CAMP 2014: Anna Holmes on Jezebel, burnout and fear (VIDEO)

Story by 2014 Fellow Marina Villeneuve | Photos by Ellie Van Houtte | Video by Macrina Newhouse

Anna Holmes and Lauren Whaley chat during the Q&A.

When online media company Gawker Media approached then-magazine editor Anna Holmes to start a women’s website in late 2006, Holmes says she was up for it – but scared.

“Maybe when you get fed up, you get more fearless,” said Holmes, speaking at the Saturday keynote dinner at the annual Journalism and Women Symposium Conference and Mentoring Project (CAMP) in Palm Springs, California. “But I wasn’t without fear.”

It was at a time when nobody Holmes knew was moving from print to Web, and when her work in celebrity and fashion reporting was paying the rent, but failing to satisfy her personally.

“It was very scary for me, and I felt very, very fearful,” she said.

Despite her fear, Holmes dug in and became a bit sneaky – her mission behind Jezebel, the hugely successful website she founded, was as much about provoking smart discussions about pop culture and gender as it was about politicizing her young readers.

“We could use those topics which had been marketed to women very successfully as entrees into more serious discussions,” said Holmes. “Along with those we could talk about things like politics – women could talk about both things at once.”

Anna Holmes speaks at CAMP.

Holmes, who started her career in legacy media outlets like Entertainment Weekly in the mid-90s, launched Jezebel in 2007 and soon recruited a staff of writers to churn out stories about celebrity, sex and fashion all day long. The no-holds-barred site now reaches 13 million people each month according to audience measurement company Quantcast, and has taken on topics from sexual assault to “The Daily Show’s” treatment of women writers to the rise and fall of Lisa Frank, the brains behind the rainbow school supplies brand.

The audience of self-identifying female journalists nodded and clapped often throughout the dinner, particularly when Holmes talked about times when she’s felt like a “phony” and “not good enough.”

“It’s interesting: The more successful I got, the more I had imposter syndrome,” said Holmes. “There’s no magic pill for that. I try and recognize when I have those narratives in my head and I try to push them away.”

Holmes, who now balances writing for The New York Times Book Review with her work at new media company Fusion as editor for digital voices and storytelling, talked about her career and thoughts on digital media during a question and answer session with JAWS President Lauren Whaley.

Read more of her thoughts from dealing with naysayers to her dream of a website staffed by people of color who don’t write about race:

On why she left women’s magazine: “I found myself very frustrated by the magazines I was working for. I felt like I was being shunted, or perhaps I was shunting myself, into certain arenas that weren’t that rewarding, celebrity magazines and women magazines that seemed to be where the jobs were. To me it seems like magazines that were more highfalutin didn’t have a lot of turnover: They seemed to be staffed by white men who went to certain colleges and knew certain people. In order to pay the rent, I took jobs that were good jobs, I’m not complaining. They didn’t sate my appetite or my ambition to do what I thought was important stuff. I can sit in a nail salon and read celebrity magazines, but I have no illusion it’s important.”

On women’s magazines: “In late 2006, I worked for InStyle, which was not one I hate working for. It was straightforward: here’s a celebrity’s house, here are spring dresses. It wasn’t telling women to be insecure about the way they looked; it was not about privileging heterosexual men and women relations or being sexy above all else. Here’s some fashion and here’s Jennifer Aniston’s yoga room. Compared to Cosmo/Glamour at the time, it was kind of refreshing.”

On embarking on Jezebel: “Even after it became successful, I remained terrified. At first, what was I afraid of was the site was going to fail or be bad. If that happened, my name would be at the top of it; I wouldn’t have anything to fall back on” …

“I felt like failure was not an option, and I couldn’t guarantee failure wouldn’t happen. The only way I could guarantee anything was working very hard.”

On the male nay-sayers: “That scared me, but it also lit a fire under my ass. This was mostly men who said that. ‘You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.’ I had to believe I was onto something. Even a year into it when it was successful, it was scary, because it was successful, and that was a whole other thing I wasn’t prepared for.” On her favorite part about Jezebel: “I wanted us to talk intelligently, deconstruct issues from a gender politics perspective. We could talk about women’s lives in context of those things, but not buy into these industries, the celebrity industrial bullshit complex.” On why Jezebel was good for women: “I knew I grew up in an era where the Internet didn’t exist. There was no, where female celebrities are deconstructed for every little flaw, or there’s squirts of semen drawn on their pictures. I didn’t grow up in an environment where women were being deconstructed in the same fervor. I felt like it was damaging to young women. We could direct them away from sites that were either going after women in sexist, misogynistic ways or trying to sell them stuff. We could give them stuff they wanted in terms of pop culture, celebrity fashion, and not in a way that would make them feel bad about themselves.”

On why she left Jezebel: “I don’t think I got fed up with Jezebel. I think what happened was I got very burned out. It was all I did, from the minute I woke up at 6 a.m. Every day. And I don’t like to think of myself as lazy, but that was pretty intense. I think I got burned out, I think I had nothing to prove anymore after three years. The owner of the company started to say things that suggested to me that he wanted it to be a different site. ‘Why don’t you do some posts about make up?’” …

“He was talking about the political posts we had done. One time he gently said, maybe he was joking, he said there were too many pictures of Hillary Clinton on the site. That signaled to me maybe he wanted it to be more commercial. That would make sense, it would get more advertising. But it was totally against what we made fun of so long, and I wasn’t willing to fight with him about it” …

“At that point, I’m done, I’m tired. I was so exhausted. I figured if he wanted certain things out of the site, he could get someone else to do it. I was very sad. I wasn’t angry. I didn’t leave in a huff.”

On when she hates the Internet’s ‘outrage culture’: “It’s exhausting. I’m ideologically allied with the people who are being outraged. But they can take it to another level, or proportion. The dismantling of the Voting Rights Act is treated with the same outrage as some dumb celebrity said something stupid. Those are two very different things. They shouldn’t be given equal weight.” … “I’m glad people are talking openly about and calling out about things like misogyny, racism. I think there are a number of individuals who are more interested in self-promotion than interested in constructively breaking down issues and moving us forward.” … “Those are times when I hate the Internet. I’m more allied with some of those folks than I am with people on the far right, but I think there’s too much of – people get convicted on the Internet as being evil very easily. People make mistakes.”

On why diversity is a smart business decision: “Condé Nast, I like to shit all over. Publicly, they’re still living in the early ’90s ,where they have these magazines that are very aspirational about luxury – and the U.S. looks nothing like that, economically and in terms of skin color. If they continue down that road, they’ll disappear and they’ll deserve to. I feel frustrated about that. I don’t work there, but there are times when I feel like diversity becomes even more important not just in terms of what you owe to a readership, but that it would be a smart business decision.”

On what diversity looks like: “I don’t think there’s a number you hit when a bell rings, and you’ve achieved diversity. I’m not sure it works that way. I do think there historically has been reluctance or a certain vehemence against newsrooms reflecting reality. They often reflect who the most privileged and most powerful are, not who makes up the population. I think that managers in newsrooms can be very smug, incurious, and believe they know the answers to things, that they don’t approach their work with what I think is the way they should approach their work. Which is, the world is an endlessly curious place, and so are the people in it, and we should tell all of their stories.”

On being annoyed by media companies who say they can’t find diverse hires: “But I basically just chalk it up to laziness. There’s not an excuse now for not being able to cultivate, find and retain writers, reports, editors and managers who come from different backgrounds, because it’s very easy to find them.”

On her frustration with pigeonholing journalists of color: “There are times I’ve wanted to start an online magazine staffed by only people of color where they don’t talk about race and aren’t tasked with the black take. They have many, many other interests, many other interests instead of race and politics. They would talk about pop culture, fashion, everything else.” On what she’d tell young and aspiring media professionals: “I’m very quick to tell them, I’m not sure my advice is not the best, it’s my experience in journalism and I’m only speaking for myself. In the mid ’90s to early ’00s in New York in magazines, you achieved success in a certain way. You got an editorial assistant job, then you got promoted, or went to another magazine, you became a writer or got on the editor track. It seemed very proscribed. Now everything’s up in the air. I don’t think you have to have gone through those certain paths to get somewhere, so to speak. There are a lot of people who get discovered for work on the Internet, for their work on their personal blog. It’s exciting, and it’s added to a certain diversity of voices.” …

Anna Holmes snaps a picture of the crowd during the Q&A.

On what she’d tell writers looking for an audience: “You know that what you do matters, in your heart, otherwise you wouldn’t do it. You keep doing it, even when you feel the impulse to quit or that you’re not being heard or that you feel frustrated that the sorts of things that empower you don’t seem to be having that quote unquote impact. Continue to do it, keep hammering it home.”…

“I’m very much a believer in not shutting up. Hammering points home, telling similar stories even if people start to complain. We would get people complaining, ‘We get it. Rape is a problem. Stop writing about rape.’ They were tired of seeing this sort of content on site. I don’t care what you think, it’s an ongoing issue, you don’t have to go on the site. Eventually, by repeating ourselves enough, we would perhaps have some effect on readership, or ways they thought about the world.”…

“It’s easy for me to say, easy for you to feel frustrated you’re not being listened to. I feel like it’s an interesting, exciting times in terms of media. You’re more likely to find an audience that’s going to be interested in what you care about. People don’t have to rely on newsletters and mail and pre-approved corporate publications in order to get information in ways they used to. It’s really exciting, really important. Your audience will find you and you will find your audience.”

On what she’d change about her own career: “I wouldn’t work so hard. I don’t know if I could have done it any other way. It was very depleting for me in terms of my health, in terms of my personal relationships. I felt like it was my one chance, I had to make a success of this thing.” … “If I had to do it over again, I’d delegate more. I have a hard time delegating.”

On not having a mentor: “I didn’t have any mentors. In part, it was my own fault. In part, it was because there were not that many women in positions of power at publications I worked for when I was young and then getting older. I didn’t ask for help or advice from people who were older than me. I felt too proud, or I didn’t know how.”

On what she’s happy about when it comes to today’s media: “Even though there are a lot of things that frustrate me, the visibility of women or women of color is much better than it was 10 years ago. It’s a topic of conversation. People are talking about it, not just in journalism circles. It’s extended beyond the media bubbles. There’s more robust, interesting, provocative conservations not just about the lives of women, but the lives of people of color more than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. As irritated as I get, things change pretty slowly.” …

“Change happens so slowly and I’m really happy to be alive in a time where change is so sustaining.”

Watch the video by Macrina Newhouse below to hear more of Holmes’ comments at CAMP.