Pop Culture Journalism Is Serious Business

Beyoncé and Taylor Swift performing illustration

When Variety magazine Editor-At-Large Kate Aurthur heard that USA Today was hiring beat reporters to cover Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, the 19-year entertainment veteran journalist was not surprised. Instead, her reaction was: What took them so long?

“They should have done it a year ago,” said Aurthur, who worked with me at BuzzFeed News from 2017 to 2019.  

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Aurthur said it would have been a smart move for the general interest paper to have a beat reporter on Swift prior to the beginning of her Eras tour, pointing to how the pop star’s publicity would be focused and expansive — which it was.  

“I’m just worried that someday soon … she’ll be kind of done with her publicity cycle,” said Aurthur. “But she does throw off a ton of news.” 

When these beats were announced, there was some noteworthy backlash by journalists, highlighting how the company had undergone massive layoffs in recent years. Others in media and beyond raised eyebrows about the legitimacy of exclusively reporting on mega entertainment figures like Swift or Beyoncé. But if you consider the business of pop culture reporting and the social depth this kind of work can achieve and empower, maybe those inquiries arise less from sound examination of the facts than from patronizing perceptions of what pop culture reporting does in the current media landscape.

“Everyone is chasing traffic, and especially as traffic from the internet is so much less … you have to go where the people are looking — and the people are looking at Taylor Swift and Beyoncé,” Aurthur said.

Essentially, Aurthur is arguing that such a beat focus is a smart economic decision. If a multitude of people are already seeking out stories about these superstars, even as digital eyeballs are increasingly difficult to come by, then it makes sense to dedicate a journalist to subjects who have incredible lasting power in making news. It makes even more sense when you consider that audiences might then become attentive to other news grabbing their attention thereafter in “suggested story” sidebars and infinite scrolls. We are all living in an attention economy after all, and for journalists, we are often at its mercy.

An impetus to sweeping cultural change

Still, with or without the focused reporting on Beyoncé or Swift, pop culture stories are often critiqued as frivolous. In a world where more serious news ostensibly impacts the everyday person or specific communities far more than say, the latest film or TV series, journalism that emphasizes the latter can sometimes be labeled as superficial. But this perspective often comes from misunderstanding and even underestimating the scope and reach of pop culture.

Tarana Burke on stage at a MeToo rally.
Tarana Burke speaks at a #MeToo rally on Nov. 12, 2017, in Hollywood. (Chelsea Guglielmino/FilmMagic)

Consider the revival of Tarana Burke’s MeToo movement. It was propelled by 2017 New York Times and New Yorker investigations into the allegations of rape and other sexual misconduct by film producer Harvey Weinstein, leading to his conviction less than three years later. The Weinstein investigations had a ripple effect within and beyond the entertainment sector. In every industry, from sports and politics to media and restaurants, scores of people were coming forward, detailing the sexual misconduct they had faced, emboldened that they might actually be believed by a general public that was becoming more aware of the pervasiveness of this issue.

Arguably, the Weinstein news was as big as it was because people were attentive to him as a cultural figure, and they cared about the films that he made. They also cared about the many women, from Ashley Judd to Lupita Nyong’o, who had made these credible accusations against him. They had come to know these women via the cultural form of film — reported on widely by entertainment reporters — but also due to the seemingly insignificant details pop culture reportage delivers that allows these women to occupy a space that can be both aspirational and relatable to the lay person viewing them onscreen.

NBC News entertainment correspondent Chloe Melas says the Weinstein investigations altered the path of her professional career, compelling her to take on deeply impactful reporting. Recently, she’s covered the Hollywood strikes, which put 17,000 people out of jobs, affecting industries from transportation to dry cleaning. She has also examined how the Swift and Beyoncé music tours inflate local economies.

“There is a whole business side of entertainment that is very real,” she said. “We are looking at artificial intelligence, which is a hot topic in Hollywood. And obviously, it’s not just siloed into entertainment. I’m reporting out the effects in Hollywood and the type of media that we’re consuming, and how it will affect people’s jobs.”

Melas, who noted that she’s not a pop culture expert but a breaking news reporter “who fell into” the entertainment beat, says the work she does has given her a skill set transferable to any desk in the newsroom.

A greater perspective of the human experience

But pop culture reporting needn’t justify its existence only insofar as it contributes to major legal cases or economic conversations or social movements. The social quality of what pop culture does also matters, singularly. 

Few people know this better than award-winning editor Cori Murray, who has spent 28 years in this industry, including 22 at Essence magazine, where she frequently commissioned me to write stories on pop culture.

“Pop culture is the entry point that, well, we can all enter,” Murray said. “How many times have we all watched a movie of a culture that we didn’t understand, but then you leave that movie theater, having a little bit more understanding about something?”

Murray, like Aurthur, also believes that audiences often desire pop culture in order to proverbially digest their hard news. Meanwhile, publications in the digital era need to demonstrate traffic growth in order to secure their digital revenue — and pop culture stories remain part of that equation. Still, Murray says that beyond the bottom line, the power of culture news is its reportage of human experiences.

“Pop culture reporting today is to shine a light on perhaps a culture, a genre, or piece of humanity that you may not know. And it gives you empathy for it,” she said. “Because in that moment, you realize we’re all sharing in the same pain, but we also can all share in the same humor and share the same love of something.”

A mirror held up to society

Murray’s description of the power of pop culture explains part of my affinity for the beat.

Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce have set off a swarm of media attention. (Gotham/GC Images)

Almost a decade ago — after obtaining a graduate education in multiculturalism, examining the rhetoric of how popular American magazines discuss race and identity — I have brought that education with me into my reporting and writing, whether I am covering the plight of migrants or documenting the latest piece of art or music.

Now, as a journalist who covers pop culture in addition to other “more serious” subjects and the director of the arts and culture reporting concentration at the City University of New York, I tend to resist the urge to explain the value of pop culture coverage to a newsroom or to a society. I believe doing so often places pop culture reporters on the defensive — a position I do not believe we need to occupy.

That is to say, covering pop culture well can be an exceptionally tricky endeavor because it is often the entry point for many groups of people engaging in one thing, and who, without realizing it, bring their very specific experiences into that engagement in a way that is simultaneously personal and universal. And you, the reporter, have to reinterpret that thing to them in the same way — personally, to you and them, and universally, to everyone who engages.  

Stories are how we transmit the history and latest events involving people in every culture. Pop culture stories and how we cover them have the power to demean and to inspire, to educate and to misinform, to make one feel seen and to make entire communities appear invisible. Covering TV shows or museums or fashion does mean reporting and writing on labor rights or the politics of art spaces in the context of colonization, but it can also mean compelling conversations about the politics of beauty and body size and girls trips and male friendships, and what it all has to do with any and all of us when it’s in a book or on a screen or in a song.

Perhaps all pop(ular) culture coverage does, in its most fundamental terms, is hold up a mirror to any society about the conversations, culture and people it chooses to uphold — sometimes demanding that society do things differently, better.

Aurthur summarizes the power of pop culture coverage best in discussing her enjoyment of the podcast, “You Must Remember This,” in which critic Karina Longworth surveys different eras in “Hollywood’s first century,” reinterpreting the culture it produced for her audience.

“It really tells people about what things were like then and how they’ve changed,” Aurthur said. “And those things are crucial to understanding how the world changes.”