Jen McDonnell was unaware that alerts were bombarding her BlackBerry one Friday night last February. She was with friends at a bar on College Street when she got the call from a colleague. CNN had already caught wind of the news. McDonnell rushed home to cover the story, drafting a news brief on her BlackBerry during the cab ride. As senior web editor for Dose.ca, an online entertainment news website focusing on celebrities, movies, television and music, McDonnell’s next priorities were links to video feeds and numerous photo galleries. By the next day the story had exploded into a scandal involving violence, substance abuse and tattooing. It all started when Britney Spears shaved her head.
Is this what celebrity journalism has come down to? In April 1966, Esquire published “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a 15,000-word profile of Ol’ Blue Eyes, written by Gay Talese. As he writes near the start of the story, “a Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.” But does Spears’s haircut really shake the pop music world in the same way as Sinatra’s nasal congestion? What is it about Spears that McDonnell and the Dose team can’t resist? In his 2006 book Celebrity/Culture, Ellis Cashmore argues that celebrities no longer earn their fame through achievement, but by constantly being in the media’s eye. This would explain why in September 2007 audiences heard more about Spears’s awkward performance at the MTV Video Music Awards than the award winners themselves. Celebrity news engages audiences in what David Gritten, author of 2002’s Fame: Stripping Celebrity Bare, refers to as an ongoing narrative. Celebrity coverage is a continuous drama, similar to a popular soap opera show—never-ending, shocking, overdramatic and addictive, and yet, something audiences can relate to.
Of course, not all celebrity coverage is fluff, as Talese’s Esquire feature demonstrated. Matthew Hays is an arts journalist and instructor at Concordia University who believes that the two key aspects of strong arts journalism are criticism and analysis. He says good celebrity coverage should follow the same model and argues that if you’re going to submit to the celebrity demand, “you’d better either be able to write something really analytical and interesting about the celebrity, or you’d better be able to throw a wrench into it—make it a little bit more extreme, or funny, or crazy.” Relevant celebrity coverage communicates to readers something important about a famous person, shedding light on the character behind the fame. It involves in-depth reporting and a lot of legwork, while celebrity gossip involves rumours, assumptions and speculation spurred on by the celeb taking part in some idiotic or shocking event. Basically, the difference between Frank Sinatra having a cold and Britney Spears demanding a head shave.
“It used to be that it was a joy to go out and pick up a daily newspaper on a Saturday or Sunday to get all the weekly arts coverage,” says Hays. “Now there’s so much less of it in there.” He’s right. Comparing arts and entertainment coverage in one month during 2002 and 2007, both The Globe and Mail and National Postincreased the number of celebrity stories in their respective Saturday sections (see sidebar page 63). Arts and entertainment editors at the Globe and Post argue that readers welcome celebrity news with their daily intake of hard news. But at what cost? Wire stories are a cheap and easy way to get celebrity coverage into the arts and entertainment sections of a newspaper publication, leaving less need for actual arts reporters. But regurgitated celebrity stories leave Canadian papers at risk of relinquishing their own voice when it comes to the arts, damaging their brand image in the process. In March 2002, the Globe used an average of only 3.75 wire stories in its Review section. That number jumped to an average of 6.25 stories in March 2007.The Post published an average of one wire story in its Weekend Post and Toronto sections in March 2002. In March 2007, that number reached 19.5 wire stories, on average.
When online publications such as Dose.ca or celebrity magazines such as People or Hello! cover the same stories (and do so more efficiently and effectively), questions surface about whether or not newspaper publications should be devoting time and space to this type of depthless coverage. The stench of stale celebrity coverage wafts through column inches that could otherwise be used for the kind of in-depth, analytical and critical articles on local arts, entertainment and culture that Hays says are missing.
Besides sacrificing space, authoritative voice and arts reporters, there is also the issue of tone. Most Canadian newspapers appear unable to find an appropriate approach to celebrity gossip. British publications such as The Times and ananova.com have mastered covering celebrities by using simple, yet entertaining reporting, something that Canadian papers such as the Globe struggle with.
“It’s like having Anglican clerics tell dirty jokes,” says Kate Taylor, one of the Globe’s arts columnists. “They’re just not very good at it or very comfortable with it.”
The Globe building just west of downtown Toronto is especially grey and cold one afternoon in October 2007 when I arrive to interview television critic and columnist John Doyle. The front lobby is made up of mostly dull-coloured marble. I walk through the revolving door and step into what feels like a prestigious building in Gotham City on the set of a Batman movie. Here, it’s all business. The structure, as it happens, accurately reflects the tone and style of the newspaper itself. Globelink.ca (a site for advertisers) states that the Globe’s “brand” includes the paper’s image of being “Canada’s leading national newspaper” and promises to deliver “trusted and authoritative content, and products that are relevant, meaningful and engaging for Canada’s most educated, affluent and influential consumers.” It’s not surprising the Globe has struggled to weave celebrity coverage into its serious and responsible brand image but it is unclear where a story published last September, reflecting on the comparison of Britney Spears to “fat Elvis,” fits into the mandate of publishing content that is “relevant, meaningful and engaging.” The article entitled “Performance was ‘like watching the fat Elvis’” contains numerous recycled quotations from various celebrity blog sites, such as PerezHilton.comand Jossip.com, that comment on Spears’s “train wreck” performance at last year’s VMAs. But what’s relevant or engaging about recycled information that can easily be accessed from the Internet long before it can show up in a print publication?
Doyle says Globe readers want to see celebrity coverage done intelligently and in small amounts. “It’s perfectly understandable,” he says, “that people are interested in celebrities and celebrity gossip.” But he himself seems to argue that Globe readers are inclined to schadenfreude in a September 2007 column about Posh Spice: “These days, most people have a favourite celebrity, not because the person is talented, charming, charismatic and complex. No, they have a favourite celeb who is dumb and whose personal life is a mess.” Canadian newspaper readers are treated to constant updates about American celebs such as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Michael Jackson and Nicole Richie, a trend that the Globe’s Taylor finds disheartening: “We are then kind of pressing our noses up against the glass of somebody else’s culture.”
If the Globe does a poor job of playing dumb ’n’ trashy when covering Britney, it doesn’t always do much better when attempting to be intellectual. Lynn Crosbie’s Globe column aims to provide a critical reflection on happenings in contemporary culture. Her February 20, 2007 Review column, “Britney’s baldness: A cry for help?” muses on the pop princess’s “final act of rebellion” when she left rehab and proceeded to a salon where she requested that her head be shaved. Crosbie writes, “If cutters like to open their flesh to feel authentic, what are we to make of Britney Spears’s latest fashion statement?” and goes on to observe that Britney is “honing her public image the way a death row inmate prepares for an execution.” While Crosbie also calls Spears a “genuine kinder-whore,” the overall tone of the article seems far too serious for a celebrity’s latest trip to rock bottom. Spears’s actions may be a cry for help, as the article suggests, but combining celebrities with dissertation diction and analysis causes confusion. “I mean fine, tell me about Lindsay Lohan’s rehab,” Taylor says. “But God, at least you might do it with some sense that this is not the most momentous thing in the world!”
Meanwhile, events and achievements that deserve recognition in the arts and entertainment industries shrink into the background as celebrities who are famous for being famous steal the spotlight. On February 22, 2007, Doyle’s column argued that we should pay more attention to Oscar week and less to Britney’s extreme haircut. He also used his column to explore the difference between a movie star and a celebrity, arguing that Spears is the latter, just as Cashmore argues that celebrities no longer earn their fame through achievement. “A peculiarity of celebrity culture is the shift of emphasis from achievement-based fame to media-driven renown,” he argues. “Now, many of us probably spend more time following the lives of celebrities than we do familiarizing ourselves with ‘legitimate’ news.”
An elevator in the CanWest Media building, located in suburban Toronto, is decorated with a mural that includes the Post’s logo and is meant to reflect the paper’s latest redesign. As I exit onto the third floor and round the corner, I see most of the Post team thanks to the open-concept set-up and bright lights. Editor-in-chief Douglas Kelly, whose office is surrounded by glass walls and a wooden door, sits at a circular glass table beside Benjamin Errett, his 29-year-old Arts & Life editor. Errett is lucky to have a job today because in 2001 Post management drastically underestimated the importance of arts and life coverage to readers. Cutbacks forced the paper to make sacrifices, most notably the layoff of about 130 employees and elimination of Arts & Life, Sports and Toronto as distinct sections, with some content kept alive in the Post’s A section. Once the paper had been gutted, executives assumed it would carry on just fine with most of the emphasis now on its News and Financial Post sections. Readers thought otherwise, and the abolished sections were brought back six weeks later.
In December 2004, the Post welcomed Les Pyette, its seventh publisher in seven years. Pyette, who hoped to bring the paper back to life, had an edgy and upbeat vision. Splashy headlines and provocative images are trademarks of the Post’s personality. “Some people like it, some people don’t and that’s fine,” says Kelly. According to Errett, the clearest representation of the paper’s attitude is in the Arts & Life section. Including celebrity stories in the section provides Errett and his writers an opportunity to inject more voice and creativity into their reporting. “I don’t want to mention names,” Kelly says, “but I find some competing arts and life sections very predictable.” Cheeky headlines such as “Mr. Crankypants”—used during the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival to describe an interview with visiting actor Tommy Lee Jones—is one example of the lighter approach the Post takes. Errett says its coverage aims to be smart and sassy. He models the Arts & Life section after The New York Observer, while previous incarnations of the section, he says, were more reflective of the coverage found in British papers such as The Daily Telegraph.
Errett says you can’t over-think celebrity coverage because most of the stories lack substance. Conversely, stories with more depth are carefully scrutinized to ensure they’re not too serious. Finding a compromise between being trashy and snooty, Errett tries to take a highbrow approach to low culture and a lowbrow approach to high culture in hopes of landing on an intelligent middle ground. But varying interests amongPost readers can pose difficulties when trying to stay away from reporting that may seem either too pretentious or too unrefined. Errett hopes for some relief from the celebrity addiction, saying, “I don’t know where else you can go with it.”
In the meantime, the Post provides readers with celebrity updates in its weekday edition of the paper through a component of the Arts & Life section called “Stop the Presses!” which lists quick hits of celebrity news gathered from wire services. From career updates to run-ins with the law, “Stop the Presses!” mimics the type of swift delivery found on the web. Wire stories provide readers with the quick, uncomplicated information they’re accustomed to getting from sites such as PerezHilton.com or TMZ.com. Instead of embracing the ability print media have to provide in-depth analysis, newspapers use quick hits to keep Internet-savvy readers interested. According to Neil Randall, an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, dumbing down to the reader has altered newspapers in a negative way, cheapening their product to a considerable extent. “Newspapers will strive for things that just look better. They’ll strive for things that are dismissing any sense of complexity in stories,” he says. “You very rarely get complexity in flash media.”
But the growth and influence of the Internet as a news outlet is inevitable. On the third floor of the CanWest Media building, a sign on a closed door reads, “The Shamrock Room.” Inside, there is a green screen, a video camera and a chair. This is where the Post experiments with video blogging, an aspect of Internet broadcasting it is now often incorporating into the paper’s website. Leslie Chan, a professor of new media at the University of Toronto, says traditional media and new media are not at war with each other but influencing each other. “They kind of co-adapt and co-evolve.” Kelly seems to agree, saying the relationship between the newspaper he runs and the Internet is something he and his team have to consider everyday: “It’s revolutionizing what we do in here.”
One floor below the Post newsroom is the Dose.ca office. Its light blue walls are plastered with celebrity paraphernalia, including a poster of drug-addled English rock star Pete Doherty with a pair of men’s underwear tacked over his crotch. A black newspaper box with the Dose logo is parked against the wall, a reminder of its early days as a print publication. Canadian newspapers, says CBC online producer and formerDose.ca web editor Heather Adler, can’t promise the same immediacy as online entertainment news sites: “It’s yesterday’s news tomorrow.” Nor do they seem able to offer the cheeky, edgy style and tone that Dose.caor British newspapers provide.
Instead of sticking to thoughtful arts journalism, Canadian newspapers try to compete against celebrity experts who have perfected the art of reporting up-to-the-minute gossip. In the process, they compromise their brand image and leave readers disappointed. When it comes to celebrities, some journalists hate to love them but won’t stop reporting on them, leaving more valuable arts and entertainment coverage ignored and overlooked. That’s far more shocking than Britney’s shiny bald head.