An interview with Anna Holmes

Wmc Fbomb Anna Holmes 091317
Anna Holmes

In 2007, Anna Holmes created Jezebel.com, a website that revolutionized popular discussions around the intersections of gender, race, and culture. Since then, Holmes has had a wide-ranging career — she has contributed to The Washington Post and The New Yorker online and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Sunday Book Review. She is currently spearheading the launch of Topic.com, First Look Media’s film, TV, and digital studio.

Holmes spoke to the FBomb about Topic and her ongoing experience with and efforts to revolutionize the feminist online space.

Julie Zeilinger: Here at the Women's Media Center, we’re dedicated to tracking and publicizing the persistent lack of diversity in the newsroom. How have you experienced this lack of diversity in your own career and how have you responded to it?

Anna Holmes: Oh, absolutely. In fact, at every company I’ve worked for. Usually it’s a lack of people of color across the board and a lack of women in leadership positions. (I’ve never worked at a company in which a person of color was in a leadership position in my particular department.) I’ve also noticed a persistent problem with regards to women who are in leadership positions in name only, which is to say women who do all the actual work while the men get credit for it. I wish I didn’t sound so harsh about all this, but this has been my experience in companies both traditional and not so traditional.

As for the way it’s factored into the things I’ve done in my career, that’s sort of difficult to say. I think that my experience being in professional environments like the ones I mention above have made me more likely to agitate for the inclusion of a broader range of people — in the offices I work within and in the stories I am tasked with overseeing or telling. I’m also fairly assertive/aggressive about making sure that I give credit to people who do actual work, and to give this credit publicly.

JZ: As someone who has had high-ranking jobs in this industry, how have you thought about making space for diversity in the outlets at which you've worked? What do you try to do and what do you think other outlets can and should do better?

AH: Well, I try to talk about it, first and foremost, and then I try to walk the walk as much as talk the talk. I make it clear to colleagues and superiors that to exist in the modern world, and represent it and reflect it as fully and legitimately as possible, space has to be made for diversity — in hiring practices of staffers, in outreach to creators and freelancers, etc. Whenever I have a project (or potential project) in front of me I go through a series of questions about how best to execute it. One of those questions always is: Are different voices being represented here? If not, why not? (Mind you, I don’t always believe that every story has to represent different voices.)  Also, when I have time — which is rarely — try to write about it. (I sort of hate the word “diversity,” as you’ll see in this piece.)

As for other outlets, slowly but surely they are getting better — the media landscape is certainly much better than it was, say, five years ago. But one thing I see crop up again and again is the idea that to find, recruit, support, and hire, say, people of color, or individuals from other historically marginalized populations, means that those people are somehow experts on everything having to do with “primary” identity or demographic group … and can only approach their work from that angle. That’s just not true. So what happens is that media organizations make an effort to diversify — again, I hate that word — their stories and their staffs, but what ends up happening is that many of the individuals get pigeonholed into focusing on one or just a few sorts of things, when what makes this moment so exciting (and overdue) is that we need a range of voices on an actual RANGE of issues.

JZ: It seems writers are starting to reflect on the way feminist media has evolved since the era during which you helmed Jezebel. What do you think are the biggest ways feminist writing and activism have evolved in the digital media space? What do you think they have accomplished and in what ways (if any) do you think they fell short?    

AH: I remain stunned at the way in which feminist writing and activism, in what seems like just half a decade or less, moved from a few small but important websites and blogs to find a home in all corners of the mainstream media: The New York Times, The Washington Post, monthly women’s magazines that used to be anything but feminist. What I’ve seen happen in both digital and print media in terms of coverage of women’s issues and gender politics is nothing short of delightful. I think that conversations around gender politics have been brought fully into the mainstream, and not just in media but in entertainment, and that a whole generation of young women have had their eyes opened and their understanding of the world politicized.

One of the ways I think it’s fallen short is its overemphasis on pop culture and capitalism and the way that gender politics have been used by marketers and entertainers to sell things and brands, and the feminist media’s seeming reluctance to call this out forcefully and in a sustained way.

JZ: Topic focuses on visual storytelling. Why do you think this medium is important for and even advantageous to our current media landscape?

AH: Because the sort of visual storytelling we engage in takes a fair amount of time and money to produce, we are forced to take things more slowly than other digital media outlets, many of whom find themselves in a race with every other digital media outlet to do the fastest, funniest, smartest, most outrageous take on any given thing on any given day. This sort of stuff can be fun to read, but there’s so much of it, and we suspect that digital audiences are feeling tired of the sheer number of ultimately empty stories being shared online on any given day. We want to offer an alternative for those who are tired of seeking a constant adrenaline high in response to whatever dumb thing a celebrity or a politician has done.

[Topic is] devoted to telling relevant stories that aren’t tethered/reactive to the news cycle and take a more considered approach with regards to issues that are at the forefront of conversation. (And a lot that aren’t.) In short: We’re creating social media/digital friendly videos that have a longer life span, are more evergreen, are anchored by strong storytellers/stories, and incorporate high production values. What I find so tiring about video content made for the digital space right now is that it’s mostly explanatory or unnecessarily loud and provocative and reactive to every little twist and turn in the 24-hour news cycle. It’s exhausting. We want to offer a space where audiences can interact with more contemplative, sometimes quiet (sometimes not!) visual storytelling content.

JZ: Do you think visual mediums are in any way particularly advantageous for underrepresented populations and communities to express themselves?

AH: That’s a great question and one I don’t have a good answer to. I’d say historically, absolutely NOT. The barriers to entry in terms of acquiring the tools of visual storytelling — professional cameras, equipment, art supplies, etc. — were (and still are) significant: These things are quite expensive and therefore off-limits to a lot of folks, not to mention the cost of courses and classes. Then there was — and is — the issue of the gatekeepers and mentors who control whose work gets a chance to be seen and exposed. Not surprisingly, those gatekeepers were, and are, overwhelmingly white and male and coastal and well-off and often unimaginative beyond anything in their direct sphere of influence or experience.

But thanks to things like mobile phones and the Internet, the barriers to entry to create and distribute visual storytelling have been eroded quite a bit, and people from underrepresented communities are having their voices and ideas (and visuals) seen and heard. I’m not sure though, that this is something specific to visual storytelling — I’d say the same thing about writing. I do think, however, that because this is an increasingly visual, fast-paced culture, that visual storytelling can often more successfully communicate a point than the written word. Whether or not that’s a good thing I’ll leave up to others to decide. (And let’s be clear: There’s a lot of the written word that goes into visual storytelling before it’s even produced

JZ: It appears Topic is already making an effort to feature artists who offer perspectives different than those we’re used to seeing. For example, Topic recently published a series created by Cirocco Dunlap, which takes a surrealist approach to the “young woman in a city” narrative. How do you find these artists?

AH: Well it’s not just me. Cirocco Dunlap’s show, for example, was brought in by two of the television and digital development executives that I work alongside. They’re just as much a part of this endeavor as everyone else and are part of Topic’s efforts to produce, acquire, and distribute creator-driven, character-centered storytelling. So the answer is: I don’t just approach it — we all do — and we do so by trying to get the word out about what we’re doing, by tapping into the networks we already have and trying to build new ones, by indulging our curiosities about how people tell stories nowadays and where they tell them. Artists and filmmakers and photographers can now get their work seen with just a few simple keystrokes, so we make it our mission to find them (and to hope they find us!).

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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