Entertainment Journalists Discuss Their Challenges at CCLP Forum

Since the rise of Hollywood in the 20th century, the entertainment industry has infiltrated every aspect of our culture — and our news outlets. From Variety to Entertainment Tonight to Perez Hilton, entertainment news has become mainstream news. But what is entertainment journalism, and how is it different from gossip?

At our February 11th forum, students asked professional journalists how to break into the industry and report on meaningful stories at a time when updates on Justin Bieber can take precedence over serious reporting.

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Titled “Spotlight on Hollywood: Behind the Scenes in Entertainment Journalism”, the USC Annenberg School of Journalism/Center on Communication Leadership & Policy forum featured Kirstin Wilder, VP and managing editor for Variety; Jen Garcia, senior writer at People Magazine; Mary Murphy, former Entertainment Tonight producer and USC Annenberg Senior Lecturer; and Kasia Anderson, former editor at Truthdig, The Wrap and current P.h.D student at USC.

The conversation was hosted by CCLP Director and USC Professor Geoffrey Cowan and moderated by CCLP senior fellow, author and journalist Narda Zacchino, with introductions from Annenberg Journalism School Director Michael Parks.

Narda Zacchino opened the discussion with the question, “How has entertainment journalism evolved?” Mary Murphy discussed some of her research on the entertainment industry, commenting that entertainment journalism became mainstream when “Hollywood became royalty.” Kasia Anderson, who studies the intersection of politics and celebrity, added that politicians are now “bringing Hollywood to Washington”, borrowing PR strategies from the entertainment industry.

The audience laughed along with Jen Garcia when she described how People Magazine includes stories on topics like President Obama’s favorite TV show. “Now we cover the White House in a way we never have before,” Garcia said, noting that magazines have adapted to appeal to their audiences’ growing interest in the personal lives of both celebrities and politicians. The other panelists agreed that it can be difficult to balance serious news with the gossip stories that tend to bring in ad revenue.

Another source of pressure stems from “the corporatization of the media”, as Mary Murphy pointed out. “TV is where you feel the most pressure from corporations. If there’s a scandal within NBC, then news outlets owned by NBC won’t be able to cover the story.”

Turning next to the impact of technology on journalism, the panelists discussed another challenge that they face daily: the 24-hour news cycle. “The pace of it is staggering,” said Kasia Anderson. Jen Garcia agreed, “It runs reporters ragged!” Mary Murphy added that her journalism students at USC Annenberg “don’t even expect accuracy anymore” now that the news breaks so fast, especially when news breaks on social media. Kirstin Wilder summed it up well when she commented, “From what I’ve seen in my 25 years, technology has truly changed the game.”

One student said that she was “reluctant to go into the industry because of how reporting is based on boosting traffic.” She then asked the panelists, “How do you fight that?”

“There’s always going to be breaking news, always going to be stories that are shelved,” Jen Garcia said. “But the stories I remember are the features that I’ve done on topics I was passionate about, and that makes it worth it to fight for those.”

“How often do you win?” asked Narda Zacchino.

“Half the time,” Garcia answered with a laugh.

Mary Murphy said, “Some of the best things can hold. If you’re passionate about telling the truth about something, those are the stories you fight for.” Narda Zacchino said that in her experience, “Editors really respect people who speak up.” Kirstin Wilder, VP and managing editor at Variety, agreed wholeheartedly with Zacchino.

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Another student asked, “For those of us studying journalism, what’s your advice for working in serious journalism in the digital age?”

Mary Murphy emphasized the importance of doing a variety of internships to gain perspective and experience. Jen Garcia advised students to “make sure you’re immersed in the digital world.” Kasia Anderson added, “Have a robust Twitter feed.”

“When I hire interns, I care a whole lot more if you’re a good writer,” said Kirstin Wilder. “I care way more that you can write well […] than if you watched Mad Men last night.”

After the discussion, a few students stayed late to speak one-on-one with the panelists. “They said just get experience, it doesn’t have to be somewhere that’s nationally known, it can be somewhere small or local, you can just work your way up,” said Barbara Estrada in an interview with The Daily Trojan, which ran a feature on the event.