Brand Me a Journalist

Using Social Media to Create a Professional Niche

A j-school graduate’s defense of (figuratively) branding journalists

with 9 comments

When I decided to call my student blog Brand Me a Journalist, I chose the name because I thought it was somewhat clever and easy to remember. I hadn’t fully contemplated its inherent call to action – that is, until I read Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s response to a student who asked how he developed his brand:

The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.

I had two reactions to his advice:

  1. I hope he never takes my blog name literally. (The guy clearly has the technique down, and I’m not into body modification.)
  2. I hope he’s not a mentor.

As a graduate student at the Cronkite School, I learned about personal branding in Tim McGuire’s 21st century media organizations class and later began this blog for Dan Gillmor’s digital media entrepreneurship class. These classes addressed the economic realities and creative possibilities in the new media landscape. Both professors, whom I consider mentors, encouraged me to write this blog and impressed upon us the need to strategically begin creating our digital footprints as students – a powerful career-launching tool that was not available to j-students when I got my undergraduate degree in 1989.

These respected newspapermen understood the increasingly important role of personal branding for journalists, so I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that Medill professor Owen Youngman had assigned a graduate student, identified simply as “Leslie”, to reach out to Weingarten about the topic.

I was completely caught off guard to read the way Weingarten treated Leslie, not being familiar with his distinctive brand. I’d made similar cold-call requests of veteran journalists such as Worldcrunch’s Jeff Israely, and they gladly discussed their brands. But instead of enlightening her with how a “hungry young reporter in the 1970s” came to be a two-time Pulitzer prize-winning columnist (he even has a tagline, a considerable branding asset) at one of the country’s most prestigious news organizations, Weingarten used the occasion to decry the hijacking of journalism’s noble mission by marketing departments and user-generated content.

As Steve Buttry pointed out in his reply to Weingarten’s non-answer to Leslie’s question, Weingarten was not interested in admitting his considerable success is due in part to the strength of his well-cultivated personal brand. His disdain for the word “branding” prevents him from recognizing that it simply is about defining yourself as a journalist and establishing your reputation among your audience, which is no different than what journalists have historically done; it just used to be called “making a name for yourself.”

Indeed, Weingarten has established a formidable reputation name brand, which is supported by his publishers’ marketing efforts and his deliberate social media presence. At various points during his four-decade career, he strategically positioned himself:

  • by committing himself to covering a specific beat to the best of his ability
  • by developing valuable relationships with readers and sources
  • by associating with other journalists doing similar work
  • by pursuing related opportunities that complemented his position

All of these are elements of branding. Whether he wants to admit it or not, he’s very deliberately built his brand.

But rather than seeing Leslie’s overture to a veteran journalist as an opportunity to pass on his professional insights to the next generation of reporters, Weingarten dismisses us as unworthy, talentless self-promoters who aren’t willing to work hard “to get great stories.” Leslie tried to get a great story, one about an accomplished journalist who started out as a “hungry young reporter in the 1970s”; instead, she got a lecture.

So while Weingarten finds comfort in longing for the way things used to be, we aspiring journalists will continue to take advantage of digital media tools available to launch our careers:

  • by building innovative portfolio sites that show our command of writing and programming
  • by posting video resumes on YouTube to show our storytelling, camera work and editing skills (we multimedia journalists do it all)
  • by uploading photos to Flickr and Instagram
  • by finding sources via Facebook
  • by connecting with colleagues via Twitter, journalism chats such as wjchat, LinkedIn groups and conferences to learn about the jobs we aspire to have
  • by staying up until 3 a.m. to write blog posts that very likely won’t be seen but that reveal our passion for writing and commitment to our beats
  • by reaching out to those veteran journalism pros who get that branding is just a word, not a threat

All this before we’ve been hired. Through our initiative, focus and hard work, we’re assembling bodies of work, “making names for ourselves” and pursuing our goals as journalists.

So you can keep your red-hot iron, sir; we’re building our own brands.

9 Responses

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  1. Excellent branding advice, Jennifer. I’ve been thinking of writing a post about developing a brand as a journalist. Maybe I should just link to you.

    Steve Buttry

    June 25, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    • Thanks, Steve, for your kind words and for drawing attention to this topic. I went to Cronkite following an earlier career in PR and advertising, so I never found the branding term to be offensive or controversial when I learned about it; it just seemed appropriately strategic to me.

      As I’ve learned more about it, I’ve been so impressed by students as well as seasoned journalists who have created their own opportunities online. They’ve inspired me with their fearlessness and should be applauded for taking responsibility for their futures, not scolded for being too ambitious. To suggest that having drive and goals somehow negates journalistic integrity is to overlook the legacies of those iconic figures Weingarten himself holds up as standards of excellence in journalism.

      Bob Woodward, whom Weingarten cited as one of those “media superstars” (sounds like a brand to me) to be emulated by young journalists, was more than happy to share his newsgathering tips and career strategies with students during one of Len Downie Jr’s classes while I was at Cronkite. Perhaps Weingarten should take his own advice and emulate him in that regard.

      Jennifer Gaie Hellum

      June 25, 2011 at 10:01 pm

  2. When I finally read Weingarten’s column, all I could do was shake my head. Journalists are supposed to look past labels to the meaning of a thing, and Weingarten got so caught up on the label that he completely failed to see branding for what it really is: a new name for an old practice.

    I was also appalled to see other journalists applauding his sentiments. (While he does make a few valid points about the state of the industry, none of them have anything to do with branding.)

    Good post, Jenn. It needed to be said.

    Heather Billings

    June 25, 2011 at 8:38 pm

  3. […] branding – Google Blog Search « I signed up to be a youtube partner but NO BRANDING […]

    • Of course another word for ‘brand’ is ‘reputation.’ And is there anything more important to a journalist’s trade than reputation? Great blog, Jenn.


      June 26, 2011 at 1:51 pm

  4. Thanks for this reply, Jennifer. I think journalists get hung up on the term “branding” sometimes, when as you say, it’s just a fancy way of saying “building a name for yourself.” Of course, it’s easy to dismiss such efforts from a comfortable position such as Weingarten’s.

    Funnily enough, I took Owen Youngman’s class when I was at Medill, too, and we had the same assignment. Youngman’s a smart teacher — I definitely keep thinking back to things we talked about in that class.


    June 28, 2011 at 2:03 am

  5. […] with their personal brands. As someone who has spent the past year and a half blogging about personal branding for journalists, I felt compelled to weigh in and share how someone from the newest generation of journalists feels […]

  6. […] Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School; Jim Romenesko of the Poynter Institute; Jennifer Gaie Hellum, creator of the Brand Me A Journalist blog; and me, over at the NABJDigital […]

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