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What Happens to Access Journalism When Access Is Impossible?

For profile writers, spending time with the subject is essential. However, stay-at-home orders and the cancellation of promo tours have made that part of the job impossible. How will it affect the best in the business? Some of the nation’s top scribes discuss how their jobs have changed in the past few weeks and how they’ll have to get more creative going forward.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most outlandish and heartbreaking science fiction you’ll ever read can be found, right now, in profiles of famous people published in newish magazines you maybe haven’t cracked open yet. “Jude Law is looking at art,” begins a January Vulture piece written by senior writer E. Alex Jung. “I am looking at Jude Law.” Or: “It’s a brisk December day in Houston,” begins a February Rolling Stone feature written by Charles Holmes, “and Megan Thee Stallion is giving detailed notes on how, exactly, she wants her dancers to twerk.”

As for March, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum visits Fiona Apple in Venice Beach, and is rewarded with an all-time quote about Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and cocaine. Meanwhile, GQ’s Sam Knight hangs out with Daniel Craig, and captures something of his essence: “Onscreen, Craig’s face—that beautiful boxer’s face, those gas-ring eyes—can have a worrying stillness while his body moves. In real life, everything about Craig is animated, part-sprung.” The words real life are extra heartbreaking. But this line, from Lizzy Goodman’s New York Times Magazine profile of young rock star King Princess, is what really got me. They’re on a music-video shoot.

“I want you to come to my apartment after this,” she said, staring me down during a moment of tenuous calm as her makeup artist sprayed a fine mist of glittering fuchsia across her cheekbone, “because I can tell it’s inconvenient for you.”

What is outlandishly science-fictional about that scene, of course, is the idea of three unrelated people standing, presumably, within 6 feet of one another. The idea of a fine mist with no malevolent intent. The idea of any group of humans occupying the same physical space, anywhere, creating any sort of art or even “content.” The idea of entering someone else’s apartment. Given the global COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread self-quarantining our continued survival requires, our national definition of the word inconvenient has changed radically in the past two weeks. Which means these very recent celebrity encounters now harken back to some distant, unknowable past, full of delightful stories brimming with travel, with adventure, with twerking, with human connection. Stilted and aggressively publicist-managed human connection, maybe. But still.

Even for those journalists who specialize in interviewing famous people—very preferably in person, and ideally in an environment less sterile than a conference room or a hotel lobby—this is not the world’s most pressing existential crisis. But an existential crisis it remains. It helps, certainly, to have both a sense of humor and a sense of perspective. “I was in a room with Vin Diesel the other day,” GQ staff writer Zach Baron told me, chatting on the phone in mid-March before stay-at-home orders became commonplace in America. “To be very clear, there is nothing funny about the coronavirus. It occurred to me that the closest thing to funny would be catching the coronavirus from Vin Diesel.”

What does a celebrity profiler do in the era of social distancing? In the months to come, Rolling Stone, Vogue, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and all the rest will have to put on their covers someone who is promoting something. (By the time GQ’s Daniel Craig feature hit the internet, the new James Bond movie he was touting, No Time to Die, had been delayed from April to November, with most major 2020 tentpole movies following suit; major new albums, including Lady Gaga’s, are being pushed back as well.) But how do you capture something of a star’s essence solely over Zoom, or FaceTime, or email, or text, or worse yet, a mere phone call?

“I think that so much of what access journalism promises is access,” Baron says. “What is it like to be in a room with someone that most people will never be in a room with? If you can’t relay those facts, then what do you really have?” Baron, who is married to Ringer features director Amanda Dobbins, has recently interviewed the likes of Brad Pitt, Martin Lawrence, and Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in person; much more recently, he’s chatted with reluctant social distancing experts Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon over the phone, and also blogged thoughtfully about how different his job already feels. “I feel like we’re all on an episode of, like, a cooking show,” he tells me, “and we’ve been handed a turnip and a 2-by-4, and we’re going to find out who can make dinner.”

I wanted to talk to the best profilers and interviewers I could think of about both their pessimism and—often in the same breath—their cautious optimism. The Cut senior culture writer Allison P. Davis’s 2019 Lizzo profile is a marvel of joyous, bawdy human proximity: “Oh my God, this sauce. Who made this food? I want to suck the dick of whoever made this sauce,” Lizzo announces amid a rowdy crowd of friends in a Brooklyn restaurant, only to be informed, by her waitress, that her waitress’s dad made the sauce. But soon thereafter, that dad makes a careless remark, and Davis is there to catch a split-second of vulnerability (“Lizzo’s expression changes from a grin to something like a wince”) before it’s gone. (“The moment passes, almost imperceptible.”)

Over Skype and the like, a moment like that inches closer to totally imperceptible. “I do think my best stuff has always come from proximity and sort of being there, when there’s the right moment to ask the question or bring up a subject,” Davis, a former Ringer staffer, tells me. “We’ve spent time together, and we’re comfortable with each other, and just a natural evolution that comes from just hanging out with someone for hours and hours. So sadly, for me, it’s always about being in the room.”

This naturally leads Davis toward pessimism. In our new reality, “I can’t imagine—there’s not going to be a lot of color,” she says. “It’s like, ‘He cleared his throat on the phone dramatically.’ What are we supposed to do?”

But her 2018 profile of Lena Dunham—augmented with several supremely candid photos of Dunham in a hospital recovering from major surgery—is a blueprint for an entirely digital and remote sort of intimacy, though it helps if your subject is already a world-renowned oversharer. “I do think you always end up getting your source’s phone number and having some sort of interaction with them,” Davis says. “And I kind of have this weird optimism that maybe being forced to email and text—and video or chat or whatever—is going to break down some of the weird artifice that had become part of celebrity interviewing anyway. … Now we’re all going to be like middle-schoolers in the AIM chat room.”

The moment passes, almost imperceptible. “But some people are just shitty at texting,” Davis laments with a laugh. “Famous or not, that’s still going to be a thing.”

For Jackie MacMullan, a beloved sportswriter now covering the NBA for ESPN, it’s always been about being in the room, from her long tenure at The Boston Globe to her books in collaboration with the likes of Shaq and Larry Bird. “Show up early, stay late, go to everything,” she tells me, recounting her standard career advice. “Not some of the things. Everything. Those little moments where you get a glimmer of somebody’s personality and they get a glimmer of yours are what will take you forward.”

But what if there’s nothing left to go to? For sportswriters, most of those personality glimmers are transacted in the locker room. But in the bizarre early-March interval when sports still, uh, existed but the NBA had cut off locker room access over coronavirus fears, reporters worried that even when normalcy (whatever that means) is restored (whenever that might be), that door might stay shut forever.

“If they close the locker room, I just think that’s a death penalty,” MacMullan says. “The whole thing is relationships, right? That’s how you develop the rapport with someone, is you talk to them. It’s not always about basketball or football or whatever sport you’re covering. It’s just being a human being and watching people interact with one another and drawing conclusions about what kind of person somebody is by what they’re like at six o’clock in the morning when the game ran late, or how do they do their job when they’re not feeling well, or if they have something going on at home?”

As with movie stars or rock stars, the key to writing deeper, more intimate athlete profiles is to get as close as possible for as long as possible. “I usually assume, if I spend two days with someone—which is hard to do—but if you can pull it off, that’s about when you get a real sense of them,” says celebrated author and Sports Illustrated reporter Chris Ballard. “Because they can pretend to be someone for a day, but day two, usually, you’ve lost that. And second, you’re going to get these real moments and dialogue and interactions with other people.”

The format matters, too. Baron suggests to me that profile writers who specialize in color and proximity and novelistic detail are at a natural disadvantage now, compared to interviewers who especially excel at asking the best questions and getting the best answers: a far easier skill set to flex from potentially hundreds of miles away. But the distinction between a written feature and a transcribed Q&A is still immense, and the choice, for many, is nonnegotiable.

“I just spent some time with Ben Simmons, and then he got hurt, and now we have a pandemic, so who knows if that story will ever run, but there’s no way I’m doing a Q&A with Ben Simmons,” MacMullan says. “You know what I mean? The guy’s so complicated. We’ve been waiting to hear him talk. I think it’s important for whoever’s writing that story to come to some conclusions after they’ve spent time with somebody like Ben Simmons.”

Over the past few years, first for Vulture and now with The New York Times Magazine, David Marchese has mastered the art of lengthy celebrity Q&As so sublime he’s become something of a celebrity himself. The formula is one long, detailed, raucous in-person conversation, with a quick phone call later to follow up and fill in any gaps. And the result, though consisting almost entirely of dialogue, has a reliably stupendous amount of novelistic detail. Here he is just this week, getting deep with Werner Herzog:

MARCHESE: It always seemed so weird to me that you live in Los Angeles. You’re someone who believes in the almost spiritual importance of traveling on foot, and this is a city where no one walks.

HERZOG: But that would be strolling or ambling. I’ve never been into that. I see how you are looking at me.

MARCHESE: How am I looking at you?

HERZOG: With bemused skepticism.

I see how you are looking at me. Barricaded now as a nation in our respective living rooms, it reads like an intensely German fairy tale. “I do think a lot of interviewing is about setting up an emotional tenor to the conversation,” Marchese tells me. “Which has to do with the tone of your voice, and body language, and how you’re responding to the thing they’re saying, and, to use a hippie word, the vibe that’s being created in the moment. My hunch is that that’s as important as the preparation you’ll do or the specific way you ask a question. And I wonder how those qualities will be affected when I’m looking at somebody in a little box on my computer, and how they’re looking at me in the little box on a screen.”

Another option is to emphasize the distance and awkwardness and digital intimacy implied by those little boxes. The New York Times Diary of a Song video series, hosted by pop-music reporter Joe Coscarelli, is a celebration both of the songwriting process and the oddball chemistry two people can develop over FaceTime and the like, where the phone connection’s lags and glitches only add to the vibe. (The emoji help, too.) Coscarelli, always with the same background (and the same sweater), stays onscreen the whole time, earbuds attached, reacting in real time as, say, Grimes recounts the story of fending off an attacker with a banjo.

There’s a stupendous amount of detail to these chats, too. (Try Lizzo’s, for example.) “I think honestly the format lends itself to intimacy, because everyone’s used to this, right?” Coscarelli says. (We talked over FaceTime, reveling in my visible discomfort.) “Especially the people that I’ve been talking to, right? Young people are technologically savvy. Their default is to talk into their phone camera, you know what I mean? Like Cardi B or Rosalía or Grimes—these are people who exist mainly with the front-facing camera. This is how people talk. This is how people talk to their kids when they’re out of town. And that’s how they talk to their parents, their grandparents.”

That’s especially—and often exclusively—true right now, for celebrities, for everyone. And if we’re all on FaceTime in this fraught moment, the awkwardness is at least evenly distributed. “It’s become like a familiar visual language to people, so I think people let their guard down a little bit right off the bat,” Coscarelli says. “You’ve read these profiles where you’re doing some publicist’s-idea activity, or you’re having lunch but nobody’s really hungry. Maybe they’ve already done a lunch interview that day, or you have to figure out how to ask them questions while they eat, and then they’re, like, not touching their eggs. There’s so much artifice in celebrity interviews and profile writing in general. This sort of strips back some of those layers.”

We’re all clinging to our phones, and frightfully vulnerable, and wearing pajamas. And stars, now more than ever, are just like us.

During his 90 minutes or so of looking at Jude Law looking at art, Vulture’s E. Alex Jung is able to get the famously tabloid-hounded and closed-off actor to share something vulnerable. Law concedes that he’d been genuinely stung by Chris Rock’s jokes about him at the 2005 Oscars, and retelling the story now, the star begins with the best vignette-opening line a profiler could hope for: “I’m going to be really candid.”

Perfect. “He pauses,” Jung writes, as Law’s indeed candid vignette unfolds, “maybe worried that he has said too much.”

To the profiler, of course, the worry is that the star won’t say anything at all. For Jung, the trick to getting even a famously reticent subject talking involves research, and close attention, and vibe, and a gentle sidestepping of any bullshit, all of which is far easier conveyed face-to-face. “The two of you are just having a conversation, and if someone asks you a question, you want to answer it,” he says. “I think that very basic human interaction is what is really lovely about interviews and profiles, because it doesn’t matter how famous someone becomes.”

In October 2019, Vulture published Jung’s fantastic feature on Parasite director and future Oscars darling Bong Joon-ho, which included perhaps the single most reblogged quote in culture journalism that year, in the form of Bong’s offhand description of the Academy Awards themselves: “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” That remark emerged from the director’s very first conversation with Jung, chatting in a car in Los Angeles, the tape recorder running but the central, formal interview not yet begun. A genuine connection, when it comes, can be immediate.

Maybe Bong would’ve called the Oscars local over Skype; maybe Law would’ve talked about Chris Rock over FaceTime. But maybe not. “I mean, something ineffable is lost, right?” Jung says. “I think that’s the same thing with online dating, right? You can swipe as much as you want. You can take as many photos as you want. But you don’t really know the person until you meet them in person. You don’t really know if you’re going to have chemistry. You don’t really know if you’re going to click.”

And you don’t really know if you’ll get something quotable. “And I think that’s the exact same thing with doing a profile, because it is very intimate in some ways,” Jung says, adding that Bong, in person, is much taller and more imposing than you’d guess when he’s just a head on a screen. “Even though it is staged and constructed by all these other interests like publicists and campaigns and studios and whatever, it’s still a moment where you’re just interacting with a person, and you feel them in a very tactile kind of way, right?”

Later in the piece, Jung watches as the director strolls around L.A.’s Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Hollyhock House, getting into mischief: “Bong wanders the space, politely pushing boundaries,” he writes. “He tests locked doors and pokes his head down into a basement that has been roped off from visitors.” But even that sort of silliness is instructive: “You can really see how he thinks about space and how he thinks about camera angles and blocking,” Jung says now. “He was telling me how it would be a hard house to shoot, because it’s hard to educate the viewer in terms of how it looks, whereas the Parasite house was built specifically to educate the viewer in a very particular way.”

It’s a reminder that there’s likewise no substitute for watching your interview subject move through a physical space, even if it’s, say, Grimes, recently described by Rolling Stone senior writer Brian Hiatt as “one of the most thoroughly online people on Earth.” From the halcyon days depicted in the 2000 movie Almost Famous—which asserts that in the ’70s, reporter-turned-director Cameron Crowe could hang out on a rock band’s tour bus for seemingly months at a time—to the uneasy present, the magazine still gets better, closer, and more varied access than much of its competition thanks to the weight the words “the cover of Rolling Stone” still carry.

Hiatt writes many of the magazine’s biggest features, which means he can regale you with tales of watching a cab driver grill Roger Waters about the lyrics to “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” or rolling through the streets of Atlanta in Future’s Ferrari, or picking up when sheepish U2 frontman Bono clandestinely calls from his car during his own daughter’s high school play. (“‘I thought this would be over at 8:00,’ he apologizes, sounding comically frantic.”) Even Hiatt’s straight interview pieces rely on a familiarity and an authority that can only come with sitting face-to-face with very famous people for what counts, for a famous person, as a very long time. From the intro to his lengthy 2019 cover-story Q&A with Taylor Swift:

The conversation is often not a light one. She’s built up more armor in the past few years, but still has the opposite of a poker face—you can see every micro-emotion wash over her as she ponders a question, her nose wrinkling in semi-ironic offense at the term “old-school pop stars,” her preposterously blue eyes glistening as she turns to darker subjects.

Those micro-emotions would be nearly impossible to chronicle even over FaceTime, where the inevitably iffy connection ensures that you can’t be 100 percent sure a person’s facial expression is the direct result of what you just said. Hiatt says Rolling Stone has already set up at least one major interview over Skype; like every writer I talk to, he’s also quick to put these new challenges in perspective. “I would say it’s not ideal,” he tells me, “but nothing about our current circumstances is ideal.”

The celebrity profile is forever an endangered species, and it’s reasonable for culture writers to fear that in-person access to big stars, once it’s taken away even for unavoidable global-pandemic-type reasons, will never come back once those stars realize they don’t necessarily need to grant it to make Rolling Stone’s cover. But like nearly every writer I talk to, Hiatt also observes that even the cagiest celebrities still want to be heard, and seen, and understood. “It’s the same reason why people pose for portraits, like for people to paint them,” he says. “The idea that you’d be immortalized by someone who pays very, very close attention to you, and that you were selected for that immortalization alongside—I don’t know, I think of Future again, like, he was thinking about Jimi Hendrix’s Rolling Stone cover, you know?”

Another advantage to looking Taylor Swift in the eye is that you’ll theoretically get more honest and vulnerable responses when talk does turn to darker subjects. New Yorker staff writer Jiayang Fan’s September 2019 profile of Constance Wu is a fascinating document, by turns confessional and combative, that hinges of course on the inevitable moment when the actress has to address her recent furious tweetstorm upon learning that her own sitcom had been renewed, and the social-media shaming that resulted:

Finally, I asked Wu about her trial by Twitter. She sat up and rubbed her temples. She had been taking a long break from Twitter since the incident. “Being messy in public is something—” She stopped, adjusting her posture sombrely, like a politician who realizes that this is the question on which people will base their vote. “I’m not proud of what I said,” she continued. “But I also think that it was how I was feeling in the moment, and we all have days where we feel differently, and I don’t think it represents my entire character.”

The politician-adjusting-her-posture detail would be hardest to replicate were the star not sitting right there with the reporter in a hotel on a Hawaiian beach, sipping on a Manhattan with a twist. But there’s of course an artifice to all that, too.

“She is a celebrity, and clearly she is wary of me as a reporter, as any celebrity would be, and she’s holding herself in a way that’s very, I think, attuned to how that will be translated onto the page,” Fan tells me. “That’s what makes profiling the prominent person the most difficult, because they are so aware of the way that every gesture and movement of theirs—especially if you’re an actor—and every sentence that they utter will be read on the page. And that can make for a very unnatural interaction.”

Which means that going the Zoom-and-Skype-and-text route can actually be less contrived, so long as your interview subject is willing to get candid, and get weird. “I think maybe you just have to say, ‘All right, work with me here,’” ESPN’s MacMullan says. “‘Let’s try to be creative. I’m asking you this question. What’s your face look like right now? Are you pouting? Are you smiling? Are you laughing at me? Is your eyebrow raised?’ I don’t know. You just have to have some fun with it, I think. The thing is getting people at ease, right? ‘All right, I just asked you that question. How do you feel about that? What are you doing right now? Are you giving me the finger, or what?’ I would do that. I don’t know. I’m not sure everyone would, but I know I would.”

As the stay-at-home era continues, more people are liable to do just about anything just to talk to anyone. “As we’re all pent up and cooped up, at least in my case, in my apartment due to social isolation, I find that I am enjoying phone conversations much more, and I’m much more voluble on the phone with my friends,” Fan says. “So if you’re a journalist, you could lean on that when you’re calling someone up to interview them. Maybe like you, they’re just eager for a human voice, and perhaps over text, too, in this climate of fear and anxiety and panic. They’re in a way much more likely to almost be grateful for human contact of any sort, and be inclined to treat you more as a friend than a reporter.”

That wouldn’t exactly count as solace under normal circumstances, but there is no timeline, in this industry or any other, for returning to normal circumstances. “I mean, it really depends on the person, but I think everyone’s feeling immensely vulnerable and lonely at this time, and really feeling grateful for human interaction,” Fan says. Ask your hardest questions now, reporters, and ask them however you can.

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