Time to Surf the Wave of the Personal Brand

Politico’s version of the negotiations describes how NYT executive editor Jill Abramson and Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt fought hard to keep Silver at the paper because they saw his “brand within a brand as a wave of the future,”

Mathew Ingram’s recounting today of blogger Nate Silver’s leap from the New York Times into the welcoming arms of ESPN underscores a trend B2B journalists and editors ignore at their peril.

For the moment at least, editorial personal brands are growing more powerful primarily—or most obviously—in big media.

My sense is that most B2B journos are largely unaware of the trend, or largely unwilling to hop onto it. Sooner or later that will change, but whether most of the journalists who have the experience to take advantage of the trend will actually do so is an open question. Being an expert in your field is a requirement for a robust personal brand, but not the only one. If you don’t consciously cultivate your brand, it won’t take root in the new media age.

That means blogging, using social media, and—you may shudder to think of it—promoting your brand. And need I add, you must do this with enthusiasm?

And lest I seem to be piling it onto editors unduly, I should note that B2B media brands need to be as cognizant of this trend as individuals. As Jeff Jarvis said in a tweet Ingram quoted, they need to be thinking of themselves as platforms for building individual brands—something I see few B2B publishing companies doing.

Time is running out. The wave of individual branding will overtake B2B media soon, and the only question is whether you’re going to be surfing the wave or struggling in the wake.

Digital First, Not Foremost

John Paton

John Paton: Misguided, or misunderstood?

In all the recent debate on the merits of the digital-first strategy for publishers (neatly encapsulated today by Mathew Ingram), there is one strand of discussion that never quite comes to the foreground. Though the phrase digital first is often contrasted with digital only, for many—mostly the critics, but perhaps some of the advocates as well—the implicit message is the same: “Digital rocks! Print sucks!”

To my mind, that’s not what digital first means. The point of the phrase is not about which medium is better. It’s about which medium people use. And that medium is sometimes print, sometimes web, sometimes social, sometimes mobile, sometimes video, sometimes audio. Digital-first is about distributing content through all those media in the most efficient way possible. Digital is first, but not necessarily foremost.

The idea, as I see it, is not to privilege digital media over other forms, but to use a digital workflow to move seamlessly and efficiently from one format to another. That, of course is easier said than done. Alan Mutter puts it plainly:

“Publishers today are struggling to pivot to a new business model that they call ‘digital first’—whatever that means—while managing through the seemingly relentless decline of their existing one. Mastering either of those tasks individually would be daunting. The challenge of doing both at the same time is nothing less than epic.”

As Mutter points out, one reason that newspapers have failed so miserably at the digital transition is that they “unimaginatively tried to export their formerly successful print business model to the digital realm. ” That is, they employed a print-first strategy. And the print model is simply too rigid and too ponderous to be the starting point in modern publishing.

This, I take it, is what Digital First Media CEO John Paton, much criticized of late, is getting at when he said that his “digital first strategy is centered on the cost-effective creation of content and sales and not the legacy modes of production.”

The ultimate goal of digital first should not be to substitute one medium for another, but to achieve medium independence. Technology is shifting ground daily, and the way people interact is changing with it. As publishers, if we want to interact with them, we have to be able to deliver our content when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it. Such dexterity is only possible by going digital first.

Journalism, Professionalism, and the Turing Test

What’s the way forward for journalists? Doubling down on the traditional ideals of objectivity and impartiality? Embracing the subjective, personality-driven approach of social media? Or is there some uncertain, ill-defined middle way?

Turing Test By Bilby (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThose are some of the questions being raised recently by a number of new-media observers, most notably GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram, who’s lately been rolling out one must-read blog post after another.

The problem with traditional news is that traditional journalists are increasingly unnecessary to produce it. Robot reporters are cornering the market on facts, as companies like Narrative Science and Automated Insights perfect the science of teaching software to turn data into news stories.

If basic news becomes a fungible commodity, one obvious alternative for journalists is what Ben Huh says great reporters already do: convey not simply the facts, but their subjective emotions about those facts.  But this, he says, is a “very, very dangerous” approach.

That’s one lesson that could be drawn from reporter Anne Sutherland’s recent suspension from the Montreal Gazette for remarks she made on Twitter. Covering a “nearly naked” protest by university students, she tweeted a number of photos of the protestors accompanied by “snarky” comments about their physiques. Neither her Twitter followers nor her employers found it amusing.

Writing about Ben Huh, GigaOm’s Ingram says that “in order to be effective, journalism needs to be personal.” But doesn’t Sutherland’s seemingly personal reaction to the protestors prove the opposite, and that the dangers of being personal outweigh the benefits?

I think not. I don’t know her, of course, but I’d guess the problem isn’t that she was being human or that she was being too personal. Rather, she was responding to the wrong instincts and emotions.  She was there as a journalist, but reacting as an average, and thoughtless, bystander.

In a post written before Sutherland’s misstep, Steve Buttry addressed a similar issue in explaining “how to respond to staff members who were using crude language and behaving unprofessionally on Twitter.” On social media, he says, journalists must be personable, yes, but also professional:

“A professional journalist using Twitter should behave professionally. Your profile should identify you as a journalist with your news organization. You should behave accordingly.”

I don’t disagree. But I wonder if professionalism is sufficient. The problem for me is that professionalism is more shield than guiding light. Too often, it is just a way of doing what won’t get you fired.

To succeed in a personal medium, you ultimately need a personal standard. The preeminent question to ask yourself now may not be Is this a professional and objective statement of the facts? but rather Is this my best, most honest, and most personally true assessment of those facts?

This might not seem like the appropriate corrective to the all-too-personal Sutherland. But I suspect her reactions were not truly personal. They sound, rather, like received views, the trite and formulaic reactions not of a person, but of a type of person. It is a behavioral response that could be easily programmed into a Narrative Science algorithm: If see hairy body, then tweet “Ewww.”

In gauging how to handle social media, maybe what journalists need is not so much a standard of professionalism as a kind of Turing test. That is, could what you’re writing be produced by a computer imitating a human reporter?

The test is not whether the content is dryly factual or snarkily silly, superbly impartial or grossly biased. Those traits are easy to replicate. Instead, the test should be whether the prose is truly personal. Does it reflect a real consciousness struggling to find the truth, or an automaton juggling ones and zeroes?

Such a test can never be very precise. But journalism, whether conducted in traditional or social media, would be the better for it.

Transparent vs. Opaque: Six New-Media Principles, No. 5

Because one of its foundational ideas is openness, as I described in yesterday’s post, new media encourages and rewards transparency. Traditional media organizations have tended to be opaque, aiming not to reveal much about the people and processes behind their product. But the nature of new media is to reveal everything, to make everything public. If the organizations don’t reveal their own inner workings, the increasing likelihood is that someone else will.

One of the ways new media encourages transparency is ethical, as represented by the popular expression, “transparency is the new objectivity.” One of the more recent considerations of the phrase came from Mathew Ingram last month. Traditional news organizations have wanted individual journalists to hide their subjective feelings and inclinations behind a veil of objectivity. As Ingram argues, this is an increasingly untenable stance in the new-media era. The only ethical strategy for journalists now is to be open about their biases and conflicts of interest, and to let readers judge their reliability as reporters for themselves.

Another mode of transparency is operational. Transparency doesn’t stop with individuals. To be seen as reliable, organizations themselves must practice media transparency in many, if not all, aspects of their operations. By showing how their process works—through methods such as sharing internal policy documents with readers, explaining how news subjects are selected and prioritized, or live-streaming editorial meetings—media producers will give their audience reason to trust them.

To work, transparency must be a committed, conscious choice. But it’s something of a Hobson’s choice. In the new-media era, there’s no long-term alternative to transparency.

Want to Twitter Better? Diversify Your Pronouns

One of my favorite Joe Pulizzi sayings is “it’s not about you.” For the most part, he’s talking to marketers, trying to get them to focus on the information their customers need rather than what the marketers most want to talk about: themselves. Journalists generally don’t see this as their own problem. After all, their role is to point towards other people. But as a new study suggests, the story is different on Twitter.  There, they mostly point to themselves. It’s a pronoun problem: too much “I” and not enough “you” and “they.”

Pew study found few mainstream media outlets retweet Back in August, I did an informal study of one B2B publisher’s editorial use of Twitter, and found that most tweets tended to be promotional (linking to in-house sources) rather than curatorial (linking elsewhere) or conversational (engaging with users). Now a Pew Research Center study of 13 mainstream media outlets finds an even more dramatic excess of promotion. The organizations studied included The New York Times, NPR, ABC News, The Huffington Post, and Fox News. More than 90% of their tweets with links were to their own sources.  While only 7% of their tweets linked to outside sources, even fewer were conversational in nature: just 2% asked readers for input, and only 1% were retweets.

The causes and implications of these findings have been well covered by Megan Garber, Mathew Ingram, and Ethan Klapper, among others (if I missed other good ones, why not note them in the comments below?).

I’ll just add this suggestion: when you tweet, try to balance your pronouns. Make sure you match your I—links to your own stories—with equal measures of they—what others, including your competitors, have said—and you—reacting to and soliciting information from your readers and followers.