It’s become the popular buzzword in the media business, as journalists young and old work to stay relevant in a challenging and evolving climate. In the past few years, the push from news managers, editors, and professors has been for journalists to view their work as the development of a brand, rather than an endless stream of content.
Establishing that identity can make a journalist’s work become a commodity—a prized and necessary accomplishment in today’s age of rapid publishing.
One of the most outspoken critics to the “branding movement” is longtime journalist and Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, who recently wrote a column titled “How branding is ruining journalism.” An excerpt read:
“These are financially troubled times for our profession…and it is disheartening to learn that journalism schools are responding to this challenge by urging their students to market themselves like Cheez Doodles…
“Newspapers used to give readers what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want. And what we seem to think they want is happy, glitzy, ditzy stuff.”
Weingarten’s column is strongly worded, but his key argument—that establishing a brand comes at the detriment of quality—is misguided.
Who said a journalist’s brand can’t be quality prose? Or gritty investigative work. Or humor writing.
A journalist’s brand becomes whatever he makes its—and that can be “glitzy, ditzy stuff,” or it can be top-flight reporting.
“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,” wrote Alan Mutter, a longtime newspaper executive turned digital media consultant.
In his blog, “Reflection’s of a Newsosaur,” (which has developed a nice brand of its own), Mutter highlights several projects from journalists who produced quality work while also building profitable brands.
The point Mutter makes is that quality and branding are not mutually excusive. You can have both, just as easily as you can have nether.
“Personal branding is about showing your value. It starts with quality and hard work, but if you don’t show the value, you can become undervalued,” wrote Steve Buttry, the Director of Community Engagement & Social Media at the Journal Register Co.
Having that value is the first step. Earning a reputation as the destination for that content comes next.
And that’s how it always has been.
For as long as news organizations have turned a profit, they have targeted audiences with desirable content from journalists deemed to be capable of turning out good work. We now call that branding, and it’s more discussed today because multiple publishing platforms allow anyone to create their own online identity.
But fundamentally, the role of journalists is still to seek truth and share those stories.
We just gave it a fancy new name.