Celebrity Journalism

A growing number of Americans subscribe to a Substack newsletter. Most of the successful ones are written by well-known journalists who have left our rapidly disappearing newspapers and taken their reportorial skills or well-received punditry to Substack, where they can earn considerably more. (An exception is the much-read, much quoted Heather Cox Richardson, who is a historian and has gained an enormous and lucrative following by providing historic context for the various insanities of our day.)

A recent essay has addressed this movement to the newsletter format, focusing on the “celebrity” element involved, and the effect on traditional journalism.

These high-profile defections from legacy publications have roiled the media world this year, posing a threat to more traditional publishing models. But Substack also sits at the nexus of deeper concerns about American culture: our individualistic view of work, the massive rewards that accrue to highflyers, and our willingness to invest ourselves in one-way relationships with public figures. Together, these concerns coalesce into a question: Should the people we rely on to inform us be celebrities?…

As is true across Internet culture, a writer who wants to make good money through Substack must become an influencer. Even if journalists have made their names with the assistance of rarely seen editors, fact checkers, and photographers, their personal brands are what entice fans to sign up for their newsletters. By helping writers monetize their bylines, Substack maintains the fiction that writing––or any profession, for that matter—is a solitary pursuit. Because subscribers pay writers directly, they cut around all the labor that makes good journalism possible. It’s like going to see your favorite actors perform, but with no stage manager, costume shop, or lighting crew.

These are absolutely valid concerns, but I have a different one.

I have posted several times about the unifying impact of “legacy” newspapers and other forms of genuinely mass media. Here in Indianapolis, even though we have never had anything approaching a truly first-rate daily newspaper, citizens saw the same headlines, read the same stories (if they did read past the headlines) and occupied a more-or-less common reality. Even when they disagreed with what they were reading, they were arguing about the same information.

The Internet has pretty well destroyed that common reality–and Substack, with its highly individualized approach to “news” is eroding it further. Just choose the “celebrity journalists” who share your general worldview and confirm your biases, and get your “news” straight from him or her.

Want evidence that the election was rigged, just like Trump said? Or would you prefer to read about the investigations into Trump’s fraudulent business practices, and the fact that Eric Trump “took the fifth” five hundred times during a deposition? Maybe you aren’t really interested in the imminent demise of American democracy, and ignore political news entirely, choosing to follow Kardasians and other chosen “influencers.”

It’s the balkanization of evidence and information, and it leads to–or at least supports– the divisiveness and polarization that threaten to take America down.

On the plus side, as we struggle to revive a common information environment, there is some promising news on the newspaper front, in what might be a new model for the industry.

In an unusual merger that some hope could serve as a national model to preserve local journalism, Chicago’s NPR station plans to acquire one of the city’s major daily newspapers.
On Tuesday, the board of directors for Chicago Public Media, the umbrella organization for WBEZ, approved moving forward with the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times. The deal is expected to be complete by Jan. 31.

Chicago is one of the nation’s largest media markets, and WBEZ — which started in the 1940s as an arm of the Chicago Board of Education — is where some of public radio’s most notable programs were formed, including “This American Life,” “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me” and “Serial.”

The Sun-Times has also been publishing since the 1940s. It is known as much for its hard-hitting tabloid-like coverage as its eight Pulitzer prizes — and being the longtime home of celebrated film critic Roger Ebert. Lately, however, it has endured the same financial tumult as many other local newspapers.

One observer quoted in the story called the acquisition “a landmark deal in American local media,” and noted that it will allow the paper to access financial backing from local foundations. “This approach has worked well in Philadelphia and is off to a promising start in Chicago,” he said.

I keep reminding myself that we are in an era of transition, and that–eventually–these changes will “shake out” into a new news environment. The best-case scenario will create a generally-accepted reality enriched–but not dominated– by newsletters, blogs and internet sites.

We can only hope…..


  1. Interesting that NPR is getting into the written media. For me, the one that I’ve been relying on to get the ‘real’ stories -news- of what I’m interested in is “The Guardian”. Formerly called ‘The Manchester Guardian’, it covers real American news about as well as anyplace I’ve come across.
    The Sun Times? It was always Chicago’s voice of reason & fact for those of us out here in the hinterlands, so it will have many fans as NPR of the Midwest will see.

  2. I have always thought it strange that Americans and much of our media look to and trust The Guardian for truth in news reporting.

    Are any of the trusted journalists such as Eugene Robinson still printed in the Indianapolis Star? I still miss my morning newspaper but do not miss the Star; the Internet culture could not have taken over our written news sources had those sources reported news factually, including local news which effects us directly.

  3. This is almost laughable, Sheila. Who do you think controls NPR today? LOL

    The reason most of the journalists are going to Substack is that they’ve been censored everywhere else. The so-called “legacy media” gave up its constitutional power years ago which is why it’s dying. Gannett has been owned by Softbank, a Japanese conglomerate since 2019.


    Only the Boomers are falling for the dying media propaganda and blaming it on social media and the internet.

    It’s the final installment of the American Dream saga being played out on the blue/red TV news. The decay is everywhere including the financial system. Or should I say, specifically the financial system – capitalism? LOL

  4. I’d love for it to be a trend but there are so few independently-owned and operated newspapers left I don’t see how. One phenomenon that enabled the Sun-Times acquisition is that the market values of print newspapers have plummeted since the Great Recession. I read one account of a paper in San Diego that was valued at $400m prior to 2008 and less than $20m just a few years later.

    One good opportunity is the Journal Gazette and NPR station WBOI in Fort Wayne, the former still owned by the Inskeep family, and also operated by Julie Inskeep until her recent recent retirement as publisher. I would make a donation to WBOI to help but it would take some serious coin from foundations and wealthy benefactors to make it happen.

  5. There have always been examples of strange bedfellows in journalism. I always liked the Christian Science Monitor and the Monitor Hour on NPR. The religion was a bit whacky, but the reporting was excellent. We are a long way from sorting out what news should look like. I encourage everyone to dig deeper into what you read. Always be a skeptic.

  6. Sheila,

    What a wonderful expose by you this morning concerning media. Sharp and to the point.

    I’m just wondering are there any of the muckrakers of old around anymore? Those individuals who spent a lot of their time and energy getting paid very little just for exposing the truth and, uncovering uncovering the muck. One of my favorite muckrakers from the past when I was a youngster was Mike Royko. Mike in his reverence could be really nasty and hard-hitting guy, but he always spoke truth to power.

    I’m sure we could name many journalists from the past who really gave of themselves for the greater good. Writing some of their best commentary over a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey.

    Too bad in this day and age, the god of the Dead benjamins rules everything. The truth should be the truth, but people prefer the truth as presented by……………….!

    It’s really fascinating how people will pick their reality, even if it’s completely detached from the actual chain of truth, History, honesty, integrity, insert your descriptor here—-.

    We have been teaching the younger generation throughout this country’s existence, how to lie! To believe the lie, to live the lie. Santa claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, you can go on and on.

    Even when these kids find out they’ve been lied to from birth, they still will attempt to live in that alternate reality as unbelievable as it can be or might be, because they are afraid they won’t receive their due from these particular lies every year. As an example, I had a cousin who was 19 years old and swore to God that Santa Claus was real. And to this day, he’s a total nut job.

    We have no truth telling anymore. We lack faith, and, I’ve even been told that faith is a myth, lol! Might I suggest those who think faith is a myth take a gander at a dictionary or thesaurus. Without having some modicum of faith, you can’t have hope, you can’t have love, definitely can’t have a functioning society!

    Humanity seems to fall to the lowest denominator of existence. Willful ignorance is truly a sad state of affairs.

    Lastly, just a quick riff, I was always wondering how and why humanity always feels it can kill its way out of its disagreements and problems. The only thing wholesale killing and destruction does is create way more enemies and hatred than it could ever solve. We are not insulated against insanity, because the same thought process that brings us endless wars brings us endless fallacy endless lies right into our living room or to our front pocket where it influences society every single day.

  7. One more spike to splinter us into “my news” v/s “our news”…my country, not our country.

  8. John and Todd,
    Muckrakers will survive, on a small scale, supported by subscriptions, not by Pharma ads.

    When I.F. Stone was blacklisted in ‘53, and even “The Nation” wouldn’t hire him, he published “I.F. Stone Weekly” to 60K to 70K subscribers. Similar news outlets are appearing in 2022.

    Non-MSM publications are today popping up continuously on sites less vulnerable to censorship, demonetization and deplatforming.

    The word gets around about who has taken a $25M contribution from Gates or Koch, and the audience abandons them and shifts in the direction of journalistic integrity, e.g. to The Muncie Voice!

  9. There are a number of quality news outlets in America. I review an assortment of them a couple times each week, and add in both left- and right-leaning outlets, to expand my understanding of the public discourse.
    To everyone seeking to expand their understanding of American and world events, I would recommend finding a source that rates bias among media outlets (like adfontesmedia.com), so you to can create your own sense of balanced understanding.

  10. Sheila’s comments talk about how a news writer has the support of the copy editor, the factchecker and the photographer. When organizations like Gannett shrink the support staff for cost-saving, the writer is pushed more and more toward working on her own. Why wouldn’t a good writer avoid similar cost-saving pressure on her salary by moving to something like Substack if she is effectively on her own anyway?

  11. By the way, special thanks to Sheila Kennedy for bringing us her daily insight free of charge. I rely on it for my sanity.

  12. Perhaps as bad as celebrity journalism is celebrity football/politics. We have a football coach from Alabama who sits in the United States Senate and votes as told by Mitch and his main beef with Democrats is that they are socialists, though he cannot define socialism, or much of anything else. Duh. . .

    Another sociaist-hating football celebrity is Herschel Walker, the Trump-approved Republican candidate for the United States Senate from Georgia. He was a great football player but if elected I can only hope that he doesn’t end up on the Foreign Relations Committee since a Kissinger he is not. If elected, he, like the coach from Alabama, will be a rubber stamp for Mitch to harvest. Duh. . .

    Another celebrity who is making headlines these days in the Moscow press is Tucker Carlson. Let’s hope he doesn’t file for the Senate on the Fascist ticket because he might get elected. On the other hand, perhaps having him in the Senate would be less damaging than having him where he is with his Nielsens contributing heavily to enhancement of the Murdoch zillions while tearing up our small d democracy.

    Football celebrities have about as much business in the Senate as Grassley and McConnell have in playing defensive right guard for the Colts, but if those two can make the grade I think I (though not a celebrity) will do a tryout for the Olympics.

  13. There is a feeding frenzy going on in the States formerly United around the business of wealth redistribution up with the predators lined up alpha to omega. It is roughly centered around global networked networks of networks. They even have their own currency, crypto. It’s a revolution of those at the intersection of financial networks and social networks and the goal is to get bought by Google which has become their central bank.

    The real product is power but the perceived product is access to data that now reveals everything knowable about each and all of us.

    They use politics illiberally. The power of politics has always been to manipulate and that’s their game. Divide the country and take it over 51% at a time.

    The grew up on lies about socialism and capitalism and now represent the new socialism, government as a tool of capitalism, power and wealth redistribution up.

    It’s the new fascism wherein wealth is a dictator.

  14. Just learned that Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and other esteemed “protesters” take advantage of the same tax break hedge fund mangers take when they sell their music portfolios. Yep, “the times they are [NOT] changing…”

  15. Yep, Bob Dylan is just another bum…geez!
    “…Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, you can go on and on.”
    Oxford Dictionary : Faith
    2. “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.”
    No one mything here…

    I like Freddie de Boer on substack.

  16. Ormond,

    You are so clever! 🙄

    Why didn’t you post definition of faith number one? Complete confidence or trust in someone or something!

    I prefer not to be a sulking mope, so I do what I do! I would imagine sulking mopes don’t contribute much to society!

  17. “Those whose falsehoods no longer deceive have forfeited the right to tell the truth.”
    —–Ambrose Bierce

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