You probably read this post at Gawker, in which Hamilton Nolan aims to put the fear of Cronkite into the aspiring Thought Catalog contributors of America. You probably also read that Andrew Sullivan is striking out on his own, hoping his readers will pony up enough money to cover the not-insignificant cost of running his site.
These things are related! A certain type of confessional writing, as Nolan points out, has indeed become de rigueur traffic bait. But I don’t know any aspiring journalists who hope to exclusively, or even primarily, write personal essays. Sullivan is a far better example of where most young writers hope to end up. His life and personal interests deeply inform his writing, but he’s known for his commentary and, to a lesser extent, his reporting and curation.
The really modern thing about Sullivan is that he is a brand unto himself, a journalist who transcends the outlets that have employed him. There is a particular Andrew Sullivan tone, a particular Andrew Sullivan perspective on the world. This is something his readers enjoy and value, something that keeps them coming back, and maybe (hopefully) something that prompts them to shell out $19.99 per year. This is why I think Sullivan may have more success than many magazines have had in generating revenue from readers. They are invested in him as a person, not just as a conduit for “unbiased” reporting.
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.
This doesn’t mean we should be training all aspiring journalists to churn out click-baity personal essays. There’s a middle ground. Two of my very favorite long-form feature writers, John Jeremiah Sullivan and Mac McClelland, are adept at weaving personal stories with their reporting. (Read this and this and this—and, just to bring it full circle, this from Andrew Sullivan—then try and tell me you still think good reporters don’t get personal.) There is an art to getting personal without obscuring the real story. Just as there’s an art to infusing your tweets and your commentary with a tinge of your nonprofessional life without going the full confessional.
Are there down sides to readers knowing so much about the writer? Oh, absolutely. I think of it as the Tom Cruise problem. You’re never going to see a Tom Cruise movie and later, while describing the plot to a friend, call him by the character’s name. You’re going to say something like, “And then Tom Cruise launches the motorcycle over the burning bus and escapes the bad guy.” He can never again fully disappear into a role. To a certain extent, that problem is going to dog all journalists who have a decent personal brand. The more known they become, the harder it is to melt into the background as a reporter. They’re always a part of the story.
But then again, journalists were always a part of the story. Why not just own up to the fact that three-dimensional humans are doing this work? We have always brought our personal histories and political opinions and casual biases with us while reporting. We just tried to pretend we weren’t with stupid stylistic conventions. No one’s ponying up $19.99 a year to finance the career of “a visitor.”
I enjoy (no, really) being put in my place by this exceedingly intelligent woman.