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)

And those Google-pleasing headlines (e.g., “Tara Reid: Not actually married?”; “Lindsay Lohan to pose for Playboy? No confirmation of the rumor — yet”)? “There is no secret lab,” Chaney says. “We put the headlines on our stuff.” She has, she says, “for some wacky reason been given permission to publish without an editor looking at it.” An editor will usually jump in Chaney’s copy after it goes live, she says.

That could be because at this point, the Web’s DNA has been grafted onto Chaney's own. After she graduated from the College of William & Mary in 1994, she worked at the Montgomery Journal, then the Gazette newspapers, where she was a reporter and editor and wrote a humor column called “Jeneralizations.” She left in late 1999 to do a fellowship on Capitol Hill for nine months, then strung for People while working part-time at the Post as a Web producer.

“Because I started on the Web side,” Chaney says, “I had a feel for what the demands and needs are for the digital side of things.”

Chaney writes for the paper as well, doing, say, an interview with Seth Rogen for the Sunday Style section, parts of which she’ll repurpose as Celebritology posts. That’s an easy synergy; what’s trickier is engaging in personality journalism, i.e. gossip, without making hash of Eugene Meyer's principles.

Chaney offers the rumored Will Smith/Jada Pinkett Smith split of late August as an example of how traditional make-the-damn-phone-call journalism can coexist with the imperative to vacuum up pageviews. “If we didn’t say anything about it, it looked like we weren’t paying attention,” she says. “So we reached out to the reps, sort of commented on it, saying ‘I think people are getting too nuts about this.’ Being really transparent: ‘We’ve reached out to the reps and we will update this post.’”

“You can move quickly,” she says, “without compromising the Post’s integrity.”

Argetsinger says certain stories are Reliable Source territory: Jennifer Aniston hitting D.C., for instance, or almost anything involving Michaele and Tareq Salahi. “Salahi is us,” she says.

She also thinks it's a stretch to view these Washington Post properties in tandem. “I think the Reliable Source/Celebritology comparison is a little false. Our core competency is reporting about Washington," Argetsinger says. "Our lead item is almost always going to be local and original and about Washington. Most of what Celebritology is doing is riffs and meditations on pop culture.”

“We’re primarily a national website,” says Zaleski. Celebritology, she says, is “definitely in the Top 10” of Post blogs. “I see them as becoming the ultimate smart destination about entertainment and culture. And Jen provides that forum that people can come to every day where you’re not getting generic, commodity entertainment news that everybody has.”

“What’s interesting,” she says, “is that we see people from the military and the government enjoying Celebritology in numbers that are higher than I would expect them to be.”

Traffic numbers at the Post are guarded with the sort of zeal normally associated with Masonic rites, but Celebritology posts often own the Entertainment front page's "Post Most" box and "In the News" links. And yet the blog exists as an island apart from Style, with which it shares a lot of online real estate; Chaney, who used to work in Virginia before the Post integrated its online and print newsrooms, sits on the floor above from the one Style’s staff is on, too.

The distance isn’t just physical. When the results of a coroner’s inquest into Amy Winehouse’s death were announced, Style (in Reliable Source) ran a 65-word blurb; Celebritology ran five paragraphs that aggregated AP and Guardian stories, two photos, an explanation of what “death by misadventure” means and a link to the Wikipedia page of Brian Jones, whose misadventures had a similar result.

Then there was the Jay-Z class at Georgetown University story. Chaney aggregated an MTV News story in early October about Michael Eric Dyson’s course on the rapper and added value with a survey of other ways academia and hip-hop have collided. Nearly a month later, Style music critic Chris Richards followed with a full story. “I have no idea if Chris even saw it,” Chaney writes of her post in an email. “His story was great, as Chris's always are, but I didn't think of it as him picking up my story.”

This is fine. Newsgathering organizations should be able to attack the same story in different ways. (“In the old days,” says Argetsinger, “if you were a newspaper reporter you could kind of feel like, ‘Hey, that person’s on my beat.’ The blogs, they’re more aimed at certain audiences.”) And speaking as a longtime fan of Style, it’s great to see Chaney’s actual celebritology sneaking into print, like a very funny Sunday piece warning famous people not to compare anyone to Adolf Hitler.

But I like Celebritology best on the Web, where Chaney’s effortless egolessness gives her potentially dopey subject matter exactly the amount of analysis it deserves. Chaney's face may be atop the blog, but Celebritology is never about her own cleverness. Or maybe she’s just not getting enough sleep.

Chaney says her days usually end around 1 a.m., but she fits in her life around the blog’s gaping maw. “It’s not like I’m working 16 hours a day,” she says, “but there’s no ‘I’m gonna shut the computer.’”

“There’s always,” she says, “a sense of making sure I’m not missing something.”

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