Celebritologyology: How Jen Chaney's blog rules the Washington Post

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Jen Chaney
Chaney in the WJLA-TV studios in October to tape an episode of the 'Arch Campbell Show.' (Photo: TBD Staff)

Monday, Oct. 24, was a great day for celebrity news. In the wee hours of the morning, Washington Post reporter Jen Chaney posted video from the red carpet at Will Ferrell’s Mark Twain Award celebration the previous evening. Then there were stories about J.Lo crying at a casino show, Paul McCartney’s weekend wedding, and a Chaney meditation on whether a TV show based on fairy tales signaled a trend in pop culture.

There would be five more stories before lunchtime.

“I get up and get on my laptop really early,” says Chaney, who spends her mornings with one eye on her 4-year-old and the other on trending entertainment stories. Her blog, Celebritology, which she writes with Sarah Anne Hughes, is one of the Washington Post’s most popular online properties, and she, like the site, has internalized the Internet’s traffic rhythms: Getting most of the posts up before noon, tapering off after 4 or so, targeting niche audiences late at night.

Chaney, 39, has been writing for Celebritology since 2006. She started as an unofficial lieutenant to Liz Kelly, who launched the blog that same year; Chaney became a dues-paid Celebritologist in 2009. Before that, Chaney was a Web producer at the paper, a post she took full-time in 2004. She started adding posts about movies, then TV, then started live-blogging Lost with Kelly, a move that proved popular. “It just completely took off,” Chaney says. “Because of that partnership it eventually made sense for me to come on.”

Kelly left the Post for Zap2it in February; Chaney’s headshot has been atop Celebritology ever since.

Someone coming to Celebritology for the first time in 2011 might be surprised to learn it was once a flashpoint in the struggle to integrate the Post’s Web and print newsrooms. Erik Wemple reported in Washington City Paper in 2008 that the blog was born because Style didn't feel like national celebrity news was a good use of its reportorial firepower. When Celebritology took off, Style staffers sniped at it privately and publicly, complaining less about its content than the play they felt it got on the Post homepage: “The Web site has clearly decided that Celebritology is where it’s at,” Hank Stuever told Wemple at the time.

Those days of acrimony are past, says Amy Argetsinger, whose Reliable Source column, which she writes with Roxanne Roberts, is Celebritology’s closest kin, subject-wise (it is, though, primarily a print property that backs onto the Web). Back then, she says, “The Web presence was being maintained by people who were in Rosslyn and were often interested in promoting their own content more than the Washington Post staff work.”

Now that the Web and print staffs have combined, things are a lot easier; Argetsinger says she’s much more worried about duplicating efforts in print than online. “A big part of our day is touching base with Al Kamen or Dan Steinberg,” she says. “Jen and I probably have to do less of that.”

“They’re sort of an all-service pop culture aggregator,” she says of Chaney’s blog. “We don’t have that much overlap.”

One area in which Reliable Source and Celebritology don’t overlap: the org chart. Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts work for the Style section; Chaney works under Katharine Zaleski, the Post’s executive director of digital news, who's in charge of all Web editing for entertainment and lifestyle. “It ended up with me because I’m overseeing audience development at the Post,” Zaleski says. “It had an incredible opportunity, I started looking at it more closely when I got here, to engage readers more heavily and bring in an audience that we weren’t talking to in the past.”

When I stumble over a question of whether the blog steps on Style’s toes, Zaleski makes quick work of me: “There’s none of this print-Web divide crap that you hear from people outside the company,” she says. “It’s a false theory of antagonism that media critics like to talk about.”

“We just don’t have enough resources to be fighting with each other,” she says.

Zaleski also oversees the Post’s SEO efforts, which means she’s in charge of making content more clickable (the acronym stands for search engine optimization, but it's basically a standalone word at this point). At its best, SEO means headlines with proper nouns up front to make their articles pop up higher in Internet searches. At its worst, it means cultivating a content farm, or writing articles about cats wrapped in bacon.

Chaney says she has to stay aware on what’s popping online. “For everybody, there is pressure to keep eyeballs on the site,” she says. “But a lot of the things that are trending are things that we’d write about anyway.”

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