Courtesy Anne Helen Petersen
Courtesy Anne Helen Petersen

Anne Helen Petersen on Keeping Media All Around—But at Arm’s Length

The culture journalist’s media diet spans the writer Chris La Tray’s newsletter, the HGTV show Maine Cabin Masters, and Lummi Island’s Nextdoor.
By Emily Jiang
January 17, 2023
11 minute read

Anne Helen Petersen resides on Lummi Island, a small land mass in the Puget Sound seven minutes off the coast of Washington by ferry. Just over nine square miles large and home to a mere 900 residents, Lummi is known to be the quietest of the islands in the Sound. Up above, seagulls soar and squawk; down below, ocean waves slosh onto stony shores. Residents spend their time hiking, boating, or strolling along the serene coastline, or catching up on the local goings-on via The Tome, the island’s newsletter, which arrives in their (physical) mailboxes once a month.

Given her chosen environment, one might imagine Petersen to be a sort of recluse who spends her days on lengthy hikes or consumed by long-ago literature, and her nights bundled up by a campfire on the beach, looking out onto rolling waves.

In reality, she’s a highly active, plugged-in media figure who runs the popular Substack newsletter Culture Study and previously worked as a Buzzfeed senior culture writer. With a Ph.D. in media studies, Petersen uses her newsletter to dig deep into small pockets of our common culture—with topics ranging from sex ed to parenting to dealing with grief—in a distinctly spirited-yet-skeptical tone. She also hosts the Crooked Media podcast Work Appropriate, which covers all things workplace, and the HGTV podcast Townsizing, for which she interviews former city dwellers who, like her, have relocated to smaller, quainter towns. (Petersen moved from New York City to Missoula, Montana, in 2017, before relocating to Lummi Island in 2021.) Additionally, she’s the author of books on womanhood, work culture, millennial burnout, and Hollywood scandals.

Despite this vast output, Petersen’s media habits aren’t entirely at odds with the slow pace of where she lives. The way she consumes media actually sort of mimics her environs in a strange yet ultimately coherent way. Though mere minutes from the U.S. mainland, she maintains an important, intentional distance from it on her contained island outpost; plugged in and attentive as she may be to the media around her, she keeps it at arm’s length, and often indulges in content that serves as an escape from the tangled webs of the internet. “I spend a lot of time thinking about how to consume less media,” she says. “I’m trying to be intentional, instead of letting media wash over me.”

We recently spoke with Petersen to see how these intentions manifest in her media intake, which spans the writer Chris La Tray’s newsletter, the HGTV show Maine Cabin Masters, and Lummi Island’s Nextdoor.

How do you start your mornings?

I try to listen to all of the advice about how you shouldn’t look at your phone first thing in the morning, but I absolutely do. Besides the obligatory check of my email and Instagram, I go on the Discord channel for my newsletter, Culture Study, to see what the East Coasters and the Europeans have been talking about overnight.

For news, I used to always look at Twitter, but that impulse has totally atrophied. About a month ago, when everything first started to disintegrate, I was like, I just don’t feel like I want to use this site anymore. It’s just not rewarding me in the same way that it used to. The hits of serotonin are not the same. Now I get a fair amount of news just from scrolling Instagram: The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vox, The Washington Post, and also Hitha Palepu’s #5SmartReads story series, where she posts five important news stories per day. But the way that I generally get it is I pocket things, and come back to them later. So my morning scroll is less reading and more, Oh, that’s interesting. I’m gonna come back to that later.

Do you have any favorite newsletters?

I subscribe to so many. Newsletters are the way that I learn about a lot of the stuff that’s happening in the world instead of Twitter these days. One that I always read, as soon as I get it, is Chris La Tray’s newsletter, An Irritable Métis. That’s probably my favorite of all time. Chris is someone who I know from when I lived in Montana. He is a Métis, Little Shell writer who writes about everything—about indigenous identity, about being a cranky person in the world, and especially about being outdoors, and figuring out your relationship to the outdoors. His newsletter takes me away from the internet, which I think is a really amazing thing. It makes me think of things that have nothing to do with the internet.

Another newsletter that I always open is Virginia Sole-Smith’s Burnt Toast, which is ostensibly about the intersection of parenting and anti-diet culture. I’m not a parent, but I read it voraciously. It’s always really interesting and really useful to me in dismantling a bunch of the shitty nineties diet culture that I internalized over the years.

I also always read Brandon Taylor’s Sweater Weather, which is a newsletter about his reading habits generally. Again, it’s just one of those newsletters that takes me away from the internet. One newsletter that brings me to the internet is Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day, which is all about the weirdness of internet culture. I really appreciate it for connecting dots between things that are happening all around the internet all the time.

Any favorite podcasts?

I listen to Ezra Klein’s podcast [The Ezra Klein Show] pretty faithfully. He finds the most interesting people, and is really good at getting out of the way to let them speak. I used to be an academic and I have a Ph.D., and I love the rigor that comes with talking to academics. He has so many academics on the podcast, and it’s one of my favorite ways to consume academic thought.

I also love—and this is a recent find—Switched On Pop, which is from Vulture. It’s a musicologist and a musician who break down current pop songs. It’s so fascinating, and it’s exactly the sort of analysis that I love, which is that it takes a popular object and then goes really deep into it.

Any favorite magazines?

Well, my partner, Charlie Warzel, is a writer at The Atlantic, so we have a subscription there. I’ve been trying to do more reading of actual magazines, instead of reading it piecemeal through a subscription online. I wonder if, with the disintegration of Twitter, I’m going to start embracing the return to the physical magazine.

What are your go-to TV shows?

Right now I’m watching Andor, which is fantastic. I was a Star Wars nerd when I was a kid, but I have not been super engaged in the extended universe. But I heard that this was the best TV show since Mad Men, so I was like, Okay, I can get on board with that. I also just love Tony Gilroy, who’s the show’s screenwriter. Michael Clayton is one of my favorite movies, which he also wrote.

My stress-relief watch is Law & Order: SVU. I’ve made it almost entirely through all of the twenty-something seasons. I started in the beginning, but because I don’t like the older seasons as much, I tend to watch the ones in the middle the most.

Another one I watch for stress relief is this HGTV show called Maine Cabin Masters. It’s about these people who go and find old cabins in Maine, and then make them livable for like ten thousand, fifteen thousand, twenty thousand dollars. I really like that. Another show I’ve watched recently that I loved is called The Patient with Steve Carell. I wanted to binge it all in one night, but I spread it out over the course of a week.

What books are you currently reading?

I recently wrote a piece about how I’ve resolved to be serious about reading again, because it was a muscle that, like it did for a lot of people, atrophied over the course of the pandemic. I would find myself scrolling instead of reading, which is my favorite thing in the whole world—specifically reading fiction. At the moment, I’m reading Miriam Toews’s Fight Night, which I love.

There are two other books that I’ve read recently that I love. One is Hua Hsu’s Stay True, which is just wonderful for those of us who were born between 1975 and 1985, in terms of the sort of culture that we came up in. The other one is called Zorrie by Laird Hunt. It’s just a beautiful little sliver of a novel that is very Marilynne Robinson-meets-Elizabeth Strout. It made me cry.

Any guilty pleasures?

I already told you about Law & Order: SVU and Maine Cabin Masters. [Laughs] Well, first of all, I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I think all pleasures are deserved.

Maybe you could consider these guilty pleasures: I live on Lummi Island, off the coast of Washington. It’s a small island of about nine hundred people, and there are two ways that people get [local] news here. One is through the local Nextdoor, which has managed not to be toxic, because you’re not allowed to talk about Covid and you’re not allowed to talk about politics on it. And so people just post pictures of sunsets and talk about birds. I check it once a day, and I just love being immersed in it. The other way people get news is a newsletter we have that looks like a church bulletin—it’s long, and it’s printed usually in colors like blue or orange, and it comes in the mail. It’s called The Tome, and it’s just all the news about the island. It has little stories about, say, what the civic club did, or about improvements they’re making to one of the local trails, that sort of thing. Until last month, it was edited by this guy, Paul [Davis], who’s 96 years old. He’s still alive, but he’s passing it over to someone new. So there’s definitely been a 96-year-old’s humor fused into the tone, which I liked, too. I don’t know if it’s guilty, but it’s a small little pleasure of mine to read that when it comes in the mailbox.