Jeff and I have been chuckling for awhile over the idea of an interview, and after a fair amount of hemming, hawing, and wandering off into other assignments, we finally buckled down this spring and had a chat. I don’t think either of us really knew what it was going to be about, and if you aren’t a writer yourself, our conversation might be a little too inside baseball for you, but I had to publish it — not only because the novelty of a Jeff Giles/Jeff Giles interview appeals to my love of the absurd, but because I think my better-circulated namesake has some pretty illuminating things to say about writing and publishing in the 21st century. Best of all, the next time someone asks me “Are you the Jeff Giles who…?” I can just point them to our exchange. My questions in bold below:
I want to start off by talking about your career path. We’re living in a time when more people than ever describe themselves as pop culture writers, but it’s harder than ever to actually earn a living in the field. What were your goals when you were starting out?
When I left college, I had a very old-fashioned fantasy: to make my living writing magazine articles until I got so rich from writing novels that I couldn’t be bothered with the little stuff. That delusion didn’t pan out. That’s probably for the best because I’ve always loved offices and teamwork and all that stuff — and I’ve always liked the immediate gratification of seeing my name somewhere or other regularly. Also, my fiction sucks. If I tried to make a living as a novelist, I would die of starvation, leaving you in total control of our name — which, much as I respect you, I’m not going to let happen for a few more years, anyway.
Well there goes THAT plan. Damn.
As a guy who made his bones in print, what’s your take on the explosion of online media outlets — in terms of what it means for the continued viability of publications like EW, as well as what it might mean for cultural criticism in general?
Put another way: I feel like the Web may have obviated the need for cultural gatekeepers, in a sense, by making it so cheap and easy for consumers to gorge on music, movies, and books. What’s your take on this, and your vision for the future of our discipline?
I used to bite my nails about the future of print, but I don’t anymore. EW has a really fun website and a tablet app that looks AT LEAST as good as the magazine itself. And I don’t care that much where/how people read the stuff in 2025. It helps that we’re doing well financially. If we weren’t, your question might have made me cry.
Here are some things that do worry me about the future: I worry that writers won’t get the chance to really, truly learn how to to write or report because most sites don’t have the time or desire to do anything in any real depth. You’ve always worked for places that, like EW, speak intelligently, humorously, passionately, etc. about pop culture, but those kinds of sites are outnumbered by hellacious crap. Also, how many sites have the budget to send a reporter somewhere to do real investigative work? How many can get real access to people? Or give writers/reporters/editors/
I also worry (not to get too crotchety) about people simply not reading much at all anymore — that the love of words and sentences will fall off like a vestigial tail. There’s a new poll showing that people who read books on tablets read more books per year than people who don’t — but obviously we don’t know how much of that is due to the novelty of the new. My own fear is that if the media (print, as well as web) keep giving people less and less to read, everybody’s brains will eventually forget how to read. I didn’t think this up myself — it’s a science thing from a book I mostly understood (The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr.) I love the wildness of the web, and the humor and the many brilliant voices, but I do sort of worry that one day a serious news story will just consist of a picture of Rick Santorum with the word “douche” stamped on it.
I share your concerns for the future — English abuse is a horrible problem. Earlier this year, I had to point out to an editor that I really did mean to write “take the reins,” not “take the reigns.” I don’t normally get precious about edits when I’m doing work for hire, but oh my.
Also, I love EW’s app. I think you guys and Wired are two of the only magazines that are really doing the digital migration thing properly. I hate the Zinio model, where you’re basically looking at a PDF of the magazine you could have bought off a newsstand. And I’m excited by the Marvel Infinite…line or initiative or whatever it is they’re calling it. They’re really taking advantage of the tablet to reshape printed content for the digital space.
But here’s a question for you. “Mass media” doesn’t mean what it used to, so how does a national publication plan coverage when so few things really achieve cultural saturation? I’m really fascinated by the death of the monoculture, and the way it’s turned everything into a niche. Are you still trying to figure out what constitutes a phenomenon, or am I overthinking this?
We largely go on our guts, thank God. The only time we wonder whether something is “big enough” for us to write about is when we’re talking about possible covers— and even then we tend to have the best luck with covers that speak to a small, passionate base. Our subscribers will get much more excited for niche-y covers (Game of Thrones, Parks & Rec, Nathan Fillion or District 9, to pick totally random ones) than they will for a cover with some “superstar” everyone is actually sick of. The most famous people tend to say the least anyway, right? We do obsessively track trends, and we love it when something we’ve covered from Day One becomes big, obviously. We had Stephen King review the first Hunger Games book when it came out because our books editor recognized it for what it was. Years later, we shot the first picture in the world of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. So that’s the ideal: be there from the beginning.
Here’s a tough choice we made recently. We did a cover on the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, and, to your point, that WAS a moment when we sat around wondering if it qualified as phenom yet. I thought it was worthy because (even though tons of people still hadn’t heard of it) it was #1-3 on the bestseller list, and Hollywood was about to going into a bidding frenzy for it. Plus, Fifty Shades combined a couple smaller phenoms, namely fan fiction and the big jump in people reading books on tablets — and we were getting the first real interview with the author. So we put it on the cover. We knew some people would be horrified — and some people were probably horrified. But, for me, it was cool to have a different kind of phenomenon on the cover. It can’t just be superheroes all the time.
Where the niche-nation thing can be tough is music. It may be a holdover from adolescence, but part of the reason we love singers and bands is that we feel like we own them and that no one else understands them like we do. I worship at the altar of Tom Waits but I can’t really make the case that he’s a cover boy. Also, he’d want a snake or something on his head and his face covered in dirt and sparkles.
This is all great stuff, and as a reader, I think it’s reflected in the pages of EW, where as a longtime subscriber I’ve always been gratified to find continued (albeit perhaps somewhat diminished) coverage of the pop culture spectrum — even books, by gum! — while other publications have struggled to maintain a balance. And I love that the magazine continues to make room for the occasional offbeat profile piece. I subscribe to a lot of magazines, but for at least 15 years now, EW has been the one I tear into as soon as it comes out of the mailbox.
So now that we’ve talked about where pop culture criticism might be headed, I thought it might be helpful to wrap up by talking about the writers themselves — specifically, what you see as being important tools for people who want to break into the field. Is college still important? Or is it enough just to have a point of view and a blog? And for writers who are lucky enough to have paying gigs, how crucial is social media for promotion and networking?
I have a daughter going to college in September, and she’s considering writing as a career, God help her. College obviously doesn’t guarantee you a job. But teens need the time to grow up and learn first-hand how amazing and/or douchey people are. As far as writing goes, the more time you have to hone your craft, the better. College is as good as anywhere, though there are cheaper places for sure.
When we’re looking to hire people, we look for folks who can write and report the old-fashioned way. I still prize the writer’s voice, creative thinking and tenaciousness above everything else. But, needless to say, they ALSO have to be totally comfortable with the various platforms—and, ideally, be great on TV. That’s a lot to expect from somebody. Fortunately, they make young people a lot smarter these days than they did when I was coming up. I’m continually amazed by their bag of tricks.
About social media: it’s essential, of course, simply because it’s so hard to get people’s attention amid all the white noise out there. I do wince at what a culture of self-promoters we’ve become. But if I’m going to post pictures of my kids on Facebok (and I am) then I can’t really stand in judgment of someone who posts their 2-minute video interview with Selena Gomez. Anyway, tell me your take on what it takes to succeed these days?
Also, have you ever thought about how you and I could pretend to be one person? Our resume would be pretty great. We could get some really cool jobs, and who would even think to wonder if there are two pop writer-editors named Jeff Giles? But under “interests” we’d have to write “smoking cigars” and also “NOT smoking cigars.” That would just make us seem intriguing, though.
What it takes to succeed? Oh God, I have no idea. I struggle with that constantly. I feel like writing in today’s market is a giant catch-22 — most of the outlets that pay reliably don’t pay well, and they generally aren’t interested in writing, so to speak — they’re just SEO sausage factories. But they make enough money to dole out a few bucks for a post, and as a result, the folks that are lucky enough to get in the door end up spending a lot of time regurgitating press releases instead of honing their craft or developing their point of view.
So much of publishing these days is about, as you say, being first. And it’s always been that way, but now there’s such a mad rush of information that even the major publications, like the Hollywood Reporter, end up shooting out scores of posts that contain misinformation or typos. The number of places that publish thoughtful, longform pop culture content are pretty small, and the number of open positions at those places are even smaller. (And then if you happen to have the same name as the executive editor at one of them, well, there’s one less place you can safely pitch.)
What it adds up to is a terrible lack of stability for young writers. Zero job security and a really distressing vacuum when it comes to respect or understanding of the job from editors, many of whom — and I’m talking about those sausage factories here, not guys like you who actually live up to the title — were Peter Principled into positions that are really more about link revenue than quality content. Writers end up working horrific hours just to churn out “breaking news” and show recaps, and it feels like a hamster wheel instead of a career, and I think a lot of them get burned out (if they aren’t fired first).
I get it. I started doing this when I was in middle school, and I’ve walked away from it more than once, and except on my really, really good days, I’m relatively certain that any success I’ve been able to carve out has been by dint of little more than luck. I’ve paid the bills by punching in at those SEO mills — still do, actually, although you’ll never catch me sharing the links. I’m always trying to strike a balance between that kind of “safe” work and the *real* kind — taking time to dream up angles for stories, thinking about people I’d really love to profile, stopping for a minute to truly absorb someone’s art and remember what drew me to this profession in the first place. I’m lucky enough to be able to do that, but a lot of really fine writers aren’t, and I hate what this creative economy is doing to them. And to the readers — to all of us, really.
This all ended up coming out a lot more pessimistically than I intended. I guess I struggle with all this more than I usually let on.
The good news is that you still care enough to get pissed about all this—and we need idealists/lunatics like you to help stop the internet from sinking back into the swamp. I get rage-y about our profession all the time. I could do a one-man Broadway show about the decline of editing, writing, everything. But if we didn’t do this we’d be sitting around wishing we did. Writing about stuff we love or hate is hard-wired into us, no? I wrote in middle school, too. I remember writing a little obit for John Lennon when I was 15. And I remember submitting a poem called “The Other Side of Hell” to what (unbeknownst to me) turned out to be a Christmas poetry contest. (I did not win.) That, for me, is about 30 years worth of writing and editing. And no matter how bummed I (and I suspect, you) get about the state o’ things, we get to write or publish or post something we’re proud of JUST often enough to keep going. I’ve read enough of your stuff to know that you put your heart and brain into what you do. Also, it’s too late to be a park ranger or an actuary or some hedge fund guy.
You’re right, of course — we’re both in this for the long haul. And I’m glad I have such a distinguished namesake to join me on the journey, and keep inspiring me along the way. This has been a lot of fun, really informative, and inspiring to boot. Thanks, Jeff Giles.