Forbes 30 under 30 series : Zach Stafford on Journalism, Media and LGBTQ+

Updated: Mar 21

Speaker Introduction: Zach Stafford

Zach Stafford is the former Editor-in-Chief for the Advocate magazine - the oldest and largest LGBTQ+ publication in the US - as well as the CCO of Grindr and a former journalist for the Guardian newspaper. On becoming the first black person to serve as Editor-in-Chief for the Advocate, Stafford vowed to lead the magazine in reporting and telling stories of LGBTQ life across the globe, including the issues of police brutality and under-representation. Currently, he is co-hosting the podcast ‘News O’Clock’ for Buzzfeed and iHeartRadio, which has included guests such as Sarah McBride, first transgender US State Senator in history. Stafford has also participated in research on HIV, raising awareness of the virus through his work in the new book ‘When Dogs Heal’, which tells stories of people living with HIV and the dogs that have saved them through their struggle.


Stafford’s Path to Journalism

Beginning his higher education as an undergraduate in Gender Studies and Geography,

Stafford did not suspect that journalism would become his career path, although he certainly did have experience with academic writing. As an undergraduate, he was able to publish a section in the American Sexuality Journal. However, upon receiving feedback from his mother, who expressed to him that she did not quite understand his writing, Stafford decided to defer all of his graduate programmes and become a journalist. He was committed to telling stories and having people engage with them. His journalism career thus began with him writing an opinion column for the Chicago Tribune, his local newspaper.

Stafford expressed: ‘I was very much thinking of myself as similar to Carrie Bradshaw from the Sex and the City series.’

Simultaneously, he began blogging for the newly launched Huffington Post, immersing himself within this new wave of online journalism that had only recently started to grow. Since, things have come almost full circle for Stafford - continuing from where he began - as he now utilises many digital means of getting his stories across, most specifically through his podcasts.

The value of social media in the current age

Stafford paints this picture: white men, predominantly from wealthy, privately educated backgrounds, have for so long dictated the points of view in journalism. It is through social media whereby this archetype has been conquered. The pure force of social media, as expressed by Stafford, has empowered so many previously under-represented people, including members of the LGBTQ+ society, to tell their stories and make their voices heard.

Stafford does not neglect to highlight that, in spite of this, there needs to be more checks and balances of the platforms that host our work. He claims that there has to be improved relationships between journalism institutes, meaning increased coordination between newspapers, for example to stop the surging rise of fake news that is being wrongfully monetised by platforms due to its high levels of engagement.

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.’

‘A double-edged sword’ is how Stafford describes the value of social media. He illuminates its duality: there needs to be a free media for democracies to work, but at the same time fake news is dangerous. His evaluation, however, concludes with the fact that social media enables not only the faster reporting of news stories, but has allowed more people to share their opinions in a realm that was conventionally dominated by a very specific type of man.

The Importance of Podcasts

According to Stafford, he has ‘danced’ in and out of podcasting over the years and is typically always hosting one at any given time. Currently, he is the co-host of News O’Clock, which provides people with daily updates of everything happening online; topics have ranged from the Harry and Meghan scandal, to quarantining during the pandemic, and racism in The Bachelor.

Podcasting rose to prominence due to the existence of radio journalism, which has been a vital space for communicating with people. Stafford interestingly points out that this style of journalism has always been significant- from bomb threat warnings in Great Britain during World War Two, to broadcasted announcements in the US during the Vietnam War. People have always listened to reports through the radio. Therefore, the success of podcasting comes as no surprise. Stafford points out that podcasting has built on radio journalism; journalists can now tell their stories in a different way, in much more depth, in addition to engaging with a whole new audience of listeners. Nowadays, Stafford confirmed, journalists have to be media-orientated - podcasting is a way of achieving this.

Production-wise, podcasting is fairly inexpensive compared to other ventures. Business-wise, Stafford refers to the Top-of-the-Funnel marketing strategy, which sees journalists use their stories as the starting point, turning this into a podcast, branding around this, and eventually something that began as a mere article could be transformed into, for example, a movie or documentary. This approach spreads more awareness to people who would then, hopefully, become consumers of the stories.

Ultimately, Stafford re-focuses to the point that podcasts enable stories to not only be told once, but in many different ways, across many different platforms. This is vital: a journalist wants everyone to know their story!

Evolving: Traditional Political Advocacy Papers

In a world where journalism is being democratised with social media, where does this leave traditional political advocacy papers?

Stafford responded to this question by saying that journalism institutes, such as The Advocate magazine which he worked for, had to pivot to become ‘more of the moment.’ They needed to build their platforms in order to keep on reminding people that, while LGBTQ+ representation has grown, their rights specifically are still under attack. Stafford co-hosted, along with The Advocate, the first ever LGBTQ Presidential Forum in the 2020 Democratic Primary in the US. This required all presidential candidates (for the first time ever) to talk about LGBTQ+ related issues. This milestone demonstrated how, through becoming ‘more of the moment’ as Stafford described it, a magazine founded in 1967 transformed and enlarged its platform to maintain the pertinence of LGBTQ+ issues in our present-day society.

Through Stafford’s eyes: advancing acceptance towards LGBTQ+ people

Stafford describes how there has been a tremendous change in acceptance towards the LGBTQ+ community since he started his career in journalism. When he first became a journalist, Stafford recalls facing a lot of hate as a gay man online talking about his sexuality. As he points out, same-sex marriage in the United States was not even legal, as was the case in many other countries around the world. In spite of their advancement of equal rights, this rise of equality for the LGBTQ+ community has brought with it extensive amounts of hate and abuse- verbal and physical. Stafford highlights that in 2020 the US had its highest-ever homicide rates of transgender people, ultimately pushing his view that as queer people gain more social, political and cultural power, there is always a lot of push-back to their advancements.

It is still a fight every day for LGBTQ+ people.

Stafford’s personal tips for young people trying to get started in the journalism industry:

  1. ‘Blaze your own trail.’ You have to follow your own trail of thought; try out new things and pursue new stories that interest you!

  2. Focus on the stories that drive you personally - this means choosing your passions over chasing a job title.

  3. Not many people are going to understand your path initially, so the practice of being ‘lonely’ in your work is vital to come to terms with.

  4. Establish your own personal ‘story’ to tell yourself about your life - ‘establish your own narrative to hang your hat on.’

  5. ‘When ‘why’ becomes too much to bear, take refuge in ‘how’.’ Focus on the method and the way you choose to construct your stories.

To keep up with Zach Stafford’s thoughts, visit his socials:

Instagram: zachstaff

Twitter @ZachStafford

To listen to his podcast:

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