We spend a lot of our days chatting with each other about things we see online, trying to make sense of it all. This week in the Styles newsletter, Wait …, Taylor Lorenz, a Styles reporter, Lindsey Underwood, a Styles editor, and Jessica Grose, the Parenting editor, discussed how we report on teenagers and the internet.
Taylor: I write stories about culture and technology; a lot of my stories have nothing to do with young people. But young people are often leading the way online, so I do end up talking to them a lot. I also cover the online creator and influencer industry, which is dominated by young people. But I’m not a youth culture reporter or a reporter on teens. I’m a technology reporter with a focus on culture.
Lindsey: And how do you find your stories?
Taylor: I spend all day, every day on the internet.
Lindsey: I can attest to this! I sat next to you in the office in The Before Times.
Taylor: It’s very rare that I unplug! I keep my DMs open on every platform and I spend a lot of time just listening to people. I try to be one of the most accessible reporters at The New York Times. I want people, when they see something interesting or newsworthy online, to think “Oh, I have to send this to Taylor.”
Jessica: How do you get in contact with teenagers? And do they try to catfish you?
Taylor: I never do interviews over text or DM. My goal with everyone I speak to, whether adult or teenager, is to get them on the phone or a Zoom. Often, I’ll DM a meme account, for instance, and not have any idea of the person’s age or identity behind it until I do more reporting and verify their identity.
I regularly hop on the phone with parents and answer any questions. I’ve become very friendly with the parents of several kids I’ve covered in the past and keep in touch with the parents of many more.
When I’ve visited teenager’s houses, for instance, for an in-person interview, that is always coordinated with their parents either directly or through a manager or agent who works with their parents.
I consider it part of my job to very clearly and explicitly explain the ramifications that coverage in The Times will have. I have had conversations about this with parents, for instance, about what would likely happen when a story went up. I talk to kids about this a lot when I’m discussing how we will refer to them and why. I would never write about someone without communicating what an article about them means.
Absolutely, people lie to me and try to catfish me every day. Sometimes that becomes a story in itself. Like any beat, you have to do an enormous amount of due diligence throughout the reporting process.
Jessica: I want to know more about these managers!
Taylor: The people I work with most when covering teenagers are actually managers and agents. More often than not, when I DM a teenager looking to get in touch for a piece, it is a manager, agent or PR representative who will respond. Teenagers with as few as 10,000 followers on a platform have talent managers now.
A lot of these kids’ parents aren’t aware of how famous their children are, and don’t always understand what their child is doing online that made them so famous. (That is often part of the story!) Some parents live quite far away, while their children live in Los Angeles with a guardian or manager. I wrote a feature for The Atlantic several years ago on what it’s like for the parents of kids who become influencers and social media stars.
Lindsey: What’s your goal — if you have one?
Taylor: I want to reveal the real work taking place in the online creator world. I want people to recognize that influencing and creating things online is a valid career and should be taken seriously.
A lot of young people, even the famous ones, are wary of the press. My beat is based on taking young people seriously — and that means not exploiting them, or being condescending, or mocking them. I want them to know they can trust me from what they see in my work — but I also never want any kid to mistake me as their peer. I don’t try to speak like a teenager or act like I’m in their world. It’s important that they recognize that I’m a professional reporter and an adult, just like their parents and teachers.
That said, I approach all interviews, especially those with young people, from a place of empathy. It is important that interview subjects feel comfortable talking to me and trust me enough to tell the truth. I take confidentiality very seriously and I take issues around identity very seriously.
Lindsey: Do teens read your stories or is our coverage for their parents?
Taylor: I receive a ton emails and messages from kids with feedback and thoughts about my stories. I want young people to feel represented by this global news organization.
I want kids to read us and feel like they matter to The New York Times and that The Times is actually working to understand them. Growing up, I looked up to women in media like Nancy Jo Sales and Atoosa Rubenstein because I felt like they really understood me. I want to be that person for the next generation.
Lindsey: Do you think teens are thinking about their Google results or what it means to be in The Times?
Taylor: Oh yes. (And I’ve written about this.) Young people are hyper aware of their digital footprint from a very, very young age. Often, they know that any story written about them could be the most prominent (or Google-able) information about them for years to come.
Jessica: How much money is sloshing around these kids and where is it coming from?
Taylor: Influencer marketing is a $10 billion industry and that only represents a fraction of the money flowing on the internet. Teenagers today have unprecedented access to career and moneymaking opportunities. They can sell sponsored content on Instagram as a summer job, for instance. Others are building media empires from their bedrooms.
Lindsey: What happened to teen magazines? I read YM and Teen People. God, what I would have I given to be a CosmoGirl. What does a cool teen read now?
Taylor: The entire media landscape has been upended by social media and the internet. That’s led to the decimation of the print industry and a huge shift in how people consume media. That shift to digital and social is even more apparent in the younger generation. Before writing full time, I worked as a social strategist for brands and other media companies. My job was to program content for younger people and meet consumers where they are these days: Instagram, YouTube, etc.
Teens today don’t have YM or Teen People, but they do have Instagram accounts like TikTok room and Messy Monday, and a plethora of YouTubers and podcasters to keep them in the loop on what’s going on in the world. The number one thing kids ask me when I reach out for an interview is: “Will this be on The New York Times YouTube channel?”
(This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity).