I wrote a blog post this morning about personal branding in journalism, responding to a column Gene Weingarten had written for the Washington Post, claiming that branding was ruining journalism. Weingarten was responding to an inquiry from a journalism student he identified only as “Leslie.” In a comment on my blog, Owen Youngman, a journalism professor at the Medill School at Northwestern University, identified himself as Leslie’s professor, though he, like Weingarten, protected her identity. He also quoted from her paper. I asked Youngman if he would tell Leslie that I’d like to publish her paper. So Leslie Trew Magraw, a Medill master’s student, sent me this research paper, with permission to publish it. I have added links and made a small edit or two, but otherwise, this is Leslie’s work.
Update: Youngman has blogged about this, too.
Update: I used Storify to curate discussion of this issue on various blogs and Twitter.
Update: I have blogged about my own personal branding strategy.
As any good brand practitioner will tell you, brand health is all about diversification — making sure you’re not a one-trick pony. Gene Weingarten is no one-trick pony. He’s more like an onion – that can make you laugh just as easily as he can make you cry. Like a satisfying meal, he sticks with you.
Though he is perhaps most widely known in the DC metro area for his weekly humor column in the Washington Post’s Washington Magazine called “Below the Beltway,” Weingarten is also a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for serious feature-length journalistic work.
Everyone I polled (and I quizzed more than 25 people and spoke to four others at length), knew who Weingarten was and had a fairly strong opinion of him. Most people had a soft spot for him, at the very least. Others were Gene fanatics – and a small minority thought he was overrated (As my publisher friend, Alex Orr, put it: “I think he’s a generally unfunny, unoriginal hack who holds onto his job only because he’s been there so long that folks now overlook the question of whether his work is any good and instead embrace him as a ‘beloved’ fixture in the DC journalism world.”). That his name inspires instant recognition and triggers such powerful emotional responses suggests a robust brand power.
Gene is ballsy. He’s not afraid to make a stand in his column, in his features and online. In fact, at times he comes off as arrogant and self-important. But he consistently displays enough intelligence and self-deprecation to get away with it. He is also highly endearing. Nicole Finch, an analyst for the Pentagon who did improv in college and admires Gene for his humor above all else, observed that “he makes such bold statements — like I’m correct on this and everyone else is wrong — but he’s also kind of a sweetie.” Gene is a double-edged sword, but one most Post readers enthusiastically welcome into their homes every Sunday.
The lesson here is to not be afraid to let your personality show through – and to be consistent about it. Readers know what to expect from Gene. We know that he’s a liberal, that he’s an atheist and that he doesn’t have much time for laziness, grammatical mistakes or willful ignorance. We have gotten to know him, like an old friend, and can accept an occasional tantrum or misstep (or unfunny column). His brand equity is strong enough to allow his readers to trust that there are sure to be gems in store if we overlook the hiccup.
When Weingarten finally responded to my interview request, his disdain for the term “brand” became abundantly clear. And so, as Weingarten encouraged me to do, I am repeating it here in full for your enjoyment:
Hi. Leslie. I am sorry for not responding the first time. I put it off, like an odious chore, because on a visceral level I found one part of your email absolutely repellent. I confess that I was hoping you would go away. Alas, you seem to be made of stronger stuff. Are you strong enough to take what follows? I am going make you squirm here, a bit. It can’t really be helped. Please feel free to use this communication as part of your final paper.
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. This is a term born of the new approach to journalism, a soulless, marketing approach that goes hand in hand with the modern tendency to denigrate writing by calling it “content,” as though everything is mere filler — fluff and stuffing in the decorative throw pillows of what passes for news. It is symptomatic of a general degradation of journalism and writing that rewards ubiquity, not talent, so that “I Can Haz Cheezburger” becomes a book, and the dippy mediocrity, Chelsea Handler, writes best sellers purchased in droves by persons who no longer know what good writing is, because we don’t give it to them anymore because we are too busy “building our brands.”
But even as Weingarten eschews the term, he certainly qualifies as a recognizable brand and reaps the benefits that come with textbook brand equity. The tension between journalism and marketing has been building, and is perhaps most strongly felt in discussions about the practice of journalism as a personal brand-building exercise. Weingarten’s unease (one might say disgust) is well placed. I feel a similar distaste for applying business and marketing terms to a practice that I firmly believe should never be confused with a product.
As Ken Auletta notes, “brand often means trust.” “In journalism, brand equals credibility,” he says, “and it means that consumers trust that the news is written for them, not for advertisers, nor for the mayor or bank president.” Readers sense that even though much of what Gene writes is about Gene, and Gene’s point of view, he is also writing with their best interests in mind. Even though he goes on diatribes (which is the nature of the column), he is not preaching from on high. He opens himself up to a conversation. And that two-way street builds trust. And loyalty. And, heaven forbid it, brand.
When I finally got him on the phone, Weingarten elaborated his position in a slightly less snarky way. He said: “Branding – the whole notion gets it backwards, as though the purpose of writing is self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. That’s what riles me about that whole idea. We want to tell truth, because we want to entertain, because we want to disclose things that need to be disclosed, because we want to hold government to a high standard, all of those reasons are good. Somewhere around reason 6,407 is where brand promotion should be.”
I don’t think being genuine and reflecting the truth as you see it is something only big-hitters like Weingarten can get away with, either. He started out as small potatoes, too. While it is true that journalism in general has undergone a marked cultural shift and appetites for news may be changing at break-neck speed, where, as Tom Blackett observes, “brands will play an increasing role in a ‘brand savvy’ would in which people become more and more discriminating and difficult to please” (see Orr’s comment above for proof). As journalists working in a world where anyone can publish, we will have to work extra hard to build a sustainable brand and distinguish ourselves above the din of the digital age.
As Andy Hobsbawm puts it in “Brands 2.0: brands in a digital world,” “when most individual product brands become as temporary and throwaway as low-cost fashion or the latest gossip, they will morph into a new category. Welcome to the world of PDCB: perpetually disposable consumer brands.” Likewise, most journalists will not make the kind of impression that Weingarten has made. It takes creativity and guts to create what Rita Clifton calls “sustainable competitive advantage.”
Even though Weingarten was schooled in “old media,” he has not stood still, expecting his audience to be satisfied with a one-way conversation in one medium: print. Interaction is a hallmark of the Weingarten brand. Although he’s an admitted curmudgeon who mourns the lost golden age of newspapers (“I hate the 24-hour news cycle,” he says. “I hate the fact that being a journalist today means constantly updating what you did 45 minutes ago. Instead of thinking more thoroughly about it or going on to something else.”), he was an early adopter of interactive web technologies and fully embraces Twitter, though, interestingly, has nothing good to say about Facebook:
Facebook is far too sweet and sappy for me. On Facebook, it’s perfectly normal, in fact, it’s desired, to make a post that says something like ‘I had a nice relaxing weekend with my family.’ Nobody thinks that there’s anything wrong with that and then some of your friends will chime in and tell you about their weekend and how they did nice things. If you did that on Twitter, no people will ever follow you. It has to be interesting on Twitter. It’s a competition. You’re like standing on stage spewing out one-liners, and if it’s not entertaining enough, you’re going to lose followers — nobody’s going to listen. I like that. I like that challenge.
Weingarten has expanded his reach by reaching out to his audience – and diversifying his brand and staying relevant in the process. He was an early adopter of crowd sourcing – putting out polls, hosting contests and chats with his readers to solicit their feedback and so-called user-generated content. In addition to deepening reader loyalty and engagement, this strategy of dialogue and collage-work gives Weingarten the chance to use their creativity to keep his own creative equity alive and kicking.
Weingarten was the long-time judge and curator of the Washington Post’s weekly humor contest, the “Style Invitational” (“rewrite the national anthem” was a recent challenge).
He has also long hosted a popular weekly chat called “Chatological Humor or Tuesdays with Moron” on the Washington Post website – the chats usually have a theme and Gene responds in real time to questions posed by his readers. He clearly enjoys this back-and-forth with the “real world” and one gets the sense that it keeps him grounded and in touch with the people who keep him employed by being loyal to the Gene Weingarten brand.
Finch, who participated in the fourth annual Post Hunt in DC (which is organized by Weingarten, his friend and former co-worker Dave Barry and other humor writers and what the Post awkwardly calls a “team urban puzzle adventure” (Which adjective goes where? It’s a tough nut to crack.)) on Sunday, June 5, said: “I think what really made me a fan [of Gene’s] was the chats because it felt so intimate. He doesn’t know who you are but you feel like you know who he is. So then I followed him to anything that he would do after that.”
As the name of his chat suggests, Weingarten is the first to admit that he enjoys scatological humor. His Twitter avatar is a pile of poo that resembles soft-serve ice cream. (Buttry note: Weingarten noted in a comment on my earlier post that the avatar is actually a rubber novelty item resembling a pile of poo.)
It is precisely this mix of childishness and sophistication that draws many people to Weingarten’s musings. Shana Sabbath, a new mom who works for the state of Maryland, said: “I was first attracted to Gene because his humor is both smart and sophomoric at the same time. So I could read it while relaxing but also feel like I wasn’t just reading Beetle Bailey over and over and over. After I started to read Gene, I found out that he’s a prize-winning journalist for non-humor related journalism made me attracted to his column even more and read it more religiously and respect it more – there was an added validity to his humor knowing that he had done serious stories.”
You might get pulled into Weingarten’s weird world any number of ways: though his column, his web chats, his comic strip, his features, his books – but any point of entry opens the door to the other “products” he creates – and that deepens many people’s connection with and appreciation for his work. The consistency and variety of what he offers his audience serves to deepen reader’s devotion to his “brand.” You sense that there is a real person typing out these words and putting his wacky observational spin on the world – and you know what he looks like. His column features a caricature style sketch of the author looking suspiciously like a young Gene Shalit.
Being a humor writer, Weingarten acknowledges that he’s “already an exaggeration of who I am just because I’m a humor columnist. And humor essentially is the adroit use of exaggeration. So I wind up taking stronger positions on things than I really have, but this is an understood state… But if I’m not a humor writer, I wouldn’t be trying to stake out some exaggerated version of myself. I don’t see the need for that. If I’m interesting enough as a journalist, in what I do and what I think, then I ought to be out there. And if I’m not, I shouldn’t be out there.” I couldn’t agree more.
As Maureen Tkacik muses in her blog entry entitled “Look at Me! A writer’s search for journalism in the age of branding,” “rather than train journalists to dismiss their own experiences, what if we trained them to use those experiences to help them explain the news to their audience? Allow their humanity to shape their journalism? This isn’t some radically profound notion—it only seems that way in the context of the ridiculous zero-sum debate over the relative merits of ‘straight’ news versus the self-absorbed nature of blogs. Maybe there is a way to combine the best of both.”
I’d like to think there is a way, and that Gene’s career can serve as an example. His experience as an editor gave him a keen eye for audience – gauging what a reader wants and needs – or what she doesn’t know she needs but wants anyway – and seeing through this lens has shaped his approach to writing and the emphasis that he has put on engaging in dialogue with his readership throughout his career. Wearing that cap allowed him to learn from the writers he edited, too. He says he learned to write humor from Dave Barry, whom he hired and then edited for years at the Miami Herald.
I’ve always admired Weingarten’s ability to move deftly between the short pithy style that typifies his column and the empathetic introspection of his longer features that reveals a more thoughtful journalist concerned with poking at life’s big questions. That’s part of why I wanted to explore his career.
When I asked Gene which he more preferred, writing his column or writing weightier features, he told me that his humor writing basically underwrites the other stuff. “If I spent all my time writing about people who leave children to die in cars (see Pulitzer-prize winning “Fatal Distraction”) I’d be melancholic. One allows the other. Humor and tragedy are different forms of the same substance, like matter and energy. We find things funny because the world is scary and we use it as a defense. If you look at the state of the world, if you look at the state of human existence, you can either laugh or cry, but you’re reacting to the same thing.”
As Tkacik notes, branding consistently benefits those who are “capable of projecting a kind of elusive authority that turns consumers’ fears, insecurities, aspirations, unarticulated dreams, etc. into healthy profit margins.” But, as she sagaciously points out, “a sense of humanity is also a kind of authority.”
This is something that Weingarten has an innate knack for: while he has a clear political ideology and personal agenda, which can be divisive or, at the very least, challenging, he finds a way to tap into the universalities that we all share. He makes fun of people and things – but he’s never (okay, rarely) nasty. He is, at root, deeply humanistic (flaws and all) – and his writing makes us feel more human.
As Christensen, Cook and Hall note in “Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure,” “knowing how to improve the product did not come from understanding the ‘typical’ customer. It came from understanding the job.” For Weingarten, the job is getting to the heart of the matter – even if it’s through humor. The incisive tenderness that shines through his features, and even in his column and his Tuesday chats, is something people respond to. In a world where “I can haz cheezburger” has more cultural currency than his column, there is a legion of people who are hungry for human connection, and he provides a space for that.
Weingarten’s other Pulitzer-winning feature was “Pearls before Breakfast,” a piece that recounted what he described as an “experiment in context, perception and priorities.” The Post got violin virtuoso Joshua Bell to play in a subway (metro!) stop in downtown DC. The question was: “Would beauty transcend?” – would DCers, who take themselves and their work with such ferocious seriousness, stop and smell the roses?
The emphatic answer was no. They wouldn’t. Weingarten described the results of the experiment as “a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.” I asked him if he felt this way about the future of journalism in the age of Twitter and he admitted that yes, he is a little worried about that — that the audience is slowly leaving the building.
After that story was published, Gene said he received thousands of emails and many of the people who wrote said that they cried after reading it. This surprised Gene. It didn’t surprise me. I asked, “Do you think they were mourning a greater loss?” He thought a moment and said, “Yes. They were mourning a loss that they felt in society in general and, in a smaller sense, in themselves. A whole lot of people said that they thought they would have walked past him, too. And that they were grieving over that.”
As Rita Clifton notes, “the owners of brands are also highly accountable institutions. If a brand delivers what it promises, behaves in a responsible fashion, and continues to innovate and add value, people will continue to vote for it with their wallets, their respect and even their affection.” As long as a journalist can deliver on the promise that he or she has made to the reader by showing up, creating consistently imaginative, surprising and sometimes even profound work, the reader will keep coming back, looking to get a job done by reading what they’re offering. As the corn famously whispered in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”
 Maureen Tkacik, “Look at Me! A writer’s search for journalism in the age of branding”
 Maureen Tkacik , “Look at Me! A writer’s search for journalism in the age of branding”
 Rita Clifton, Introduction.