Monday, July 25, 2011

Why journalists need to build their own brands

Gene Weingarten recently wrote a deft and snarky column in the Washington Post suggesting that journalism educators should have their butts sizzled for telling students to pay attention to building their personal 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.

In a moment, we’ll see how several serious news folk have followed these principals to create successful brands. First, here is what Weingarten had to say:

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.

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 bashing branding, Weingarten wrongly assumed that, as he put it, you have to produce “happy, glitzy, ditzy stuff” to build a following.

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.


Blogger Kenny P said...

Hey, that's great! A few people have founded websites and ended up making a chunk of money.

How do these freakish instances replace a global network of full-time journalists being paid a living wage to work on (we hope) fact-checked print media?

I love the use of the phrase "boasts more than 50 correspondents" in relation to Global Post. Do these lucky correspondents earn a living wage? Are they paid at all? Or are they off-site digital interns hoping to get lucky in a year or two?

I'm not denying there are winners and new possibilities in digital journalism, it's just that from where I'm sitting it looks like there are far many more losers. Plus, as usual, it's a North American model (everyone is online, everyone has broadband access, everyone has a computer, everyone reads English) presented as a viable global strategy.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

My favorite example of a journalist developing a brand is Tim Goodman, a tv critic now at The Hollywood Reporter. Goodman reviews shows but also does a lot of behind the scenes industry coverage and is a really good journalist who knows his beat.

When he was at the SF Chronicle he built up his blog, "The Bastard Machine", a podcast, "TV Talk Machine" and came up with "The Power Rankings" where he ranks the best episodes of television for that week with snarky comments. He also appears weekly on the morning show if the biggest rock channel in the Bay area.

It's my understanding that he did all of this with almost no support from the Chronicle, especially true of the Power Rankings, which is now very popular in the industry.

When he left the Chronicle for THR he took it all with him and now you can read The Bastard Machine and the Power Rankings there along with his columns and reviews. (I'm hoping the TV Talk Machine will return.) So in a sense, he built his brand up himself and publications hire him to be able to publish it.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Kenny P said...

Of course journalists need to build 'brands' (or reputations, in old money), but you cite an example of someone who emerged and established himself in a daily newspaper and on TV before he moved on to the web and back into old media again. How many bloggers with no old media backgrounds make a living from selling content?

11:54 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

I'm in completed agreement with you Alan. It's easy for Gene to mock the need to build a personal brand; he's got one of those jobs that every journalist wants – the kind they don't make anymore. There are more than 200,000 undergraduate journalism students in accredited programs in the U.S. right now. And fewer than 50,000 newspaper newsroom jobs. So students BETTER worry about creating their own brands, because a lot of them are going to have to figure out how to make a living on their own. Unless, of course, Gene is planning on giving up his great gig to some deserving youngster just out of Northwestern.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for pointing out how wrong that guy is. I wanted to myself, but the comments on the article were closed for some reason. That, and virtually every comment on there seemed to agree with his old school thinking.

First off, I personally hate the unfortunate term branding, and did get a chuckle out of his opening paragraph. I prefer marketing. I worked as an editor/writer for a number of years at a successful magazine in my area and I followed his reasoning that the work speaks for itself, and I made little effort to market myself, always putting the mag first. Well, we got gobbled up by a big corporation, my boss, who I had a fantastic relationship with, was replaced by a corporate zombie who proceeded to run the mag into the ground inside of two years.

When I left, I didn't get a glowing endorsement from him, needless to say we didn't see eye to eye, and when I tried to land another editor gig, even in the same industry, I had trouble precisely because I wasn't recognizable enough. My mistake in not marketing myself cost me dearly.

In this day and age, with so little loyalty, and even respect, for the talent from employers, anyone who wants to be a writer, journalist or otherwise, had better be marketing themselves from day one or they're setting their career up for a catastrophic fail.

6:12 PM  
Blogger DANIELBLOOM said...

This entire build your own brand thing is sick sick sick and evidence of a sick society. A brand belongs to a manufacturer selling a product, not a person, not a celebrity, and certainly NOT a journalist. Alan Mutter, you are dead wrong here. Shame on you for emracing this imbicility fostered on a gullible public by PR mavens -- ravens i should call them. Gene Weingarten was correct, you are wrong. It's a sad day in the republic when a man as astute as you falls for this nonsense. A reporter is a reporter, period. he or she has a beat, period. sometimes the beat changes. The newspaper he or she works for is a brand, but not the individual reporter. Nonsense you!

6:12 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Yes to brand-building. TV personalities have always done it. BTW, if broadband is required, the US is far behind. Asia leads, not only in number of broadband connections, but also in percent of households covered and in bandwidth delivered. Some European nations (Iceland, Denmark, Sweden) also put us to shame. The USA is about 20th.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

This idea works for reporters with bylines. How do you "brand" a copy editor?
Without good editing, many a reporter will find his or her brand tainted by errors small or large. Yet when good editing happens, readers (no matter what technology distributes the reporting) are clueless about the editor's contribution.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Sue said...

First, so I can end with a happy note: Paul, you betcha copy editors can brand themselves - I refer you to the example of Nicole Stockdale, who blogged her way to widespread recognition with A Capital Idea. I tweet copy-editing stuff all the time, in direct contradiction to all the unimaginative people who ask, "What could a copy editor have to tweet about?" Pooh.

Now: Alan, I love this blog post. It resonates especially for me because of one of the best tips I ever got on journalism careers: Diana Sugg of the Baltimore Sun told a group of us at Poynter (and no doubt elsewhere) to "Start your dream job now." I encourage journos to blog about what they love. At the very least they'll make friends, and maybe they'll write themselves into a new job. In a field they love. Your examples of journalism innovation are inspiring.

5:13 PM  

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