s why we’ve decided to redirect our resources there.” … >> READ THE REST
Carson Griffith and The Daily Beast are still awaiting a decision in the long-running defamation suit stemming from BDG’s first, aborted attempt to relaunch Gawker in 2019, which we covered in November. But the case was recently thrown for a loop by an even longer running lawsuit between the singer Kesha and music producer Dr. Luke, where there was a recent ruling that an amendment to New York’s anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation (anti-SLAPP) does not apply retroactively before it was enacted in 2020. … >> READ THE REST
Turmoil has been the norm for the GMG Union ever since it was originally formed in 2015 at Gawker Media, shortly before that company ceased to exist. In its seven-year history, the union has battled with three different owners — each more challenging than the last — while seeking to safeguard the editorial independence of the sites it represents — Gizmodo, Jezebel, Jalopnik, Kotaku, Lifehacker, and The Root — from corporate encroachment. The agreement reached on March 6 after a six-day strike between the union and G/O Media, which is owned by the Boston-based private equity firm Great Hills Partners, marks something of a stalemate between the two warring factions, and comes as a relief to staffers concerned about maintaining their union protections, considered some of the strongest in digital media. Amid resignations, new changes to the union structure, and the omnipresent threat of another sale, an uneasy future is still ahead. But, ever since the GMG Union kicked off a wave of unionization among New York media outlets, their fights have often foreshadowed what other workplaces will go through. … >> READ THE REST
Introducing our new social column, Vital Moments, tracking the ways lives are lived… featuring Allison P. Davis, Mary Childs, Jack Crosbie, Rachel Rabbit White, Jo Livingstone, and “that guy Adam”
OUT AND ABOUT
Last Saturday, The Cut’s vibe shift correspondent Allison P. Davis celebrated her birthday with a party at designer Ellen Van Dusen’s brownstone. Spotted among the attendees were New York diner-at-large Tammie Teclemariam, Vanity Fair’s Delia Cai and Dan Adler, Substacker Hunter Harris, and Alison Roman. “I spent half the party taking photos of the house,” Cai recalled, adding that the “Jell-O shots were good.” … >> READ THE REST