In the past few weeks, if you’ve hung out in a certain space of the internet, you’ve been privy to a conversation about what it means to be a journalist now. As the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz said in an interview a few weeks ago: Young journalists need to not just report and write, but have “brands.” Whether you know it or not, whether you cultivate it or not (people on this side of the conversation convincingly argued), you are a brand, defined by the work you put out, the people you associate with, and the things you do or do not post on Twitter.
I buy the “journalists need to have brands” argument pretty completely. The field has, for the decade I have been in it, involved networking, amassing followers, and packaging one’s stories for one’s personal accounts on social media. When I write a good story, I send it to connected friends so they can share it too. I worry about the “narrative” formed by my oeuvre of reporting, and my dumb fun blog posts, and wonder how to reconcile on paper the jokey pieces with the researched arguments. I worry, a little, about how I look, and how my looks affect how people evaluate my competency, as working women have forever. Before we got headshots at work, I paid $50 for a blowout. Now I have a nice image, to go with my work. It was a very good investment.
It’s this last piece that I want to put a finger on, here: how women journalists are supposed to look, and why it matters, and why I am increasingly anxious about it. We are in an unstable field; the shrinking of BuzzFeed News, one of the shops doing the best, slowest, most intensive work, is the latest evidence of that. We are always, in this profession, a little worried about being laid off. A layoff might mean dipping into savings. It might mean finding a job in a different field. It might mean going freelance. It quite possibly means starting a newsletter: coming up with a name, picking a cute layout, deciding on an editorial direction, writing all the posts yourself, courting subscribers. Your face has to be somewhere. It helps with engagement if your face is somewhere. (Some internet-y outlets actually put your picture at the top of your stories). I watch some of those free agents, women whose work I admire, appear in my Instagram feed, telling the camera about their work. Personable. Friendly. Styled. Photogenic—by nature, or through effort, usually both. Sometimes, depending on the particular coverage area in which they are forging a new existence, they are hawking products too, to supplement their income.
Do you remember who did this first? Julia Allison, a dating columnist who was a self-styled Carrie Bradshaw 2.0, appeared on the cover of Wired magazine in July 2008, the photo shot such that her image was 50 percent legs, 25 percent tousled hair. She was, in a sense, a proto-influencer, but she was also a writer. Sex and the City watchers have long wondered how the original, fictional Carrie made enough money to afford her Upper East Side apartment. But Allison claimed a kind of solution to the financial math of living a fancy life while writing weekly columns that paid in the tens of dollars. She would hawk her image on the side, serving as a model, of sorts, in posts on her Tumblr account. “The whole goal for becoming a marquee name, if you will, getting my reputation out there, was for job security,” Allison told Wired’s then–editor in chief, Chris Anderson, in a video interview. He acknowledges that she has created “a huge asset in the reputation economy” but asks what kind of products she could personally endorse. She gently explains what it means to leverage a following: “If I say, ‘I use my Canon camera … ’ you better believe people are going to go out and buy that camera.” (Allison, in this video, has curled hair, a headband, and obvious makeup—a breathing avatar. Anderson is bald.)
Today, influencing is widely recognized as a way to make cash. Spon con that leverages one’s literal image supports not just those who primarily work on Instagram, but actual journalists too. I’ve seen the model of multiple income streams develop amongst freelance wellness reporters, some of whom take on a mix of print assignments or podcasting gigs and brand deals. (These folks would have a hard time landing a pitch with me at Slate, though I suspect our fees do not really compare to those you get from green juice powder companies.) It’s also an odd—even unethical—approach emerging in fashion writing, where fancy full-size product samples and luxury junkets have long been a perk of the gig, as Tarpley Hitt explained in a piece on Gawker this week. “In recent years, as beauty and style writers grew online followings to rival those of mid-level influencers, these brand relationships took on a new dimension in the form of paid partnerships, or sponsored content,” writes Hitt. “A company might hire a writer or editor to post about their products on Instagram or appear in an advertising campaign.” She rattles off high-profile instances of writers, not just fashion writers, appearing in ads. (Malcolm Gladwell starred in a car commercial!) The meat of Hitt’s piece is about a fashion writer who was fired for appearing in a Target ad. The line for when it’s OK to take these gigs at the Cut seems notably murky, but what struck me most about the piece was a quote Hitt pulled from the writer’s Instagram describing the incident. The commercial, he explained, “helped me financially, as my editorial salary was insufficient to live in a high-cost city like New York.” I was part fascinated by, part horrified at, part envious of the concept of surviving on an editorial salary by leveraging one’s status—and, necessarily, physical appearance—to command such side payments.
In a turbulent media landscape, looking good, and selling that look, along with some pieces of one’s story, might be the most direct way to underwrite creative work. The truth is any brand needs a spokesmodel—even if the brand is you. “In the way that the influencer uses her image to sell her swag, the writer leverages her life to sell her work, to editors and audiences,” wrote Allegra Hobbs in 2019, in a piece that originally appeared in the media newsletter Study Hall, sharply identifying the rise of the journalist as an influencer. No, cultivating a persona isn’t new, Hobbs notes. But “the image management that once seemed incidental, or at least parallel, to the literary profession seems now one of its most necessary, integral functions.”
Hobbs mentions aspects of writers’ brands that aren’t looks, like being vulnerable and witty online, and willing to sell off pieces of one’s life in personal essays or Grub Street interviews. She touches briefly on the physical presentation piece of being a writer-influencer, noting that it is both an opportunity and a trap that tends to ensnare women: “We are socialized to be highly attuned to making ourselves palatable for an audience, to be pleasing to the eye and the ear.” She cites Emily Gould’s 2008 New York Times Magazine cover story, which appeared just before Allison’s Wired cover. The piece was a deeply personal and self-referential essay by Gould, advertised with images of the writer lying in bed.
I want to make an observation that is a little more pointed, and kind of rude: Allison, Gould, and the writers featured in Hobbs’ article are all women, and they all look great. This is on purpose. They are highly styled, well lit, and hew to the conventions of attractiveness. I am sorry for typing the following sentence, but: I thought of this fact when processing a tweet I saw this morning. “Has anyone ever figured out why it’s only beautiful women and ugly men that become writers?” asked Sam Adler-Bell, a writer himself and the co-host of the Know Your Enemy podcast. It’s a wild generalization, so broad that it is necessarily wrong, and rooted in a deeply conventional idea about what it means to be “beautiful.” Part of the answer to this question is just that women who are not “beautiful” (or, maybe more accurately, those who are not putting on a performance of “beauty”) tend to be invisible to men.
But also, being “beautiful” can help you build a platform; with a platform, enhanced job stability. It grants you a bigger brand. Picture the influencer-writers, the ones who are the “writers” in Adler-Bell’s tweet. They look like they could be booked on TV. Like they’d fit in an Instagram ad. Like talent. This is what I worry about: as we all assess the wreckage of our field for salvageable parts, as we each figure out how to have a future, to make a living, they look like they might have something beyond just written words to help shape their careers.