My application to become The (Nashville) Tennessean’s Taylor Swift beat reporter failed. That’s possibly because, as a person entrenched in his habits, I have never heard a Taylor Swift song*.
This is a real job, to the alarm of many serious journalists in the business. There also was a Beyonce beat reporter position for hire. The Tennessean announced that hire Monday
Beats, meaning an area assigned to a reporter to find stories on a regular basis, sure have changed since they began more than a century ago. They’ve traditionally meant geographic areas and government jurisdictions, which often had the unfortunate effect of defining news as mostly what the existing power structure defined as news.
But in recent decades, newsrooms have come to base beats also on subjects (health, science and business, for instances), issues (economic inequality, social justice and climate change, for examples), and demographics (e.g. Gen Z and LGBTQ+). Some beats are quite specific. The New York Times created a “future of work” beat during the pandemic. The Alabama Media Group has a Black Joy reporter. It’s all good.
But full-time assignments focused exclusively on a single person are rare, if not unprecedented. That Swift and Beyonce are entertainers has added to the head shaking in the news media.
Of course, Gannett, which owns the USA Today Network including The Tennessean, argues that the music superstars are also major newsmakers in the realms of economics, culture and social relationships. That’s not wrong. (Consider Swift’s Eras Tour and the Ticketmaster monopoly debate.) The Gannett coverage plan, at least as advertised, is that the Swift and Beyonce reporters will produce serious stories, not fluff.
I dunno. I can imagine lots of legitimate stories, but producing the volume expected of a full-time reporter will inevitably mean cranking out some garbage. That seems harmless until you consider all the other important stories in the world that didn’t get done because there wasn’t anyone to do them.
Which brings up the next complaint. Gannett, the nation’s largest news chain, has closed some publications and steadily slashed its staff in recent years. It laid off 600 employees in 2022. That’s a lot of lost stories, so it’s fair to wonder if the company favors celebrity news and page views over valuable civic journalism.
Among the outrage and mocking prompted by the newly created positions, former Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Laura D. Testino, who now works for Chalkbeat Tennessee (and was one of my earliest students), got national attention when she pointed out on X: “Nashville is getting a Taylor Swift reporter. Memphis is still without an investigative reporter.”
Gannett’s chief content officer argues that essential journalism “includes providing our audience with content they crave.” She also says the new beats will generate page-view revenue that will go in part to local newsrooms. (If that happens, I suspect it will be a trickle-down effect longer than the Nile.)
The company’s advertising, which is no longer posted, suggested it wants real journalists for these jobs, including at least five years of experience, platform versatility and knowledge of Associated Press style (see, my students, this is why I make you learn that stuff). It said Gannett wants candidates “without bias” but then laid waste to that idea by encouraging Taylor Swift fans to apply for “the job of your wildest dreams.” And indeed, the Taylor job went last week to a self-acknowledged Swiftie (a man who once had his photo taken with her, LOL.)
That’s another problem here. Gannett may claim it has other ideas, but it is creating beats where the success of the beats depends on cranking out nothing but positive news. That’s not any serious person’s idea of journalism.
*Yes, this is embarrassing and I plan to rectify this. By the way, it’s really clever how writers doing Taylor Swift stories mix in phrases that are song or album titles of hers. If I have inadvertently done this, please let me know.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.
About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.