“Unbundled Journalists” Revisited: Reporters — and Good Journalism — are What Matter Most

If the web is alive, as Newsweek proclaims, then conversation is the oxygen that makes it so. But conversation also has a nasty habit of making you think, and a recent comment from John Cass of Backbone Media has had me thinking to the point of obsession, like that song you can’t seem to get out of your head.

In a comment on my post titled “Unbundled Journalists: Every Reporter is a Freelancer – and a Brand,” Cass said in part:

“I honestly don’t know if a journalist can survive a change of brand…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,” Cass said.

My position in the column was that journalists today are, in the words of Terry Heaton, becoming “unbundled.” I wrote that “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…In this new model, reporters, not newspapers or networks, are the brands.”

I still believe this to be true, but Cass makes a good point: Does a journalist need the structure and stability of an organization to be successful and credible? Sure, CNN gives Anderson Cooper the freedom to blog, but would he have as much of an audience or impact if he left CNN tomorrow and launched “AndersonCooper360.Blogspot.com”?

Switching media teams can be disastrous, as Scott Baradell pointed out in his comment on the same post. Tucker Carslon hasn’t been the same since his banishment to television news purgatory, also known as MSNBC (“hell” is the exclusive domain of Fox News.) When Rocketboom has more daily audience than you, the fall from grace is pretty much complete.

Yet the ability of journalists to transcend their media containers comes down to the journalists themselves. First of all, people like Tucker Carlson and Nancy Grace are not journalists, they are personalities and "hosts"– they need the security of news organizations to do their shtick, otherwise they become nothing more than irate AM talk radio callers.

Bill O’Reilly is a journalist – he was a pretty good one back in the day – but his “brand” is inexorably tied to Fox. It’s possible he could go the syndicated television route and not lose his core audience, but O’Reilly without Fox would still be like a shark without his teeth.

Nevertheless, some journalists have personal brands strong enough to make it work.

Award-winning journalist Frank Deford writes for Sports Illustrated, broadcasts for National Public Radio, reports for HBO and publishes books and freelance articles. He has written screenplays for movies and television. Frank Deford could publish on napkins and he would still attract an audience.

Bill Moyers became a stronger brand by leaving the world of corporate television news and focusing on public broadcasting and publishing. And let’s not forget one of the biggest “journalist brands” of all, Walter Cronkite.

The larger question, I believe, is can a journalist that is just starting out today create a personal brand without the initial support of a large mainstream news organization. In other words, if Deford began his career as a blogger and citizen journalist, would we all know his name and his work?

Part of the answer again depends again on the journalist. It also depends on what we will consider to be “mainstream media” in the near future. With more than 60 million users, who’s to say the next great journalist won’t come from MySpace (which is owned by Fox.) The next media star may come from Blogburst, or rise to prominence via Newsvine.

The path for the next generation of journalists is unclear. But a path exists – and good journalism will find its way.

One thought on ““Unbundled Journalists” Revisited: Reporters — and Good Journalism — are What Matter Most

  1. When I left the TV News business in 1998, I learned a valuable lesson about media that’s appropriate to this discussion. People that I had known well in the community stopped returning my phone calls. I became just another Joe Schmoe. The lesson is that I had come to confuse my person with my position.
    This is at the heart of your commentary, because when we — as institutional journalists — approach other institutions and the people who represent them, we do so AS the institution, not as individuals. Woodward and Bernstein WERE the Washington Post during Watergate.
    If you can step far enough away from this picture, you can see the absurdity of it, because institutions exists to further themselves. Power is the goal of each, but many of the rules (written and unwritten) that govern our culture involve the dance between institutions that force cooperation and mutual self-preservation (when was the last time any news organization took on the automobile industry, especially at the local level?). In the end, each is about money, the ultimate god of the culture. The fourth estate may wish to be the first estate, but that can never happen.
    Hence, the professional journalist’s quest is not so much for truth as it is for power, and the public is sick of it. And a public sick of any institution’s dismissal will do it for themselves, for the public is vastly more interested in truth than power.
    You cannot explain the rise of the personal media revolution through institutional eyes, for it makes no sense. The vast majority of bloggers I know, for example, aren’t paid to blog. This frees them from the restraints mentioned above and makes them extremely dangerous to a status quo caught up in a struggle for institutional power.
    So independent journalists (yes, they’re journalists) — armed with only an internet connection — are operating outside the rules, which gives them a tremendous competitive advantage in the search for truth. They operate from the bottom-up, and punch away with whatever they find, and always with an implied “What the fuck?” Our response has been to complain, but to whom? The public? We’ll find no solace there, for our wounds are self-inflicted. The longer and louder we complain, the more we validate the voices of those about whom we’re complaining.
    Hence, these are troubling times for the institutional press, but I also believe it’s healthy for journalism, because journalism belongs in the streets and among the people, not rubbing elbows with institutional power, as I did in my news management days.
    You see, the lesson I learned when people stopped returning my calls was that my life had been a fantasy. I had believed that I was what I did, and I don’t think I’m alone among journalists. This influenced my entire thought process during my career, and the only cure was the tough school of humility.
    Thanks for the link love, Gary.

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