Q&A: Jezebel’s new EIC on its legacy of fearless feminist reporting and what’s next

Long before investigations into the sexual misconduct appeared in the pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker, Jezebel was on it. The former Gawker property tackled topics like sexual harassment, rape culture, and sexism when more traditional news organizations wouldn’t or couldn’t. Take for example fashion photographer Terry Richardson. Jezebel reported on his predatory behavior in 2010, a grand total of seven years before Condé Nast blacklisted him.

For 10 years, Jezebel’s been the leading voice on women’s issues. But that’s changing as the national reckoning of powerful men continues. Mainstream news organizations, whether it’s the Times or BuzzFeed, are expanding their coverage of gender and women’s issues. So, what does this mean for Jezebel?

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This is the question Koa Beck is tasked with answering as Jezebel’s new editor in chief. Beck comes to Jezebel at a critical moment in journalism and for the website, as this year marks its 10th anniversary. The former executive editor of Vogue.com, she assumed the role last month, after Emma Carmichael stepped down in June.

Beck spoke with CJR about her move to Jezebel, her vision for the website, and Jezebel’s influence on recent media coverage of sexual harassment. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

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You just started as the editor in chief of Jezebel last month. What made you want to take on this role?

Because it’s Jezebel.

I owe a tremendous amount of my career to Jezebel, especially because I was such an avid reader at such a formative age in my life and my career. I started reading Jezebel in my early 20s, fresh from a women’s college, having just come to New York. One of the big disconnects, as somebody who wanted to write and wanted to work in media and wanted to report in addition to being a fiction writer, was [about] the concepts, systemic oppression, gender theories I had learned about in this very cloistered, idyllic women’s college atmosphere. When I actually stepped out as an adult into the landscape of media, [I found that] women’s media was not covering or addressing them in any significant way.

Jezebel I came to very naturally, looking for an outlet that would talk about rape culture in a way that I understood and thought felt more urgent. I really credit Jezebel for putting that formula together very early, which in turn made my career in women’s media possible. I’ve worked at Vogue, Marie Claire, and a number of outlets where I’ve been able to report on and contribute significantly to these topics.

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This is obviously an interesting and critical moment to be at Jezebel. A lot of these major stories on powerful men and sexual harassment, from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey, had their origins on the site. What’s been the influence of the website on this moment in journalism? And also on the larger cultural conversation?

Jezebel’s arrival to this issue cannot be understated. In this climate where survivors are being believed and white men are losing their jobs and professional standing, I’m seeing Jezebel reporting from five years ago, six years ago, seven years ago re-circulating on Twitter. We’re seeing traffic from reporting that Jezebel alumni did several years ago. It’s really gratifying that large swaths of the Internet, they remember. They remember reading those allegations first on Jezebel.

 

There’s also been an internal reckoning within our industry. People like Charlie Rose, Leon Wieseltier, and John Hockenberry all have been removed from their positions of power. What do you think will be the impact of the reporting on sexual harassers within our own industry?

When the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke, you had a lot of women reporting or aggregating content or scrambling to work on pieces of their own and literally filing those pieces to the man who has abused them in their own work setting. Consider for a second the dynamic that woman is in, and then you have prominent men grandstanding on Twitter about the Harvey allegations, too. What we will continue to see in media is that it’s a systemic problem. It’s not isolated to one outlet or one person. A lot of these predators have had significant systems they used to abuse people. I think a lot of outlets will continue be be affected. I hate to borrow Trump terminology, but drain the swamp.

 

As a woman and journalist, it can be a bit taxing and exhausting consuming story after story about the abuses of these powerful men. Is there a fear of reader fatigue with all this coverage?

Definitely. I’ve been open with my staff about my fears about reader fatigue. All of these moments, and all these allegations absolutely should be logged and registered. I’ve shifted strategies for the team in terms of how we approach stories and where stories live on the site. We have two running lists of post-Weinstein allegations. We constantly update it and re-social it all the time. And there are key moments with certain stories, certain victims, certain predators with which we devote considerably more resources to. That’s keeping reader fatigue in mind. My biggest fear is that people will start to glaze over, and people won’t care anymore. I see that as my larger responsibility in running this outlet.

I also have to take into consideration my staff and their wellbeing. I have around 20 people on staff right now. Statistically, that means a number of them have been impacted by this sort of violence, and I do consider that as a woman running Jezebel. Being in front of these allegations every day, ad nauseam, that are very graphic, it could potentially hurt them, exhaust them, and understandably deplete them. So I’ve shifted things around so people can take breaks, have a little bit of distance, and report with more vigor.

Around the time I was being courted for this position, the Weinstein allegations broke in The New York Times, and I came on about a month later, so the staff had already been treading tremendous water in keeping up with those. When I started, I mandated personal days for everyone on staff.

 

Jezebel previously filled a void when reporting on harassment and sexism. But now other news organizations are tackling these topics, too. Where does Jezebel fit now?

Jezebel’s influence on media, and not just women’s media, is unprecedented. The fact is that women’s media couldn’t even necessarily be relevant without taking a page from Jezebel’s editorial strategy. As far as where Jezebel will be going in its next iteration, I absolutely plan to take conversations farther than a lot of our competitors would.

One of my big plans for 2018 is that I want to recontextualize “women’s issues,” which is a limited umbrella along a spectrum of gender. A lot of our competitors are not really doing that in a coherent, accessible, and often boundary-pushing way. I think Jezebel, given its history and legacy of topics, is uniquely poised to do this.

 

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of Jezebel. How have you seen it evolve since its early days? And where do you see it going now?

Gender is a landscape I want to tackle much more aggressively. I still want to cover women’s issues, but I want to contextualize them.

One of the examples I’m currently using for the staff, in changes I’m making to our style guide and tweaking our editorial scope, is that you don’t necessarily have to identify as a woman to have your abortion rights now compromised in this country. I don’t see enough conversation about that, especially considering that a wealth of statistical reporting says again and again that people 10 years younger than me don’t necessarily believe in the gender binary. And yet this is a generation that will grow up and need abortion access, is going to need a conversation around birth control, is going to need a conversation around sexual harassment, and again I see a lot of our competitors speaking to a very cis woman audience. I think that’s outdated.

Seeing the way Jezebel completely changed media as a very young women was formative for me. Going forward, I also plan to throw considerable more weight behind investigative reporting, features reporting. Another topic I want to prioritize, especially under the Trump administration, is to explicitly frame immigration as a feminist issue. When you have white nationalists out and proud, you can’t talk about immigration without stumbling upon at least four feminist tentpole issues, whether it’s the wage gap, discrimination, abortion access, or sexual harassment.

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.