Tuesday, June 28, 2011

We're All Brands Now?

I'm not sure I want to be a brand.  But I doubt that matters.

There's debate mini-raging based on Gene Weingarten's original Washington Post column in which he complains that "branding" is destroying journalism and that j-schools are "urging their students to market themselves like Cheez Doodles." Or, as he says:
We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity. From this execrable marketing trend arises the term you ask me about: “branding.”

It's this response by Mathew Ingram that nicely sums up the counter argument.  "We are all brands now," he says.  "So get used to it."  As Ingram says:

I hate to be the one to break it to Weingarten, but the journalism business as a whole is becoming a commodity in many ways. But it’s not journalists and media organizations that are redefining it as such, it is the market itself — and the fact that media is becoming something that anyone can do. The tools for publishing and becoming a “media brand” are available to anyone now thanks to blogs and Twitter and Facebook, and that has made the world of media and journalism a lot flatter, as NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd noted in a recent interview with the Poynter Institute.

So we're all brands now.  Hell, this blog along suggests I am a brand, or at least I try to be a brand, though clearly not much of one.  Just look at my PeerIndex number and you'll see.  No one's buying.

But we've always been brands, if you take a broad definition of "brand" and think of impression formation and maintenance.  Yes, being a "brand" strikes many as unseemly and unsavory.  It suggests shameless self-promotion.  Bob Woodward is a brand.  So, sadly, is Perez Hilton.  Are you a brand even if you refuse to think of yourself as a brand?  I'm not sure.  The argument here is muddled by a lack of precision in what we mean by "brand" and whether brand is in the eyes of the beholder, or holder, of that brand name.

And what's this got to do with what people know?  Hold on, I'm trying to get there.

Given the nature of this blog, I'm not going to dive into the "brand is bad for journalism" argument other than to say that if you spend time building your brand, that's time you've not spent doing good journalism.  There are only so many hours in a day.  I also suspect, but can't prove, there is a negative correlation among academics who attempt to brand themselves via social media (er, kinda like me) and the scholarship they actually produce.  If I had time, I'd test this hypothesis by looking at tweets versus peer-reviewed publications.  I think I'm right.

So does the hypothesis above also apply to doing journalism?  Probably, to some degree.  Again, only 24 hours in a day.  But by building your "brand" as a journalist, you also open more doors, you gain more leverage, you gather about you the trust and followers among those who not only want to hear or read the stories you have to tell, but also want to share those with their friends.  Remember, recommendations by "friends" do matter to people, as new research shows, even more so than that person's feelings toward a specific news organization.  In other words, if I'm a conservative I generally ignore MSNBC, except friend recommendations, as one experiment shows, can trump this partisan preference.

Okay, I'm off track a bit.  Does it matter, all this branding stuff, to what people learn from the media?  Absolutely, though I don't know of any research that directly backs up this assertion.  My gut feeling, based on nearly 25 years of being immersed in social science research and more years than that as a journalist or journalism professor, is that trust matters in how people expose themselves to a news source and what they get out of that source.  Never mind the sharing part, which will also matter.  Let's look only at source->receiver relationships.  With more trust comes more careful reading/listening to stories, and with that should come greater knowledge about public affairs. 

In an indirect way, then, branding helps us the consumer of news find news we can trust, just like the New York Times is a brand, just like Fox News is a brand.  Individual journalists, especially columnists, have long been "brands" in every sense of the word.  Beat reporters are also a brand, though very localized.  Although I'm an old print newspaper guy (who uses the hell out of his iPad), I think we (the royal journalistic we) can balance our branding and our newsgathering and storytelling.  But -- branding alone, hollow shameless self-plugging -- will never replace good reporting and good writing. 

I hope people will see through that, and respond appropriately. 

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