The Spotlight Interview
Elizabeth Spiers, Writer/Editor/Blogger, Entrepreneur
Elizabeth Spiers, writer, editor, blogger, was a publishing phenomenon before the age of 30, already on the cutting edge of online journalism.
She was the founding editor of the infamous New York-centric media gossip site, Gawker.com (Dec. 2002-Sept. 2003); founder and publisher of Dead Horse Media, LLC (Jan. 2006-April 2007), which publishes Dealbreaker.com, AboveTheLaw.com and Fashionista.com, editor-in-chief of Mediabistro.com (Nov. 2004-Nov. 2005), a contributing writer/editor at New York Magazine (Sept. 2003-Nov. 2004), and one of the net’s most well-known bloggers, if not its Queen of Snark.
Based in New York City and still months away from her 32nd birthday, Spiers has been described as acerbic, intelligent, supremely hip, and an “agoraphobic Dorothy Parker,” and she now writes a column for Fast Company and Fortune, has appeared in the New York Times, Salon.com, the New York Observer, and New York Post, and spoken at various media and technology conferences. She has also been a guest commentator on CNN, Fox News, CBS Marketwatch, MSNBC and VH1, and is the author of the forthcoming novel, “And They All Die in the End,” to be published by Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin Group.
For more details on Spiers, please visit her site at:
The following is my exclusive interview with Ms. Spiers:
Mike: When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?
Spiers: I never wanted to become a writer per se. It was just something that I did and enjoyed. Every job I've ever had has rewarded me in some way for being a good writer—even when I was working in finance (as a strategist and equity analyst). I fell backwards into doing it full-time by writing for my own enjoyment on a blog.
Mike: Which writers and books have influenced you the most?
Spiers: I read Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment when I was 11 and too young to really understand the brilliance of the book, but it's the first thing I remember that really provoked me. I grew up in an evangelical Christian home and perhaps as a result, was very interested in specific ethical and moral questions at a young age. After a strict diet of anemic Christian bookstore fiction—Janette Oke, anyone?—Dostoyevsky was a nice slap in the face. I aspire to write something that has the same effect on other people as that book had on me.
Mike: How did your writing career develop into what it is today?
Spiers: By accident. I've been paid professionally for a wide range of skills, but invariably the writing work stood out the most and was in higher demand. I'd like to think that it's because my precious prose is so perfect that employers found it irresistible, but it may have just been that I was mediocre at everything else.
Mike: What was your first real professional writing gig?
Spiers: I went to college at Duke and got paid to write annual reports and essays for programs there, and while I was working in finance, half my income came from writing business plans for companies. While doing the latter, (Gawker Media founder) Nick Denton hired me to write Gawker, which is also a writing gig of sorts. So I guess I've been paid to write in one fashion or another since college.
Mike: What's your biggest career break?
Spiers: The one that most profoundly affected where I am right now was my first job out of school. I was hired as a marketing director for a dot com, during the dot com boom. If I hadn't gotten that job, I would have probably stayed in North Carolina, where I went to college and my life would be much, much different now. Secondly, Gawker. It certainly opened the initial doors to most of what I've done journalistically, and they were doors I wouldn't have tried to open myself. Had a couple of editors not contacted me out of the blue when I was writing Gawker, I'm not sure it would have occurred to me that writing full-time would be a viable career.
Mike: How long have you been interested in gossip? And what makes good gossip and good gossip writing?
Spiers: I was never interested in gossip personally. (I assume you mean celebrity gossip.) Gawker was like any other publication—it has an audience and it's designed to cover a specific range of topics. Gossip just happened to be one of them, so I learned what I could about the topic area. Like anything else, it's good when the story is compelling.
These days, the word “gossip” tends to mean a certain style of reporting rather than the traditional definition, which is something that's rumor or hearsay. Even at Gawker, the writers make phone calls and try to verify items. The gossip characterization generally means news in juicy little bits—items that make people gossip, rather than actual gossip itself.
Mike: What's the key to writing a great blog?
Spiers: I assume you mean writing a great blog that people will read. There's a formula, but it's often not what people want to hear.
The Formula: Be topical. (Choose a specific subject area or niche.) Post often. (I mean 12-20 times a day, not 2 or 3.) And provide people with something they can't get elsewhere, either in the form of useful information or entertainment. It almost always works, but most people do not want to (and will not) make that kind of effort.
Mike: How can writers make decent money writing online or writing blogs?
Spiers: Write for decently paying online outlets—commercial blogs or online magazines. You can always start your own blog, make it a big hit and charge for advertising, but if you have no interest in being an entrepreneur (or business in general), that's a giant mistake.
If being an entrepreneur does sound appealing to you, you have to follow The Formula (see above), which most writers don't actually want to do. Most writers want to have a well-trafficked, visible blog, but they want to be able to write a post about whatever they feel like writing, whenever they feel like it. That doesn't work unless you already have a name people recognize, and even then, not usually.
And if you already have a name people recognize, you probably don't need to make money writing a blog.
Mike: Would you recommend young journalists starting out as bloggers?
Spiers: It depends what you want to do in journalism long-term. If you want to do commentary, absolutely, because that's the only way you're going to get in. Otherwise, it's a very “pay your dues” kind of thing, where you have to be a reporter for 40 years. But if you're a good writer, you can go straight into it if your work is good and getting read.
Mike: Can blogging be a good business?
Spiers: I think it's a good business if you do it correctly. I also think that blogs could be used for testing editorial concepts. For print, broadcast, anything.
Generally, if you want to use it to get a professional writing gig, I’d say develop a distinct voice and write about specific topics instead of doing a broad whatever-catches-my-interest blog. As an editor, I’m more inclined to use freelancers if they have some sort of niche expertise/knowledge or they have a voice that’s memorable.
Mike: Where do you think media is going? Are newspapers a dying institution? Will bloggers rule the news world?
Spiers: The first question is really too complicated to answer here. Print newspapers backed entirely by print classifieds are dying, but newspapers in general aren't. And to answer the third question, no. Most bloggers write personal diaries. Very few break news. (Those that do will have some influence, but let's not write off the New York Times just yet.)
Mike: You've been very successful at launching Web sites. What are the keys to doing this? How can one go about starting a hot site?
Spiers: Same answer. The Formula.
Mike: Could you talk about how you came up with Gawker, Fashionista, Dead Horse, Dealbreaker, etc? And why did they work?
Spiers: Gawker was Nick Denton's idea, although he envisioned it more as an insider-y city guide. I wanted it to be like the late great SPY magazine and we ended up with an inferior hybrid of the two, but one that worked.
RE: the Dead Horse sites—Dealbreaker was just a matter of doing Gawker for Wall Street, and I was more personally interested in Wall Street than celebrities, as indicated by my work history pre-Gawker. AboveTheLaw seemed like a good companion to Dealbreaker and there was an excellent writer available for it. Fashionista is just a great ad category, to be frank, and there was room for something a little more light and entertaining in that space.
They worked because we used the secret recipe, stated above—The Formula.
Mike: Could you talk about your fiction writing and the differences you experience writing fiction and nonfiction? Do you find one harder than the other?
Spiers: I find them very different. Once I have the reporting done, I can mechanically put together a non-fiction piece pretty quickly because narrative journalism has many standard conventions and once you become accustomed to them, it's just a matter of fine-tuning. The same is true with writing opinion columns. (Thesis, evidence, counter-evidence, couterargument against counterevidence, conclusion.) Fiction has standard conventions as well, but they're much more flexible. As a result, I write fiction much slower because there are more possibilities for any specific story. Right now, novel-length fiction seems more challenging, but that's mostly because I have less experience with it.
Mike: What are your most interesting writing stories (preferably ones that teach a lesson)?
Spiers: I'm afraid I don't have any. Most of the “interesting” happens in the writing itself and not in the process of writing.
Mike: What are your work habits? How often do you write? What time of day? What rituals do you have? Do you have a favorite place to write?
Spiers: I'm not consistent. I binge write. I do end up writing something every day just by default—for work, or because something amuses me—but it's not a ritual. Right now I'm writing at the kitchen table a lot (which is not very comfortable) because a guitar instruction school moved in next to the office space I rent and I can't bear to hear the first 20 bars of "Smoke on the Water" anymore. I've also been traveling a bit lately, so I've gotten used to writing in hotel rooms and on planes. When pressed, I can usually write anywhere at any time.
Mike: What's an average workday for you?
Spiers: There is no average workday. When I was running Dead Horse, that took up most of the average workday and writing got done late at night and on the weekends. Now I don't really have a schedule, so I tend to plan around deadlines.
Mike: What five best pieces of advice would you give to aspiring writers looking to make it?
Spiers: I only have two, and you've almost certainly heard them before.
Read constantly. There's no better way to internalize the conventions that make for good writing than to read a lot of it. Write regularly, regardless of whether anyone's paying you to do it, or will in the future.
Beyond that, success is really specific to what sort of writing you want to do.
Mike: What great resource sites would you recommend to aspiring writers?
Spiers: I don’t read sites about writing very much, but I enjoy literary sites. My friends Maud Newton (maudnewton.com) and Sarah Weinman (sarahweinman.com) both have great sites. I also like Mark Sarvas's The Elegant Variation (www.elegvar.com), Arts & Letters Daily and the Guardian's book blog. For news about publishing, I go to mediabistro’s Galleycat, Dwight Garner's "Paper Cuts" blog at the New York Times or Michael Cader's Publishers Lunch.
Mike: How did your Wall Street experience help you in the writing world?
Spiers: I'm not sure it did in any direct way, except that I can write knowledgably about business; financial statements don't intimidate me. That said, I think doing other things and having different bodies of experience is usually healthy for writers. Variety and depth of experience is healthy in general.
Mike: What have been the keys to your success?
Spiers: I think adaptability is important in any job. I'm probably best known for a certain type of criticism in a tone similar to the one I used at Gawker, but I'm a versatile writer and that's the reason why I've been able to make a living putting words down on paper. You don't write a business plan the same way you would write an opinion column for Fast Company or a book for Penguin. If you can do all three, it's easier to have stable writing career.
Mike: What are your goals for the future?
Spiers: What I'm doing now, only more so. I enjoy several different types of writing and I like being involved in entrepreneurial media projects. I feel lucky that I get to do both and hope to continue.