“Well, and why does anyone become a writer in the first place?” he asked, stressing the first syllable of “writer,” as if the word itself could only ever be uttered with implied air quotes. “The same reason they start playing guitar in high school and try forming bands. To draw attention to themselves.”
Considering all this, it seems odd to tell you that working for Gawker Media was probably the least-demoralizing media job I’ve ever held. The principal reason is that I eventually blundered into an unexpected intimacy with readers on the dreaded “demand” side of the equation, who turned out to want something other than, or in addition to, what everyone and their algorithms suggested.
Producing a Web site that targets women requires engaging with the topics that have always been the focus of media that target women. But since for me this was mostly an experiment in personal brand-building, I did not feel compelled to conceal my contempt for these topics, and for the reprobate economic forces that, I reasoned, had forced me to write about them. Contempt would just have to be part of the “Moe Tkacik brand” (which was not to be confused with the body of mostly respectable journalism produced by Maureen Tkacik).
Of all the resentments I had accumulated before coming to Jezebel, I had never much dwelled on the misfortune of being born a woman. But women, who so disproportionately bear the nothing-based economy’s unrelenting fusillade of invented insecurities and predatory sales pitches, were ideally positioned to share my list of grievances. It makes sense, in retrospect, that a readership so universally practiced in the faking of things—orgasms, hair color, age, disinterest in men one was actually interested in, etc.—would humor the intolerance for fakery that helped define the “Moe Tkacik brand,” which was basically an angrier, more recklessly confessional, and more contemptuous version of myself.
This point about fakery was driven home for me by a (pretty brilliant) idea that Nick Denton had—to offer a cash reward to whichever turncoat from a women’s magazine slipped us the most egregious example of a retouched cover image. The winner submitted the original version of a ludicrously altered Redbook cover featuring the country singer Faith Hill, which I posted, along with the published cover and a fake art-department memo, under the tagline, “Photoshop of Horrors.” The thing paid for itself with a deluge of traffic and all manner of “mainstream” media attention.
But the real revelation, to me at least, was that the readers who came for Faith Hill returned for posts about the Iranian insurgency, the foreclosure crisis, military contracting, campaign finance, corporate malfeasance, the global food crisis—essentially whatever I found outrageous or absurd or interesting on a given day.
When I realized I could be more honest and funnier about a wider array of topics than any other job had allowed—let alone demanded—I felt I owed it to the readers to become something more than the scornful persona that was Gawker’s trademark. When the timeless dilemmas of dating and dieting and “having it all” invariably cropped up, I felt both liberated and obligated to “overshare,” as they say, copping to all manner of offenses I would have elided in earlier jobs: unprotected sex, a history of eating disorders, a newfound dependence on attention-deficit-disorder drugs, belief in God, etc. This enabled me to more honestly confront feminist pieties and hypocrisies, write more vividly and confidently, and perhaps even challenge the stereotypes about “women who write about shit that happened to them.”
From a commercial perspective, “branding” has consistently bestowed its greatest rewards on those capable of projecting a kind of elusive authority that turns consumers’ fears, insecurities, aspirations, unarticulated dreams, etc. into healthy profit margins. But a sense of humanity is also a kind of authority. And maybe the best policy for our beaten-down population of journalists just naturally involves letting down the old guard of objectivity and letting go of illusions of unimpeachability. Rather than train journalists to dismiss their own experiences, what if we trained them to use those experiences to help them explain the news to their audience? Allow their humanity to shape their journalism? This isn’t some radically profound notion—it only seems that way in the context of the ridiculous zero-sum debate over the relative merits of “straight” news versus the self-absorbed nature of blogs. Maybe there is a way to combine the best of both.