How personal should journalism be?
January 4, 2013
This week, Hamilton Nolan at Gawker published an essay entitled “Journalism Is Not Narcissism”. He takes to task professors and writers who encourage others to write about their lives as the story.
From the essay:
“It is tempting to stop here and dismiss Shapiro, the author of nine(!) ‘first-person books’ including three(!) memoirs, as a run-of-the-mill narcissist whose unfortunate students are being molded in her own misguided image. (Quoth the professor, ‘You have to grab the reader by the throat immediately, which is why I launched my second memoir with the line “In December my husband stopped screwing me.”‘) But let us more generously interpret Shapiro’s attitude as not a cause, but a symptom—her own honest reading of the state of the professional writing market today. In a way, she is not wrong, although she is also part of the problem.”
“The demoralizing truth is that there is a huge appetite for first-person essays of this sort. The pages of Salon, and Slate, and Thought Catalog, and XO Jane, and women’s magazines, and lowbrow-masquerading-as-highbrow publications like parts of the New York Times, and Gawker Media are absolutely overflowing with them. At their very best, they offer some amount of insight learned through experience. Mostly, they offer run of the mill voyeurism tinged with the desperation of attention addiction. For those who own the publications, they’re great—they bring in the clickety-clicks.”
Nolan’s lament over the state of young journalism is balanced by Ann Friedman who used to be the executive editor of GOOD. She compares this personal form of journalism with Andrew Sullivan’s foray into entrepreneurship by charging for his blog (which raised at least $240,000 in two days… a very promising sign for a small team).
“Whether or not the phrase “personal brand” grosses you out, it’s something any journalist who wants to be employed in another 10 years should be thinking about. Having a direct, dedicated following—a readership invested in you, not just the publication you’re primarily associated with—is like a career insurance policy. While there are many fine journalists who never bring even the lightest detail about their personal lives into their professional narrative—no tweets about their kids, no first-person anecdotal ledes, no opinion-tinged asides in reported features—they are an increasingly small group. I cringe every time I read a New York Times story in which the reporter awkwardly refers to herself as ‘a visitor.’ Really? You can’t just say “provided me with directions to her Craftsman bungalow”? Please.”