Taking the night off from chasing down Hollywood starlets and egotistical rockstars, a pair of notable entertainment columnists spoke to a throng of aspiring College journalists on March 5 at a discussion panel sponsored by Ed2010 in the New Library Auditorium.
During an interview moderated by Ed2010 president Sharon Tharp and web master Alex Seise, Tanner Stransky of Entertainment Weekly and Annette John-Hall of The Philadelphia Inquirer recalled their highlights and pitfalls in entertainment journalism, slipping in tips on breaking into the entertainment writing industry between anecdotes.
John-Hall, now a metro columnist for the Inquirer, remembered her days in the entertainment section as “more fun” than her current position, vividly recalling several occasions where she had to employ unorthodox means to get stories. During the filming of “I, Robot” John-Hall nearly lost her chance to interview actor Will Smith until she grabbed the former “Fresh Prince” star’s attention by shouting “Will, I’m Philly,” engaging his hometown pride.
According to John-Hall, Smith chastised his publicist for not putting her higher on “the list” and promised to call the Inquirer columnist for an in-depth interview later that night.
“I told him ‘Will, if you don’t call I’m going to be fired’,” John-Hall said.
Now re-christened as a metro columnist, John-Hall explained that while she missed the glamour of the entertainment section, she felt she needed to say something about what was going on in the “real world.”
“I felt compelled to speak out on an epidemic that is wiping out the black community (in Philadelphia),” John-Hall said, referring to Philadelphia’s alarmingly high murder rate.
Whether her words were being used to describe an urban atrocity or the latest Britney Spears scandal, John-Hall offered the same advice for column writing of any brand: “You can’t expect people to buy into (your column) without being true.”
Stransky, whose professional advice novel “Finding Your Inner Ugly Betty” will be published in either late April or early May, was quick to extend a helping hand to eager students hoping to emulate his quick rise to success.
“Newspapers are syndicating their entertainment sections more and more these days,” Stransky said. “You need to learn how to be a reporter first. Get better at your craft before trying to break into entertainment.”
Both columnists stressed the fact that young reporters need to bring a variety of talents to the table in order to become mainstays in the print industry. John-Hall had been a beat writer covering the NBA’s Golden State Warriors before becoming a critic and columnist, while Stransky worked for various other publications in non-entertainment capacities before landing his dream job at Entertainment Weekly.
The up-and-coming author/reporter spoke about the way his assignment editors discern between newsworthy issues and tabloid-level gossip.
“We wouldn’t do a story on Lindsay’s (Lohan) coke bust. We would write about how it affects her latest project,” Stransky said.
Like John-Hall, Stransky mentioned the perils of celebrities who despise dealing with the press, citing several occasions where he had to “write around” a musician or actor’s curt responses. Recently, he found himself stonewalled by the Jonas Brothers after inquiring about their close ties with Miley Cyrus and The Walt Disney Company.
“They looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s a weird question,'” Stransky said. “You have to observe them, watch them and pick up on the little things like reactions to questions instead of actual answers. That can be your story.”
When asked about their most rewarding experiences in the field, John-Hall mentioned meeting several of today’s iconic names before they became big.
“I like to see people on the brink of blowing up. They’re so innocent and real,” John-Hall said. “After that everything changes.”
Stransky chose a more conventional response, mentioning that writing for Entertainment Weekly allowed him to “do what (he) loves.” Almost immediately, Stransky began mocking his own reply.
“My whole life winds up centered around TV . which sounds lame actually,” Stransky joked.
As the night drew to a close, Stransky stumbled back to an early call by Seise and Tharp to give advice to the audience, offering a simple tip:
“If you want to write entertainment, if you want to write anything, then just do it,” Stransky said. “Start a blog. Write for your campus paper. Just get on it.”