Very Fine Day #65: Louis Peitzman
“It was like, why aren’t you generating traffic? Why aren't you covering all these stories? But also, Why aren't you breaking the biggest entertainment story in the world?”
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LOUIS PEITZMAN ~ HOMEBODY ~ LONDON ~ BUZZFEED ~ “WHY DIDN’T YOU BREAK THE WEINSTEIN STORY” ~ POSITIVE CRITICISM ~ WHAT HAPPENED TO CULTURE WRITING? ~ WRITING FOR OUTRAGE ~ EXPOSURE ~ LEAVE TWITTER ALONE
“We all know - those of us who tweet a lot and have a following - it does not generate clicks, it does not actually help your book sales. It's all made up”.
I don’t know what to tell you that you ain’t already read. It’s tough out there online this week, folks. I know that feels like a recurring theme.
I have been thinking a lot, lately, about what culture writing is in this particular hellscape. Offline and online are not yet fully aligned - at least for everyone alive - and the fragmented way we tell stories to each other (truth or lies) is getting painful. It had me thinking, as I often do, of this 2014 piece outta Deadspin: The Future of the Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate.
I don’t think it’s as simple as saying “everything is Gamergate”, but we aren’t far off. Do yourself a favour: settle down this weekend and pour a drink and read. There’s some rusty stuff in there - the sorta thing that leaves those without Full Blown Gamer Brain a bit in the dark, but the general thesis is sound. And the kicker:
“All the rhetorical weaponry and siegecraft of an internet comment section brought to bear on our culture, not just at the fringes but at the center. What we're seeing now is a rehearsal, where the mechanisms of a toxic and inhumane politics are being tested and improved…. all of them working feverishly in service of the old idea that nothing should ever really change”.
It’s partly why I contacted this week’s guest: Louis Peitzman. Louis is an old friend from BuzzFeed (yes, I know) and we did - as tends to happen - talk some about the good ol’ days and how so many were screwed around. But, ultimately, I wanted to get Louis’ thoughts on the culture; on writing about living; on criticism. We got there.
There is so much about the internet to love, and often those same things can be used in the most hazardous and awful ways. I guess that’s sorta like real life. There’s your metaverse for ya. The unfortunate reality is that reality is unfortunate.
Don’t be a stranger now.
See you down the road.
Louis Peitzman: What time is it there?
VFD: It's midnight.
Louis Peitzman: It’s midnight?
VFD: Yeah. Don't worry. This is better than 6:30 in the morning. Or, 5:30 in the morning.
Louis Peitzman: I would not do that to you.
Louis Peitzman: Yeah.
VFD: He always tweets about how VFD is the best newsletter to find out what time it is in Australia. Because every one starts with the person being like, What fuckin time is it and I'm like, Uhh, it’s 5am.
Louis Peitzman: Well, I'm glad to keep you up later, and not to make you wake up earlier.
VFD: Happy to be. How you doing? I think it has been four years since we've spoken.
Louis Peitzman: Outside of Slack and Twitter.
Louis Peitzman: I'm fine. The world is on a slow descent into hell. A rapidly increasing descent into hell. But like, otherwise, I'm fine.
VFD: Yeah. Does New York still feel like the centre of it all?
Louis Peitzman: The centre of COVID?
VFD: Like, America, I guess. That's very much the vibe I got.
Louis Peitzman: I don’t know if New York has ever felt like the centre of America to me. It definitely felt like the centre of COVID for a minute. And now it just kind of feels like a place where I pay too much money to live in a one bedroom.
VFD: Right. You still in Hell’s Kitchen?
Louis Peitzman: Yeah, I moved into a bigger place. I got a sweet COVID deal, so.
VFD: Yeah, we got the same thing. That's like the one positive of COVID.
Louis Peitzman: I thought you didn’t have COVID over there, what happened?
VFD: Oh, we had it,
Louis Peitzman: But all those countries were doing so well.
VFD: Yeah, we kind of, like, gave up. I think everyone did. It’s depressing.
Louis Peitzman: Everyone did. And the countries that haven't given up have had it given up on their behalf. I don't think there's anyone left who's controlling anything.
VFD: It's very odd. Especially when it's like… the current highest cause of death in Australia.
Louis Peitzman: I just don't believe anyone else dies in Australia, though.
VFD: Like… of anything?
Louis Peitzman: Yeah. Because that's just the vibe that I get from Australia.
VFD: Nah, people are dying.
Louis Peitzman: I've never been, so I don't I don't know a lot about it. I do keep doing this totally insane, idiot American thing where I'm like…I'm going to London in a few weeks, and I haven't been in forever. And I'm like, Oh, I can see this person. And in my head they're British, because I know they have an accent. But like, I also know they're Australian. And my brain is like: you're going somewhere with accents. Therefore, you must be able to see everyone you know who has an accent.
I am not going to Australia, because it's too far a flight.
VFD: It is a long flight. I mean, you're the one with the accent once you end up in the UK.
Louis Peitzman: I can't wait.
VFD: Just London?
Louis Peitzman: Yeah, I'm just going for a week.
I haven't been anywhere in forever. And I took a week off work, which I haven't done, ever? I don't think I've ever taken a full week off work. I did at BuzzFeed but not in the past few years, I’ve taken off three days.
VFD: Why not? You just live to work?
Louis Peitzman: I live to work, I work to live. No, I don't know. There's just never a good time to leave. So I just haven't. But now I am.
VFD: Do you just love New York that much? Are you from New York originally?
Louis Peitzman: No, I'm from LA.
Louis Peitzman: No, I don't love New York. I mean, I like being here. I am a homebody. But I don't know… travelling is hard. There was a pandemic. I don't know if you've heard about it. That definitely put a damper on things. I've been saving money to take a nice trip. So I’m doing that. But otherwise, yeah, I don't do very much.
VFD: I like how your ‘nice trip’ is that you've allowed yourself, what, five days?
Louis Peitzman: Five days, but I'm leaving on a Friday and getting in Saturday morning. So it's a substantial amount of time. I thought about staying longer and just working for part of it. But that seemed miserable.
VFD: Yeah, it's a lot of work, too. A lot of mental energy. Did you work through all of COVID?
Louis Peitzman: Yeah, I did.
VFD: When did you leave BuzzFeed? What year was that?
Louis Peitzman: I left BuzzFeed when I was asked to leave.
VFD: Sorry. Me too.
Louis Peitzman: I believe that was 2019. Beginning of the year, right? I don't think I was unemployed for a full year. I think it happened in early 2019. Yeah, it was definitely that year.
VFD: We were part of the same wave, then, I guess.
Louis Peitzman: There were multiple waves. We were part of…not the first one, because there had been layoffs. But definitely the biggest one.
VFD: It was the one where they told everyone, and part of telling everyone was like, And we're going to tell you exactly who it’s going to impact…on Monday! So enjoy your weekend! Everyone’s like: What the fuck.
Louis Peitzman: Yes, but then they pushed it up when they told people because everyone knew. I knew I was getting let go. I had enough of an inkling and sources I will never reveal. And I knew I was getting let go. And it didn't make sense for them to keep me because they had never understood what to do with entertainment. So I was like, there's no reason why they want me around.
VFD: That sounds odd to me, because I always thought the entertainment coverage was killer. You and Adam and…
Louis Peitzman: Yeah, thank you. I mean, the first time they blew up our team it was like they really wanted something different. And I think Ben Smith really wanted investigations that we weren't really equipped for. It's like classic media where they have these ideas of what you can do and they're massively contradictory. So it becomes: Why aren't you breaking the Harvey Weinstein case? And there are people on our team who are trying.
Second of all, it just takes a tonne of effort and time to do an investigation on that level, you do nothing else for months and months. And they also wanted traffic and constant stories, so you can't really have it both ways. It was like, why aren’t you generating traffic? Why aren't you covering all these stories? But also, Why aren't you breaking the biggest entertainment story in the world? And I think that that was never going to work. And I don't think they ever figured out entertainment. I think right now, if you look at how the site does it, it's very weird.
VFD: It is weird.
Louis Peitzman: They kind of leave the celebrity content to the UK team. And it's much more in the classic sort of BuzzFeed style of these ridiculously long headlines and lots of pictures and not a lot of copy but then you still have this team writing critical essays, which are interesting, and a lot of them are very good because they have really great writers, but they do skew more negative, they are the more ‘hot take’ variety, even though a lot of them are really well thought out and I agree with them. And some I don't.
But I think they haven't really found a place for positive criticism. I don't know if that's a directive or if none of them like anything, which is also very fair. I don't know what they're doing. They don't have, to my knowledge, an entertainment desk. And they really haven't since we left.
VFD: What is positive criticism? What do you mean by that?
Louis Peitzman: Like, if you review something that you liked. This is a common problem with criticism based media and the internet. I think a lot of people default to negativity because, first of all, it's more fun to write. And also, more fun to read, and it's gonna get more attention. It's harder, I think, for good reviews to stand out. And I think a lot of critics are bad at writing good reviews. Also, a lot of culture right now is just hot garbage, so I don't blame a lot of he negativity. I don't see a tonne of positive criticism on BuzzFeed right now.
I think we were doing it, or when we had Alison Wilmore reviewing movies, it definitely was a mix. I don't know if they do that as much. They might do some festival coverage, or they did at one point. There was some positivity there, and I don't think they're all haters or anything. I just think that there isn't really an entertainment desk, so it's harder to have that scope of coverage and to have the positive and the negative.
VFD: Yeah, well, as we know, ‘no haters’.
Louis Peitzman: ‘No haters’ was one of the weirdest things that I was told when I started. But that dissolves pretty quickly.
VFD: It did.
Louis Peitzman: I understood that the model was to be the anti-Gawker and to be like, What if instead of being snarky, we were sincere? And I think some sincerity is good. I mean, I don’t want to trash BuzzFeed. I do still follow the BuzzFeed Twitter account, and I do dunk on a lot of the stories they put out, which is not nice, and it's very petty of me, but it's actually not because I have anything against BuzzFeed itself. It's just kind of… bums me out a lot, to see what cultural writing has become.
VFD: Right. And this is not just BuzzFeed.
Louis Peitzman: It’s not just BuzzFeed. I don't follow the other outlets. I do see E-Online and People headlines, and they are also ridiculous. But I don't follow those Twitter accounts, so I have less chance to dunk on them.
VFD: So then, what do you mean by, “what has culture writing become”?
Louis Peitzman: I mean, that's obviously a very big question. I think it’s a few different things, and I think one part of it is - and I will blame BuzzFeed for this a little bit - is the sort of personalization of everything, where instead of just saying These are the best and worst red carpet looks, it's like, This actor blew my mind on the red carpet and I can't stop squirting or whatever it is. It's very sexualized and graphic, and the brand has become an identity and it’s weird. There's some weird boundaries there.
I think there is a larger problem of toxic positivity that people have talked about before that I think you see a lot with favourable coverage, because so much of cultural writing now is based on access. I know we just talked about hater reviews and all that, but in terms of the major entertainment publications, I feel like it's a lot of praise and gushing, and yes, thirst, because I think that they need that access. I think you don't really have to trust anymore, because everything is amazing and life changing and epic.
VFD: Yeah, it's like the Marvel-isation of a culture.
Louis Peitzman: Yeah, you have that and then you have these negative pieces on other outlets who are allowed to be negative. And there's not a lot of nuance to a lot of it because, I think, the internet doesn't promote nuance. It doesn’t reward it.
Louis Peitzman: I know, it's crazy, right? Who knew that? That’s definitely an original thought that I had. But you don't see a lot of mixed reviews, you see a lot of extremes. There are a lot of culture writers that still do amazing work that I enjoy reading and they do find a middle ground. When they love something or hate something, I really believe it, because of the strength of their writing. I think my broad takeaway is that media has some problems and that’s how I feel. Media has some problems.
VFD: I agree with that. I think that has a permanence, though,
Louis Peitzman: I would be shocked if anyone was like, I think media is going great. And we have nothing to learn from the myriad of failures over the past several years.
VFD: Well, look, I think in 2012 or 2013, you would have found a few people that were, Media is great, everything's awesome.
Louis Peitzman: It definitely seemed chiller back then.
When I was in the Bay Area I did some writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which is an alt weekly, and I did some capsule movie reviews and stuff like that. But my first regular gig, which was a permanent thing, was weekend editor at Gawker. I took some night shifts, too. I had no one really overseeing me, I was just given the keys to Gawker, and I would just write whatever I could find.
It's amazing to me that I wasn't constantly having a panic attack about that, and that I was just writing whatever and getting angry comments constantly and being like, This is what the job is. I didn't really feel like I had that much responsibility. Whereas now it would be a much different process. I would never just write and publish stuff without someone looking at what I'm writing and telling me that I'm not going to get sued, or check my worst impulses, and just be like, No, you probably shouldn't publish this.
VFD: Yeah, I know. It's kind of sad though, in a way. I talk to my team about that kind of thing. Part of me thinks that the worst thing to happen to media in the last six or seven years is that everything has to have a point now. It feels like everything has to have a point, and has to have a take, and be either positive or negative, to go back to what you're saying.
Louis Peitzman: I think having a point is good. I do think that there's something about writing whatever that is appealing. I feel that new Gawker has done that to some extent, because they definitely have a lot of pieces that have a really strong perspective, and they have reported pieces and all that. But it’s a lot of classic blogging like: Here's the thing that I'm thinking about, I'm gonna write about it. I even feel like people’s Substacks, and a lot of the newsletters that I follow, are very much like: Here's some random things I thought about this week. So I do think that model of blogging has had a bit of a comeback, but it's never going to be as lucrative as it was.
VFD: It’s not as mainstream,
Louis Peitzman: Being able to generate clicks, which you don't really do as much with random observations, unless you're a really established brand and you're able to have a following where you can say whatever. But as people have noted, the people who are doing the best with their Substacks are writing pieces that generate outrage every week. They have a loyal fan base of people who want to read about woke-ism and cancel culture destroying the world. Because you need to generate that kind of outrage to make a living.
I don't know everyone's finances, but you just have a harder time. I really enjoy the newsletters that are like Here’s some stuff I found online. But I think it’s a lot harder to sustain that following and get paid for it.
VFD: Definitely. Yeah. You ever get tempted to do the reactionary ‘Woke culture is not a bad thing’ career?
Louis Peitzman: Do I ever get tempted to sell out?
VFD: Become a millionaire. You could do it. You've got the chops.
Louis Peitzman: No, I don't. I mean, first of all, unfortunately I do have a conscience and a soul, which I think is a huge liability in most things.
And also, aside from my morals, I don't like being yelled at. Like, I get angry replies to basically anything I write because people are unhinged. But if I get a few replies, they're like: this is offensive, I'll just delete it. Because I don't have it in me to engage with that. And I'm not in a place in my life where I need that kind of engagement. I'm not looking for more followers. I'm not looking for people to subscribe to my newsletter.
VFD: Yeah. Were you ever that person?
Louis Peitzman: I don't think I was ever that person in terms of being able to take criticism or thinking that outrage was the way to further my career, but there definitely was a time in my 20s, and especially my early 20s.
I was like: You have to get famous online to have a career, you have to be be a brand. I don't think I was thinking of it in those terms in my early 20s. But yeah, even five years ago, if a tweet was getting a lot of attention, I probably wouldn't delete it. Because I was like: this is gonna help me in some way, this is gonna get people to follow me and read my articles more.
And now I'm like: I have no qualms about deleting anything. If I get a little bit of heat, or if I'm in a bad mood, I will just delete it. Because I don't care. And I don't think that I need that kind of attention. I feel like I've reached the number of followers where I get plenty of annoying replies, no matter what I do. Why do I want more?
VFD: Lucky you. You've hit the magic number.
Louis Peitzman: It's a thrill. That was the thing: there was a time where you just built your following. I remember, when I was at BuzzFeed, I really wanted to write a book. And I would meet with agents.
I met with a couple of agents who were like: you gotta get a viral piece and turn it into a book, or you got to build your following on Twitter. And it's like, that's such a misguided notion. Because we all know, those of us who tweet a lot and have a following, that it does not generate clicks. It does not actually help your book sales. It's all made up.
And exposure and being a brand and all that shit can only help you so much. And especially now where there's so many people who have the same kind of following I do. If I wrote a book, it's not going to help that book succeed. I think that was a misconception based on the fact that it seemed like Twitter was a lot more important. And obviously, it has, in many ways, more of a cultural impact now.
But on an individual level, I don't think that it's doing things for people.
VFD: Yeah, I think the impact that it has now is much worse.
Louis Peitzman: I think it has a broad negative cultural impact, but I don't think it's getting people signed by agents the way that it used to. Tiktok probably is, but I'm not on TikTok.
VFD: You might regret it.
Louis Peitzman: I definitely will regret it. You know, it is what it is.
VFD: How do you introduce yourself? Did you call yourself a critic? Or would you say you were a writer?
Louis Peitzman: I used to say culture writer or whatever my job title was at the time. But if I do a podcast or something, I'm usually just a culture writer. I am editor in chief of a publication. But I keep those worlds really separate. Because the work that I do for my website is very different from what I'm tweeting about, what I'm going on podcasts about, and I don't really need to cross those streams. It just doesn't seem like it's going to benefit me or the company that I work for.
VFD: Yeah, that's probably a smart choice. Don't we wish we had this kind of foresight when we were younger?
Louis Peitzman: You can Google me, but I feel like my Twitter is its own thing. And I keep those worlds separate. I think that my bosses are fine with that. Because what I do off the clock does not affect my work. And I'm very good at my job. I'm biassed, but I think I'm very good at my job.
VFD: Well, that's good. Where in LA did you grow up?
Louis Peitzman: Where did Igrow up? Hancock Park is where I spent my earliest years. And then Beverly Hills.
VFD: What was that?
Louis Peitzman: It was definitely a weird little bubble.
VFD: It’s like Hollywood, right? Am I wrong? I don't actually understand the geography of,
Louis Peitzman: Well, Beverly Hills is a small city with a lot of rich people and a lot of not-rich people, actually. But it’s like most places that people talk about. There are neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, which is a giant city, but Beverly Hills is its own city surrounded by LA.
And that is where I went to high school.
VFD: I have based my entire opinion of LA on the airport, which I know is not good, but it's just such a terrible experience. And I've been there so often because it's the only way you come through from Sydney. It's just a hellhole. I just hate it so much. So I'm just like… LA must suck.
Louis Peitzman: A lot of people feel that way about LA. I don't know if they'll base it on the airport, which is a very small part of LA.
VFD: Yeah. Well, thanks for chatting. I appreciate it.
Louis Peitzman: Thanks for asking me. Any time.