More sizzle, with plenty at stake 2

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 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.

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.

2 thoughts on “More sizzle, with plenty at stake

  • Jennifer Gaie Hellum

    Thanks for continuing this conversation and putting it back in the context of the HARDWORKING student journalists. (Can we just stipulate at this point that student journalists know it’s about the work?)

    I am the recent Cronkite graduate who Gene took to task during the chat transcript you linked to. Please allow me to respond here to his criticism of me as the poster child of what is so troubling about journalists’ embracing branding.

    Gene Weingarten :

    Image maintenance. That’s what branding is, exactly.

    But that’s not really what’s bothering me most about all this. It’s something else, something that really has me worried. I’ve been happily reading a lot of the denunciations of my column by people who don’t get it and never will. One of these, though, I find really troubling. It is a blog item by a very smart, earnest young woman who is a recent j-school grad, talking about her hopes for her career, and how they pretty much center around branding. She writes well. She talks about building contacts, cultivating sources, strengthening her brand, networking with other journalists for maximum cross-pollinating, multi-platform exposure, taking advantage of social media, and so forth.

    The problem is, there was not a word of joy in there. There was no swagger. There was no brio. Not a single mention of righting a wrong, giving voice to the voiceless, putting a mayor in jail. She may as well have been outlining her plans for a career in the insurance business.

    Is this what we’re teaching? Is this where we’ve come? Are we this afraid?

    There are young writers out there who still know what’s important. I know many of them. To the kids — Caitlin, Rachel, Tricia, and the others — please don’t lose it.

    My response: I may not have the most provocative voice in journalism, but “not a single mention of righting a wrong, giving voice to the voiceless” in my writing? Really? I let him know that he must not have seen this post about how two women with established brands as investigative journalists used social media to expose sexual assault on college campuses (the phrase literally is in the post):

    After I sent that link, I followed up with an investigative piece I did about U.N. refugees who struggle to find work in their professions. I also told him he could ask his Washington Post colleague Len Downie Jr. if I displayed adequate “joy,” “swagger” and “brio” while writing it, as Len was my adviser on the story:

    My point: If he’d read my blog beyond that one post he saw, he would have seen that I frequently emphasize that authenticity, passion and substance are essential to personal branding. But he doesn’t want to hear that part of it. Just because some of us are strategic about defining our places in journalism, engaging others who care about those topics and finding ways to have our voices heard (there’s that phrase again) doesn’t mean we are lazy sell-outs. Of course the work comes first. But if no one sees it, despite all that effort, chances are the voiceless will end up not being heard after all.

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