Taylor Swift reporter at USA Today: Who is he?

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Gannett, the biggest newspaper chain in the U.S., no longer has a blank space under the title of “Taylor Swift reporter.”

The company has written in the name of Bryan West, a 35-year-old journalist from Arizona who has just moved to Nashville to fill the newly added, headline-making position. Starting Tuesday, West will be working out of the Tennessean’s newsroom for USA Today and the chain’s more than 200 local dailies, reporting on all things Swift … and only on all things Swift.

When Gannett first announced the job search in September, it prompted a lot of soul-searching and hand-wringing among media types, who could be found openly arguing in public forums about whether hiring a dedicated Swift reporter (and also someone exclusively on the Beyoncé beat) was a sign of the apocalypse or the most obviously defensible thing anyone in the business of covering entertainment has done in years.

For anyone who does think that hiring a Swift beat reporter makes perfect sense, it may not be difficult to see why West was able to convince the company that, out of all the hundreds of applicants, they’d never find another like him … that he’s the only one of him… and baby that’s the fun of him.

“I would say this position’s no different than being a sports journalist who’s a fan of the home team,” says West. “I just came from Phoenix, and all of the anchors there were wearing Diamondbacks gear; they want the Diamondbacks to win. I’m just a fan of Taylor and I have followed her her whole career, but I also have that journalistic background: going to Northwestern, winning awards, working in newsrooms across the nation. I think that’s the fun of this job is that, yeah, you can talk Easter eggs, but it really is more of the seriousness, like the impact that she has on society and business and music.”

At the outset of a call with Variety prior to the announcement going public, West was ready to engage with a journalist also on record for being a deep diver into Swift news, opinions and lore.

“I do think our biggest moment of contention is gonna be the secret Vault songs,” he said within the first minute of the call — referring to the bonus tracks on the current blockbuster “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” — “because I know you’re a fan of ‘Now That We Don’t Talk,’ and I’m a huge fan of ‘Say Don’t Go.’” West even was able to cite a singular moment in “Say Don’t Go” that makes it the most haunting of the new songs for him: “When you listen to it, she screams a harmony of ‘I said “I love you”‘ [in a bridge near the end of the track], and that’s why I really like it: It’s the harmony she screams that’s muted.”

That’s the kind of obscure observation that may make West a man after a million Swifties’ own heart s… if that core demographic for the superstar can be persuaded to pick up a newspaper. And by “pick up a paper,” of course we mean engage with Gannett’s dailies digitally, as newspapers expand their outreach with more stories produced as video content.

That’s something West says gave him an advantage in the search, as he was able to highlight his history of having worked for an NBC affiliate in Phoenix, often acting as “a one-man band” toting a camera and shooting his own interviews.

Michael Anastasi, the Tennessean’s editor and also the Gannett chain’s VP of local news, says cynics were wrong to suppose that the company put up the job posting for the publicity of it and wouldn’t be looking for a real journalist to fill the role… even if not all the aspirants had reporting chops.

“We were very pleased with the caliber of the pool that we had,” Anastasi says. “I think if we ended up hiring five more people, we would have highly qualified candidates” for all the positions. “It ran the gamut from veteran hard-news reporters, including at least one very established White House reporter, to Swifties who have blogs and are influencers … and of course there were a number of fans who just were following their dreams and hoping to win the lottery. But what we ended up with was someone who I think has the great balance between being a veteran journalist who has serious news chops and someone who understands everything about Taylor’s world and the universe that he’s stepping into.”

Adds Ben Goad, the Tennessean news director who will serve as West’s direct boss, “This is not a traditional ‘we’re going to write three print stories a week and draw a paycheck’ type of beat. He’s going to be on video, going to be on social, going to be interacting with Swifties, and going to be out and about at tour stops, on red carpets, at the CMAs, wherever people are enjoying or reflecting on who Taylor Swift is. There’s no shortage of things to write. You know, it’s not unprecedented to have somebody (dedicated to covering) someone who’s a Senate candidate, or an athlete, like when LeBron James goes to Miami and has people just covering him. So I think there’s precedent for it. But also, I think, we’re taking a pretty bold step here, and I’m very optimistic for how it’s going to turn out.”

West confirms that he is going to be out and about at CMA Awards-related red carpets in Nashville as part of his first week on the job. But if his job is covering just Swift, does that mean he’ll be asking country stars what their favorite Vault track on “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” is? He’s not tipping his hand, there.

West has met Swift once, in the backstage at the Phoenix-area opening night of the “Reputation” tour in 2018 (pictured above). As a reporter for the NBC affiliate in town, he was so renowned for his Swiftie-ness that the anchors would sometimes rib him on-air.

“The newscasters would make fun of me, saying things like, ‘We’re surprised Bryan didn’t call in sick to work today because Taylor released a new album.’ I put those (jibes) together, sent it to her team, and said, ‘Hey, just so you know, Taylor’s got a local news reporter that’s a fan. Tree (Paine, Swift’s publicist) wrote me the morning of the concert and said, ‘Taylor wants to meet you. How soon can you get out here?’ I went home, I changed, I went to Walgreens and printed out a headshot of me and signed it ‘from your favorite local news reporter,’ and I sat in the parking lot for four hours until she said, ‘Hey, your passes to go backstage are at will-call.’” (In his video resume, West recalls the moment and quips, “Our ears touched and I thought for a second, I could be straight.”)

The submission that West sent in to Gannett naturally includes that photo opp, but also elements like a short list of serious story ideas — like, for instance, how Swift has economically impacted the friendship bracelet industry. Over the course of the interviewing process, he subsequently expanded that to a two-page PDF of story ideas.

He’s not worried taking on his shift as Swift’s seemingly biggest year draws to a close and 2024 has her largely overseas. Besides covering how the Eras Tour might have different wrinkles in global markets, he’s particularly excited about the expected release of a “Taylor’s Version” of “Reputation,” which he quite correctly and objectively identifies as one of her best albums.

He can indulge in conspiracy theories with the best of them — he had one having to do with Swift sending out clues to her fans via her fingernails that he would only share off the record. But West also has a fundamentally serious side that he shared in his resume, as somebody who became sober and made major life changes five years ago.

“I was at a crossroads where I felt like I could live in this darkness or I could wake up and try and be a better person,” West says, “so part of that for me was stepping back from news. I joined a local CrossFit gym that works with people in sobriety and recovery. And then I started working for a company where I traveled the U.S. working with high school student leaders — and I loved that because I could geek out and I want to be known for being a good person. And that was me stepping back from news. … And I told them, jokingly, ‘If I could report on Taylor Swift every day.’ So it almost felt like a manifestation when that same colleague texted me and said, Hey, your dream job just became available.’”

Is a Swiftie destined to be a softie, when it comes to news that might cast the star in a harsher light? West addressed the objectivity issue in his video submission for the job, saying he would be able to report fairly on the superstar — and be critical if necessary — with a slightly comical example: He said the proof was in his citation of three Swift songs that he can’t stand: “Stay Stay Stay,” “False God” and “It’s Nice to Have a Friend.”

Now that his video resume is being made public, he’s a little worried fans might “cancel” him for throwing those three tracks under the bus. (For the record, his favorite songs are: “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” “Long Live,” an extended concert version of “I Did Something Bad,” “Death by a Thousand Cuts” and “Wildest Dreams,” for starters.)

There will, of course, be journalists who believe this is strictly a fanboy position, or that even if West does have the potential to be a hardboiled Swiftie, it’s still an insult to serious news reporting when this kind of job is being created as traditional positions are being slashed left and right in the newspaper industry. Many have cited the significant cuts undertaken by the chain in the second half of 2022. It was reported then that a big second-quarter loss resulted first in the layoff of 400 employees and 400 open positions being left vacant, followed later by another 6% reduction.

But Anastasi says that a vital part of keeping the business healthy is creating new jobs even as others go away. “I oversee all of the newsrooms across the country for Gannett,” he says. “And it’s very important to note that I’ve hired hundreds of local journalists in the past few months, at all of our papers — big, medium, small — and that these aren’t positions that are supplanting other positions in our company. This is part of a very deliberate transformational strategy to become the company that we need to become to be growing, thriving and in position to serve all of our local communities across the country into the future.”

West is not guaranteed to get interviews with Swift, who rarely does interviews anymore. If he does land one, he has a backlog of mysteries to plum, as any major or minor fan would. Like: “I love ‘Wildest Dreams.’ I can’t believe that was her heartbeat. I want to ask her, ‘Were you in the doctor’s office and they were just taking a pulse, and you’re like, ‘Hold on, I’ve got to record this’?”

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