The Branded Journalist

Once upon a time, the only celebrity journalists were network news anchors and the 60 Minutes gang. Newspaper and magazine editors would bludgeon any reporter who tried to become bigger than the story he was reporting, or to somehow personally benefit from it. As a cub reporter in the 1980s, I certainly learned my place from a variety of hardscrabble editors who wanted their news staffs hunting down stories, not building their personal brands (which at the time would have been a laughable concept). I was an impartial observer, a chronicler of events and a storyteller, not a participant.

In the mid-1990s, when PC Week launched one of the first technology news websites, the editors struggled with the line that was beginning to blur between news reporter and columnist. Reporters wrote facts; columnists wrote opinions, and never the twain shall meet. We wanted the Microsoft beat reporter to talk to sources, interview users, and write painfully balanced stories about Windows and Office and IE, but we prohibited him to share his own informed opinions in print or online about the company – that would be a conflict of interest. (God knows many of our reader thought we were biased enough in our coverage without fueling their conspiracy theories by letting reporters write opinion pieces.)

Even then, however, the Web was forcing change. We needed personality on the site, so reporters were asked to start contributing weekly commentaries. Some refused. Others embraced the concept. And the lines between impartial news and opinion became blurrier.

Now, every journalist is encouraged to develop his or her own brand. If you’re not promoting yourself through TV appearances or your own blog, you’re a dinosaur. I’m reminded of this after reading today’s New York Times story about a Web-based political news startup called The Politico. Part of the article focuses on how a few mainstream journalists are making the jump to the new Web venture. The publication’s editor in chief, John Harris, is the former political editor at The Washington Post, and he posits about the unrelenting transition toward self-promotion:

“The most successful journalists these days have a promotional ethic that would be uncomfortable for a traditional journalist. I admire those people who say, ‘I don’t want to go on TV; my work speaks for itself.’ But I don’t think that’s realistic for people who want to have an impact.”

Jim VandeHei, the Politico’s executive editor and former national political correspondent for The Post, puts it even more succinctly:

“Reporters here will transcend the organization.”

So there you have it. We have reached the journalist’s equivalent of the NFL or the NBA, where players pound their chests after even the most basic plays and preen endlessly for the cameras. The team becomes secondary to the individual brand and the SportsCenter highlight.

I think that’s a shame. Does that make me a dinosaur?


7 thoughts on “The Branded Journalist”

  1. Rob,

    I think the promotional portion is plain stupid. It tears the soul out of an organization. As for reporters transcending the organization, what ever happened to Scoble?

    Now there is a class who are by themselves, like Doc Searls, or Dave Winer. They are the true independents. And this is good.

    I just wish Spencer would start blogging . Which, when you think about it, is the only true voice of a particular organization.

  2. Eh, I don’t know. Every PC Week reporter was a personality within their beat thanks to the influence that the publication wielded during its heyday. Were they beating their chests on television … no, but they were, nevertheless, brands unto themselves.

    I didn’t experience editorial PR until Forbes, when every cover story seemed to be followed with a round of television and talk radio. None of it seemed that important.

    The big speculation at the dawn of Web 1.0 was that the big bylines of the world would “disintermediate” from their publishing hosts and strike out of their own. Few, if any that I know of have. If you take the big bylines of the day, say a Malcolm Gladwell, I’d say most of his reputation was built in books, not the New Yorker (which certainly contributed).

  3. We started putting writers’ bylines on the cover of our monthly feature magazine. In our case the decision was actually driven by the discovery that readers had gotten to know the names of the writers who consistently create exceptional articles. Using the bylines may actually increase readership of those articles. (Can’t back up that assertion with metrics, but we do have some anecdotal evidence.)

  4. Good comments, guys. I sense that something has changed, beyond the circa-web 1.0 editorial PR or adding bylines to covers. Maybe it’s just technology – the blogging and other tools that provide an extra level of independence. Maybe it’s just ‘tude.

    Charlie – great to see you blogging!

  5. every journalist needs to, or they won’t seperate themself from the other journalists around them. It’s all about uniqueness and communicating your differentiation to your audience.

    good post

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