The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

More sizzle, with plenty at stake

Some four days on, the back-and-forth-and-back-again about how and whether 21st Century journalists should be putting effort into “personal branding” appears to abating. Evidently reporters’ attention has turned to Rod Blagojevich’s corruption conviction, or maybe David Carr’s NYT piece on the TMZ newsroom, “A Newsroom that Doesn’t Need News.”

Admittedly, there may be a brief resurgence, because Gene Weingarten – whose Washington Post column addressed to one of my Medill grad students started the “foofaraw,” as he and I independently began to label it – addressed it today in the preamble to his monthly live chat on washingtonpost.com. Among other things, in it he answers Steve Buttry’s implied charge that he is “something of a mischievous hypocrite” (see Buttry’s Storify curation, “Gene Weingarten has a powerful personal brand“).

(I note with interest that an early synonym for “mischievous hypocrite” – “designing villain” – would itself seem to be a brand-in-waiting, though in this case it has been waiting since 1822 according to Google Books. I digress.)

After reading the chat transcript, I guess that at the end of the foofaraw, @geneweingarten and @youngowen (in my previous blog post) are going to wind up disagreeing about whether we might be even in fractional agreement, short of our appealing to Lamont Cranston for a ruling.

I further guess that I am kind of sad that his response correlates the issue with a timeline that stretches from an era when “if you were a journalist, you swaggered. You felt invincible” to one when “We no longer were the smartest people in the room, telling people what we knew they needed to know . . . We were supplicants, salesmen, trying to interest a customer in our wares.” Not that this is even the most powerful or persuasive part of his response, which despite his best efforts often avoids being smug and dismissive. It’s just the one that makes me sad, because it swerves around the point.

I want the same things for my students that I think Gene wants for the young journalists he mentors. Where we disagree is that I think that if their good work helps them make “branding” a weapon in their personal arsenals, they won’t wind up being salesclerks; he implies that by so doing, taking the concept “straight from the evil, cynical world of marketing,” they already have become salesclerks. I guess we’ll need to compare notes at the checkout counter.

Let’s not fail to mention two other good links on the topic, among many that are floating around. Mindy McAdams, who holds the Knight chair in journalism at the University of Florida, used her blog to ask and answer, “Branding: Should journalists build a personal brand?” And Steve Buttry has followed up his “well-executed curation of the entire foofaraw” (Weingarten) with “Confessions (strategies) of a branded journalist,” structured as a set of imperatives that might be viewed as a menu, a map, or even a mandate.

So thanks, Gene and Steve (and Mindy and Leslie). I’m thinking the odds are good that, the next time I teach “How 21st Century Media Work,” this closing assignment will be better framed, more tightly constructed, and even more focused on launching my students back into the lands beyond Medill. Because that’s what at stake: important journalism from skilled journalists that actually reaches its intended audience, in a fragmented media world where swagger cannot provide a shortcut to impact.

The meaty sizzle of a 21st Century brand

Last Saturday, June 18, was the day that 2011 Medill graduates received their BSJ and MSJ degrees at a convocation on campus. This followed by a day Northwestern’s commencement ceremonies, which featured the advice of speaker Stephen Colbert (full text | 5-minute video): “You have been told to follow your dreams. But what if it’s a stupid dream?”

Evan Smith

Evan Smith addresses Medill's 2011 graduates

The speaker at Saturday’s event was the equally entertaining Evan Smith, editor and CEO of The Texas Tribune and a Medill alumnus himself. As is the wont of graduation speakers everywhere, he, too, provided advice to the assembly (video on this page), and about 9:30 into his speech he launched into it.

“First, build and burnish your personal brand, using Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and whatever other channels you can think of.  It used to be that having a personal brand was frowned upon. . . . Today, fragmented, frayed institutions realize – well, the smart ones realize – that powerful personal brands can reverberate upstream in very positive ways. . . .

“But forget about how your personal brand benefits your employer. Think about how it benefits you. It’s portable – goes everywhere you go, from place to place and job to job. You control it. You can be nimble and strategic and tactical attending to it, asking no one’s permission and no one’s blessing. And all the good things about you – your sense of humor, your charisma, your wisdom and your insight – are on display at all times for the world to see. It truly opens up all kinds of possibilities.”

At least one of the students on hand wasn’t too surprised.  She had interviewed Smith just weeks before for her final assignment in my course, “How 21st Century Media Work,” a class on economics, marketing, and technology and their evolving impact on journalism and the media. Students write a paper on how a journalist from their hometowns had, wittingly or not, built a personal brand; what its impact on the audience might be; and whether it would be desirable, or even possible, to replicate anything about that process.

The paper on Smith was a fine piece of reporting, writing, and research, as were many others written by my 39 students . . . like the one on Gene Weingarten, two-time Pulitzer winner from the Washington Post. But there was a difference: Weingarten didn’t much like the assignment.

In response to an initial inquiry, he explained, “You used the expression ‘built your personal brand.’ I want us to let that expression marinate in its own foulness for a moment, like a turd in a puddle of pee, as we contemplate its meaning and the devastating weight of its implications….” At his recommendation, the student included the text of his initial reply in her paper, for which he did grant a helpful interview.

As some of you know by now, this story doesn’t end there. Yesterday, Weingarten’s latest column hit washingtonpost.com: “How ‘branding’ is ruining journalism.” Addressed to my student, Leslie, the column goes to great lengths to explain the wrong-headedness of the idea, after first providing some utilitarian advice: “The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.”

As I do tend to include a visual of a branding iron when introducing the concept to students, this was not particularly upsetting to me or to Leslie.

The column drew plenty of comment online, some of it from Steve Buttry of Journal Register, who blogged about it on “The Buttry Diary” with the headline, “Gene Weingarten knows branding (even though he scorns it).” Steve’s post led me to out myself as the professor in need of a sizzling personal branding experience, which in turn led him to ask Leslie Trew Magraw for permission to reprint her research paper; you can find it here.

As I mentioned in my own comment over on Steve’s blog, my students are prepared for the fact that their selected subject may never have engaged in intentional brand-building. They also know that more than a few will reject the very idea of their brand outright, as Gene did so entertainingly. I suspect that both interviewer and interviewee often find, as some of the commenters on The Buttry Diary are saying today, that this is in large part a disagreement over word choice and semantics.

Because, you know what? Paper after paper shows that effective 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. Look at “brand” as shorthand or a shortcut, but don’t look away because you don’t like the word. That would be short-sighted.

That’s not the only way that 21st Century media work. But it’s a way that new journalists need to know, and to learn about through their own reporting. As Evan Smith said, “It truly opens up possibilities.” Or as Stephen Colbert put it, “Thankfully, dreams can change. If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.”

June 25 update: Steve Buttry has used Storify to curate the many tweets, blog posts, and comments about this back-and-forth today on his blog. It’s well worth a read. Meanwhile, the firehose of Romenesko has been driving lots of traffic to both of our blogs over the last couple of days, and Leslie Magraw’s research paper is drawing a lot of links and comments.