“Unbundled” Journalists: Every Reporter is a Freelancer – and a Brand

In a previous post I said that newspapers have failed because they have lost their brand identities. Newspapers – not all, but the majority – sacrificed voice for profit, and ended up with neither.

But that’s only part of the story. In fact, I buried the lead.

Newspapers – and broadcast media – used to be the brands that mattered. Reporters were “employees” who served their organizations – their only outlets for expression were through their employers, and if their employers didn’t agree, then that was the end.

Editors ruled. But not anymore.

The same self-publishing and social networking tools that are empowering consumers today are also allowing reporters to break the surly bonds of their media masters. Just as forms of media are now unbundled (see Terry Heaton’s insightful work in this area), journalists, too, are becoming unbundled from mainstream news organizations.

If every citizen is a reporter, then every reporter is a freelancer, able to speak his or her mind in multiple formats directly to and with the audience. Reporters don’t work for organizations anymore – they work for us.

•    Do you watch CNN or do you watch Anderson Cooper?

•    Do you read “the NBC blogs” or do you read Brian Williams?

•    Do you subscribe (via mail) to BusinessWeek or do you subscribe (via RSS) to Stephen Baker?

Journalists rule.

In this new model, reporters, not newspapers or networks, are the brands. If they left we would follow. Our relationship and trust network involves them, not the organization for which they work. They are the brands that matter.


With Brand Comes Responsibility

Brands, however, are earned through practice, not conferred via circumstance. Modern trends and shifting demographics put reporters in the driver’s seat, but it is up to journalists to maintain and grow that trust network. It is up to them to prove that our trust is well placed and has not been merely transferred to another group of false prophets.

Here’s how:

  • When you get a story wrong, say that you got it wrong. Not a year later (New York Times), but when you first discover that you blew it.
  • Recognize the difference between “journalism” and “coverage.” You were trained to think and ask questions, not take dictation. Anyone can take notes – your job demands more.
  • Be in your own audience. You don’t write about institutions, you write about people – you are always writing about people. If you separate yourself from your audience and don’t involve them before, during and after your stories, then you are doing a disservice to all involved.
  • Don’t confuse analysis with opinion. We need you to provide insight and context – we can get the “news” from Yahoo, what we need is the perspective and meaning. You can do this without proffering an opinion (yes, you can.)
  • Cover stories that need to be covered – no matter what. Yes, some cartoons can be offensive. But when people start dying because of them, that’s a story – pictures and all.

I believe journalists are up to this challenge; it is in their genetic code. It is time for them to switch that journalism gene back on and take their brand responsibility seriously.













This entry was posted in HonorTagProfessional, journalism, Journalism Next, News Media. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to “Unbundled” Journalists: Every Reporter is a Freelancer – and a Brand

  1. scott says:

    Interesting post. Funny though, I think some journalists lose a lot of their personal brand when they move to a new outlet. For example, I think switching cable networks hurt Tucker Carlson. And if Bill O’Reilly took his show anywhere but Fox, it would hemorrhage viewers.
    Nevertheless, great post.

  2. Thanks Scott! I agree that for some journalists, their “brand” comes from their employer. However, if for example O’Reilly left Fox but continued to work via blogging or video Podcasting, he could still be true to his vitriolic, “truthy” self (not as much audience in the short term, but in the future who knows).
    As for Carlson, well, he is more of a “host” than journalist, or former journalist turned TV pundit. At least O’Reilly had a distinguished, award-winning print and broadcast journalism career before he drank the Fox News Kool-Aid (by contrast, Carlson worked briefly for a small paper and as an editor of a conservative journal). And besides, no matter what the medium, Carlson would still be a dick 🙂

  3. Jack Yan says:

    There is almost a battle between media outlets and their reporters—the outlets want to promote them, but risk boosting them to a point that they can leave readily. But I do feel things are moving toward the single person—it is an overall trend brought partly by the web, where the individual can have a voice. Once upon a time, that individual would not have a show.

  4. I tend to agree, Jack — reporters love personal freedom as much as they love press freedom and free food, and the web is driving that change (well, not the food part.) Back in “the day,” U.S. media personalities like Joe Scarborough would have stayed where they could do far less damage to America — in Congress.
    Thanks for the comment and your insight — it’s a pleasure to be talking to you and gaining knowledge and inspiration from your blog.

  5. john cass says:

    I honestly don’t know if a journalist can survive a change of brand. I think about dan gillmor when he left the san jose mercury news and founded bayosphere. Though maybe it had more to do with a change of content, housing instead of tech, his existing audience wasn’t interested in the topic?
    My suggestion would be to ask journalists who have moved on, and blog today. Have the journalists found it easy to retain audiences as the move onto another brand?
    I was also thinking that it might have less to do with brand and more to do will audience familiarity and company resources.
    This might be a bad example but I cannot think of a journalist example. Martha Stewart is a big brand because she developed an organization to promote and retain an audience.
    I think that while media institutions are successful when they give more freedom to journalists, it’s the combination of talented individuals and a company that provides a structure that supports a journalist is really the winning combination.

  6. Independents Unite!

    I read an interesting conversation on Gary Goldhammers blog, Below the Fold.Gary writes on New journalism, modern public relations and shifts in media practices. In a post entitled Unbundled Journalists: Every Reporter…

  7. I stumbled across your blog while I was doing some online research. While I can see certain celebrity reporters as qualifying as a “brand,” I don’t think the average reader of the average paper can name even one reporter on that paper; they simply don’t read bylines!

  8. alex says:

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  9. newshound says:

    Hey, I’ve got a dumb question. How does a journalist pay the bills when blogging? Unless one is famous or tied to a media outlet, there isn’t any money in blog-land. If, as you say, every citizen is a journalist, and every citizen blogs, why give up a paycheck to compete with Joe Everyman? Or am I missing something?

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