The Media Today

In defense of the Taylor Swift and Beyoncé beats

October 2, 2023
FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2009 file photo, Beyonce, left, holds her "Video of the Year" award while Taylor Swift addresses the crowd at the MTV Music Video Awards, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)

Last weekend, Taylor Swift was spotted cheering on the Kansas City Chiefs football team alongside the mother of Travis Kelce, the Chiefs tight end, pouring jet fuel on rumors of a romance. Fox cut to Swift nine times during its broadcast of the game, which was the most viewed telecast of the week on any network; the NFL featured Swift in ten videos posted to its official TikTok account, changing its bio to “Taylor was here.” After a tweet observing that Swift ate a piece of chicken with “ketchup and seemingly ranch!” went viral, Heinz started marketing the combination; Merriam-Webster weighed in on the use of “seemingly,” while Bon Appétit probed whether the ranch was actually what it seemed to be. Through the week, Swift chatter—and excruciating puns—lit up the social, mainstream, and right-wing mediaspheres alike, with the latter’s culture warriors picking over Swift’s feminism and Kelce’s advocacy for COVID vaccines and Bud Light (don’t ask). Yesterday, Swift went to see Kelce play again, at the New York Jets. At one point, the Chiefs scored a touchdown; the shot panned to Swift celebrating before cutting to a commercial for the movie of her smash Eras Tour (which is also expected to be a smash). “We have achieved the quintessence of capitalism,” the Washington Post tech reporter Steven Zeitchik observed. “Nothing now or future-devised will ever top it.” 

Two weeks prior to all this, USA Today and The Tennessean, a pair of papers owned by Gannett, America’s biggest local-news chain, made a splash of their own when they posted a job listing for a full-time Taylor Swift reporter. “We are looking for an energetic writer, photographer and social media pro who can quench an undeniable thirst for all things Taylor Swift with a steady stream of content across multiple platforms,” the listing read. “Seeing both the facts and the fury, the Taylor Swift reporter will identify why the pop star’s influence only expands, what her fanbase stands for in pop culture, and the effect she has across the music and business worlds.” The following day, the papers posted a similar listing for a reporter to cover Beyoncé, who has also been on a wildly successful tour, focusing on her “music, fashion, cultural and economic influence.” In both cases, applicants were asked to submit not only a résumé and clips, but a “video cover letter.” (Also required: a firm command of AP style and a driver’s license. The listing for an Olivia Rodrigo reporter is presumably coming soon.)

Late last week, the Wall Street Journal’s Alexandra Bruell and Ann-Marie Alcántara shared an update on the hunt, reporting that in two weeks, Gannett had fielded close to a thousand applications for the two jobs, including from “Emmy-award winning journalists, an influencer whose Beverly Hills agent reached out about the job and a reporter who currently works at the White House.” One applicant for the Swift post spent six hours making a Legally Blonde spoof in her parents’ pool; an applicant for the Beyoncé job referred back to TikTok videos he’d made role-playing as a correspondent for Beyoncé’s fictional news network, including an interview with a horse pictured on the front of her album Renaissance. “This is how we save local journalism,” Kristin Roberts, Gannett’s chief content officer, told the Journal. “This is what we need to do.”

After posting the jobs, Gannett fielded not only a flood of applications but a torrent of criticism, much of it from journalists pointing to the company’s track record of, erm, not saving local journalism—earlier this year, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton calculated that Gannett is now less than half the size it was when it merged with its then-rival GateHouse in 2019. (Roberts told the Journal that Gannett has recently hired two hundred and sixty reporters and is filling around a hundred open roles.) No few of the critics also took aim at the focus of the new beats, dismissing them as gimmicks when America’s local-news landscape is desperately short on reporters covering local government or high school sports. “At a time when so much serious news and local reporting is being cut, it’s a decision to raise some questions about,” Poynter’s Rick Edmonds told the AP. The New York Post’s Johnny Oleksinski wrote a sneery column from the perspective of the Swift reporter. (“I certainly empathize with how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein must have felt while working on their similarly vital coverage of Richard Nixon.”)

Gannett, of course, deserves sharp scrutiny for the cuts to its newsrooms, and it is hard, if not impossible, to assess the merits of the Swift and Beyoncé jobs absent this immediate context. And yet those who view the jobs as inherently trivial in isolation need to calm down. (What? You really thought I was above an excruciating pun?) One only has to peruse last week’s headlines to see how serious a subject Swift and Beyoncé are—and that’s before meeting any of their diehard fans. And, if the juxtaposition of the postings and the backdrop of cuts illuminates the perils of the news ecosystem we have, it should also at least point toward a better path forward.

To start with the jobs in isolation, suggestions of their triviality are not only old-fashioned—and perhaps worse; Omise’eke Tinsley, an academic who has written about Beyoncé and Black feminism, saw an “implicit misogyny” in some of the criticism—but also obviously misguided: Swift and Beyoncé have amassed immense power that is by turns cultural, economic, and political. As Gannett’s listing noted, Beyoncé “has been a force in everything from how the country views race to how women think about their partners”; when she launched her recent tour in Sweden, some economists suggested that she may have had an impact on the rate of inflation in the country. Similar suggestions have been made (though not without contestation) about Swift’s tour, while Politico wrote last week about her “unavoidable” political influence, noting, among other things, that she spurred Congress to scrutinize ticket-selling practices and drove an apparent spike in voter registration after steering her social media followers to the site Last week, Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, called Swift’s influence “profoundly powerful”; indeed, as MSNBC’s Ari Melber pointed out, it’s this power that right-wing culture warriors fear. If a journalist’s job is to scrutinize power, here it is, in abundance. 

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Some of the language that Gannett and its representatives have used to describe the new jobs has ranged from the cringe-inducing (Roberts on Swift: “She is shaping a generation and is relevant, influential and innovative—just like us”) to the concerning—talk of “quenching” “thirst” for “content” and of “capturing” “excitement” registers for many journalists like the sound of chalk on a blackboard. Some critics fear that the jobs could veer into full-time fandom under the aegis of a serious news organization. But Gannett has said that it is looking for its new reporters to contribute “thoughtful analysis” and to have “a voice—but not a bias” (a requirement that initially tickled me but actually opens up interesting new vistas in the endless debate over journalistic objectivity). And fandom, covered properly, is essential to these beats—as a key source of these artists’ aforementioned power. (Their music, of course, is a key source, too.)

Covered properly is a crucial caveat here—ultimately, I see reasons to be both hopeful and skeptical in the creation of these jobs and the way Gannett has advertised them. The proof will be in the pudding; if the jobs turn out to be little more than a shallow play for clicks, then the operative word will be “content,” not journalism. Roberts told the Journal that the new jobs are (in the Journal’s words) “expected to generate revenue for the broader business, including local newsrooms.” Reinvestment would, of course, be welcome. But there’s no guarantee such a play will work—and it surely won’t at the scale that would be needed to compensate not only for Gannett’s cuts, but the poverty of the local-news ecosystem as a whole. We should clearly not be counting on the Taylor Swift and Beyoncé beats to save local journalism. They will not.

To my mind, though, truly saving local journalism would entail creating an ecosystem with sufficient resources to cover not only local government and high school sports, but Swift and Beyoncé—and even whether the former’s sauce choice was ranch after all—without any of this seeming like an unaffordable indulgence. Practically, of course, much of the anger at Gannett has been directed at the company’s perceived priorities, and it is totally understandable on such terms. (Gannett has said that it is not hiring for the new roles at the expense of others.) Put more broadly, though, this anger is about the incentives of profit-driven media—and busting out of those incentives will require more imaginative solutions than reallocating two new hires’ salaries to perceived weightier beats. Talk about the quintessence of capitalism.

Other notable stories:

  • In August, police in Kansas sparked a national uproar when they raided the premises of the Marion County Record, a local newspaper, in connection with its reporting on a local business owner’s drunk-driving conviction. Gideon Cody—the local police chief, who had also been under investigation by Record reporters—defended the raid and Dave Mayfield, the mayor of Marion, said that he would wait for the results of a state police probe before taking any action. Over the weekend, however, Mayfield confirmed that Cody has now been suspended, without saying whether he is still being paid. (ICYMI, the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Seth Stern wrote about the raid for CJR.)
  • Last week, a federal judge in Minnesota moved, in unusually sharp language, to reject efforts by the city of Minneapolis and a local sheriff’s office to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that local law enforcement targeted journalists during the protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. The judge ruled that the suit offers “substantial evidence” that officers “deliberately and systematically targeted journalists”; observers told the Star Tribune that the verdict will likely put pressure on the defendants to settle the case rather than, as one put it, “exposing themselves and the public to the truth.”
  • On Friday, the Supreme Court confirmed that it will consider a pair of landmark laws, aimed at regulating platforms’ right to moderate content, in the court’s new term, which begins today. The laws—passed by state lawmakers in Texas and Florida and stemming from conservatives’ insistent (if thinly evidenced) claims that they are being censored online—raise profound questions about the First Amendment, and it’s not yet clear how the justices will rule. (CJR’s Mathew Ingram recently wrote about the cases, and others.)
  • Over the weekend, Alicia Menendez, an anchor on MSNBC, broke her silence around the corruption charges facing her father, Senator Bob Menendez, telling viewers that she has been “watching along with all of you, as a citizen and also as his daughter,” and that while her colleagues will cover the case “aggressively,” she will not. Menendez was off air after the charges dropped ten days ago; sources said her absence was coincidental.
  • And the party of Robert Fico—the press-bashing former prime minister of Slovakia who was forced from office in 2018 following the murders of the investigative reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová—took first place in parliamentary elections in the country, opening the door for Fico to stage a comeback subject to coalition negotiations that will start this week. I wrote about his possible return last week.

ICYMI: Back to Work

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.