Journalist Rebecca Jennings on what brought her to her current job as a journalist, being a chaotic person with daily deadlines and the impossibility of cultural predictions.
Your work has become a staple for anyone interested in the horrors and fascinations of internet culture and you always seem to be three steps ahead. How can you catch trends before they even appear on someone else’s radar?
It’s so funny because I never give news, ever. I am not a scoop reporter. I write the kind of “day three” stories where someone breaks some news, there’s a few hot takes, and then I try to write a more thoughtful explainer and contextualize any news item that comes up pass. For me, I’m not even the first to a lot of things and I’m ok with that. I try to take something that really germinated in mainstream culture, something that might confuse people and explain it. I don’t think of myself as someone who is really ahead of the trends, I just happen to be covering a topic that people tend to think of as “what’s next”. People are very afraid of technology and culture. When you spend so much time online, it’s kind of impossible not to see models everywhere. These things have a very predictable way of unfolding, honestly. I often find myself writing the same story over and over again, which gets a bit frustrating.
Is there a certain quality you hold that makes you want to write about a particular topic?
Because a lot of internet culture is just repeating things that happened five years, 10 years, or 20 years ago, I’m looking for something that’s actually new or worth explaining. The last story, West Elm Caleb… It happens so many times over and over that it’s not interesting because we’ve done it so many times before. Most of the time, a dance or a trend on TikTok doesn’t warrant any coverage in the press. It doesn’t say anything about the company, it’s just a thing that went viral… I think something that hasn’t happened a million times already online is worth covering.
Reminds me of the article you wrote about Internet Garbage Trends. Why are we, as a culture, so drawn to analyzing the meaning of meaningless things?
In a way that I hadn’t seen years and years ago, people have really taken to new and innovative concepts as a way of trying to predict the future. There are so many fads and craziness happening now due to apps like TikTok moving very fast. I think people are clinging to something that might help them understand what might happen next because the world is so unpredictable. Economics, culture in general, politics… these things are impossible to predict right now. To me, the real fervor behind being the first to name a trend, or jumping on a dumb crypto scam, is just a reflection of people being scared and confused.
What creative process do you go through before you sit down to write? Do you constantly scour the internet for story ideas?
It’s funny, I’m spending so much less time on TikTok than I used to — partly because it’s so exhausting. My page for you is filled with teenage girls wondering if sex work is feminist or not. It’s just not something you’re going to have a productive conversation about in the format. I think, “Oh my God, none of you have been sex workers, none of you know sex workers.” Acting like you know everything in a three minute video is really frustrating. But usually I’ll be on Twitter or TikTok or Instagram and if I see something interesting I’ll write it down and then try to see if it comes back. Once I notice a few trends that fall into the same category, I’ll think of an angle that isn’t immediately responsive, then contact the creators who were involved and see what they have to say to determine if it is worth talking about. Sometimes I’ll follow a lead in a story and there just isn’t enough there. But sometimes I talk to these people and find a source for another really cool story that’s going on. Like any journalist, I have a giant list of things that interest me and that I add to it over the weeks.
What is your personal relationship with the Internet? Have you always been extremely online?
I was not an internet kid. I was a Microsoft World kid. I wrote a lot of fanfiction when I was a kid but never published it because I didn’t even know there was a place for it. I cared about the internet because it allowed me to post to MySpace or my AIM Buddy profile or later, my Facebook. I just liked sharing photos with friends. I wasn’t one of those internet kids that I report on now, which is why I think it interests me so much as an adult. I wasn’t even really a pop culture kid. I didn’t have cable growing up in Vermont. I was constantly doing something else. I didn’t consume anything. So being introduced to the larger world of internet stardom and culture as an adult has been really fascinating.
What do you mean by you were a child of Microsoft Word?
I was constantly writing stories. Fiction, short stories. My friend and I were writing CSI fanfics back and forth and inserting ourselves into the plot. It was very racy. We were about 12 years old. I was married to Greg, she was married to Nick, and we both slept with each other’s husbands.
Are there any habits that you’ve picked up that you find particularly helpful when it comes to your writing practice?
One thing I’m very proud of is that I spend my TikTok hours on the treadmill. I walk uphill – this is actually an exercise routine I found on TikTok – for 30 minutes at 3 miles per hour, with an incline of 12. It’s a really good workout, but you don’t run not, so you can easily scroll through TikTok. I feel like one of those horrible hustle culture gurus who says, “Only watch TikTok when you’re working out.” Other than that, not really. I have a newsletter that I write once a week for Vox so that’s a cadence I need to subscribe to at all times. But I am a very chaotic person in general. I’m not exactly a type A personality. I’m a “throw everything in a google doc and figure it out” type of person.
Do you keep 9-5 hours?
Because I have a salaried job, I have to be online at 9:30 a.m. and I usually work during normal working hours. I’m not going to say that I work until 6 a.m. every day because that’s a lie. Sometimes I exercise in the middle of the day or go for a walk.
You’ve been with Vox for over six years, which is a very long time in this industry. Tell me a bit more about your professional background.
I’ve been at Vox my whole career! For a while I was like, “What am I doing, why am I still in the same company?” But I feel like I have a very good situation right now. I went to NYU and did unpaid internships at a few places, Time Out New York Kidsthis really dodgy travel site and place called L-magazine, which no longer exists. I was writing about New York blogging stuff. It was 2014, so it was a very hipster time where people were writing cool and sarcastic blog posts. I was obsessed with The Awl, Gawker and Thought Catalog at the time. I loved him so much, I just wanted to write internet shit.
I went there in the summer after graduating. Then Racked New York had an opening for an associate editor and I got it. All the work was basically blogging and walking around New York sample sales and writing reports about them. I was the one carrying my super heavy laptop at all times. I didn’t earn any money, I was very alone.
I did that for about a year and then moved on to National Racked and wrote blog posts about whatever Kate Middleton wore when she left the palace. It was mostly about finding fun titles to put on her outfit photos, because those posts would get a million clicks. They were pretty much the only thing that would get a lot of clicks on Racked.
Then the whole “pivot to video” thing happened in 2016 and I moved on to the video team. I was the main editorial person for the video team, so I wrote a lot of scripts and appeared in a lot of videos. Then the “pivot to video” thing ended and Racked shut down in 2018. They kept 10 of us to start a new vertical on Vox called The Goods. I kind of have to choose what I cover. I didn’t really have a beat before that, so I felt a bit in the dark until TikTok blew up and I realized I was interested in covering this new creator industry.
Do you have any qualities that make you particularly suited to the type of work you do?
I write a lot about young people and have worked with children all my life. It’s something I’m pretty natural with. I was a figure skating coach for a long time and I did babysitting. I find it very easy to talk to sources. A lot of my talks are like therapy sessions, it seems. I really enjoy this part of the job.
What kind of advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a similar career?
It’s harder to get a job as a journalist today than it was when I started. But at the same time there were so many shitty and exploitative jobs back then and a lot of them have disappeared because those companies no longer exist or have been replaced because companies have unions to protect workers. The jobs that still exist are better jobs, but that makes it a little harder at first. I think, especially for young people, lean into what you have that no one else does. I tell student journalists all the time that they have access to sources that most adult journalists don’t. They are already in the spaces where children talk and hang out and most of the time adults are not part of this world. If you want to be a journalist, throw everyone. I send people who inquire about their careers this very good presentation guideline Middle Message by Ann Friedman. Join a collective like Study Hall to master the freelance profession.
Rebecca Jennings recommends:
The vintage Turkish rug dealer I found on Etsy and recommend to everyone.
The video game Fire Emblem: Three Houseswhich begs the question, “What if Hogwarts, but excited?”
The current season of 90 Day Fiance: Before 90 Days (and, really, all 90 day fiance fallout), which is an incredible documentary film disguised as trash television.
Sheertex tights. Expensive but unfortunately worth it.
Becherovka, a Czech spirit that tastes like Christmas in a bottle.