Branding: Should journalists build a personal brand?

If you’re teaching journalism today, you must be aware of the discussion that surrounds branding.

If you’re a young journalist, or someone planning to enter the field of journalism, you need to understand what personal branding means.

On June 23, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten wrote about this, and in summary, he said it’s a bunch of hooey. However, being an intelligent person, he also makes a very good point:

When I was a hungry young reporter … [my goals were]: 1) Get great stories that improve the world. 2) Get famous. 3) Get doe-eyed young women to lean in close and whisper, “Take me.”

Note the order. First came the work.

Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the “brand.” That’s because we know that, in this frenetic fight for eyeballs at all costs, the attribute that is most rewarded is screeching ubiquity, not talent.

It’s very important that new or would-be journalists take Weingarten’s point to heart. There won’t be anything to be branded unless you have some substance to market, and that means much more than a talent for writing glibly. Lots of people have such a talent. Many of them spend their lives writing for an audience of one.

“The work” is just that — work — and as part of the work, you have to get off Facebook and go outside and speak to real live people. You have to read, widely and voraciously. You have to be curious about those who live in skins other than your own. You have to learn what makes a good story and how to tell a good story well.

Journalism educator Owen Youngman put it this way:

[E]ffective personal branding turns out to be less about self-promotion and social networks than it is about accuracy, fairness and credibility. Whether the subject is a blogger in Portland, or a newspaper reporter in Kankakee, or a TV anchor in Florida, it turns out that the work creates the brand, and the brand then helps people find more of the work.

If you don’t like the word brand, you can substitute reputation. The reason we talk about this more today than anyone did back in the 1970s when Weingarten was starting his journalism career is that the pace and reach of journalism have changed quite a bit since then. Today someone who’s looking for a stringer to cover events in a hot zone might well turn to Google — and will that employer be able to find you?

Veteran journalist Steve Buttry responded to Weingarten’s column with this:

[B]randing starts with quality and hard work. But lots of outstanding journalists who did the hard work are losing their jobs. They are losing their jobs mostly because their industry has failed to develop new business models and new revenue streams in a period of disruption. But some of those journalists are losing their jobs or struggling to find new ones, in part, because they failed to show their value to their employers and their communities. 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. (Emphasis mine.)

That is the lesson new and would-be journalists need to learn so that they can make it in today’s media ecosystem.

Branding isn’t hooey — but it’s also not a shortcut to fame and admiration.

Related post: Journalists must build a personal brand: 10 tips

Update (June 27): Steve Buttry used Storify to compile a sample of the reactions to Weingarten’s column.

4 Comments on “Branding: Should journalists build a personal brand?

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