In mid-September, Gannett—the parent company of USA Today Network—posted two different but analogous writing jobs: a Taylor Swift Reporter and a Beyoncé Knowles-Carter Reporter. Both positions exist to explore each star’s cultural influence, chronicling highlights from their respective world tours to offer readers “an inside view.” Beyond the basic journalism-job credentials, like a bachelor’s degree and a few years of prior experience, the postings also stipulate the candidate’s “willingness to travel extensively”; the preferred “ability to report in more than one language” (they don’t specify which); and, for the aforementioned travel, “a valid driver’s license, reliable transportation, [and] the minimum liability insurance required by state law” (once again, they don’t specify, and the minimums vary). Sure, the rate is potentially decent; the upper end of the listed range puts it at just over $50 (US) an hour. But that rate could also be closer to $20. Nobody seems quite sure.
The lack of pay transparency and the punitive requirements didn’t stop fans from swooning over these jobs—as, perhaps, Gannett had known they wouldn’t, having chosen stars beloved enough to insulate the company from the harshest critiques. The Wall Street Journal estimated that, by the end of September, the hiring team had received about 1,000 résumés for the two gigs combined. (Anecdotally, 500 applications for a single media job is, in this climate, not necessarily the flex they might think it is.) Fellow publications were also relatively uncritical, including CNBC, which fizzed that “one lucky journalist [would] be paid to keep tabs” on Swift, a gig the Guardian touted as a “Taylor Swift fan’s wildest dream” (a riff on one of her song titles). Sure. But journalists have dreams too, and as a more critical strain of responses made clear, this type of gig isn’t it. Gannett, whose chief content officer ambitiously told the Wall Street Journal that these jobs would “save local journalism,” had previously cut back its local news coverage and laid off about 6 percent of its American media division. On social media, writers were quick to point out the contradiction when the job was announced. One deadpan reply read, “Is there a climate change reporter? Just checking.”
While the Taylor Swift and Beyoncé beats might share some superficial crossovers with the objectives of local journalism—each one appeals to a specific community and addresses the issues that are most important to them—the similarities stop there. Hyper-specific coverage of a single artist is more about generating clicks and revenue than providing meaningful access to information about issues where there’s legitimate public interest in on-the-ground reporting. Taken that way, these jobs are less the saviour of local journalism and more its bespoke Grim Reaper.
Writers and news publications face mounting challenges to reach their readerships. On the creaky platform formerly known as Twitter, writers have observed a general decline in engagement when they share their work, or really anything at all—even if they have spent years building up a sizable following. In a piece for Dame magazine on the intertwined deaths of Twitter and independent journalism, Andrea Grimes wrote that, following Elon Musk’s takeover of the platform, she was “struggling to reach more than a few dozen people at a time” while covering a Texas impeachment trial. Attempts to migrate one’s audience to a different site, like Substack, were obstructed wholesale when Musk temporarily prevented linking to newsletters in tweets and vice versa.
In Canada, the struggle of bringing news to readers comes with an additional twist: in August, Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, began blocking both domestic and international news links from being viewed by Canadian users. This was in response to Bill C-18, which sought compensation for tech giants’ dissemination of journalistic content. Local news in Canada isn’t having an easy time either. Though there are some independent and small-scale outlets that still manage to survive, the funding behind that kind of work remains perilous. Last month, Metroland Media Group ended the print editions of a number of community newspapers and laid off 60 percent of its workforce, to the tune of about 600 jobs. It turns the stomach to imagine the company suggesting, much like Gannett did, that the logical next step after such a colossal affront would be to hire a fan who can turn a nice phrase to cover the Drake beat.
Choosing which subjects to cover always requires a negotiation between the stories readers hunger for and the ones where journalists decide, for various reasons, that there ought to be an appetite. Publishing pieces about a celebrity’s world tour is certainly part of that calculus. But dedicating so many resources to this kind of coverage shifts the balance in a way that risks abandoning the original audience and its needs altogether. It also calls into question the future of writers’ journalistic beats. The erosion of various social media platforms makes it harder than ever for writers to carve out an identity and a calling card tied to the subjects they cover. The suggestion that the best way to get eyes on your work, or to get work at all, is to reduce your output to only the most trending topics is to take a superficial part of the job and make it the point.
Maybe I’m leery of all this because it’s happened to me. I saw years of my work reduced to a headline about Taylor Swift. The situation was a little different from being paid $50 an hour to cover her life: in a review of my 2022 essay collection, Some of My Best Friends—in USA Today, no less—Swift was elevated from her status as a cursory mention (in an essay that offers a wide-angle analysis of white femininity) to the implicit thesis of my entire book. “Tajja Isen calls out Taylor Swift’s political ‘lip service,’ white fragility,” read the title of the review. Maybe putting her name in the headline made lots of people click on the link, as was presumably intended, though I’m not sure being pitted against a behemoth of a pop star did me or the book any favours. In any case, flattening an argument into the clickbait of Swift’s name is nothing new. Now imagine opening your newspaper—you still do that, right?—to see that, somehow, no matter the tenuousness of the connection, Taylor Swift’s name has been shoehorned into the title of the day’s major story.