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Celebrities and journalism: A perfect union?

When famous people act as guest-editors to publications both benefit, but as the journalism industry goes through hard times, it has the most to gain.

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When Lady Gaga showed up to Metro’s newsroom in London two days ago, she wasn’t wearing a dress made of raw meat or carried in an egg. Though she still wore some of her hair in a pink beehive and a black tube top with a large dangling jewel, Gaga knew being a guest-editor required less glam than her regular work. The superstar, who led a discussion about the Japan earthquake, transgender issues and bullying during her 90-minute stint at the free daily, is the latest in a long line of celebrities to lend their star power to publications.

The link between celebrities and journalism has a storied past, and according to a paper by Sammye Johnson, a journalism professor at Trinity University in Texas, it started with the Watergate scandal. Johnson claims the investigation by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon “changed journalism in more ways than we realize.” When the writers were played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 movie, “All the President’s Men,” Johnson writes this “launched the public’s fascination with the journalist as celebrity.”

In the mid-nineties, when celebrities started being asked to be guest-editors at publications, the fascination reversed. One of the first was Roseanne Barr, the star of family sitcom Roseanne, who guest-edited the New Yorker’s February 26, 1996 edition that focused on women (she most recently wrote a piece in New York magazine about sexism in the TV biz). In the late-nineties Demi Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow and Susan Sarandon all did stints at Marie Claire, and more recently, U2’s Bono has edited publications The Independent twice (George Clooney did so as well in 2007), Vanity Fair‘s 2007 Africa edition, and the Globe and Mail last year. Gaga also isn’t the first to be an editor for Metro, with James Blunt and Arianna Huffington as her predecessors.

Some celebrities took the idea farther and started their own magazines. In 1999, Ivana Trump launched her lifestyle magazine called Ivana’s Living in Style and in 2001, the twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen launched Mary-Kate and Ashley. The most successful example is Oprah Winfrey’s O that launched in 2000, and in six months, reached one million subscribers (compared to Vogue‘s 681,000 at the time). When Rosie O’Donnell took over McCall’s in 2001, sales from the first issue went from 365,333 to 900,000, and stayed at least double its previous readership for subsequent issues.

Though Gaga is usually a trail-blazer, the journalism road is well-traveled by celebrities. Even still, her influence is undeniable. She has 10 million Twitter followers (more than Barack Obama) and will start writing a column for V Magazine in May, prompting Suzi Parker from the Poynter Institute to ask whether she could be an entryway into the news for young fans and help revitalize excitement in the industry: “As Lady Gaga takes her celebrity into the worlds of journalism and photography, does it bring cachet to a struggling and confused industry that might need a tad of glamour and inspiration?”

Though journalists themselves may be skeptical (a piece on stuffjournalistslike.com describes her role as consisting “primarily of ‘signing off’ on pages”, and her appearance is well-timed with the release of her new album) the sales and advertising department of Metro is happy to share a sliver of the Prima Donna’s spotlight.