Today is Taylor Lorenz’s first day at the Washington Post, and she’s already doing, arguably, exactly what she was hired to do: She’s stirring up trouble on social media. “Oh my God, can you stand all the drama?” she says, giggling on a phone call with me last night. In case you’ve been distracted by actually consequential world news, here’s a study guide: Lorenz, who writes about internet stuff and until recently worked at the New York Times, has been tweaking her erstwhile employer, setting off a blue-check brawl on Saturday that pitted her against ex-colleague Maggie Haberman.
It began with Lorenz’s exit-interview comments to Charlotte Klein in Vanity Fair and later to Insider about journalists’ need to be free to be “brands” and about the Times somehow getting in the way of that. (Remember when that word was still so odious that President Obama’s social secretary was axed by David Axelrod for referring to the “Obama brand”?) Lorenz’s new classmates at the Post and a few of her old ones at the Times called her out-of-date self-empowerment-via-marketing-lingo “cringey” and basically labeled her a neo-journalism-maxi-zoom-dweebie. Then Lorenz and Haberman got in a food fight and the media-Twitter lunchroom went crazy.
Lorenz and Haberman are both fiercely intelligent talents who adapted well to the disintermediation of the media while also working at established outlets. Both are known quantities; Lorenz is nearly 40, Haberman a few years older, and both write prolifically but can’t stay off Twitter. Both were backed to the hilt by the New York Times. And both have spent the past many years writing about spoiled brats running wild on social media. (Well, in Haberman’s case, one spoiled brat in particular.)
But only one has accused the other of acting like a “psycho” who “bitched” her out, as Lorenz once wrote of Haberman to colleagues in a company Slack room. Journalists are a constitutionally competitive, backbiting bunch, but Lorenz often beefs for no discernible reason — one of the many rules at Sulzberger High that she didn’t want to follow.
The crux of her complaining is that the fusty newspaper fenced her in, dimmed her star. Never mind that she is arguably TikTok famous only because she was Times famous; the paper ran her “Styles” stories on the front page, put her on its television show — right after the Free Britney episode, too — and its flagship podcast, and granted her book leave. “Everything you’re listing is a Times property!” protests Lorenz, who won’t be confined to such provincial backwaters.
Of course, there have always been journalistic stars. (In fact, the stars used to be much bigger, back when people, you know, read newspapers. Hollywood made movie after movie after movie about them.) But you no longer need to have some gatekeeper anointing you now that the algorithm does that. Instead, you need to give that internet audience what it wants — conflict. Lorenz does, and together with her savvy sense of what internet people want to talk about (or hate on), she gets massive page views. Is there a difference between promoting one’s work and promoting oneself? “I don’t think there is a difference because your name is on there,” says Lorenz, adding, “I don’t talk about myself. Unless it’s some sort of profile or something.”
She says she has got nothing but love for the Times and hates that anyone might think otherwise. “Maybe I should tweet something,” she muses. (This phone call is happening hours after she tweeted, “Last thing I’ll say on this …”) Her underbranded editors taught her a lot, she says, but still, “the Times and a lot of places can figure out how to work with talent better.” Sure, there’s a kernel of truth in that. But here’s what these people never stop self-promoting long enough to consider: What if their brands are doing more damage to the institution instead of the other way around?
“If you think about the Times as a platform, and you think about journalists as people creating for that platform,” says Lorenz, again slipping into clichéd digital-marketing speak, “those two sides are always going to be in tension.” There certainly was plenty of tension in how Lorenz approached her beat, and the paper often got dragged into it (and arguably profited from it, since it kept her stories circulating). She says it should have defended her more vigorously in her frequent scraps. (Meanwhile, the paper’s journalists in Ukraine donning flak jackets to deliver marmalade droppers to the front page aren’t tweeting about any of this tedium.)
Just as Lorenz was tweeting her way out the door, Times brass was trying to establish … better standards. Cliff Levy, an editor who has worked in Moscow and recently ran the “Metro” desk, has become the in-house Winston Wolf — a cold, straight-talking mop-up man who gets dispatched to the scene of bloody messes. (“Get it straight, Buster: I’m not here to say please. I’m here to tell you what to do. And if self-preservation is an instinct you possess, you’d better fucking do it and do it quick.”) He was sent to clean up the audio desk after its big Caliphate podcast blew up. Now he’s been stationed to beef-up the “Standards” desk. Reporters have mostly regarded it as the obstacle to ramming saucy copy into the paper. No longer. Levy has staffed up and is examining the Times’ ever-expanding empire with a magnifying glass. In the meantime, Rebecca Blumenstein, another masthead editor, is leading a hard charge to overhaul the paper’s social media guidelines. There are conversations going around the newsroom with people of all ranks about the merits of Twitter and the extent to which the Times and its reporters should be playing on it anymore, and Lorenz has become a cautionary tale. There’s also a sense that the serious and cerebral Joe Kahn is expected to crack down on some of the excesses of experimentation tolerated, as some see it, by Dean Baquet. “Journalism is not about creating safe spaces for people,” Kahn has said.
As for Lorenz, she says she is psyched to work with her new colleagues at the Post, which, as Ben Smith discussed in one of his Times columns on then–Post editor Marty Baron, has had its own issues trying to balance its institutional voice with the social-media presences of its younger and often more diverse, personal-brand-hungry staff. Some of Lorenz’s new colleagues have been anticipating her arrival today like she’s the Creature from the Black Lagoon. (Imagine trying to explain her to George Will.) She will remain in Los Angeles but recalls fondly the two years she spent in Washington. “I remember trying to explain to D.C. people why they need to know who Jake Paul is and them laughing. Meanwhile, Jake Paul says he’s going to run for president in 2032.” She adds cheerily, “I love that my beat starts conversation!”