THE PROJECTS: WHERE THE BOYS AREN'T
THE PROJECTS is a series focused on reinventing the journalist as an autonomous creator, exploring new avenues for digital self-publishing in a transforming media climate, and inspiring a new generation of creators to redefine how they do business in the digital age. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. The projects section of this site can be found here.
In 2009, I created "They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?" To date, it is the only long-form investigation to reveal how the Great Recession felled the multimillion-dollar adult movie industry. It features text and photos and was self-published.
That April, I was working for a high-profile publication that wanted to become Esquire for women. They were commissioning long-form stories that would enable women journalists to do deep-dive work on a par with Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, and Lawrence Weschler.
For years, I had been covering Porn Valley -- what the natives call the San Fernando Valley, where, historically, most of the world's porn movies have been made. For over a decade, I had stood on the sidelines of this strange, secretive industry, one in which unspoken fantasies are turned into reality on poorly-decorated sets and subconscious desires are parroted by bleached and tanned performers willing to have sex in front of cameras. The Feds had come and gone, leaving obscenity indictments and prison sentences in their wake. Technology and content pirating had taken a toll on everyone's bottom line. I had seen the business rise, and I had seen the business fall. The media would have you believe the adult industry drives technology. My rarefied access into this cloistered culture showed me the opposite was true. In reality, technology had undone porn. I would go to the Valley and expose what this quantum entanglement had spawned.
The editor liked the idea. I headed to Los Angeles to document what Ozymandias the industry had become.
"The products that Jim produces are videotaped vivisections, studies in which homo sapiens lie upon the operating table, the director is the doctor, the camera is the scalpel, and the only question worth asking is, How far will we go if we are pushed to our limits?"*
I spent a week in L.A., meeting with porn stars, hanging out with porn directors, interviewing porn journalists. I went to the offices of AVN, the industry's trade publication; hiked up a winding, gated driveway to a mansion on a hill with sprawling views of the Valley to see a brunette from Las Vegas have sex with a machine; and discovered a giant papier-mâché vagina costume hidden in the dim rafters of an adult movie production company's Canoga Park warehouse.
I returned home, wrote the piece, and filed it. But the editor wanted changes. She was unsure how it should run. She did not appear to understand it. And it was at that moment that I realized: Why would she understand it? She lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood in Washington, D.C. She had young children and a husband. As far as I knew, she had never set foot on a porn set.
So I pulled the piece. I reached out to other publications to see if they wanted it. No one was interested.
"Most people have no experience with the adult industry, and it never made sense to me why I should let an editor, a publication, or the insidious effects of a marketing department dictate the terms of my work."*
Of course, I knew who should publish it: me. I was the best editor for it, I was highly motivated, and doing so would give me complete control over it.
I hired Chris Bishop to design and illustrate the project's standalone site, and I hired Joanne Hinkel to copy edit.
On October 13, 2009, "They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?" went live. It was an immediate success. It was praised as "brilliant" and "bold." One reader noted: "Ms. Breslin has changed the way I think about the business of making pornography."
A year after the project debuted, I wrote "The Numbers On Self-Publishing Long-Form Journalism." By that point, the story had been read by nearly a quarter of a million unique visitors from all over the world. Since then, the "Numbers" essay has been taught in Media, Politics & Power in the Digital Age at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Studio 20 program at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.
I consider "They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?" my best work as a journalist. It was included in "Longform.org's Guide To The Porn Industry" on Slate, and in an interview with The Believer, The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal advised journalists:
"The most important thing you can do is write awesome stuff, no matter where it is published. Seriously, when people tell me they want to write profiles for the New Yorker, I'm like, 'THEN GO DO IT. Have you heard of Blogger.tumblr.com?' I mean, there is absolutely nothing stopping any of us from spending three months with a subject and writing the definitive 10k word piece proving why they are important and fascinating. Except Homeland, bourbon, and laziness. So, shit, write a profile about a lazy alcoholic who watches too much TV. BOOM. Problem solved. (See: Susannah Breslin's They Shoot Porn Stars, http://theyshootstars.com/)"
More importantly, I became a journalist who didn't need permission to tell the stories I wanted to tell.