Reuters columnist Jack Shafer's recent piece about the rising crop of journo-bloggers is starting to attract attention — and a good bit of criticism. The "Marquee Brothers," as Shafer christens them, are writers housed by major journalism brands who've been granted independence from their publications, and used that independence to develop their own voices and attract loyal followings. Think Andrew Sullivan (formerly of the Daily Beast, Time, and The Atlantic); ESPN's Nate Silver (formerly of the New York Times); the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, who writes for Wonkblog, and ESPN's Bill Simmons, who writes for Grantland.
"The Marquee Brothers, like successful auteur film directors, can dictate terms to the people who would ordinarily be their bosses giving the orders," Shafer writes. "Like film directors, the Marquee Brothers have capitalized on the erosion of old, reliable brands and the unbundling of news caused by, among other things, the advent of the internet."
Shafer's comparison to the power of film directors particularly evokes the dawn of New Hollywood in the late 60s and early 70s. As TV and the rising tide of baby boomers, who were more educated and pickier than their film-going parents, chipped away at the film industry's profits, the big studios threw a collective Hail Mary pass to a bunch of young, overeager, and inexperienced hipster filmmakers. Naturally, the effort was a failure, yielding colossal flops like The Godfather, Star Wars, Jaws, and Taxi Driver and launching the careers of quickly forgotten nobodies like Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
In all seriousness, though, Shafer's is a tantalizing allusion. The film industry wasn't half as desperate in the mid 60s as journalism is today. And although it'd be silly to expect, say, Andrew Ross-Sorkin's DealBook to do for journalism what Star Wars did for filmmaking, the trend Shafer points to really does seem to be potentially game-changing in a positive way. Esteemed outlets are putting their resources, clout, and faith behind intelligent and unique voices, counterbalancing the loudmouthed punditry and carbon-copy reportage that currently dominates the media landscape. Sounds like a good thing, right?
Apparently not. New York Magazine columnist and blogger Ann Friedman came out swinging against Shafer and his piece in a blistering post on Tumblr. Her response is a fairly puzzling nuke-the-messenger piece that indicts Shafer for making the latest contribution to an ongoing series of implicitly sexist stories about young male journalists on the rise. "The narrative that these men are self-made media brands is some libertarian-bootstrapping bullshit," she says. "Each of these brothers didn’t build an independent empire. They were hired for staff jobs of increasing prominence by higher-ups (most of them, I’m going to wager a guess, also male) at established media organizations." This is a criticism that would sting if it were actually true.
Shafer never — not once — claims that that the Marquees are entirely "self-made". In fact, he makes a point of contrasting them with the old guard of brand-name journalists like Walter Lippman and Robert Novak, who were self-made, almost fully independent, and, "regularly migrated to new papers or syndicates, or established broadcasting beachheads."
Shafer also never actually says, as Friedman claims, that the Marquees, "built a following on their own and then went to America’s biggest publications and started making demands." That said, if Shafer had said as much, the notion wouldn't be any more inaccurate than Friedman's claim that the Marquees' became successful by simply being, "hired for staff jobs of increasing prominence," a statement that is decidedly untrue in the case of professor and Marquee Brother Steven Levitt, who had no history of employment in journalism before he partnered with journalist Stephen J. Dubner on the book Freakonomics and the site freakonomics.com. Yes, most of the Marquees had traditional staff jobs at some point. But Friedman makes it seem as if they all gradually moved from promotion to promotion, like traditional journalists.
The truth is that the Marquee Brothers don't owe their success to slow accruals of approval and support from higher ups. The Freakonomics guys, for example, didn't start as peons at some newspaper and spend years building a base of support. Dubner isn't where he is today because he continued up a traditional chain of promotions. In fact, he quit both his job as a New York Magazine story editor and New York Times contributor to cowrite Freakonomics. It was a world-conquering hit. He and Levitt started their popular blog, and were scooped up by Time.
Nate Silver worked in the consulting industry, quit, and scrounged together a living playing online poker before he turned to baseball forecasting at Baseball Prospectus. It's true that Silver wrote freelance articles for established outlets, but he also wrote books, and started FiveThirtyEight as an independent blog that he ran on his own through the 2008 election. It was only after the election, and the attention he'd received, that he was picked up by traditional outlets: first by Esquire, and then by the New York Times.
None of the Marquees were in a position to make demands from traditional media outlets right off the bat. But they weren't beholden to them, either. They didn't lord over "independent empires" before they were tapped by their publications. None of the Marquees are entirely self made; they all depended on the support and salaries of traditional outlets along the way. But they are, all of them, partially self-made.
And even the Marquees who did start as traditional journalists, like Andrew Sullivan, have magnified their profiles by pursuing out-of-house opportunities. As Shafer writes, the Marquees make money and waves "via conferences, books, lectures, movies, TV, and more, signaling to the journalism profession that if you’re a mere reporter or editor, you’re doing it wrong." To be sure, star journalists have always been fixtures on the lecture circuit and written books. But the pursuit of those opportunities has rarely, if ever, determined the degree of editorial independence reporters are given. Until now.
But what about the place of women in all of this? Friedman is right to note that, so far, there doesn't seem to be one. "The thing that’s missing from this story are the publishers and editors clamoring to see female journalists as brands that could be cultivated and allowed to flourish even more if given their own space," she writes. "Why hasn’t The New York Times given Jenna Wortham her own tech vertical and/or branded Tara Parker-Pope’s health blog as aggressively as it has Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight?"
Friedman, along with Salon's Anna North, says the self-imposed limits women place on themselves professionally are among the reasons for the difference. Friedman cites the reluctance of women to see themselves as "boss material." For North, it's women's reluctance to step outside their journalistic comfort zones, and "stoke controversy." I won't speculate, except to say that, as Friedman and North would likely write themselves, spending time criticizing women for not being bold enough, instead of criticizing their male bosses for not paying closer attention, risks missing the point of the effort entirely. The burden should be on the powers that be to recognize the great work women are already doing, the followings they've already attracted, and the controversies that many are already courting.
Interestingly, this is the kind of criticism Friedman makes against Shafer's piece. "This is a pipeline problem," she writes. "You can trace it back through years of trend pieces about the rise of the dudeblogger-entrepreneur."
"Narratives matter," she goes on to say. "When publishers who are not super keyed into the internet read in the New York Times that there are these young men who are redefining media and building a dedicated online following, you can bet those young men become more attractive hires — and that they have more bargaining power."
The argument here is that by writing his article as a story about men, Shafer only reinforced the disproportionate influence of male journalists down the line. But that makes one wonder: what, exactly, does Friedman think Shafer should have written? The continuing "dudeblogger" chronicles might be tiresome, but the narrative itself really is worth writing about. Klein, Sullivan, and company really are changing journalism. The fact that the majority of the Marquees are male is an inescapable fact. Moreover, as Friedman herself acknowledges, Shafer does write about the lack of women in the trend, and lists a slew of female journalists who could fit the model:
"[S]o far, I spot no sisters in the ‘hood, unless Nikki Finke qualifies. Why, exactly, is that? Do not Jane Bryant Quinn, Xeni Jardin, Jane Mayer, Jackie MacMullan, Chrystia Freeland (my erstwhile Reuters boss), and other female journalists command sizable audiences that could go vertical? Am I missing something here? Is Oprah Winfrey the best example of a valuable media talent who is also portable and female? And she’s not even a journalist."
Shafer goes out of his way to describe the very problem Friedman raises. He's identified the lack of representation, and says it makes no outward sense. Would female journalists have been better served if Shafer hadn't written anything, and had allowed the trend to hum along without any kind of analysis? If anything, journalists of all stripes should appreciate the fact that Shafer identifies the need for female and minority uber-bloggers. Shafer's piece, has, if anything, made it ever-so-slightly more likely that female writers will rise to positions of similar prominence, simply by virtue of the fact that this conversation is being had at all.
What's clear is that the lack of female Nate Silvers betrays that women still face inequities in journalism — inequities that probably have as much, if not more, to do with plain old sexism as they do with a lack of confidence among women. Uncomplicated, untroubled narratives about the successes of male journalists can exacerbate the problem, but Shafer's piece does not.