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.