Much of last week’s discussion of journalistic “branding” focused on whether journalists should engage in something that sounds so much like marketing.
In this post, I want to address how to develop a brand as a journalist (call it a reputation, if branding makes you uncomfortable). Toward the end of this post, I will discuss whether we should call this branding, but I’d like to focus initially on how to do it. I’ll make this point now: The opposite of brand is generic. And no one looking for a job wants to be generic, unless your strategy is to land a low-paying job.
At the risk of boasting (an area in which I am not risk-averse, but more on that later), I will discuss here specifically how I built my own brand as a journalist, and through my experience, how you can build your brand.
I will deliberately avoid repeating here any discussion from last week about Gene Weingarten’s humorous branding advice to journalism student Leslie Trew Magraw or the responses to him (including mine). This is about advice, not arguing. However, Gene is continuing that discussion in his weekly Chatological Humor chat today.
Be a good journalist
An effective professional brand has to be based on quality journalism. Plenty of good journalists suffer professionally because not enough people know how good they are. But few, if any, journalists can succeed for long on branding alone. If you build a strong brand using these other techniques, without a foundation of quality journalism, your brand will soon become that of a phony, and that’s a hard brand to overcome. Branding might help you get some jobs beyond your actual quality level. But you’d better raise your game quickly to match the job. Branding is never as important as being able to deliver the goods.
I spent the first 15 years or so of my career becoming a good reporter and editor and had some pretty good success. I grew more successful in my career when I began branding myself effectively and deliberately, but the foundation was always quality journalism.
A few years ago, when I called up a former editor I hadn’t spoken to in a few years, he said they had been talking about me just the other day. Wondering whether that was good or bad, I asked why they were talking about me. He and another editor were discussing who would be the best reporter for a tough story, and they both wished aloud that I was still around. That underscored to me that whatever else I do in my branding efforts, it all starts with being a reporter (or editor or multimedia journalist or whatever) that people wish they had around for the big assignment.
Don’t be typecast
Long before I was concerned about digital skills, I remember editors referring to a reporter being good at reporting, but not as strong at writing. Or vice versa. I could never understand that, because writing and reporting were always interwoven in my process and my mind: reporting making my writing better and writing raising questions that improved my reporting. I couldn’t fathom why or even how you would or could be strong at only one of those skills. But some journalists were (and are). And those limitations held back their career advancement, in some cases after they improved their abilities, because they had already been branded as limited. Old-school journalists today face the same limitations and the same negative branding.
I advanced my career by taking a copy editing job (I wanted to be a reporter at the time) with the Des Moines Register in 1977. The editing skills and news judgment I learned in that job have helped me in every job I held since. I advanced my career in the 1990s by learning how to train other journalists, by learning how to use data and by learning how to research online. I advanced my career in 2008 by learning how to use Twitter.
Beyond the skills that I developed by doing all these things, I developed a reputation as a versatile journalist. In a field where many journalists with strong digital skills have limited experience and where many experienced journalists have limited digital skills, I developed a reputation — a brand — as an experienced journalist who understands digital journalism.
Frankly, this is an example of how branding can compensate for weaknesses in your journalistic skills. My skills in video and data analysis are not as strong as I would like them to be (I plan to work on both). But because I developed a reputation for understanding other aspects of digital journalism (including a good strategic understanding of the value of data), those holes in my résumé have not held me back.
Find and understand your niche
This may seem contradictory with avoiding typecasting, but you need a niche where you can be the best (or at least your best). Despite that boastful story I just told about editors wishing I was still around, I didn’t necessarily have a reporting niche. I never held a beat for even two years. I did some breaking news, some explanatory projects, some investigations and some narratives. I was proud of my versatility and that adds some value, but I there are lots of versatile reporters in this business and I didn’t particularly stand out.
I started to develop a national reputation — my brand — when I started developing workshops and training materials. As good as I thought I was, I don’t know if I was in the best hundred or thousand or even more reporters in the country. I was pretty good, but that’s kind of a vague brand. But at some point, I can say with some confidence, I was one of the best two dozen or so journalism trainers in the country. And no one was producing more training materials or making their materials more openly available than I was (I developed a handout for every workshop and posted them all at No Train, No Gain, a website I helped found and run). That niche gave me a level of distinction in the news business that I had not achieved with reporting and editing. And that distinction (and my ability to deliver quality training) landed me a job in 2005 with the American Press Institute with a significant pay raise. Finding and mastering my niche had increased my value.
Going back to the point about not being typecast: You don’t have to stay in a niche. When I went to API, my niche was training in old-school journalism skills: writing, reporting, editing, leadership. But while I was at API, I worked in the Newspaper Next program and learned about innovation. I studied business models and started developing my own ideas for a new model. I started learning about social media and community engagement. In subsequent jobs with the Cedar Rapids Gazette and TBD and with my blogging and continued training work, I developed a new niche. Frankly, it’s broader than a niche probably should be, but it’s working for me now.
Sometimes people ask how you “monetize” a blog like mine. You’ll notice that I have no advertising (WordPress.com blogs can’t take advertising). But I know that my blogging was directly related to the contacts that led eventually to my jobs at TBD and Journal Register Co. That’s how you monetize a blog. You use it to become a voice in your niche. You learn about search-engine optimization and social media (more on that shortly) and you build a niche audience. And your blog is responsible for a piece of your paycheck.
Learn social media
If you aren’t using social media, your brand is as a curmudgeon, a dinosaur or both. That brand has value in some circles, but it’s a declining value. If you are learning social media, you can join conversations in your niche, amplifying and spreading that voice you develop in your blog.
Veteran journalists such as John Robinson, Nicholas Kristof, Michele McLellan and Jennifer 8. Lee and have used social media to enhance brands that were already strong. Young journalists such as Mandy Jenkins, Jeff Sonderman, Mark S. Luckie and Vadim Lavrusik built national reputations that were rooted in strong journalism skills but spread on the strength of their use of social media and blogging.
I won’t elaborate at length. I have blogged plenty here about social media, especially Twitter. Other high-profile tools such as Facebook and YouTube (which I am still learning to use, even as I teach others how to use them) are also important in a social media branding strategy.
Don’t overlook the possibilities of lower-profile social platforms to extend your brand. The slide shows I prepare with my workshops are not flashy or polished, but they provide good outlines of my workshops and I post them to SlideShare, where more than 50,000 people have viewed them. I’m sure they have brought me some webinar business.
Branding can be professional or public
Journalists such as Weingarten and Kristof build powerful brands with the public (as have old-school journalists such as Bob Woodward, without much or any use of digital skills).
But I am largely unknown to the public (when I was in Cedar Rapids, I was somewhat of a public figure locally as editor of the newspaper, but even there, I am quite sure most have forgotten me). My brand recognition is mostly within the news business, but that’s where you’ll find the people who hire me — either for permanent jobs or for consulting or training gigs.
Branding is not just networking
Early in my career, I had a good network of people who thought I was good (connections helped me get my first big-time job with the Des Moines Register in 1977 and later to jump to the Kansas City Times in 1985). But beyond my own network, people didn’t know much about me.
By building my profile in training and innovation, by blogging and using social media, I extended my brand well beyond my personal network (and greatly expanded my network). Branding overlaps with networking, but you shouldn’t confuse the two.
Have something to say
Journalists have developed a tendency to present facts objectively, to balance each pro with a con. Even if you work for an organization where that is still expected in news content, that’s an impediment to branding. On your blog or social media, you probably need a strong point of view to develop a strong brand. (If you work for a news organization that nurtures the notion of objectivity, you might be able to take stronger positions about issues in journalism, while remaining neutral on issues on your beat or in your community.)
Neutrality in blogging is no way to build a brand. My brand grew as I took strong positions — favoring a new business model for news, promoting mobile-first strategy, encouraging Twitter use by journalists, opposing paywalls and government subsidies.
Disagree without being disagreeable
Taking strong positions doesn’t mean being a jerk. Gene Weingarten and I strongly disagree about branding and have expressed those positions publicly. But we’ve had an enjoyable, and at times amusing, private exchange by Twitter direct messages, email and gchat. I’ve also had congenial lunches with people on opposite sides of issues such as paywalls and subsidies.
Please don’t take anything I say here to suggest that you should brand yourself as something you’re not. All those years that reporting and editing were my primary interests, I was coaching interns and young journalists. I did my first workshops for pay in 1984, more than a decade before I started marketing my training services. Training was always an authentic part of my interest as a journalist. But starting in 1997, I pursued that interest more deliberately and aggressively.
Innovation was always an interest for me. I experimented with user-generated content in the mid-1980s, before anyone had developed that label. I was analyzing data and using the Internet before most of my colleagues. So the move into innovation was following genuine issues, not simply a branding ploy.
I value my services as an employee and as a trainer and consultant. When the time comes, I know how to get paid well. But I also built my brand by sharing my training materials freely at No Train, No Gain. People asked how I could afford to give my materials away. My response was that I couldn’t afford not to give them away. Sharing those materials built my brand as a trainer more than anything.
I still give advice to students and young journalists who email me or approach me through social media. I know when people should pay and can afford to pay and I make sure that they pay what I’m worth. But I also know that I’m worth more because of what I’ve given away.
Tell your story
I used to think I should let my work speak for itself. And, at an emotional level, I still feel that way. I feel uncomfortable calling attention to my work. It feels like boasting. But I’ve gotten over that. Your work should speak for itself, but too often it whispers. I do highlight others’ work here. I have profiled Silverman, TBD colleagues and other journalists here. But sharing my own experiences and processes in my training, on my blog and in social media has helped my brand.
Leaven the boasting with some self-deprecation, but don’t be bashful about telling your story. The work still has to speak for itself, but sometimes you need to take the effort to put your work up at the podium where someone will hear it.
Must we call it branding?
Journalists hate buzzwords, and branding is certainly a buzzword. I don’t think I heard the word relating to individual journalists for the first 35 years or so of my career. I knew your reputation was important. I recognized journalists who had somehow distinguished themselves. But I didn’t say they had a personal brand.
But they do. I reacted negatively the first time I heard branding used in reference to journalists. It does sound like a marketing term. But it’s also an accurate term. I’d rather be a brand-name journalist than a generic journalist. Branding pays better than generic and branding makes it easier to get hired in a tough job market. Branding increases your value. When you do things to increase your value in the journalism job market, you’re branding.
And even a generic journalist strives to be accurate.
So what’s your branding strategy? I might have forgotten some techniques that I’ve used. Or you might be using some I haven’t thought of. Please add in the comments below. Or if you’ve blogged about branding yourself, please add your link to the ones I’ve compiled below.
Related reading about branding:
Tim McGuire’s Our journalism students need to sell their brands
Mindy McAdams’ Journalists must build a brand: 10 tips
Joe Grimm’s Building your own journalistic career brand
Mark S. Luckie’s 5 things I’ve learned about building a personal brand
Kurt Greenbaum’s 14 great sites about branding your own journalism
Jennifer Gaie Hellum’s A j-school graduate’s defense of (figuratively) branding journalists
Jennifer Gaie Hellum’s Know thyself: Figuring out what your brand is and how to express it
Jennifer Gaie Hellum’s 12 tips for journalists: My semester on the personal branding beat
Alfred Hermida’s Journalism students need to develop their personal brand