Should Lena Dunham and Other Self-Publishing Stars Be Feared?

Lena Dunham Celebrity Media Disruptors
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Few would doubt Lena Dunham has many awards coming her way as her career unfolds, from the Emmys she’s bound to receive to the Oscars to which she probably aspires. But given her recent foray into digital publishing, could the Pulitzer Prize be what she’s really after?

Dunham seems to be well on her way to journalistic respectability with her new feminist newsletter, Lenny, co-created with her fellow “Girls” executive producer Jenni Konner. Her first issues have attracted considerable buzz for a Hillary Clinton interview and Jennifer Lawrence essay on gender equality in Hollywood.

What at first blush seemed a cute side gig may not have The New York Times cowering in terror quite yet. But what Dunham has quickly accomplished raises the prospect that a recent rash of celebrity excursions into digital-style vanity press shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

It used to be so simple: Publications like The Times and stars like Dunham sat on separate sides of a tidy, mutually beneficial ecosystem. Mainstream press was the only place where celebrities’ latest exploits were advertised or were lucky enough to merit editorial coverage. Press reaped revenue, while stars got promotion.

But those days are over, and they have been for a while now. The rise of social media saw to that, giving celebrities the ability to do an end run around middlemen like, yes, even Variety, to speak directly to consumers unfliltered. We middlemen still have our charms, but Dunham knows better than anybody the influence she can wield with just a sentence or two accompanying a photo on Instagram.

Now a new generation of celebrities use platforms like Twitter and Snapchat to move the masses, but some like Dunham are taking it to the next level. They are launching what are essentially niche publications molded in their image that take the content experience deeper than just 140 characters.

There are ventures that are purely profit-driven exercises in reputation maintenance, like the apps released by the Kardashian clan last month via a deal with Lloyd Braun’s Whalerock Industries, or The Players Tribune, a sports-content hub associated with athletes from Derek Jeter to Kevin Durant. Both allow the affiliated celebrities to bypass the mainstream media to tell their own stories.

Then there’s those of the Dunham variety that aren’t nakedly narcissistic, but more high-minded extensions of a celebrity’s brand attributes–modestly promotional without being overly so. Think “lifestyle” outlets like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop or Ashton Kutcher’s A Plus, which take an admirably socially-conscious approach to content.

But until Dunham came along, these efforts were pretty negligible. Lenny demonstrates that, done correctly, they point the way toward a potential future in which the media landscape could get crowded by many more such efforts, which could leave the traditional press outlets feeling like their territory is getting encroached.

It was bad enough when social media lessened stars’ dependence on the press for exposure; now it’s like they want their own press credentials, too.

Dunham could be just the beginning. And to think that we journalists helped create her; now she will return the favor by destroying us. Gee thanks, Lena.

OK, “destroy” is an exaggeration. It’s not like she is trying to displace CNN. But there’s a very real possibility that other celebrities are going to try variations on their own Lennys, taking up the finite audience attention too many already press outlets fight for as if that attention was oxygen.

You can’t begrudge Dunham for any of this. The beauty of the Internet is that it levels the playing field between major brands who used to be the only ones who could afford the high cost of distributing something as expensive as a magazine and average people who can now compete with those brands for next to nothing. Celebrities like Dunham represent a middle ground: They have the name recognition of a major brand, so they’re capable of drawing an audience just as easily. But they don’t have to have the deep pockets to become a publisher if they stick to digital platforms.

But before we crown Dunham as the next Tina Brown, there are challenges she might face in the future of Lenny. Like revenue, for starters. Right now her shoestring operation (a staff of three) can surely subsist on the largesse Dunham can afford by way of her well-deserved success. But were she to get even a little more ambitious about expanding the scope of Lenny’s operations, Dunham may encounter the considerable challenges of turning her labor of love into an actual business. She has previously floated the possibility of adding an e-commerce component to Lenny, and that could do the trick.

Dunham wouldn’t be the first to go the e-commerce route. Many celebrities have used their good name to sell all sorts of products alongside content with little more than a robust social-media presence to spread the word, most notably Paltrow and her polarizing Goop brand. But if she can convince enough people to consciously uncouple dollars from their wallets, more power to her. It’s not for everyone though; for every Reese Witherspoon or Ellen DeGeneres, there’s a Blake Lively, who hung a “Closed” sign on her Preserve venture earlier this week.

So enjoy all the attention for now, Lena, and kudos on a strong launch. But in the long term, this publishing stuff isn’t as easy as it looks.