Very Fine Day #23: Julia Alexander
Julia Alexander is a writer, reporter, and strategist. With a newsletter that expertly covers the corporate moves of Disney™, and a soon-to-begin role in strategy at Parrot Analytics, Julia has turned her beat of internet culture, tech, and the streaming wars of Netflix vs. Everyone, into a truly unique career.
We talked for 50 minutes about hating school (everyone does!), why the corporate movements of Disney are worth investigating, how she feels about the future of media, and how all journalists are just becoming, well… creators.
VFD: Hey look – thanks for doing this.
Julia Alexander: Thanks for having me on, man. Your newsletter is the shit. It’s, like, the coolest thing in the world.
VFD: Thank you, I appreciate it. I’m trying to get more people to think that. We’re still, what, six months in? So, y’know…
I'd be remiss if I didn't say congratulations and ask you about your new job as well. Because obviously when I messaged you to do this, you hadn't announced it yet.
Julia Alexander: Yeah.
VFD: Can you tell me about what it is?
Julia Alexander: Yeah, thank you. I was thinking about it actually - you just had Maya on who I very much adore – and she was talking about leaving journalism and going into a corporate gig. And I didn’t tell you. I was like: I'm just gonna announce two days later. But I was also feeling bad. I was like: Oh, I hope he doesn't mind that.
Julia Alexander: I'm basically hanging up my journalism lanyard, at least for now, to go do this other thing. After close to 10 years in journalism I'm going to be a senior strategy analyst at a company that works with a bunch of entertainment and media companies to help them figure out what the best – and future – trends are for their own investment. I basically took everything I've reported on over the last five, six, seven years and I'm now going to the other side, which I think makes me a Benedict Arnold. I'm pretty sure. I don't know if it's less Benedict-y because it's not PR, but I'm still making that jump.
VFD: Yeah, yeah. How did it happen? Did you make the decision or did someone come up to you? It seems a bit difficult to be like: Oh, this skillset will fit here.
Julia Alexander: There was an interesting moment while I was at The Verge and I started writing more column-y type stuff that was basically analysing the strategic moves that companies are making, based on advice that I'd gotten from people like Casey Newton, who was doing kind of the same thing. Much better, but with Facebook.
And he would kind of sit there and be like: Why are these things happening the way that they're happening - and what does this mean?
I really liked the way he soft launched his newsletter back at The Verge, and so I was kind of doing that similar idea. And the more I did it, the more I realised I really just like talking to strategists and executives at companies about why they're doing what they're doing. And not even necessarily from a reporting standpoint – although back at The Verge the primary goal was to do excellent reporting and call them out on bullshit if there was bullshit happening.
But there was another big part of me that was like: I enjoy thinking about how these companies are thinking about what they are, and who they are, 15 years from now. That was when I decided to launch my Substack – Musings on Mouse – which was dedicated to the Disney corporate culture.
The more I did that, the more I ended up talking to people in the industry. Part of the reason I decided to leave The Verge was because I wanted to develop more strategy skills and I wanted to develop new things. That wasn't quite a fit at Vox Media. And so I made the difficult decision to leave, go to IGN, and develop those skills.
And I believe in cyclical life things happening, and I think when you're hot, you're hot for a minute and then you're cold again. It just happens – so take advantage of the hot before the cold sets in.
I had kind of expressed to people that I was interested in pursuing a strategy role, and then a bunch of companies started reaching out and I really liked what Parrot was doing. I like where they're going and I like that they're a startup. I like that they’re trying to figure out their own company, and that was exciting to me, because Vox was always startup-y until five or six years ago and I love being able to build stuff.
VFD: How long were you at Vox?
Julia Alexander: I joined in September 2015, so I was there almost six years. Five and a half years. And then I was at IGN for about five months, which is the shortest I've ever been at any job - even my part time jobs I was there for many years. And I didn't intend to leave this early, but the right opportunity came along and it made sense.
But I think, y’know, of any job I've ever had, being at Polygon and at The Verge, and being in a position where my old Editor-in-Chief was Chris Grant, who is now VP over at Vox Media, and then Nilay Patel, who is now Editor-in-Chief at Verge. They were just both really great about letting reporters change beats. They'd be like: Yeah, if you're interested in this, and we can make it work and it makes sense for us, let's explore it.
And so under Nilay I went from being an Entertainment Editor, to a YouTube/Twitch reporter, back in 2018. And I had the opportunity to go from being a primarily YouTube creator reporter to someone who reported on streaming. Without that kind of leadership and that freedom, I don't think I would have ever gotten to where I am now.
VFD: Yeah, I was looking you up and I saw that when you were there, the description of your beat was: “The intersection of technology, art, science, and culture.” And I was like: that’s a lot of stuff.
Julia Alexander: But it’s fun! It’s like at BuzzFeed, right? You kind of end up doing a little bit of everything, which I think reporters can either really hate, understandably, or can really thrive under and figure out what it is, exactly, that they're super interested in.
VFD: Yeah. And now you have, so it's worked out well. When do you start at Parrot?
Julia Alexander: Tuesday, right after The Fourth of July.
VFD: Did you think much about the transition from media to media-adjacent? Was there any emotion in that?
Julia Alexander: Yeah, it was terrifying. But it’s also… there’s a moment happening.
I open my Twitter DMs and texts and everyone in the industry is having the same conversation. There are two, I think, primary talking points for anyone who's a journalist who is considering making that jump, and I think one is financial. Like, I didn't realise what money was?
I turned down a different job at a different company and part of the offer came with a signing bonus. And literally I didn't think that was real. Like, I had heard of it but I was like: I don't know what this means.
And it was just one of those moments where I think you hit a certain point in your life where you’re thinking about: I want to try to own a property one day, or have a family, and it's like, part of it is not wanting to be on a 24/7 news cycle and part of it was I would like more money. So that was one.
And the second point was: what does digital media look like as a reporter in five years when companies go public?
Things happen, advertising is still mostly owned by Google and Facebook, and it was a moment for me where I realised I was lucky to come from companies that are steady. They were pretty well off. Even going through the pandemic Vox was well off. But there's a saying that SNL comedians always talk about that’s like: There's a time when you know it's time to leave, and then once you know that, you should wait one more year. And that's kind of when I knew. I basically knew by the time I was thinking of leaving Verge that I wanted to make the jump. I didn't think it would happen this fast, but I was definitely working on a transition to this moment about a year ago.
VFD: Alright. Well then how did you get started? Where did you get your first gig?
Julia Alexander: OK: this is a true story.
I got an internship at a right wing newspaper that I did not go to because it was right wing, but it was a paid internship, and I was like: I would like money. It was a big newspaper called the Toronto Sun. It was a new position on the city beat, so I was going to City Hall. But they hired me because I had a car.
VFD: That really makes you believe in your skillset and your worth.
Julia Alexander: I don't know if you've ever had those moments, but I was like: Oh, cool, lucky I had a car. And I was lucky enough to live just outside of Toronto and I could be with my parents for that time of my life. It was a paid internship and it was a unionised environment, which is awesome. But I wasn’t paid enough to pay rent or do a bunch of other stuff.
So I started there, and then I left because the internship ended and it was 2013 or 2014. And I was like: Cool, there's no jobs. This is what our instructors have been telling us. So I was at least prepared for it.
I took a gig at Toys R Us working in their gaming section. I worked retail for many, many, many years. I didn't mind retail. Until you do, right? You work retail and you don't mind it until you do. But it's a paying gig, it’s a job, whatever.
Four weeks into working at Toys R Us, the company calls and they're like: we have this open position on this desk. You'd basically be copying and pasting stuff from Reuters and AP and putting it on the website.
They called it a “National Online Editor”, which is far too big for what it was. I was basically in the CMS copying, pasting, hitting publish.
But through there I got to write on the Toronto Sun’s entertainment desk. And it feels ironic to say this now – I don't know how you feel about this – but I was using Twitter to network. It’s an obvious thing now, but back then it wasn't. No one was using it to talk to editors, which now would be obnoxious to me. But when I was using it I would talk to editors and one of them was this guy who is now a good friend of mine, a guy named Michael McWhertor, who's at Polygon still. And he and I had known each other, so when I applied at Polygon he was like: Oh, I recognise this name. I ended up getting a job and that was that. And I’ve just been lucky ever since.
VFD: So there’s a bit of advice, if there's any would-be reporters reading this: you should just harass people online and tweet at them all the time.
Julia Alexander: And buy a car.
VFD: And buy a car, right? Did you grow up in Toronto?
Julia Alexander: Yeah, just outside of it. I grew up in a part of the GTA, the Greater Toronto Area, an area called Vaughan. I grew up in a very Italian neighbourhood. I'm Italian. I didn't think I knew I wanted to be a reporter - I knew I wanted to be published because I'm an egocentric narcissist, as we all are.
VFD: Yeah, feels good. We all like to believe in ourselves.
Julia Alexander: Yeah, you're like: I'll sacrifice money to see my name somewhere. I was 13 or 14 and I knew I wanted to be published because I wanted to see my name. So the local newspaper let me write this op-ed, which is an insane thing for a 14 year old to do. A 14- year-old’s opinion should never be published. But they let me write this op-ed and my mom still has it framed because she was like: I always knew you were gonna be reporter!
I was drawn to journalism. I liked the idea of newspapers, I like the idea of print, I love the idea of writing. But my main thing was I like my name. But yeah, it was always outside Toronto, always in one place.
VFD: What was the op-ed about?
Julia Alexander: This is the insane thing: it was about a local mayoral election that I wouldn't have been able to vote in. Why I had an op-ed...I don’t know.
I think about that editor who - and I have nothing but great things to say about her - she was, I can't remember her name, but she was really sweet. But I think this 14-year-old kid showed up in a pantsuit to be like: can I get published? And she was like: sure, whatever, we’ll figure it out.
So throughout the next few years I actually freelanced for them. I would be like: I have this friend who's got a cousin who's working on this movie…
Did you ever work with community papers or anything?
VFD: No, no, I didn't.
Julia Alexander: So with community papers, they love that stuff. They’re like: Oh, you kind of know someone who kind of knows someone who’s working on a movie? We'll publish it. “Local Wonderboy Does A Thing”.
And so I remember being on the front page of a Sunday paper – I talked to my friend's cousin who had a film accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival. And I was a terrible student, but I really liked doing that. I would just cut class to go talk to people so I could write these stories, always within this one area where I grew up, born and raised, my parents still live in the house. I was five when we moved into it. It's one of those family situations.
VFD:You didn't like school? Not for you?
Julia Alexander: I hated it. I remember this so clearly.
By sixth grade I remember being told day-in and day-out that I was an idiot by all my teachers. And I was kind of like: OK. Like: I don't know why I come here for this abuse when I can go get paid elsewhere and talk to interesting people. I just wasn't super into it at all.
I was telling my partner earlier that they used to kick me out because I would distract other students, which was fair. But I just realised now that I just enjoyed talking with people, listening, talking, asking them what was going on in their lives. And teachers, obviously, looking back on it as an adult, hated it. They're like: Please, I'm just trying to teach you addition. I just need you to learn these basic concepts.
So I was always getting kicked out and I had a wild couple of teenage years that was great for becoming a journalist. It taught me a lot of skills that I rely on now, which is communication, but also empathy and body language and reading certain things. I got a lesson on that just by hanging out with other kids who kept getting kicked out and didn't want to go to school. But yeah, I hated school.
I have this one story: my brother and I were in the office at the same time at one point, he was in the ninth grade and I was in the 12th grade, and I had gotten sent down because I was arguing with my teacher. I went to a Catholic school and I was arguing with my teacher about what Satanism was.
My brother was in the office because he had cut class to go get pizza or something, and we both ended up there. They put us at the same table and I remember the principal came out and he was like: Alexander? And we both looked up and he was like: Y’know what – both of you. Same time!
My brother and I were always like that. School was just never for us. I barely graduated high school. Like, barely graduated.
VFD: Yeah, I can relate to not enjoying high school that much. I went to a Christian school, not that it really mattered. But I remember they built a cafe, probably for the teachers, but if you were in the 11th or 12th grade, you could go. And the rule was, if you were having a coffee, then you could sit there. And I would have, like, six coffees just so I didn’t have to go to class. Really healthy.
Julia Alexander: A lot of your friends end up being journalists if you're a journalist, which is both good and bad. I think most of my friends who were journalists would probably say they hated school. I think that's probably true across the board for a lot of people I know.
VFD: Yeah, maybe half. I think it's the location you're in as well. In Sydney, Australia, a lot of journalists...I mean we don't have many universities anyway. But a lot of the ones I know, just by way of location and where I worked, went to Sydney University, which is one of the number one universities in the country.
So they’d be referencing all this shit they know and I just remember – in the first three years of me working in media – just being like: I'm just so dumb. And I have no concept of what these people are talking about. I'm just googling everything. Being like: what is a lede? Why is it spelt that way? What is a nut graph? Ah okay, I can see how that can be useful.
Julia Alexander: Yeah like: Why has nobody ever told them that they've written the word lead wrong?
But no, I think that's true. A lot of my friends now are not journalists. A few of the close friends are, but most of them are not, which is beautiful. I value it.
One of my friends, his girlfriend is a journalist, and we were talking about what my recommendation would be if that question comes up that’s like: What would you tell kids who go to J School?
And I think that it’s important to find your interest and then learn that because you can learn ledes and nut graphs later. It almost gets formulaic.
I mean, good prose comes from practice and reading, but that aspect gets formulaic. If you want to be a health reporter, go get a Bachelor of Science, go learn biology and chemistry. Then you can talk to chemists and doctors and be like: Oh, I know what you're talking about.
The same with business. In the same way that you were learning ledes and nut graphs I'm learning how to read S1s and how to read documents.
Thankfully, I had very good editors who would sit down and answer every dumb question I had. I just remember being like: I wish I went to business school.
Not necessarily because I wanted to go into business at all, but just because I was talking to sources and understanding what they said. But the best trick I learned is that a lot of the sources I talk to who work at the big companies were all Stanford, Harvard, and Yale people. And I really wanted to make them work for their MBA that they got. So they would say something and I'd be like: Break it down more. And they would say it, and I’d say: No, break it down more.
By the end of it, they're like: do you get what I'm saying now??? You could tell they were frustrated. But now I can write this and not feel like an idiot.
It’s hard, right? If someone wants to be a sports reporter, you're not gonna be like: Oh, well, go play in the NBA.
VFD: I mean, it’d help. You’d get some great sources.
Julia Alexander: It would absolutely help!
But I think if you have a real interest, and you're not just a general reporter – and I don’t mean this condescendingly, I was a general reporter - but if you're not a general reporter looking to find what your beat is and what you enjoy, then getting that background on something else is better in the long run. So much of journalism, when you're first starting out, is formulaic. Then you get to a point where you know it and you can really dig into prose, and that's fun.
VFD: Yeah, wow, I haven't really picked that apart in my own brain before. But on that note about how so much of journalism is formulaic, I think there's an interesting transition point for journalists and writers too where you realise it's formulaic and you realise you can do the formula. I think your reaction to that determines very much how passionate you really are about what you're doing.
I can only speak for myself, but I was like: I know the formula! Shit! That was my thinking. I was like: this is it, I’ve broken the game. When the real answer is, like, go find another game. There's a lot of games to play.
Julia Alexander: I think that's so much it. One of the biggest euphemisms in our industry is “don’t bury the lede”, right? Put your who, what, when, where, why in there.
And for certain types of reporting that's absolutely necessary. I think if you're doing a standard news story, it's like: yes, obviously do that. But I ended up thinking of myself less as a reporter and more of a blogger, and I mean that lovingly. I was just someone who really liked to write about certain topics and really go in on them and be a voice in that space. I learned from that moment that you can bury the lede a little, and you can have fun with it, because your audience isn't stupid.
Like: they will be with you until the second or third paragraph. Obviously, if you’re eight paragraphs in and they’re like: I don't know what you're talking about…That’s not good.
But you can have fun and be quippy and enjoy it, and I think what young journalists have now that is really exciting is there are so many newsletters that are showing them how fun this can be again.
We kind of came up with - and I don't mean this in terms of the technology behind it - but we kind of grew up with Web 2.0 in terms of blogging. And I think there's Web 3.0, that is very much a different style, that is exciting to read again. And I'm very happy to see it – this combination of things in the past. It feels new and invigorating.
VFD: I kind of get anxiety thinking about it. I think there’s a turning point that seems very obvious in the near future as well, which is a realisation of: Can this be sustainable?
In the same way that the mid-2010s media bubble popped and exploded, I can definitely see a future where a lot of reporters are crawling back to general roles at media companies that are now owned by Google or Amazon or Facebook, just being like: haha, that was a fun couple years…
Julia Alexander: Yeah, it's like basic creator economy stuff.
I think we don't think of journalists as creators.
If we transition to everybody competing for subscription models you're thinking: I'm a talent, I want you to subscribe to me and I want you to pay me so I can continue to do what I do.
That’s basically what happens with creators - some are more reliant on advertising than others, as with journalism – but you get to a point where the same issues that affect YouTubers, and Twitch streamers, and TikTokers, affects journalists, which is: The burnout is insane, your business model, if it works, works extremely well because you've got the numbers, or if it doesn't, you're struggling.
And then you're trying to do more, and you're stressed out, and you don't have health insurance.
It's an interesting moment where newsletters feel like - and as someone who has one - a saviour point for a lot of people. We both reported on the internet for a while: how the internet works and how people who work on the internet are affected by it. And watching what happened to YouTube creators and learning from them has been fascinating.
I think of Ryan Broderick who has just figured out a way to be like: OK, I have a newsletter, that's my primary thing. But also, I'm in this group, because we're collective and collectives work, and I'm gonna do YouTube videos, because that works. I'm going to sell merch, too. And he's hyper aware of how things work on the internet, financially.
So I think if you can figure that out, maybe the newsletter bet makes sense once you've got 50,000 or 60,000 subscribers. And I'm talking about people who do that as their thing, versus people doing newsletters on the side. Those people are just trying to do another thing for fun and to figure it out. But it's an interesting moment. I think it's a combination of a bunch of media trends colliding across different industries.
VFD: Definitely. I think a lot of people start a newsletter because they want to not feel so attached to their work. When you're working in media, so much of what you produce gets instant feedback, and everyone's being mean all the time, and you're like: I just want to do something I enjoy! And then the ironic thing is that, because of the feedback mechanisms within email and within newsletters, you actually feel more like shit because you're like: I spent all this time on this thing and I can see five people have now agreed to give me their email address. OK, good trade-off there.
Julia Alexander: Would you say that's why you started yours? Is it because you were like: I just want to do something that makes me happy?
VFD: Yeah, it's definitely partly that. It's also, coldly, because I felt like I recognised the moment and an opportunity. Not to peel back the curtain too much, but from what I can tell there aren’t a lot of interview newsletters where that's all they do. And I was like: I should just do that. No one's doing that.
So far, it seems alright and it seems to be working out pretty well. But yeah, it was a combination of me wanting my own space, because I also don't work in media anymore, and I needed to create something otherwise I would go insane.
I had a newsletter before, but I think a lot of people fall into this trap that I did about having a newsletter that’s like: “My thoughts on internet culture”. As if you’re just gonna write about your great ideas and everyone's gonna love it and then soon you’ll make a million dollars because everyone will be like: Brad, I love his ideas! Of course, that doesn't happen. Instead, you get one person a week, who, if you're lucky, is like: Great point.
And you're like: Oh, that was worth the 16 hours I spent on it. With an interview the format is predictable. It's probably four or five hours of work a week. It's the interview, transcription, putting it up, packaging it, and then getting it out there. And that's probably going to get more complicated as I try to do more things, but I was conscious of wanting to make something that was contained in some way.
It’s tough, because you also have experience working in media, and you know what the multimillion dollar version of a media enterprise is. That's one of the things I find quite frustrating. If you're like: I feel like this could be “x”. I feel like I could do this five days a week. And I could have a video thing. I could do blah, blah, blah. But of course, because it's just you, alone, begging people to both subscribe and be on your newsletter… It's a lot slower growth, right?
Julia Alexander: Yeah I think that's exactly it.
I think that what makes your newsletter really, really great - and I think what makes it work, at least like in terms of what I'm perceiving from a business standpoint - Is that 1) it's an interesting format that's easy to read, that's fun to read, and that makes me want to click on the link or open the email every time I see it. But two) it’s a hyper targeted audience who is also hyper online and hyper into newsletters. So it's this beautiful moment of: my target audience is already here and I'm talking to people within that. And because we're all egotistical, narcissistic people, we're like: oh, yes, I would like to retweet anything about myself if it's positive.
VFD: This is the stuff I didn't want to say. I didn't want to be like: Oh, and also, these people have audiences, and then they're gonna tweet it out.
Julia Alexander: But that's great. I mean, literally, that's what everything is. It's like a built in audience and you can reach that audience. But they're also genuine. It’s not like you’re trying to be like: Oh, how can I get Glenn Greenwald to talk about this thing… You're talking to people who you like, and who you admire, and who you find interesting, and it comes across in every newsletter. I'm a big fan.
VFD: Alright, well, now I feel like this newsletter’s about me. Maybe one time I’ll interview myself, but thank you. We should move back to you. When did you move to New York?
Julia Alexander: 2017. Two weeks, or one week after Trump's inauguration.
We’d been working on the visa, because I’m on a visa to come down here, from the beginning of 2016. And it was so funny, because I had emails from a law firm that Vox has, which is great, and you can see them talking about the election at some point. They’re like: Yeah, no, you're fine, Hillary will win. You’re not gonna have any worries about it in terms of immigration stuff. And as we got closer to October and November I just remember the emails being like: we have to get this through, we have to file it.
And so I remember, it was post-election, and there was a concern. And I remember having a very blunt conversation with a friend back home, who said this – and I think she's 100% right and I'm very cognisant of it - she was like: you're Canadian, you’re white, and your last name is Alexander. If you were anything else, it would maybe become a problem. She’s like: you’re basically kind of American. And I agree with that. It's a privilege that I have, it's a privilege that I look the way I do and that I have the name that I have, which is kind of boring, but in a really safe way in our world, unfortunately, where no one ever asks me how to pronounce my name, no one's ever like, where are you from? I've never gotten that. And then I bring it up in conversation like: Oh, I’m from Toronto, and they're like: Oh, you're not American?? That in itself is a privilege.
So I remember seeing those emails come through and being like: Y’know, if nothing happens, I'm in Toronto, which is a 45 minute plane ride to New York. It's fine. And I got the visa approval on Christmas Eve. It was a few of us working on Zoom, because we were doing shifts. And so everyone had Christmas Eve off, but a few of us were working. And I moved five or six weeks later. Then I was basically in New York City. It was an interesting time to move.
VFD: Was it your first time in New York?
Julia Alexander: No, I used to come in a lot because a lot of my very best friends now were former Polygon or Vox people. And so I used to come in and I would stay with them, or I would stay with other friends, and I would just hang out with them.
Because Toronto is so close to New York I would drive or I would fly. It was cheap, because I was staying with people. And I valued, then, going into the office.
It's funny because there's this conversation right now about remote versus in-office work. All the tech companies, the media companies, the entertainment companies are trying to figure out when to go back, or if they should go back. And now I’m at a point in my career where I can be like: No, I'm good, I'm working remote.
I think there was a time - personally, I can only speak for myself - where I don't think I would have gotten anywhere to the point that I got to in Vox without being able to go to a bar afterwards with certain editors. Or not even a bar - but just see them in the cafe or whatever it may be, and build those relationships up. To have them not even be like: Oh, you are good at your job. Which was true - I'm not trying to be like I was terrible - but there are people who are just as good, and people who are much better, but I just happened to be in the hallway when they were like: Yeah, I like you, we had those drinks that night and also you happen to be good at your job.
So I think about this a lot with young reporters where I think, editorially speaking, we don't need more than this: I'm at home, I’m on my computer, I don't need anything other than that. And especially for interviews. I actually like being at home over an office.
But I do think there's something to be said, especially in the startup-y, digital media companies, to seeing an editor and being able to grab them in an elevator and talk to them. And we were both in digital media at the exact same time - maybe there was just a moment of being in media in like 2014/2015 that was just a time where everything's startup-y and everyone's bonding over this thing happening. And now they're all about to go public. So, who knows?
VFD: I think it's probably a bit of both, right? I still think it's unreal, the period of time that we were in media, which sounds very definitive and like it will never go back, but it was a very exciting and there were young people everywhere.
Like, who I thought of as senior, senior, senior leadership… they were, like, in their ‘30s. I’d sit there like: Whoa, they’ve been doing this for years, what the hell!
But then I also think there's a certain aspect of creativity that you need, and the more you need that, probably, the younger you are. Being able to do that face to face, and having that real life interaction, is crucial. I don't know if you have many Zoom brainstorms or Zoom meetings where the point is: let's think of a new idea. But I don't think the tech world has really solved that yet, having a solution for having that kind of interaction.
Julia Alexander: It’s an insane cultural difference. But I also think what makes sense for media is so different now than what it was five years ago, especially what it was even before that.
We talk about this a lot, my friends and I... It's like when people talk about nepotism in Hollywood: that’s been the case since studios were founded. It's always been the case. Before that, nepotism has always existed. But with media, it's so concentrated in New York, right? It's so concentrated. These same editors and reporters are going back and forth for the same five or six companies.
And on the one hand that doesn't mean new reporters can’t break in. There's a beautiful moment where I look at the Insider team, for example, who do the digital culture reporting, and they are all superstars in their own right. That's a great team run by a great editor who understands how to utilise young talent who are so on the pulse of their beat, and it's beautiful to watch.
On the other hand, it's a little bit discouraging. If you're not someone who's been at Vox, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, The Post, The Atlantic… it just seems like they share talent back and forth over the years.
I think for a lot of young reporters, who I get to talk to sometimes in Slack rooms or on Discord, they kind of go: What's the point? What's the point of even trying to compete with this? Why would I move from Idaho, where I live close to my family and I've got a partner and I'm happy, my friends are not in media, and I have that work-life balance. And I think about that a lot because for so long in New York everybody in media was seemingly just hanging out with other friends in bars. All of the group hangs and email invites… I think people burnt out on it pretty quick, or at least that group did. I'm sure there'll be a new generation of journalists who get together in bars and I just want to be cool enough to get an invite.
VFD: Well I have bad news for you: That’s happening right now.
Julia Alexander: I know! People are out right now just having a Friday evening. But yeah, it was a weird moment that I'm glad I got to experience because I made some really good friends through it. And I'm also kind of glad I'm no longer part of that because it was a lot. When your world is constantly “what is happening on Twitter?” and you’re just going home and on Twitter before you go to bed, it's exhausting.
VFD: Yeah, it’s not, uh...I'm gonna just say it. I don't think it's healthy. I might write something about this, it’s just a theory and I've got to break it out a bit, but being on Twitter is bad.
Well, I'm looking at the time, and it's gone really quickly. But I did want to ask you about streaming and that world, because I feel like it would be a missed opportunity to not ask you about that. And also, – and you probably know that there are other people involved in this – but you seem to be the person I think of when I think: who has thoughts and who has knowledge and a wide ranging understanding of what we call the streaming wars?
I wanted to ask how you even got into thinking about that, or writing about that, and when did you realise that this is more than a couple of stories?
Julia Alexander: It's a good question. I've always been in entertainment.
The reason I split from entertainment stuff was I got tired of playing that game. Like: OK, the trades are gonna get the exclusives, because the studio is giving it to them, that's fine. So we're not gonna get the big scoops.
As much as I'd like to think of myself as a decent reporter, I was never good at breaking news as a reporter, and that is a skill in and of itself. I think for reporters like Ryan Mac or Casey Newton, who can do these beautiful, beautiful investigative features and also break news – Sarah Fischer as well – all of those people...I could never do that.
And I love that they exist, I could just never do that.
So I hit a point where I was like: I don’t really want to write about entertainment. And I started writing about YouTube creators. And when I transitioned to that, there were already 15 or 20 reporters working on it full-time. Taylor Lorenz was obviously one of them, and BuzzFeed had a bunch who were kind of working on it. It was all the digital publications. And then the blogs were kind of looking at it as well. I say blogs because I really love blogs.
That taught me so much, though. I was like: How do I write about this group of individuals who are dominating the internet and are creating a new form of business and a new world? How do I write this for an audience who thinks of YouTube and they think these people are dumb?
It kind of taught me to approach topics in a different way, and the main way that I approached it was: we're going to talk about the importance and the hows and whys of what you're watching and where you're watching it. And that translated into me wanting to cover streaming more, because I would get to a point where I'm thinking about YouTube creators and about Netflix at the same time.
It was a perfect business moment for the companies. I can't speak for anyone in management at The Verge, but I was like: Disney's about to launch Disney+, there’s HBO, there’s Peacock…
There was a moment where I was like: this style of writing that I'd like to do with creators – this moment that's happening – and me trying to understand it and explain it and analyse, it’s going to become much more fun with entertainment.
I was getting a little bored, personally, of YouTube. And I'm so happy that there are reporters who are so good at covering YouTube because they do it so well. But I was kind of getting bored of it. I got really into the entertainment side of things and how this new technology and new distribution was changing how we were going to access entertainment: What it meant for the future of broadcast television, what it meant for film distribution, and all these fun things I had first got into my career to talk about.
So when I came in, what I was reading a lot of was reporters who were either very tradesy – and there's nothing wrong with that – but they would write: “Someone is in this show, which will air on this” or “This thing is launching on this day with this price” or “Here's an interview with the Head of Product about this thing we’re building.”
All of that is very good. It's extremely necessary and they work extremely hard. And on the other side of it was the tech approach to it, which again; very good, very necessary. “How to install Amazon Fire TV” or “Will this be coming out in 4K” or “Will this support Dolby Atmos”? Which is also very important.
But there was less analysis that I had seen about what this means for hundreds of millions of people who are about to have the way that they watch and consume entertainment, where they get it, where they're spending their money every month, totally revolutionised.
There were a few exceptions - Lucas Shaw, who was at Bloomberg, who is the LeBron James of this industry. He is the best at what he does. He does it extremely well, and he launched a newsletter that is a must-read for me. And I think Peter Kafka over at Recode has always been very good at doing this thing, where he looks beyond just what is happening.
At Verge, we were a consumer publication. People who had interest in tech and entertainment, but also politics, we were trying to figure out how we could make streaming coverage feel not like Hollywood Reporter or not like Gizmodo or Gadget. Again, nothing wrong with those sites.
But I kind of came in and was like: I love this intersection of understanding, and reporting on, and analysing how and why we watch things, the way we watch, and where we watch them.
And so I just kind of started doing that. I just started talking to strategists at these companies. I was like: why are you doing this thing?What do you think the future is? And it was really interesting. The more that I was reading financial reports, the more that I was talking to them, the more I started to feel like we can even do this, our audience responded well to it.
We liked it, the editors, in terms of actual content, liked the content, and I liked what I was writing about. And one of the things I decided to do pretty early on was to hyper-focus on Disney. I loved Disney as a company in terms of just what they are – I loved what Bob Iger had done with his team – and there was a moment where Disney was over-covered from a fandom perspective. Disney was kind of like: OK, everyone covers Marvel, everyone covers Star Wars, whatever. But Disney was less covered outside of this, from a business standpoint.
I was like: this company is forcing a change of hands in how people are watching stuff. So I started really reporting on Disney, which led to a few scoops and led to a bunch of stuff that led to a new audience, and it led me to me starting my newsletter. It was then that I realised: Oh, I want to cover streaming as someone who's thinking about the strategy that these companies are doing. And speak to those strategists and those executives,but also say I want someone who just cares about Marvel, or someone who just cares about why they're spending 50 bucks on streaming services to also care about it.
So my whole approach was: yeah, we're going to talk about this like executives might talk, or strategists might talk, but we're also going to be like: this is dumb.This is a dumb thing. It’s all going back to cable. I'm frustrated, you're frustrated. Why doesn’t the old Apple TV remote have buttons? You know, all that fun stuff. Like: why are captions so bad on Hulu? And all of those fun things just became part of my coverage, which then became a conversation about strategy and the dramatics and the entertainment of a very interesting business move within the industry.
VFD: So will your newsletter now, with your new job, be your outlet to continue that?
Julia Alexander: Yeah, the newsletter is TBD. I'm going to figure it out. I don't know if I necessarily want to continue doing it, just because we work with a lot of companies and I think there could be a conflict. I personally haven't talked to my boss about this.
I also think the newsletter… I'm not as regular as you are, and I’m definitely not as regular as a lot of other very great newsletter writers. Because the newsletter, the one I write, takes eight or nine hours to write.
VFD: Yeah, sure,
Julia Alexander: And I'm usually just doing it over night time. I've got a very great partner and friends and I don't know what it's like with you, but everyone over here in New York is trying to compact 16 months worth of hanging out into three months. And so I don’t have a free weekend until August.
But the idea of starting a new job, and trying to give that 150% of my attention while also doing a newsletter… I don't know.
But it's fun because Disney is a very, very covered company. And there's always news to prompt me to get thinking about stuff that I do want to write about. I think that's gonna be the hardest transition. I don't know what it was like for you.
I think going from being someone who blogged daily, and who wrote a weekly newsletter for a while, going from that to being someone who will probably write some but not as much at all, I think is the most daunting part of it. My identity is so tied to being that person. But I think that's also why I jumped – because I no longer want my identity to be tied to my Twitter followers.
VFD: It's funny that you say that. Personally, I found it took about six months. And in that six months, I probably have never used Twitter more – both engaging with it and posting – because I was like: this is now the only way to get this adrenaline rush. I have thoughts! Maybe I'll just tweet something that's basically an article and I can just make a thread and just throw it all together. So expect that. Know that it all leads back to the same point.
Well, thank you so much. I do really appreciate it.
Julia Alexander: I'm definitely trying to tweet less courtesy of advice from my therapist, and my mom, which I love. I'm still going to use Twitter as a tool to analyse and strategise. I'm still going to use that place. I'm just going to probably be less shitpost-y. That’ll be good.