Rubbing shoulders and stepping on toes

Their subjects might be prone to squabble over the limelight but for these entertainment reporters, a turf war of their own is brewing between the media and celebrity bloggers.

By Meaghan Walsh

Walsh large photo

By Meghan Walsh

Zack Taylor paces outside the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. As he waits for the stars of the night to drift by his spot for interviews, the 20-year-old grad of Toronto’s Seneca College prepares to film a live stand-up with the help of two friends. A boisterous crowd cheers from the bleachers behind him. Decked out in a black sports jacket and distressed jeans, an Academy Awards media pass hangs over his untucked shirt. He points a finger toward the camera lens and shouts with remarkable self-assurance “We’re comin’ to ya live!”

The Thornhill, Ont. native is part of a rush of bloggers whose musings on the entertainment business have taken them out from behind computer screens to rubbing shoulders with the industry’s elites. Entertainment news has exploded to include just about anyone who wants in.

The online success he’s had with Zacktaylor.ca has opened a lot of doors for the radio broadcasting grad. Advertisers and sponsors pay his way to red-carpet events and he’s been a guest commentator on ET Canada, eTalk, and on CBC News coverage of the Vancouver Olympics.

“I’ve been working in the industry since I was 14,” says Taylor, who started interning at local radio stations while he was in high school. “I just like entertaining people.”

Nowhere have blogs been as prevalent or revolutionary as they have been in entertainment news. Opinions on them are full of contradictions. Some say Taylor’s journey from a radio DJ gig in Yellowknife to the bright lights of Hollywood is a success story. But many reporters argue celebrity blogs like Taylor’s tarnish the industry and lower journalistic standards in the race to break a story.

The more the merrier?

On June 24, 2009, Oliver Jones, a staff writer for People magazine, found himself sitting outside Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in L.A., waiting for an update on Michael Jackson. Among the throng of reporters, he was shocked to see fans on their Blackberrys pushing through media circles to collect and share the news too.

“There is a huge tension between professional reporters and this influx of fans who write or tweet and feel that gives them as much right as anyone to be covering an event,” he says. “To call them citizen journalists seems a little (too high a) salute.”

Zack Taylor live-blogged his way through the 2008 Oscars from the red carpet. Journalists say celebrity bloggers are taking down the industry. He argues they should “check their definition of journalism.”
Zack Taylor live-blogged his way through the 2008 Oscars from the red carpet. Journalists say celebrity bloggers are taking down the industry. He argues they should “check their definition of journalism.”

If Jones sounds resentful, he’s not alone. Although most will credit blogs for rightfully dragging old-school journalism into the technological era, reporters don’t want to share job titles or the media room with amateur writers who are often seen as seeking fame and notoriety. Gone are the days of the glamorous Hollywood reporter who earned exclusive rights to his subjects. As celebrity culture moves toward a frenzied free-for-all, audience participation is soaring.

Gawker.com devotes a section of its website to the cause. The New York-based web magazine’s “Gawker Stalker” encourages anyone who spots a famous person on the street to share the information. Although it used to pinpoint the exact location of a celebrity sighting using Google Maps, the real time virtual display was criticized for jeopardizing the safety of people mentioned on the site and removed.

But users continue to submit tips anonymously, which still often include coordinates. One reads: “Bill Murray in the doorway of some apartment building with a stunning blonde. Wearing a hat and large coat. 1:30am, Nov 25th, 13th and 1st Ave.”

Harassment and paparazzi culture shouldn’t epitomize the entertainment news industry, says Jones who cites TMZ.com, a blog-turned-television show, for encouraging ever-more-invasive personal profiles.

“As someone who actually tries to make a living at this, it’s especially troubling because when people see things like that, it gives them a bad impression about our profession in general and that’s no good for anyone,” he says. “It’s taking the worst and branding us all by those examples.”

Independent operators such as Gawker, Zack Taylor, and the self-proclaimed “Queen of all Media” Perez Hilton, a.k.a Mario Lavandeira, enjoy a freedom reporters don’t. Although they can be sued, there is no universal code of ethics for bloggers.

Magazines and newspapers that hold themselves up to a higher standard are feeling the competition of independent blogs.

“They are under constant siege to lower their journalistic standards to compete with people, with organizations and sites that have none,” says Jones. “That’s a very real pressure.”

Factual errors and speculative reporting are commonplace. Hilton, a Cuban American blogger who writes from Los Angeles, has twice famously published false news stories. Hilton celebrated Fidel Castro’s death in August 2008, before admitting his sources were wrong. In the hours after Michael Jackson’s June 2009 death, Hilton reported it to be a publicity stunt.

Although fans criticized him in the article’s comments section, according to Quantcast web analysis, traffic to Hilton’s blog spiked in the months following Jackson’s death. His readers didn’t seem to mind.

“In terms of enjoyment, I like reading Perez Hilton,” says Tessa Saunders, a 23-year old graduate student in Halifax.

“’He’s inappropriately funny and just more scandalous. He’s quick to respond to what’s happening and maybe not as concerned with checking his information before he posts it, but you can check other sources to see if he’s right.”

Journalists hope that’s what readers will do. And as is typical in the debate over bloggers in the industry, some see their presence as beneficial and empowering.

“I think it actually makes journalism even more interesting, says Lianne George, the deputy editor of Canadian Business. “A lot of the mainstream media gets its ideas from bloggers. It’s just helpful to have a lot of people talking to each other. . . the flow of ideas is freer.”

The impact blogs have had on entertainment news is “huge” and mostly positive, says George, but she hesitates to call it journalism.

“There are checks and balances that exist in newspapers and magazines and traditional media outlets that just don’t exist for bloggers,” she says. “There is no editing process or fact-checking process. The standards for bloggers are discretionary.”

Wading through all of that excess emphasizes the importance of traditional media. It highlights the service professional news sources offer, in helping audiences make sense of the information they read online.

“What the mainstream media do of course is go out and verify it, expand on it,” says George, ”find out the truth to the best of our abilities and offer credible analysis.”

Whether a professional examination of the day’s entertainment news is of value to consumers remains to be seen. The drop in print advertising revenue might be an indication of the economic times but its sluggish sales could also mean readers are turning away from professional reporting.

Ad sales down in print

It’s been a rough period for traditional media. Adding to the pressure to compete with free content, the magazine industry took a huge hit in readership following last year’s financial crisis.
According to the Publisher’s Information Bureau, total magazine advertising sales plummeted 20 per cent between 2008 and 2009. Ok!Weekly was the only entertainment-related magazine to increase its revenue with a 25.9 per cent increase in ad receipts.

The New York Times praised the British import a year earlier for landing sought-after cover stories in its early stages, a factor that more than likely contributed to the magazine’s success with readers and advertisers.

For other entertainment and pop culture magazines, news from Hollywood hasn’t been as sunny.

Ad sales in the first quarter of 2009 had dropped for Rolling Stone, TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, Life & Style, Us Weekly and People.

Meanwhile traffic to gossip blogs soared in 2009. TMZ.com became an unlikely news source when it broke the story on Michael Jackson’s death. Within minutes, media outlets around the world scrambled to confirm the news. The Guardian chronicled TMZ’s coverage of Jackson’s death on the day it happened and found the site had reported the story 18 minutes after Jackson was pronounced dead.

“They do a combination of very good journalism with very bad journalism,” says Jones. “(But) they get to documents first.”

“Arts and entertainment”

Dan Brown was the senior arts reporter at CBC.ca in 2004 when discussions started to favour rebranding his section as “Arts and Entertainment”.

“Believe it or not, there was a huge fight within CBC over changing it,” says Brown, now the senior online editor at the London Free Press. Some members argued the section’s name upheld the CBC’s journalistic standards.

The title changed.

While the arts and the entertainment sections keep separate quarters and URL names within the site, the outward shift is symbolic of changing times. Since the dotcom boom and the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, readers want quick hits and information on people and topics that were historically not considered headline-making material.

“People are less interested or less patient with longer form stories at least so far as they pertain to celebrity and entertainment,” says Jones, of the shift in writing style at People. “They tend to want more factoids than someone waxing poetically about how Julia Roberts eats a cobb salad.”

Reporters must balance being “writerly”, says Jones, and delivering those quick hits, or “scoop items” and immediate information. Whether it’s a result of the instantaneous nature of the Internet or changing tastes, public demand dictates what and how information gets reported.

Journalists say the shifting public consciousness shouldn’t be an excuse for lazy writing.

“It’s too bad because people who are doing actual journalism get lumped in with Perez Hilton,” says Brown. “There are other people who are doing good entertainment journalism, what I would consider idea-driven journalism. We all get lumped into the same category.”

The pressure to turn out gossip-oriented stories is more economical than cultural, says Kamal Al-Solaylee is a journalism professor at Ryerson University and a former arts reporter with the Globe and Mail.

“There is entertainment and there is culture,” he says. “You can write very intelligently about American Idol. You could write a very perceptive piece about the idea of public choosing, the idea of the democratization of public taste, the idea of star-making. You could elevate it to the level of culture, to a think-piece level. Or you could write about what Paula Abdul is wearing today.”

Mainstream media now lean toward the latter, Al-Solaylee says, because “it’s cheaper to do celebrity gossip”. They can’t afford to send an entertainment reporter out for three or four days to research a deeper story.

It might depend on the editor. Dan Brown acknowledges he’s been fortunate to have worked with editors who had higher expectations of their writers and encouraged thoughtful writing.

“For me, there’s never been that demand,” says Brown. “No one’s ever said to me, ‘we love this piece but we want it to be 30 per cent less intelligent.’”

“Paper and ink is very limiting”

Jim Gaines is the editor-in-chief of Flypmedia, a digital magazine viewers can “flip” through to experience rich multimedia. He’s been an outspoken proponent of magazines making the crossover to online and says he’s fed up with publishers who allow their work to fail rather than adapt to a changing market that includes blogs.

The competition that free content brings to journalism is a challenge the mainstream media should face with gusto, says Gaines who has served as managing editor at Time, Life, and People. He believes the move to online news will help the industry.

Steph McGrath, a Halifax-based web developer, says traditional media have to adapt to the changing market for entertainment news.
Steph McGrath, a Halifax-based web developer, says traditional media have to adapt to the changing market for entertainment news.

“I think it sustains journalism by trying to go where the platform is,” he says. “The fact is that paper and ink is very limiting in terms of what you can get off the page.”

Stephanie McGrath, a Halifax-based web developer and entertainment freelancer, says magazines and newspapers are coming around to the idea.

“More traditional publications are realizing that blogs, and Twitter feeds, and Flickr photo streams, and YouTube videos are a way to generate content at a relatively low price,” she says. ”You already do see a Twitter stream on People[.com]. I think you’ll start to see them featuring bloggers more prominently.”

CTV’s eTalk hired blogger Lainey Lui in 2006 as a special correspondent. What began as an email newsletter recapping celebrity gossip turned into a blog, Laineygossip.com, voted one of Entertainment Weekly’s top 100 sites to bookmark and a rising career in reporting.

But if the online version of a magazine already has writers why should it hire bloggers who are, by definition, people who write for the web? Because good web writing requires a skill set some journalists haven’t honed, says Mcgrath.

“It used to be that there would be a web editor for a newspaper and it would be one person taking copy from a newspaper and slapping it up online,” she says. “That doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s about putting just as much editorial focus online as you would have in the past on print and putting your best people on the web instead of making it an afterthought.”

Short and snappy pieces that grab readers’ attention adorn the glittering homepages of the most-read blogs. Mainstream media should take heed; staying current, after all, is the business they’re in.

“I wouldn’t say Perez (Hilton) is a great writer but he can write a headline that gets you,” says McGrath. “He’s the flavour right now. People have always wanted a personalized, editorialized column kind of feel to a certain amount of their information and that’s really what a blog is – it’s an op-ed piece.”

That’s what keeps readers coming back for more.

“We have a much more personal thing,” says Zack Taylor. He knows even the naysayers are drawn by some connection between the author and audience. “I love when people hate on the blog. If someone’s going to write negative comments it means they’re passionate about it anyway.”

Regardless of criticism and arguments to the contrary, Taylor is proud of what he does and says his job is absolutely rooted in journalism.

“Blogs report on what’s happening,” he says. “That’s the definition of journalism. It’s a 24 hour business. It’s a lot of work and a hectic workday.”

Though a professional grudge exists between journalists and bloggers, Oliver Jones can appreciate their success in a struggling industry.

“Listen,” he says, “any way that you can pull off doing something that you like, something as absurd as writing about pop culture and famous people and make a living doing it, I’m impressed.”