Anne Helen Petersen, BuzzFeed News, and the Future of Academic Writing

She couldn’t have done that in modern academia.

On July 24, 2014, Anne Helen Petersen, a former film and media studies professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, published her first long-form article on BuzzFeed News. It was a historical exposé of TMZ, the celebrity gossip powerhouse, that links its rise to digital dirty laundry dominance with a long line of celebrity gossip magazines, and to a culture that has long reveled in bringing its untouchables down to earth.

It’s a far cry from BuzzFeed’s more traditional content, which is heavy on quizzes, listicles and cats. But it’s seemingly apropos of BuzzFeed News, the more analytical, investigative sibling of the main site, and one ostensibly devoid of its LOLs, Trashys, and Fails. Whereas BuzzFeed features “The 46 Most Important Crotch Shots of All Time,” BuzzFeed News investigates the Egyptian massacre of 2013 and runs stories like “Putin’s Aid Convoy Raises Fears of a Russian Invasion Of Eastern Ukraine.”

(To be fair, BuzzFeed News also features such significantly-lesser works of “news” like “Why Is There a ‘Forrest Gump’ iPhone Game?” and “Damning Evidence that Beyoncé Is Photoshopping her Instagram Pictures.” Well stop the presses, guys: that is big.)

Even so, Petersen’s piece represents a break from even the more “highbrow” articles offered on BuzzFeed News. The language of the piece, alongside its historical analysis and its cultured critique of Americans’ strange relationship with celebrity, is academic to its core: ten years ago similar work might have appeared in scholarly journals like American Quarterly, or in edgier tomes like The Baffler or Jacobin Magazine.

But it didn’t. It was on BuzzFeed News.

And while once this article might have wasted away through the months-long editorial process of a peer-reviewed journal, it instead appeared almost instantaneously to millions via Facebook’s second most-shared platform. And because of this, the article was shared hundreds of times more, geometrically expanding its reach and generating discussion and debate among its readers online. By appearing on BuzzWorthy, Petersen’s work reached audience numbers well beyond American Quarterly’s most ambitious dreams, and allowed readers to respond immediately with their own comments and ideas. Few, if any, academic publications could replicate that.

So how did Petersen get BuzzFeed to allow her to write what is essentially an academic article on a very popular subject? And, perhaps more importantly, how will BuzzFeed continue to navigate a field that now produces academic work that is speedily consumed by an extremely popular audience who are accessing articles essentially for free?

The debate Petersen’s work highlights is hardly limited to academic publications alone. The rising threat of digital has long been discussed among major news organizations, most of which have scrambled to keep up in this rapidly changing world. In perhaps the most telling instance, a leaked copy of the New York Times’ Innovation Report from March declared that even the ever-powerful Times felt overwhelmed by the shift to a digital-first format. For nearly 90 pages, the Report laid bare the systemic problems inherent with turning the slow-moving Grey Lady into the rapid, flexible digital powerhouse it wanted to become. “The Times must be willing to experiment more in terms of how it presents its content,” the report concluded, exhorting writers and digital strategists to make a more multi-modal site – one that looked more like BuzzFeed News than a traditional front page.

Yet despite frantic calls to update how journalism is constructed and received, the workers who constitute the field look almost the same as they have for decades. They are overwhelmingly older, white and male, and the bulk of them are dissatisfied with their jobs. They feel they have less autonomy in their work, and they worry about the future of American journalism.

In response, young people, still interested in pursuing journalism as a career, are turning away from traditional institutions and are forming their own platforms to showcase their work. The examples are myriad: Ezra Klein left the Washington Post to work at Vox; Nate Silver left the New York Times to form his own FiveThirtyEight.

Now something oddly similar is beginning to happen in academics.

Tenured professors are increasingly a rarity at universities in America, while the sheer number of people graduating with a humanities Ph.D. is skyrocketing. The number of new tenure-track positions – those golden opportunities for which we are supposedly destined as we slog through years of school – is decreasing, while rates of adjunct and “non-academic” hiring has soared. This discrepancy, a product of decades of shifts in the administration of higher education, has meant that more Ph.D.s are turning to alternative careers, with websites like VersatilePhD and Beyond Academe helping newly-minted doctors navigate the non-academic world.

Petersen, who famously told the Hairpin she was leaving academia for BuzzFeed in March, is perhaps the most visible symbol of this shift. “I’ve known for some time that my work, and the sort of audience I love writing for, is not a very good fit for academia,” she said. “BuzzFeed gives me the platform and support to do the type of writing (and reach the type of audiences) that I love, but can also provide me with a living wage.”

Now Petersen hasn’t spent her entire tenure at BuzzFeed crafting feature-length investigations into the history of American smut. She’s written some pretty insipid listicles about Facebook and the pool, as well as some vapid reviews of rosé. But all of these were done in BuzzFeed’s finely honed editorial voice that moves between playful, nostalgic and revelatory. And they prove to her higher-ups that Petersen can continue to produce content as BuzzFeed funds her longer, more in-depth reviews.

“The Down and Dirty History of TMZ” thus represents a pretty stellar debut for the first seasoned academic to make the transition to full-time digital news. And this is because the article makes real scholarly claims, situating TMZ and its founder Harvey Levin into larger discussions of the cult of celebrity and the American desire to dismantle those in power.

For instance, in placing TMZ at the end of a long line of fan magazines that have wallowed in the market of “scandalization,” Petersen argues that, though TMZ has “accelerated” for the digital age, “they’re operating on the same principle and profiting off the same impulse to excavate down to the deepest, ‘truest’ level of popular figures that surround us.” Her piece is thus as much an anthropological analysis of America’s fascination with gossip as it is a history of the rise of Levin’s schmaltzy empire.

More importantly, though, the work is well done. The writing is crisp and brisk, the voice authoritative and clear. She takes a lowbrow subject and elevates it to a cultural artifact, and she makes understanding its historical location both informative and fun.

When I was working as a professor and a TA, I would have given anything to see some of my own students (or even my fellow ABDs) write like that – to examine something seemingly banal and showcase its long and complicated history, its relationship to larger American obsessions and vices, and its current role in shaping the pop culture landscape. This kind of analysis is much more difficult than it seems, and it is, or should be, of interest to several academic fields. But, as Petersen told the Hairpin, that wasn’t the work that she could do in traditional academia, at least not while she was stuck in Walla Walla. “Much of academic writing prides itself on being as inaccessible as possible,” she said. Instead, Petersen wanted to write something that “vast swaths of people actually consume.”

Her plan worked. BuzzFeed News has become a prominent and creative outlet for the kind of work Petersen wants to write, which is clearly also content that audiences want to read. Her work draws on the skills she learned while earning her doctorate, but it’s tempered by a clear understanding of her readership base. So while it may be easy to dismiss much of Petersen’s work as the same kind of schlocky pabulum that BuzzFeed has notoriously, and profitably, generated for years, there are moments where her work elevates BuzzFeed News above the fray and places it squarely in conversation with more traditional academic haunts.

It also must be noted that Petersen represents only one end of BuzzFeed News’s tactical hiring efforts as the site seeks to become an authoritative contender in the realm of “real news.” Earlier this year BuzzFeed hired Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Mark Schoofs and Chris Hamby to steel up their investigative desk. And the recent influx of millions in funding that will go primarily to new hiring and expansion means that BuzzFeed will continue to be a threat to traditional institutions for years to come.

(Full disclosure: Hamby won his Pulitzer working for the Center for Public Integrity, the D.C.-based investigative journalism organization where I am now working as an ACLS Public Fellow.)

But bringing on people like Schoofs and Hamby isn’t surprising – their new home is called BuzzFeed News after all. Bringing on Petersen represents something else. It means that a similar shift is happening in the realm of academia, in which talented, popular professors leave the Ivory Tower for the greater visibility and higher audience numbers that come with writing for the Web. It means that longform articles that walk the line between academic exposés and investigative journalism will be considered “news,” and not just published in some obscure journal as padding for a C.V. And it may mean that academics who choose to partner with digital sites (and who can succeed there) could find better pay, greater reach, more autonomy, fewer barriers, and, perhaps most importantly, a real audience for their ideas.

No one gets a humanities Ph.D. to broadcast their thoughts to an empty room. But higher education’s current over-reliance on adjuncts and lecturers is unsustainable, both for the institutions as well as for professional academics themselves. Anne Helen Petersen is the first to have gone down that rabbit hole, to have substituted traditional academia for full-time digital writing. Time will tell if hers was a sustainable choice, and if more academics will choose to follow her path. But the situation is clear. Academics, journalists, and all those who market in ideas have a real choice before them: to stay on the traditional route or veer off into the experimental extreme. Petersen’s tenure at BuzzFeed could be a glimpse into the future, proving whether or not there’s a “Definite Ranking of Nick-At-Nite Shows” or a “Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls” in all our futures, or whether BuzzFeed is, like a tenure-track job in academia, just another impossible dream.


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