I suffered a minor bout of rage-blindness when I read Jack Shafer’s post about journalism’s “Marquee brothers” just one week after Bryan Goldberg bragged about the millions he scored to found a website for women. In Shafer’s telling, there is a “brotherhood” of powerful men in media who have built audiences on their own and now “dictate terms to the people who would ordinarily be their bosses giving the orders.” [Ed. note: I’m sorry, were you looking for a sisterhood? You can find it on the masthead under “Assistant editors,” “Deputy web editors” or “Research editors.” Or in the magical pants aisle.]
The narrative that these men are self-made media brands is some libertarian-bootstrapping bullshit. 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. Nate Silver went from a solo blog to The New York Times, with a deal that allows him to take his following and transport it anywhere. Similarly, Ezra Klein started as a solo blogger, graduated to The American Prospect (where we worked together), and then moved on to found his own Wonkblog, a brand that relies on The Washington Post but can also be moved anywhere. Before he struck out on his own last year, Andrew Sullivan began his career in traditional journalism and then blogged under his own name with a variety of publications playing host.
At each step of the way, at critical points in their careers, each of these men had someone—someone with control over a budget—look at them and say, “Yes. We want your voice. And we’re going to give you a space that you control so you can express it to the fullest.” This isn’t to say these male journalists didn’t deserve their success or that they aren’t good at what they do. I admire each and every one of them. But none of them built a following on their own and then went to America’s biggest publications and started making demands. They had toeholds at smaller publications and in less-prominent jobs along the way that helped them build the audience that eventually let them demand their own space.
This, of course, is not the only thing they have in common. They are also all men! “Why exactly is that?” Shafer asks. You can almost hear him scratching his chin. Well, let me tell you, Jack: This is a pipeline problem. You can trace it back through years of trend pieces about the rise of the dudeblogger-entrepreneur. Seven years ago, the narrative was about a group of scrappy young men who’d parlayed their amateur blogs into full-time journalism jobs. Two years ago, the narrative was about how that same group of young men was growing up—getting ever more prestigious positions at the most respected publications in America and building a pretty big audience. Is it any wonder that the 2013 narrative is about a “brotherhood” of journalists who are essentially their own mini-empires and can demand what they want from the established media companies that host them?
Narratives matter. 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. Theirs are the names that leap to mind. It’s like a sexist perpetual-motion machine. By the time we get to the advanced-empire stage of making demands and running spinoff sites, is it any wonder that women are conspicuously absent? [Ed. note: Well, not totally absent. They are often editing and assisting and doing the web producing for these men.]
This isn’t to say there are no female journalists with devoted fans. As Shafer asks, “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?” 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. 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? I don’t know, either. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that neither Wortham nor Parker-Pope was ever featured in a trend story about the rise of a new class of widely read journalists who rely on blogging but also have reporting chops.
I don’t think this all boils down to female journalists’ reluctance to stoke controversy, as Anna North argues at Salon, though that’s probably a part of it. Not to go all Sheryl Sandberg on you, but I think it has more to do with the limits of many women’s professional imaginations. There are studies that say most women still don’t see themselves as boss material, as CEOs, as presidents. Entrepreneurs are disproportionately white and male. While each of the men in Shafer’s “brotherhood” had the support and backing of major media outlets to help them build a following, they each chose to use that following to create something they owned more explicitly. I’m confident that if Nate Silver just wanted to be a widely read staff writer, or if Ezra Klein wanted to be a reporter with a large Twitter following, both of their employers would have been okay with that. These men recognized the audience and pull they had, they demanded more, and they got what they asked for. This requires a formidable amount of self-confidence at a time when most of us are just grateful we’re still employed as journalists and managing to pay our rent.
How many women want to run their own media empire someday? I know it’s more than zero, because I’m one of them. It’s one reason I created a weekly newsletter. It’s why, even though I’m a freelance writer who should probably be selling a piece of this length for at least a few hundred dollars, I decided to post it in on my own site, under a large graphic of my own name. It’s why I’m only half-joking when I tell my friends I’m going to put myself on the cover of every issue of A: The Ann Magazine. [Ed. note: Don’t worry, that’s merely the working title.] I’m doing pretty well at building a following for my work that’s mine alone, not reliant on the individual outlets I write for. But I’ve never approached a publisher or editor-in-chief to ask for my own vertical, or the funding to create my own mini-empire. That’s partly because I’m having a lot of fun as a free agent. But it’s partly because I’m pretty sure they would turn me down.
So thanks, Jack Shafer, for helping me with some five-year goal setting. When I do decide to pitch an established media company or some VC investors on financing my own publication, I’m going to include every trend story about the future of journalism, along with notes about what I was busy doing each time these men were profiled. There will be footnotes about my own Twitter following and the number of newsletter subscribers I have and my proven ability to cultivate a strong editorial voice. I’ll be sure to attach a budget that, at slightly less than $6.5 million, is going to look like a goddamn bargain.