When CJR placed Elise Andrew on our September/October cover alongside the title “journalism’s first self-made brand”, we unleashed a tirade from readers angered by so lofty a title landing on someone so…unfamiliar—a 25-year-old woman, whose entrance to the media world came with little more than a wifi connection and a voicy tone. “This was absolutely NOT worth CJR’s cover,” wrote one commenter on the site. Because Andrew’s wildly successful site, “I Fucking Love Science,” isn’t run by “a traditional journalist or even a journalist,” another wrote, “it amazes me that CJR would waste so much space on covering it.”
Andrew is an obvious outsider to the list of names bandied about as pioneers of digital journalism—a mostly older, almost entirely male set—and the choice riled readers. Plenty of people have started journalism outlets independently of corporations—even before the proliferation of digital platforms made the process of independent publishing simpler than ever.
But what makes Andrew different is that she introduced her brand to such a wide audience without the aid or endorsement of journalistic institutions. She didn’t study journalism in college, like Daily Kos founder Markos Zúniga. She didn’t train as a reporter (and establish her skills and public clout) inside one of legacy media’s great institutions, like Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, or Andrew Sullivan. Gawker founder Nick Denton had years of experience and connections from a journalism career when he founded his empire, and before launching Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall was already a professional journalist who was repeatedly profiled by a roster of prestigious outlets, including CJR.
And while Matt Drudge—the most interesting of the names introduced as competition for ‘self-built journalism brand’—didn’t found The Drudge Report from within the mainstream press, he certainly didn’t shy away from it while he built his brand. Drudge helped fuel his enterprise by his appearances on, and relationship with, conservative talk radio hosts, like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Both Drudge and his partner Andrew Breitbart were covered extensively in the press.
But when Andrew’s Facebook page began to gain audience and traction, she declined to capitalize on her fledgling fame by translating it into magazine profiles, newspaper interviews, and television appearances.
This self-enforced outsider status is precisely what makes her so compelling, and so unique. I decided to profile Andrew, in part, because she was such an elusive subject—even to me. (Getting an interview request declined took almost eight months of reporting.) When most media entrepreneurs jump at the chance for extra publicity, Andrew had almost exclusively demurred.
And despite her comparatively humble, outsider origins, and her refusal to play the game that makes stars rise, Andrew’s 18 million strong audience audience on Facebook outnumbers all her fellow digital vanguards combined: Perez Hilton (1.2 million Facebook followers), Matt Drudge (646,707 Facebook followers), Andrew Sullivan (3,587 Facebook followers), Talking Points Memo (275,120 Facebook followers), and Gawker (847,319 Facebook followers). It’s not even a close competition.
Her reasoning behind her press-shy status is simple. “Interviews frighten me a little bit, as does any sort of publicity,” Andrew wrote in an email. (After my story was published, Andrew began replying to my correspondence.) “Every time I’ve done some sort of popular interview, it’s resulted in a storm of hateful comments about my personal life, my personality, my page … everything.)”
And, quite simply, why should she engage the press? Though what Andrew produces takes a journalistic form—accumulating information, analyzing it, aggregating it, adding value—she doesn’t aspire to its loftiest towers. Nor do her staffers. (When I asked a staff writer whether she considered herself a journalist, she at first couldn’t decide. Then said no. Then emailed me back an hour after our interview: “I guess ‘science journalist’ would probably fit.”)
Andrew could be prolific throughout the pages, covers, and websites of the legacy media and well-established digital brands. She could be everywhere. But she doesn’t need the press—even for one of its fundamental tasks: generating publicity. So unlike the media entrepreneurs who have come before her, Andrew built her brand entirely without our help. As someone who earns a living writing about the media, it’s an uncomfortable fact, but not an uninteresting one.Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.