What is Internet Culture Reporting Anyway?

I was cleaning out my Google Drive recently when I came across a beat memo I’d written for a media company in 2013. Vine had just launched, and I was hoping to get hired as a technology journalist covering the many ways people were leveraging the platform for fame.

It was a topic that I knew intimately. I launched my media career off building an audience on Tumblr in 2009 and was working as a social media director of a global news brand. I was intimately familiar with the ways technology was affecting media and communication and I wanted to cover that critically.  

The response I got from the editor was nice, but what I wanted to write about, he said, did not constitute tech journalism.

Tech journalism, like the tech industry, is constantly evolving. Platforms that entire teams of reporters cover now will be irrelevant in 10 years, and new technologies will become commonplace and require thoughtful, dedicated coverage. 

When I started out, I was heavily inspired by the technology reporters Jenna Wortham and Katie Notopoulos. They, along with several other women writers in the late 00s and early 2010s, truly reshaped how technology was written about. They didn’t just focus on whatever new products Facebook or Google was launching, they wrote empathetically about online communities, the user side of social media, the internet, and how these new products, startups, and features were shaping the world around us.

This was the type of reporting I wanted to do. But, this was not “serious” tech journalism according to many of the men who led the big newsrooms. For years I have fought aggressively to make people care about the things I cover. I wrote over two dozen beat memos, sat through hours and hours of interviews at nearly every major newsroom. I tried over and over again to explain what an “influencer” was. 

Tons of people offered to hire me, but none would give me the job title I craved: technology reporter. I bounced around different social media director roles and editors offered me jobs like “trending writer” or “viral news writer.” These jobs are fine, but they were not what I wanted to do. I wanted to report on technology. 

I continued to freelance on my beat until finally, I got a break. I took a massive pay cut and accepted a full time job as a technology reporter. Since then I’ve broken huge stories and landed a job on the Business section of the New York Times. But still, people go out of their way to recast my work.

If it seems like I have a chip on my shoulder about my beat, I do. I have a huge one because throughout my entire career, powerful men have dismissed my work and the things I cover as inconsequential. To this day, famous men in politics, media, and Silicon Valley continually refer to me as a “Teen reporter” or “TikTok reporter” as if young people or a multi billion dollar Chinese tech giant aren’t worth serious coverage. 

The good news is, in the past year and a half my beat has gained a new kind of relevance. Newsrooms are hiring whole teams around the things I cover and more young journalists are coming onto the scene with an innate understanding of the ways technology is shaping our world. 

Media reporters used to joke about editors hiring for beats at the “intersection” as in, at the “intersection of tech and media” or the “intersection of politics and culture.” These were ham handed ways of trying to express how intertwined our world is becoming. It’s clear that the old school way of thinking about coverage areas isn’t going to cut it. 

This brings me to the job title “internet culture reporter” which has emerged along with my beat going mainstream. 

What is “internet culture” reporting? I don’t know. This job title means something different at every publication. But I do know that, traditionally, when straight white men write about Facebook groups, or influencers, or NFTs, or internet drama, there’s a name for that and it’s called tech reporting

People have asked me in interviews why I think “internet culture reporting” is so dominated by women. What I’d like to ask back is why are so many women technology journalists labeled “internet culture reporters”? 

Who is and isn’t labeled an internet culture or digital culture reporter is something that came to mind recently after reading this conversation between two very good reporters, Study Hall’s Kate Lindsay and Slate’s Rachelle Hampton. Hampton rightfully calls out diversity issues on the internet culture beat, saying Black internet culture writers deserve more attention. They undeniably do. But I think what’s also important to question is why so many writers on this beat are labeled as “internet culture reporters” to begin with and why we’ve traditionally been excluded from the core areas of newsrooms. 

Why aren’t internet culture writers, who are primarily women and people of color, seen simply as technology or culture reporters? And do we really need the word “internet” or “digital” in front of things in the year 2021?

In the early days of digital media, there was a recurrent debate online about whether reporters who wrote for websites were journalists. “Oh,” idiots on Twitter would say, “that person writes for the New Yorker, but it’s the New Yorker dot com.” Some legacy outlets even had separate roles for “digital journalists.” People who wrote for the web were considered inferior to the “real” reporters, who wrote for print.

A lot of the discussion around internet culture reporting feels reminiscent of these debates. Digital culture is just culture at this point. Technology reporting doesn’t just mean writing about the new iPhone or quarterly earnings. 

My hope is that, as the media industry evolves, the notion of an internet culture reporter will seem archaic. Maybe by then we’ll all be living in the metaverse, but I hope that, in the meantime, more women, people of color, and people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds will be given opportunities and platforms within newsrooms. I also hope that the media industry finally realizes the things women and people of color care about are not “niche” stories or coverage areas.

I’m very grateful to work on a team that thinks about these things critically and I’m grateful to the editor who hired me at the New York Times, as a technology reporter.

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