There are YouTube celebrities, so of course there are YouTube tabloids
In May 2016, a celebrity couple went through a difficult breakup. Following the public relations guidebook, they formalized an official statement, hitting all the familiar notes. “Everybody thinks everything’s perfect, that we have a perfect life,” they said, “and it’s really not.”
The split, and subsequent damage control, seemed ordinary enough, as far as celebrity heartbreak goes. Except for one thing: the couple, Jesse Wellens and Jeana Smith, didn’t make the announcement on the cover of a tabloid, or through a publicist. It was on YouTube. And what followed was a flurry of gossip coverage produced not on Entertainment Tonight or TMZ, but on a collective of amateur YouTube channels, broadcasting breathlessly from bedroom studios.
As YouTubers have drawn massive audiences by documenting their lives online, a second tier of YouTube has naturally emerged: the YouTube tabloid. For years, intra-YouTube drama has been documented exhaustively and almost exclusively on YouTube itself. There’s little crossover into the real world. YouTube’s gossip ecosystem exists like a world parallel to our own — a little spinning globe of YouTube celebrities, YouTube rumors, and the people who watch.
Even after their breakup, Wellens and Smith still co-run the popular YouTube channel BFvsGF, where they compete against each other in challenges like who can drink the most soda and who can train a cat. They have more than 9.4 million subscribers.
In their breakup statement — which, with nearly 14 million views, is still the channel’s most popular video — the pair admit they were reluctant to go public with the news. “There’s gonna be so many people who come to this video, and they don’t care about us,” Smith says. “They just want gossip and drama, they want to capitalize off of it.”
On YouTube, drama is guaranteed to get clicks, and no one understands that better than YouTubers themselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean vloggers are scrambling to get themselves involved in the next YouTube scandal. An emerging class of tabloid reporters online have realized they can capitalize on the clicks just as easily from the outside, by creating gossip-specific channels. Like the magazine and TV tabloids that paved their way, these channels have become the de facto record of YouTube’s celebrity class. Their tuned-in hosts track the site’s main players and their supporting characters diligently, and profit from an audience eager to hear their perspectives.
As it has for game reviewers, beauty bloggers, and comics, YouTube has leveled the playing field for the tabloid reporter. Most of the popular channels are operated by amateurs. All you need to become a gossip sleuth, they’ve proven, is a YouTube channel, time, and a lot of enthusiasm.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the gossip-vlogger model evolved from the popularity of the online gossip media network, TMZ — another relative upstart to the tabloid industry. In both form and style, TMZ set a precedent for its YouTube contemporaries.
In 2014, BuzzFeed reporter Anne Helen Peterson wrote that TMZ was a “unique and controversial mix of scandal mongering and investigative journalism.” She notes that the publication never covers feel-good events like red carpets or weddings, and instead chooses to focus on scandals, fights, and embarrassments. Peterson reports that TMZ’s manic headline style emerged in 2006, about a year after its launch, because readers seemed to prefer the style to straightforward headlines.
In recent years, the brand has honed a digital language, hawking headlines like “KATE HUDSON Fashion Line Ex-Employee Sues …I WAS FIRED FOR GOING TO REHAB!” The syntax feels like it was constructed solely to appeal to the basest parts of the human brain and search engines. The site found success by catering to this kind of clickbait-reader, and by covering celebrities with a speed print mags couldn’t compete with. But now TMZ has a new challenger — at least when it comes to an appetite for drama — in YouTube channels.
In an interview with Nylon about how fame has changed in the past decade, former Hills reality star Spencer Pratt says, “Everyone is a celebrity now. Back [in the 2000s], you were either on a television show or you were in all the tabloids, and those were the two ways you could find fame unless you were a well-known musician or actor.”
But that double-track has expanded into a massive highway, thanks to self-publishing tools like YouTube and other social media platforms. And so the evolutionary trait of YouTube tabloids is granularity. With hundreds of aspiring gossip-hounds combing the platform for drama — down to the happenings of tiny subcommunities — it might not make sense for a single publisher to invest time in a competition.
TMZ pioneered this granular, obsessive coverage when it came to reality stars and D-list celebrities. Now YouTube tabloids comb the internet for gossip about YouTube pranksters, vegans, and amateur food reviewers.
WHAT GOSSIP LOOKS LIKE ON THE INTERNET
There’s too much drama on YouTube to keep up with, even for people deeply embedded in the community. Too many relationships. Too many fans. Too much off-camera action. As a result, YouTube tabloids have diversified to serve distinct audiences. The biggest differentiators of gossip channels are the hosts. Philip DeFranco tries to position himself as an objective, buttoned-up talk show host, even though his eponymous show is all about his take on the biggest names in YouTube drama. He has 5.4 million subscribers. (For comparison, TMZ reaches around 3.2 million people each month, according to the data analytics firm Quantcast.) Scarce, with 2.8 million followers, sometimes intercuts YouTube drama stories with clips of video game play. Keemstar is the YouTuber behind the show DramaAlert, a one-stop-shop for all YouTube-related in-fighting. His channel has more than 1.8 million subscribers. Smaller niches have comparably sized channels. Sanders Kennedy, with 173,000 subscribers, and Karina Kaboom, with just 55,000, both focus on the drama of beauty vloggers.
Each of these channels is packaged to appeal to a specific kind of viewer. DeFranco’s The Philip DeFranco Show and Keemstar’s DramaAlert are styled after anchored news shows. Keemstar has an opening sequence with a spinning-globe logo; DeFranco sits, late-night-style, on a couch, as he comments on the week’s news. Their videos are usually broken into segments, but if something major happens — like when Casey Neistat announced he was ending his daily vlog — they’ll dedicate an entire video to it.
Keemstar’s platform might be modern, but his method is classic tabloid. He tends to model the vocal gymnastics of ‘90s shock jocks, stretching his vowels as if every word he says could be “KA-blam!” His sources, when he has them, are often anonymous. He moves quickly from one rumor or beef to the next, giving viewers just enough information to understand his caustic burns.
Recent DramaAlert titles have flagrantly swiped TMZ’s style:
“Andy Milonakis vs EpicFiveTV #DramaAlert Social Climber EXPOSED!”
“PewDiePie was GAY But Changed His Mind #DramaAlert YouTube Trending Page EXPOSED!”
“Sam Pepper & Zoie burgher Upset some Fans!” #DramaAlert Banana Girl & Twitch Fails!
Beauty-gossip vloggers like Kennedy and Kaboom are working under more rigid thematic constraints — they’re not going to make a video about Casey Neistat, no matter what he does — but sometimes constraint can be a useful curation device. Although Kennedy does document various beauty-vlogger tiffs, he spends a lot of time focusing on legal issues between vloggers and makeup companies. In a video about a cosmetics company filing a dispute against Jeffree Star and MannyMUA over the use of a logo, Kennedy reads a tweet by Star that says “Stop hyping up drama.” Kennedy looks at the camera, laughs, and says, “I’m sorry, but this is my job.”
“YouTubers are becoming basically celebrities,” Sanders told The Verge. “These influencers are signing contracts with makeup companies and technology companies for millions of dollars these days. I see them as a new form of celebrity, so why not talk about them like celebrities?”
A channel’s popularity often comes down to viewer preference. Gossip fans are overwhelmed with options, given how quickly the mini-industry has ballooned over the past decade. Keemstar didn’t launch Drama Alert until 2014 (seven years after The Philip DeFranco Show first aired) but Keemstar’s fan base grew much more rapidly than DeFranco’s. In just 10 months, Drama Alert had more than 300,000 subscribers, according to We The Unicorns.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR WAITING ROOM TABLOIDS?
The big-name players in the tabloid industry still aren’t participating in the YouTube drama market. Glossy tabloids like InTouch and US Weekly seem reluctant to move aggressively into the world of internet celebrity. Even on Us Weekly’s YouTube channel, where nü-celebrity coverage might be more palatable, the tabloid sticks to Katie Holmes, Kristen Bell, and the Kardashians.
US Weekly isn’t alone in avoiding YouTuber coverage, online or off. Star Magazine’s recent YouTube uploads are about Prince Harry, Zayn Malik, and Kourtney Kardashian. OK! Magazine did recently publish a story about the Total Divas star, WWE wrestler, and YouTuber Nikki Bella — but only to announce her engagement to WWE wrestler John Cena. In Touch Weekly, which tends to cover reality show stars like A-listers, has only mentioned YouTubers when their star power moves them off-platform — like when makeup vlogger MannyMUA became the first-ever male brand ambassador for Maybelline. In Touch passed on a request for comment.
It’s difficult to say whether tabloids will ever catch on to the YouTube audience, or if they even want to. “I don’t see it as terribly competitive at this point,” Steve Jones, co-founder of the Association of Internet Researchers and University of Illinois at Chicago professor, says of the two markets. “[YouTube gossip] seems more like an add-on if you’re interested specifically in these folks. It seems like a way to hear another group of voices, rather than compete directly [with tabloids].”
But even if YouTube vloggers aren’t exactly stealing tabloids’ readership, they still have a monopoly on an endless well of gossip at a time when traditional tabloids are stumbling. US Weekly readership in particular has been unstable in recent years. The New York Timesreports that from 2015 to 2016, the magazine experienced a “30 percent decline in newsstand sales.” In March, US Weekly’s parent company Wenner Media sold the publication to National Enquirer-owner American Media Inc. In the aftermath of the deal, AMI reportedly laid off around 40 US Weekly employees.
According to Celebrity Net Worth, Keemstar is worth $1.4 million. Philip DeFranco has a net worth of $4 million. And while many vloggers seem to have no interest in covering the world outside YouTube, DeFranco has recently started covering the Trump administration.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
Just as TMZ broke from journalistic norms to achieve success, YouTube channels are pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable — and legal. Many YouTube tabloid hosts have no formal training in journalism, and don’t identify as journalists or press.
Sanders Kennedy is an outlier in this respect. Before becoming a full-time YouTuber, he worked at the celebrity entertainment site DosLives.com, where he learned to source his stories and hedge rumors.
“A lot of people think that when I say the word ‘allegedly,’ I’m being over the top,” he says. “It’s like, ‘No, I have to say allegedly. It’s a rumor.’ When you put something out as fact and it’s not fact, that could be seen as a legal issue. And [using phrases like] ‘sources say’ has really saved me from legal action.”
Sanders told me in the three-plus years he’s being vlogging, he’s never run into any legal trouble, or even threats of it. Keemstar, on the other hand, hasn’t been so lucky. His style of humor is built on controversy; he’s been known to casually toss off a rape joke or make light of slavery. One Change.org petition claims that Keemstar habitually harasses other YouTubers. The YouTube video “Exposing Keemstar as a Fraud,” which summarizes Keemstar’s alleged wrongdoings, is just one of several anti-Keem clips. Keemstar declined to be interviewed for this piece.
It’s not just viewers who question Keemstar’s methods — it’s other YouTubers. “Please help me sue Keemstar” says Onision (also known as UhOhBro) in response to one DramaAlert video. Onision had recently launched a crowdfunding Patreon page because he wasn’t making enough money from YouTube; he told fans he was going to have to sell his house. On DramaAlert, Keemstar insisted that Onision didn’t even have a mortgage to pay, and that his Patreon was a scam. In retaliation, Onision made the aforementioned lawsuit video, in which brought out boxes of mortgage bills to show his viewers. “DramaAlert, I need a public apology for you spreading false information about me,” Onision says to the camera. “Immediately.”
Keemstar never apologized. Onision, it seems, never sued Keemstar anyway.
But Keemstar has been forced to retract stories and apologize in the past. Last year, DramaAlert reported a story that an elderly Twitch streamer was actually a sex offender who had been recently released from prison. Except the Twitch streamer turned out to be a different man entirely, who was now being harassed online by hundreds of righteous DramaAlert viewers. Once he realized his mistake, Keemstar posted an apology video in which he promised to vet his stories more thoroughly in the future. “I was so proud of how successful my show was becoming,” he says in the video. “But now as I sit here in front of you, I don’t feel proud at all. I feel ashamed.”
In the past, when tabloids would wade into tricky ethical territory, they’d do so behind some kind of pre-established editorial boundaries. And if a story went sour, there were lawyers on hand to deal with the fallout. But YouTube’s gossip vloggers are largely on their own when it comes to making publishing decisions.
And that fallout? YouTube is grappling with it as a business. Because the company has no way to control what its users say in their videos, it can really only intervene after it receives complaints. Many vloggers think YouTube has started to intentionally suppress controversial videos, even as it doesn’t issue explicit takedowns for them. Google recently started allowing advertisers to opt out of placing ads on “controversial” content on YouTube, which led to a huge backlash from creators (including gossip vloggers) complaining that their ad revenue had suddenly dropped. YouTube did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Keemstar recently tweeted asking fans if they would consider paying for DramaAlertexclusives. Some of his followers suggested he should move his show over to Vid.Me, an ad-free YouTube knockoff where viewers have the option to leave a tip under each video. But Keemstar quickly dismissed the idea, comparing Vid.Me to “an 8-year-old’s birthday party.”
Because even as YouTube alienates its gossip reporters, it’s still the most logical platform for them to use. YouTube is still where the audience is, where other creators are, and where the drama is.
A few days after tweeting about possible subscription fees, Keem announced he wasn’t going to ask fans to pay for content, even though he was making DramaAlert “for free, practically.” He said he was going to earn money by creating a new video game and promoting it on YouTube. It’s a natural platform for him — he’s already famous there. How long that fame will last is another story. “[Fame] can occur more rapidly now to people who, in the past, wouldn’t have had much of a shot at it at all,” says Steve Jones, the UIC professor. “But it can also leave much more quickly.”
As YouTube’s relationship with its creators gets more contentious, its biggest stars have leveraged their fame into Netflix writing gigs and multimillion-dollar deals with CNN. Once they’ve hit that level, are they even really YouTube celebrities anymore? And can gossip vloggers justify coverage of these new sitcom stars and CNN reporters with the argument that they once, years ago, ran popular YouTube channels?
For decades, tabloids have grappled with shifts in coverage, as beloved celebrities fell from the public eye. But YouTube’s gossip vloggers are going to have to figure out what to do once their celebrities fall even further into it.