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Summary:

There’s been a lot of talk about “branding” and media lately, sparked in part by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s recent anti-branding rant, in which he said it was “ruining journalism.” But like it or not, branding is now an inescapable part of new media.

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There’s been a lot of talk about “branding” and new media lately, sparked in part by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s recent anti-branding rant, in which the veteran journalist said that branding is “ruining journalism.” But as a number of people have pointed out in response to the WaPo columnist — and as Forbes editor Lewis DVorkin notes in a post today about what he wants his writers to do at the online magazine — branding is now an inescapable part of new media. If journalists are using social media to any extent (which they should be), then they are in the process of becoming a brand whether they like it or not.

Weingarten is the Washington Post’s humor columnist, but his post on branding seemed quite serious, and was based on a letter from a young journalism student who asked him how he had built his “personal brand.” Weingarten responded that the best way to build a brand is to “take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot [and] then apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question” (Steve Buttry of the Journal-Register Co. later found the student in question and posted the research paper she was working on on his blog).

The columnist’s antipathy towards journalists becoming brands — which he said involved writers trying to “market themselves like Cheez Doodles” — appears to stem from the idea that any kind of personal promotion is undignified, and that journalists should instead be spending their time rooting out corruption and so forth. Weingarten said it was a result of the fact that “the media is in a frantic, undignified campaign to economize while at the same time attracting more eyeballs,” and that branding was designed to cater to an age in which “the attribute that is most rewarded is screeching ubiquity, not talent.”

We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity. From this execrable marketing trend arises the term you ask me about: “branding.”

I hate to be the one to break it to Weingarten, but the journalism business as a whole is becoming a commodity in many ways. But it’s not journalists and media organizations that are redefining it as such, it is the market itself — and the fact that media is becoming something that anyone can do. The tools for publishing and becoming a “media brand” are available to anyone now thanks to blogs and Twitter and Facebook, and that has made the world of media and journalism a lot flatter, as NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd noted in a recent interview with the Poynter Institute.

Is that ultimately a good thing? I think it is, but in any case it is happening whether Gene Weingarten likes it or not. And we have already seen the rise of some incredibly powerful new media brands — including Perez Hilton, who built his own brand into a massive media entity, and others such as Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo and Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos. More recently, we’ve seen Andy Carvin of NPR become a brand by reporting on Twitter about the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, and New York Times reporter Brian Stelter has also become a brand thanks to his use of Twitter and Tumblr.

In his blog post at Forbes, editor Lewis DVorkin talks about how he is trying to equip writers with a variety of statistical and analytical tools such as Chartbeat that they can use to see what kind of response their writing is getting, because he wants them to build their personal brands. As he puts it, “Pandering for traffic is not brand building. Winning the respect of your audience is.” The reality that DVorkin is acknowledging — and trying to take advantage of — is that as the news becomes more social, and social signals have more of an effect on things like search traffic, a writer’s personal brand is a crucial part of their work.

Weingarten seems to want to make this kind of branding out to be something shameful, but Andy Carvin didn’t become a brand because he tried to pimp his content — he became one because he developed a reputation for high-quality work in reporting and verifying facts about events in the Middle East. A recent research report from IBM concluded that “social network interactions in Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter implicitly define a personal brand.” (PDF link) In other words, what you say and how you behave in these networks determines what your personal brand is. As marketing types like to say, your brand isn’t what you think it is, it’s what others say about you.

The ironic thing about Weingarten’s rant, as Steve Buttry and others have noted, is that the Washington Post columnist himself is a great example of a powerful media brand. He may not want to admit it, and he may not even know how it happened, or have done it deliberately, but he is one nevertheless. Perhaps what he is saying is that he prefers the days when only a small group of columnists and reporters for mainstream media outlets could become brands — but those days are gone, and the sooner we get used to it the better.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Rupert Ganzer and Yan Arief Purwanto

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  1. BeatTheChip Monday, June 27, 2011

    Don’t forget where your journo-ideas come from- Arizona State in this case. Arizona is brand crazed anyway. It’s not happening unless it can be corporatized, in a rack set and sold as a commodity. I’m not saying it’s ineffective. If you are a writing talent you will have to spend a lot of time climbing out from underneath piles of rejection letters telling you why you are not what they want instead of just writing, publishing, posting and marketing DIY guerilla. It’s a waste of time. That’s how you got here. I don’t want Eugene Robinson to have a tequila brand or for Cynthia Rowley to get her own perfume. That’s dumb.

    1. I’m not sure what Arizona State has to do with it, but the kind of branding we’re talking about has nothing to with people getting their own tequila brand or perfume — try reading the post again. Thanks for the comment.

  2. How about this as a consideration: For every minute that a journalist contemplates his or her “brand” is a minute that they’re not battling corruption, uncovering waste and abuse and challenging authority.

    This whole “branding” push, which appears to be largely driven by a veritable legion of know-nothing (and often do-nothing) social media “experts”/”gurus”/”evangelists” who appear to be little more than hyperactive Twitterers, is what marketing departments SHOULD have been doing for decades for media outlets.

    Unless you have the stature of a Weingarten or a Dave Barry, nobody gives a damn what your “brand” is as a journalist. People want to read good, thorough journalism, they don’t care which person gives it to them — often they don’t care which outlet gives it to them (see aggregation). And listing someone like Perez Hilton in an article about journalism doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

    There aren’t a whole helluva lot of us left in this industry and we’re not exactly flush with time and resources to worry about marketing ourselves to a public that has concluded it doesn’t give a damn about where they get their information, just so long as they get it free and quick. TV stations for years tried to sell “personality”-driven newscasts and were rewarded with slashed ratings and budgets.

    It’s laughable concept, really. If you’re worried about your brand, you’re already losing the battle. But if you put out good journalism — excellent journalism, in fact, that puts your work ahead of the competition — you won’t have to worry about it.

    1. Whether you call it “branding” or “reputation” or “trust”, you earn it through good work. And in an era of intense digital scrutiny, when fact-checking, cross-linking and rebuttals can be done at lightning speed, by a greater proportion of the audience than ever before, good work is the best thing to be judged by. You say “unless you have the stature of a Weingarten or a Dave Barry”. Where do you think the journalists of this personal stature are going to come from in the future if it isn’t through good work AND a recognisable, persistent digital presence? Those guys didn’t have to fight through the commoditized online news space that younger journalists inhabit today.

      1. So, in essence, you’re saying that nothing has changed and that “branding” is simply a stupid new buzzword for something we’ve been doing all along.

        So why should we care again?

      2. Thanks for the comment, Martin — well said.

      3. I’d replace all of those words in quotes with “name recognition.” Or maybe not even that. I’m especially perplexed by the Andy Carvin example. I remember reading about his twittering when the Arab Spring story was at its peak, but his name didn’t stick in my head and I wouldn’t have been able to recall it today. So, what’s Carvin’s “brand”? Remember Arthur Kent, the “Scud Stud”? He had a brand… and where is he now? What’s your point?

        The crux seems to be that, instead of the NY Times being a trusted brand in & of itself, the individual reporters need to build personal followings as well. This works for the op-ed columnists and Weingartens and Barrys of the world, whose job it is to have their personalities shine through. These are the same writers who were traditionally syndicated to other papers before the Internet. For hard, breaking news, the concept of “branding” feels uncomfortably gratuitous and gets in the way of news reporting.

    2. I agree with you to a point, Brian — journalists probably shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about it. But they have to spend at least some time, or they won’t appreciate how it works, and they will miss opportunities. And I think your point about the state of the industry helps support my argument — the media outlet you work for isn’t likely to spend much time helping you build your personal brand, so it is up to you to do it. And one of the main reasons to do so is that it will help you if and when your media outlet ceases to require your services.

  3. I’d give my objections to being branded against my will, but is seems I really don’t have a say in the matter anymore. What people are calling “branding” used to be known as reputation, however, and there wasn’t anything wrong with the term. You had a reputation as an honest broker of information, or you didn’t. But now, in this slick, neat-o media world, you need a brand, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a blog, remarkably low professional self-esteem (because, after all, anyone can do this job) and a willingness to dismiss whatever news judgement you might have because if it’s cute kittens the readers (oops, users, sorry) want, then cute kittens they shall have!

    I have Facebook. I have Twitter. I try to keep up with a blog. These are useful tools. However, I also have experience in covering daily news. I have more than a passing familiarity with my beat (city/county/state government). I spent time and effort honing my craft and I’ve been honored with several awards, one of them national, for the quality of my work. This is what bugs me more than anything else about this emphasis on new media and branding. Nobody seems to be concerned about quality or a well-written story.

    And, not for nothing, of what use if a brand if your brand implies crap (ex – Perez Hilton)?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sean — but I don’t think we should conflate the idea of brand (which as you note is related to the idea of reputation) with the dumbing down of content. Gene does that in his piece, and I really don’t see the connection. If anything, someone who is concerned about their personal “brand” as a reporter or writer will avoid those kinds of articles like the plague. Your brand is what you make of it, and yes you have one whether you know it or not, or whether you like it or not :-)

      1. You’re all talking as if journalistic ethics and standards have never existed! I’m sorry but most reporters worth their salt have always cared about quality content, regardless of whether it builds their brand — regardless, even, of whether they get a byline! If anything, new media/internet has opened the door to a wider range of professional journalists, amateurs, and everything in between. Many don’t work for organizations that set and enforce standards. Many didn’t come up in the business with a respect for ethical reporting practices and the editing process. Personal branding won’t fix the lack of fact-checking, the rush to publish, the laxity of online editing. I really think this push toward “branding” is a reaction to journalists (or those who fancy themselves as such) needing to be accountable for the words they put out into cyberspace. Because their employers can’t seem to keep them in line anymore. If that’s the point, that’s a good thing. But the term “branding” does smack of a cheap ploy to establish new revenue streams, just to keep the jargon flowing here. Once you’re a recognized brand, you can write books, be a pundit on TV, judge American Idol, create an app, launch a line of editor-inspired eyewear… the possibilities are endless.

      2. It might not mean the dumbing down of content. However, I see a lot of content being dumbed down.

        Even though to a lot of people Gene’s article probably had an “oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc” vibe, it spoke to me. I’m concerned about how much this profession is being devalued just because there’s some new, easy to use tools in the box now. I’m also concerned about the erosion of the wall between sales and editorial, and branding is a symptom of that. I don’t sell. I tell. If I wanted to sell, I’d be over in the ad department making more money.

        Here’s the truth, though. You don’t give yourself a brand. Your audience brands you. Your work brands you. I’ll accept that brand because, at least, it’s an honest one.

  4. Dan Schawbel Monday, June 27, 2011

    Matthew, very well written piece. I’m bias on this topic, but feel like the Wash Post writer fears change. Journalists have to promote their articles, not just write them anymore. Gene clearly has a personal brand by having a column on the Wash Post with his name, picture and written words. He just doesn’t understand what personal branding is so he fears it, when he should embrace it because it would make him a more valuable journalist.

    1. Thanks, Dan — I agree that there is a fear of change or doing things differently at work in many cases. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Niall Harbison Monday, June 27, 2011

    Anybody who doesn’t buy in to the concept of personal branding as a journalist will learn the hard way soon when a) they no longer have a job b)they see somebody else get a better salary because that person has better online brand. I don’t think you need to go about it by screaming in to a camera and posting it on Youtube or having 100,000 Twitter followers but you certainly need to be active and understand the medium

    1. Niall, personal branding gives journalists (and everybody else) career options too.

    2. Thanks, Niall — totally agree. I tried to make that point in a comment above as well.

  6. Without going into a discussion on brand (that will only annoy most readers of your blog) – the notion that individuals have become as powerful as the media brands they work for has been happening for a while. In a world where big money backs big media with questionable bias, as consumers of content we trust the machine less and human beings more. Put in a different way, there is a huge value to journalists put their time and effort into crafting their relationship of trust with their readers. It means more people will care about what they have to say and they are more likely to be given the time and funding.

  7. Terry Heaton Monday, June 27, 2011

    This is from a media ethics lecture of mine. It’s apropos to this discussion:

    The stage is what matters to traditional media, the driver of its pursuit of “impartiality.” An impartial stage, after all, is home to all, including advertisers. This is no accident.

    Journalistic ethics are all about the impartiality of the stage, not the individual journalists. Without an impartial stage, advertisers will bolt, so the decision is about business.

    The people formerly known as the audience (TPFKATA) expect an impartial stage. Why? Because we’ve told them it’s supposed to be. The problem is that people don’t believe it anymore.

    The network is not the stage.

    Without a stage, there is no institutional wall of ethical protection. One, therefore, cannot pretend to be what one is not. This is the truth and the challenge of ethics in a networked world.

    The stage says, “I am impartial.”
    The individual says, “I’m trying to be fair.”
    Artificiality is a curse in the Network.
    Your personal brand is everything.

    1. That’s a great way of putting it, Terry — thanks for the comment.

  8. Alex Schleber Monday, June 27, 2011

    Oh #dinomedia, how many are the ways in which you still fail to see the new realities of content #Freeconomics…

    Seriously, let me count the ways:

    http://alexschleber.amplify.com/2011/05/24/from-kevin-kellys-the-satisfaction-paradox-on-why-curation-will-be-the-only-thing-youll-still-pay-for/

    Add to this the very important issue of branding. As a Twitter friend of mine once said: “Life is a branding problem.”

    This is more true than most people realize. A brand (including personal brands) is a useful short-circuit/rule of thumb when a detailed investigation of all of the possible details would be far too cumbersome. Happens up to hundreds of times for everyone, every day.

    Even for incredulous WaPo columnists…

    Successful writers/authors/journalists of all types have always had one branding angle or another. Even a totally faceless journalisms “cog” is making use of the news brand he/she works for (and its associated goodwill) every day. It’s what puts money in their pocket. Asf.

    1. when you go to NYTimes.com, do you look to see which of your favorite “brands” wrote a story today? No, you read the news, I hope, rather than, “ooh, John covered Afghanistan today so that’s what I’ll look at!” I’ll bet you take no notice of most of those bylines. It’s different once you get down to, say, the movie reviews. There, I am familiar with the different reviewers and I DO gravitate toward those who share my taste in movies — I trust their assessment of the newest releases. Call that “brand” if you like. But it goes back to my earlier comment about content that has always been ripe for syndication vs. news writing, which doesn’t need branding to serve its function successfully. If your favorite war correspondent jumps from the Washington Post to the National Review, is that where you’ll go to get your war news from now on? Don’t think so.

      1. I think you are wrong on that, Fermata — or at least, I think that things are changing, and the individual brands of writers are becoming more prominent and more important even for regular readers. And that’s something social media both accelerates and provides support for.

      2. this sort of stuff used to be written off as the cult of personality. If I’m wrong, I wouldn’t be surprised but still very, very disappointed to discover that hard news is being served up based on the number of “likes” an article/author gets, rather than on its journalistic merits or, wow, the importance of the news story. As with everything else in this shallow world, those with the most self-promotional bent win the glory. This is how things like Donald Trump happen.

      3. re:”hard news”, many in Europe would argue that U.S. news are just about NEVER that hard-hitting/questioning of the powers that be to begin with.

        But even a news brand like the WaPo founded its brand perception largely on the “crucible” of Watergate, and the tenacity of its star reporters on the case, Woodward & Bernstein. Asf.

        Also, as to the issue of “separateness” (self-)perception of journalists, see here:
        http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/102625/Engaging-Communities-Content-and-Conversation.aspx

  9. You nailed it, Mathew. Last week I spoke at the Denver ONA event, and was surprised how many journalists were still expressing bewilderment/contempt toward branding activity. Do you want a career in media or don’t you? No one will hire you if they can’t find you!

    On a related note, getting good at online engagement is a key part of media branding, whether for an individual journo or a news organization. I recently outlined a very basic online engagement strategy:

    http://www.contentious.com/2011/06/14/toolkit-for-an-integrated-online-engagement-strategy/

    Best,

    Amy Gahran

    1. Thanks a lot, Amy — great advice. Appreciate the comment.

  10. Wendy Parker Monday, June 27, 2011

    What makes me cringe about journalists and branding isn’t how many of us are having to be better at promoting our work and thinking more entrepreneurially — I’m fine with that and wish I would have acted more along these lines when I was still in the newspaper business.

    What troubles me is how overt and self-conscious all this seems. We’re being bombarded with the urgent messages Mathew is reinforcing here, even though he is right about this.

    As others have said, the work is the thing. If you do good work, the “branding” will take care of itself. Old print hands like myself have to learn to embrace it.

    I’m a sports journalist, and I draw on the examples of colleagues and friends who’ve been multimedia for years — they get on television and radio, write books and make public appearances. They’ve been “branding” themselves for years without spouting all the time about their “brands.”

    Over the past two weeks I finally bit the bullet and did some self-promoting for a lengthy series on my blog that goes to the heart of how I’m trying to recreate my post-newspaper career. It was painless and I got some very good response from readers.

    I realized all along that I was just doing the work I think I do best, putting the building blocks together of a “rebranding” effort, and trying not to think “branding” so self-consciously.

    Maybe I just have a discomfort with that word, but having a good “brand” means nothing if you don’t do good work. I know too many journalists who are good at promoting and “branding” themselves, but the work doesn’t live up to the hype.

    I don’t want to be like that, and I’m afraid some journalists might put more emphasis on the branding than the work.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Wendy. For what it’s worth, I think your perspective on it is a very healthy one — I would never recommend that someone spend all their time thinking about their brand. In fact, I think if you spend too much time on that and not enough on the quality of your work, it won’t have the desired effect anyway.

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