/ 14 October 2023

Tayloring stories for fans

Taylor Swift
Red that right? Beyoncé and Taylor Swift onstage during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards in New York. Some question the validity of having reporters dedicated to celebrities when media budgets are constrained. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

In a stretched global media world, where “beats”, such as health, education and the environment, covered by specialist reporters, have been shrinking as fast as reader numbers and advertising, a job ad for a “modern storyteller” adept in print, audio and visual journalism was bound to be controversial.

“We are looking for an energetic writer, photographer and social media pro who can quench an undeniable thirst for all things Taylor Swift with a steady stream of content across multiple platforms,” the listing on 13 September in USA Today and The Tennessean, two papers owned by America’s biggest local-news chain, Gannett, explained. 

“Seeing both the facts and the fury, the Taylor Swift reporter will identify why the pop star’s influence only expands, what her fanbase stands for in pop culture, and the effect she has across the music and business worlds.”

The next day there was a similar ad for a “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter reporter” in those papers: “We are looking for a journalist with a voice — but not a bias — able to quickly cultivate a national audience through smart content designed to meet readers on their terms. 

“This reporter will chronicle the next big moments of Beyoncé’s career, from the end of her Renaissance tour and its $1 billion in sales to her next ventures and endeavours, offering readers of USA Today, The Tennessean and more than 200 local news sources an inside view.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Gannett received nearly 1 000 applications for the two jobs. 

“Responses have come from Emmy-award-winning journalists, TikTok influencers and a reporter working at the White House,”  it said.

The Columbia Journalism Review reported: “One applicant for the Swift post spent six hours making a Legally Blonde spoof in her parents’ pool; an applicant for the Beyoncé job referred back to TikTok videos he’d made role-playing as a correspondent for Beyoncé’s fictional news network, including an interview with a horse pictured on the front of her album Renaissance.”

But there was an inevitable, and understandable, backlash. The workforce at Gannett has shrunk by 47% in the last three years, the Associated Press reported. 

“At some newspapers, the union said the headcount has fallen by as much as 90%,” the article said.  

“Some journalists said that while hiring these massively popular artist-specific roles reflect their influence in pop culture, they do fail to invest in local journalism at a company known for its local dailies.”

But there is, of course, another side to the story. Swift and Beyoncé are arguably the most influential figures in the entertainment industry. 

Just last week, on National Voter Registration Day in the US, Swift took to Instagram to encourage young people to register to vote. As a result, more than 35 000 individuals did so, leading to a 23% surge in overall registrations compared to the previous year’s registrations on the same day. 

Notably, there was a 115% increase in 18-year-olds registering to vote. 

Her call to Swifties to register was impartial but it’s worth noting that the youngest voting group has shown the strongest opposition to Republicans in recent elections. 

This opposition has become so pronounced that conservatives have started advocating for an increase in the voting age and the removal of polling places from tertiary education campuses.

The new Gannett jobs come at a challenging time — and an especially tumultuous time in the Middle East. 

Imagine a newsroom that has redirected already stretched resources towards covering Swift and Beyoncé because of their substantial cultural, economic and political influence, rather than news that could change the course of the world. 

The South African context 

South African newsrooms are as depleted as most around the world. Arts, culture and entertainment coverage is often confined to what celebrities say on X or the pictures they post on Instagram.

“If we base the idea of journalism on information that is in the public interest rather than information that the public finds interesting, then reporters who are dedicated to specific celebrities, no matter their cultural, economic and social impact, might not be sustainable nor in the best interest of the field,” says Dr Sisanda Nkoala, senior lecturer in the media department at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. 

She expressed concern about these kinds of roles veering into fandom rather than serious journalism. 

“I agree with a view that the other risk of this approach is fandom, where the journalist is not able to be objective and critical because of how close they may get to the individual. 

“It is well documented in the literature, for example, how embedding journalists involved in conflict reporting keeps them from playing a watchdog role.

“One could argue that embedding one reporter in an individual celebrity’s life could have a similar effect where affordances such as the access they get to that person, the regularity with which they interact with that person, et cetera, could cause them to self-censor or be blinded from different dimensions of the individual.”

Nkoala says in the South African context, it would be inappropriate to allocate resources to reporters dedicated to specific celebrities when we are struggling to allocate reporters to cover lower courts, for instance. 

She says that this doesn’t imply that celebrities shouldn’t receive coverage but rather emphasises the need to prioritise resource allocation to broader issues rather than individual personalities.

“My view is that we need dedicated arts reporters who can do deep work in contextualising the place of these icons so that we view them beyond their individual impact, in light of the broader place of arts and culture in our societies,” Nkoala explains. 

Dr Dinesh Balliah, who is the director at the Wits Centre for Journalism, believes newsrooms should consider their audience’s needs before making decisions such as creating a Swift or Beyoncé beat. 

She says if it makes financial sense, and readers are willing to pay for it, why not? 

“It is regrettable that there are job losses, which make space for this kind of softer content, but I think there is enough space in the media landscape for all sorts of content,” she says. 

Balliah points out that Swift and Beyoncé are among the most influential celebrities globally, boasting a substantial following. These followers — dubbed Swifties and the Beyhive — represent potential readers who, if drawn to articles about them, could potentially become regular readers and subscribers. 

This subscription revenue could  then be used to support more substantial and serious content.

“Many of the young followers of these women will one day become industry leaders, professionals in their own right, and they will turn to the trusted news publications that they have grown up with. It’s quite a clever way of securing future consumers,” she says. 

Could the proliferation of softer stories or those angled at the fans of influential celebrities jeopardise good quality journalism? Balliah says that we shouldn’t dismiss lighter news topics as unworthy.

“A Taylor Swift story can be a good-quality piece of journalism. 

“Taylor Swift and Beyoncé’s empires are built on large amounts of money and large contingents of people who build their brands. 

“These women are large businesses in themselves and, with businesses like these, comes enormous power and influence. I think the focus on them will affect them more than it will affect newsrooms.”

Former newspaper editor Lizeka Mda, who teaches in journalism and media studies at Wits, says decisions such as this one would surely be based on research. 

She says that before we criticise what companies such as Gannett are doing, we should take a step back and look at what we are doing in South Africa. 

“Isn’t South African media the ones reporting on what they see on TikTok and that gets published? 

“So, better Taylor Swift than TikTok,” she says.

Mda says that we should look at the number of beats that have disappeared from newspapers, including the Mail & Guardian

“So, if it is good for you to say that this is where we are likely to make some money, if we have one beat over the other, then let other people make those decisions for themselves too,” says Mda.  

A senior entertainment journalist, who did not want to be named, says there is space for such reporting in South Africa — but with an important proviso. 

“One of the things we are taught as journalists is not to be biased, so we might have to be careful not to be known as a newspaper that reports on one specific individual. 

“To some degree, people may not be able to rely on our publication to be impartial and unbiased,” she says.