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Gender, GIFs, and Millennial Journalism: Real Talk with Former GOOD Editor Ann Friedman

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Ann Friedman’s website promises “Low-maintenance ladyswagger™” — an appropriate tagline for the writer and editor, who was named one of Columbia Journalism Review’s 20 women to watch in 2012. “But not, like, in a stalkery way,” she clarifies.

Ann Friedman graduated from the University of Missouri in 2004, and spent a year working as a “not-journalist” at a women’s rights nonprofit in New York. From there, her life took a turn for the writerly. She worked as a fact-checker at Mother Jones, a managing editor at AlterNet, and went from web editor to the print magazine’s deputy editor at The American Prospect, all the while writing for Feministing.com. After quitting the Prospect in 2010 to be a freelance writer on the East Coast, Friedman got an email from GOOD Magazine. She wound up working at the Los Angeles-based magazine for a year and a half, and was promoted to executive editor in March of 2011.

Then, in June of 2012, the magazine abruptly fired most of its editors.

But Friedman and her fellow editors refused to be discouraged. Instead, they turned to Kickstarter to launch “a one-shot magazine about creative destruction” which “won’t be afraid to publish things that are complicated or sexy or weird... the kinds of things that just might get you fired.” The editors reached their fundraising goal of $15,000 in less than five hours, with the support of young writers like Ezra Klein, Felix Salmon, and Roxane Gay.

The project's name?

Tomorrow Magazine.

Now, in addition to working on Tomorrow, Friedman is back to freelancing – publishing essays at NYMag.com pie charts at The Hairpin, a regular column at the Columbia Journalism Review, and a weekly feminist GIF at Feministing. Friedman is a passionate advocate of “horizontal loyalty,” a start-up/journalistic credo "about believing and investing in your friends."

She advises young writers, “Retweet each other. Connect each other. Collaborate on a short-lived but hilarious Tumblr, or apply for a reporting grant together, or put together a panel. Make awesome stuff now. Don’t wait your turn.”

I talked to Ann Friedman about her work promoting women journalists, the tediousness of mass-produced “women’s issues” pieces, her use of GIFs, and the future of high-quality, solutions-oriented journalism in an increasingly visual and branded digital world.

SM: How did you start Lady Journos! (which highlights the work of “journalists who happen to be women"), and how do you find people for that blog?

AF: I started that in early 2011. It was actually during the period where I was a freelancer before this, between the Prospect and GOOD. I was on a radio show with Clara Jeffrey from Mother Jones, and John Macfarlane, who is the editor of The Walrus, which is a Canadian magazine. We were talking about women and bylines. We were all editors on the call. He and Clara were at the top of the mastheads for publications with very different gender ratios.

He was saying, I don’t look at gender. I’m just trying to find the best person for the story. And if those writers happen to be male, what am I going to do about that? Those women should pitch to me.

I know how editors work, I know they’re busy. They’re not thinking about affirmative action when they go to assign stories, even though it is on them to make sure they have a diversity of writers.

So the idea behind Lady Journos! was, OK, if you are not coming across enough female writers in your daily reading, if the people you follow on Twitter aren’t linking to women writers, and you’re not networking with women writers, what is a way that I can explicitly say, “Put this in your RSS or follow this Tumblr, or follow this Twitter and get a regular stream of women writers in your inbox”? Because I know that there are these women working, and it’s a matter of getting them higher and higher up the pipeline, and introducing them to more and more people. That was the idea.

And also, I got so sick of editors and activists saying, “How do we get more women to pitch, how do we get more women to pitch?” I’m much more interested in saying, “How do we get more editors to actually care? How do we get more editors to expand their networks?” Because at the end of the day, they’re the ones making the assignments.

Teaching women to pitch only does so much. It’s a question of where we put the onus for change.

SM: I found something you wrote recently about work/life stories which target women. I was wondering what your thoughts are on that whole issue, in terms of the repetition of ‘women’s issue’ piece, or the continued notion that women only respond to a certain kind of article.

AF: It’s a self-perpetuating problem. If you say, OK, let’s talk about work/life balance only in terms that are gendered towards women, it’s going to keep being perceived as only women’s responsibility to ensure that children is cared for, and the home is cared for, and all of that traditional stuff.

Look, I have no illusions that just talking about something differently will change it, but I do think that there’s something about it. What if all those articles were like, “Oh my god, working parents can’t find the time to xyz”?  

Obviously that alone doesn’t do it, but it certainly walks a line between describing a phenomenon that exists — which is that burden disproportionately falls on women right now — to describing it in terms of how it also affects men and families. So when we talk about these things on a policy level, we’re talking about everybody.

And that Anne Marie Slaughter article did say that. The problem is, she came around to it at the very end, and it was packaged as all about women, because that’s how the Atlantic edits these things. That was what was really annoying me, because what she was finding is that, sure, the blow lands on women for all these reasons, but really men are interested in these things too.

[But in this Steve Jobs piece, for example] it’s not phrased as ‘having it all’; it’s phrased as being super successful versus only moderately successful. Really it’s the same thing for women. The only difference is that most women are socially pressured into choosing moderate success.

SM: So, tell me about #Realtalk From Your Editor. I love it, by the way.

AF: That just happened because I follow lots of GIF blogs. I think Tumblr is really important as a medium. I was going through a bout of insomnia while I was working on the last issue of GOOD, and made 30 of them in one go. I put it up and it was everywhere instantly.

I don’t think I realized the extent to which journalists are out of it. I didn’t realize how novel the GIF was to so many journalists because, like I said, Tumblr is important to me. There are corners of the internet where GIFS are — I don’t want to say passé, but they’ve been around a long time.

For me, it was more of a testament to journalists being out of that loop. I had older journalists ask me how I made those tiny movies. Get it together — it’s 2012.

SM: And you’ve also written about the line between journalism and curation on the internet. That was something I found really curious, because I do feel that a lot of new media journalism is linking to previously published content. Which is not necessarily bad; you could read it as a more active form of citation or writing. But I do think the line blurs. What are your thoughts about that, or what is the future for that issue?

AF: I think that if your publication is solely curation, it will not survive. I think that places that are doing things that are original are places that people want to be.

That said, curation is a journalistic skill that is not the same thing as editing, that is not the same thing as writing, but that is super important and probably will be important going forward for journalism. Do we want everything to be curation? Obviously not. But should we recognize this as its own skill set, and valuable if you want the biggest number of people possible to read your work? Yes.

I think it’s not so clean-cut as to say this is a bad thing or this is a good thing. It is a reality. Trying to figure out how to change business models to account for curators finding your stuff, and how to instill a culture of citation, like you said, to make sure things are getting linked back to — these are the questions. Curation is different from whole-swathe reprints, and from stealing. Curation is not stealing. I use the term “curation” only to refer to people who do it ethically.

SM: So not Jonah Lehrer then.

AF: Yeah, that’s totally — self-curation.

SM: Something else that I liked about GOOD and that I know you’ve written about and thought about is design, and the potential that the internet has to create really well-designed journalistic content. How do you approach web design and that kind of branding attitude for content? What do you think the future of branding content is?

AF: Well, if anyone is under the illusion that just because you’re a words person means that you don’t care if your content is in the ugliest package possible, they’re wrong. As tablets continue to get popular, I think the premium on design is going to get higher and higher, which is a really good thing.

And I also really believe that working with visual people and with designers — not even just in making infographics, but having that perspective on ways of seeing and organizing information — can be really helpful to the editing process. I have a great collaborative relationship with Dylan Lathrop who was the editorial design director at GOOD when I was there. He actually designed my logo and helped me make a lot of changes to my website. Working closely with him taught me a lot about different ways of organizing information, and the different ways that readers and learners process information.

SM: Another thing I wanted to ask you about is something you said about — and I’m quoting you here — making “positive solutions-oriented journalism” that’s also “funny and edgy.” How do you do that? Because there’s sort of the opposite problem, where you have people that write stuff that’s really sharp, and funny, and really cutting, but not substantive and definitely not solutions-oriented.

AF: I think that you have to be funny and cutting about the problem, but positive about the solution. You will have earned credibility that you’re not a doe-eyed optimist without a critical view of the world because you’ve already been edgy in your description of the problem, so you can sincerely describe the solution and be excited about it, without going too far in either direction.

SM: This is a double-header question. What do you think the least discussed but most important issue for millennials to care about right now is, and who are the people that are doing writing on those kinds of issues?

AF: One of the things I’m most proud of that we did at GOOD was this series that Nona Aronowitz did about millennials and the recession called “Hustlin.” I think that there’s a lot of hand-wringing New York Times articles about millennials and the recession, there’s a lot of think-tanky things about the rise of low-wage workers, there’s a lot of—did you see that Atlantic piece on the cheapest generation?  

SM: Yes I did. And then I saw the response, which was great.

AF: So we’re talking about it, but one thing we’re not talking about is what are systemic answers to that problem? Nona also did a feature, two issues of GOOD ago, asking if the labor movement can be relevant here. And I don’t think the answer to that is yes. I don’t know what the answer is.

But there’s a lot of lamenting the fact that in a lot of parts of the country, and for a lot of people, there’s a generational backsliding economically. I don’t think that in the presidential campaign or in casual conversation, save for the occasional lamenting of student loans being so crazy, that there’s a big push for a lot of thinking going on about how to solve it, for systemic solutions.

The other thing I would say is that what has been the final frontier of all feminist movements since the ‘70s, which is really re-organizing interpersonal relationships, and the kind of stuff that Anne-Marie Slaughter is writing about, really engraining this idea of everyone needs work/life balance, everyone bears responsibility for these things. More equitable relationships, gender-wise.

There are a million love and sex columns; there are a million dating advice websites; there are a million pieces like that Anne-Marie Slaughter piece that don’t really get at the heart of how to reorganize our interpersonal relationships.

I do think that much like the generational economics question, it’s some kind of systemic push or bigger movement that hasn’t found a hook yet, or a voice yet, or a spokesperson yet.

What’s interesting about both of those is they’re both journalistic challenges as well as social/political challenges — those things sort of go hand-in-hand. When people aren’t writing things that I think are up to snuff, either from a reporting perspective or in an opinion way, generally the politics aren’t there yet, either.

SM: Do you have any favorite writers I should be reading that I might not be?

AF: Like I said, I think Nona did really good work on that series. I’d like to see more of her at feature-length. I’m a devoted fan of Irin Carmon’s political writing at Salon. There’s never enough Anna Holmes. Let’s see… On the up-and-coming tip: Kerry Howley, Amanda Hess, Molly Lambert, Roxane Gay, Lindy West, Maria Bustillos, Kiera Feldman, Sady Doyle, Cord Jefferson.

And more established writers I love? Jennifer Egan, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Cheryl Strayed, Emily Nussbaum, Rebecca Traister. I could keep naming names! But I’ll stop here before I’m tempted to pull up my Instapaper archive as reference.

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