Why journalists need to build their own brands
As one of those* Weingarten would like to see blistered, I am here to say he is dead wrong. Here’s why:
Given the steady fragmentation of the media, the growing paucity of jobs and the nano-ization of freelance pay, it increasingly is up to people who want to be journalists to take affirmative action to promote their work to build audiences they can monetize so they can have satisfying and remunerative careers. This presumes, of course, that said individuals have produced quality work, a subject covered thoroughly in any proper journalism program.
Responding to a Northwestern University journalism student assigned to write a paper on how some journalist developed the reputation that provided him with a sizeable audience and ample pay for his work, Weingarten wrote:
The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.In bashing branding, Weingarten wrongly assumed that, as he put it, you have to produce “happy, glitzy, ditzy stuff” to build a following.
These are financially troubled times for our profession…and it is disheartening to learn the journalism schools are responding to this challenge by urging their students to market themselves like Cheez Doodles.
In fact, a growing number of individuals and journalistic enterprises have merged serious reporting with the self-publishing and, yes, self-promoting power of the web to produce high-quality journalism while making names, careers and respectable incomes for themselves. Here are a few:
As a college student in 2004, Brian Stelter anonymously launched TV Newser, an insightful and gossipy blog about television news that soon became must-reading among industry insiders. His reporting was so compelling that he was hired by the New York Times, where he now is one of the top media experts in the nation.
Recognizing that the mainstream media were missing lots of market-moving news in the tedious corporate disclosures filed at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Michelle Leder started publishing the overlooked information at Footnoted.Com. Last year, she sold her journalistically and commercially valuable site to Morningstar, a $2 billion financial publishing company that wisely kept her on as editor.
Appalled by the shriveling local coverage in Minneapolis-St. Paul, veteran newsman Joel Kramer in 2007 launched the non-profit MinnPost, which has become perhaps the most successful grassroots news organization in the country. MinnPost not only helps to fill the news void in the Twin Cities but also provides valuable visibility and professional incomes to the writers who contribute to it.
Fed up with the evisceration of international coverage in the American press, veteran foreign correspondent Charles M. Sennott teamed with businessman Philip Balboni in 2008 to launch GlobalPost, which today boasts more than 50 correspondents around the world. Those journalists are getting the opportunity to build their personal brands while showcasing their reporting at venues ranging from Huffington Post to the PBS News Hour. And they are getting paid for their work.
Sensing public dissatisfaction in the yadda-yadda political coverage provided by such traditional publications as Weingarten’s own Washington Post, options trader John McIntyre and ad man Tom Bevan launched Real Clear Politics in Chicago in 2000. They not only turned their website into a notable force in national political reporting but also sold a 51% interest in the business to Forbes Media in 2007.
Real Clear Politics is far from the only entrepreneurial enterprise challenging the Post’s increasingly tenuous perch near the top of the media pyramid. Everyone from SCOTUSblog and Politico to Daily Kos and Hot Air – and dozens more journalists and commentators – are joining the conversation.
The sites pecking away at the Post aren’t marketing Cheez Doodles. They are covering the same serious issues as Weingarten’s employer. But the upstarts are proliferating, growing in influence and generally gaining financial robustness at the same time the Post has been shedding readers and revenues. As noted in the table below, the annual profit of the Washington Post publishing division dropped from $143 million in 2005 to a loss of nearly $10 million in 2010.
So, whose butts do you think are getting fried?
* I teach media economics and entrepreneurism at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California in Berkeley.