What’s in a name? For journalists a byline signifies recognition (ego), reputation (integrity) and attribution (source). No matter what they tell you it’s a big deal. And it is becoming a big commercial deal as marketeers, advertisers and PRs start to target journalists by valuing their byline in brand terms.
Employers are also starting to value bylines in pounds, shillings and pence. They see journalists creating a brand within their brand and are becoming nervous, and in some cases, litigious as a consequence. When politics correspondent Laura Kuenssberg left the BBC for ITV she also took her 60,000 Twitter followers with her. The BBC could only look on as she changed her Twitter byline from @BBCLauraK to @ITVLauraK. However, the stakes have been raised recently in the US where the issue of the journalist as a brand has come to a head with a court case involving tech site PhoneDog. It is angry that a former employee took 17,000 Twitter followers with him when he left the company and it says it values each of his followers at $2.50 a pop.
Blogs, and in some cases the bloggers themselves, have become brands but the issue of who actually owns them, the journalist or the employer, is also being contested in the courts. Employers are redrafting contracts and trademark and copyright lawyers are busy.
But what’s so different from when a columnist moved from one newspaper to another? It’s the internet, stupid. Or more accurately the power of the hyperlink which allows readers to track, follow, engage, share and even collaborate with journalists. And it’s much more than that. Readers can access journalism via multimedia on multiple platforms. They can favourite, index, compile databases, share links and use blogs and social media to get what they want.
In the days before the web one paper might poach a rival’s starry journalist in the hope that they might bring a few more readers their way. There’s little evidence to say that this was a successful tactic. As the late, great Bill Deedes once said to me when I told him I was thinking of leaving The Daily Telegraph to go to the Financial Times, “I don’t know what happens to people who leave the Telegraph. I think they just fall into some kind of big, black hole never to be heard of again.”
The internet, however, allows journalists to be seen and heard and archived forever. Their value in their brand whether it is the excellence or exclusivity of their journalism, their specialism or even their personality can be accessed by readers from Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, YouTube, Flickr, blogs, and search engines. Those readers might bypass or circumvent the big media home of their favourite journalist and go to their personal blog or Twitter account. Readers are savvy to paywalls and the ones who don’t want to pay for content online will get that content elsewhere.
For employers who have a journalist who has become a brand within their brand this is an almighty challenge as they seek to promote and protect their content. The Times, which has a paywall policy, hopes the popularity of its journalists such as Giles Coren and Caitlin Moran on Twitter will translate into subscriptions as readers are forced to cough up to pay for their journalism online. Associated Press has banned its journalists from expressing opinions on Twitter because it wants to protect its brand and reputation for accuracy and impartiality.
For journalists, especially freelances with no corporate master, online branding presents an opportunity to get the story out and stand out in the crowd. But according to Stefan Stern, director of strategy at global PR firm Edelman, they also have to be wary of ‘oversharing’ and must take responsibility for their own brand management. A silly or offensive or too personal an observation could be their downfall.
For some journalists the idea of online branding is anathema and they have concerns about the commodification of journalism. Pullitzer prize-winning journalist Gene Weingarten has written in The Washington Post about journalists marketing themselves as ‘Cheez doodles’.
While I have some sympathy with him about the banality of much of the chatter online I can’t agree with his assertion that, “Newspapers used to give readers what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want.” Journalists don’t have to ‘think’ about what readers want and second guess them because readers now tell us directly what they want, in what form and when they want to receive it. And we might not like it. They will also tell us if we are wrong or being stupid. From a commercial point of view if journalists align themselves with a cause or even a product, a sponsor or an advertiser the online sphere makes this more transparent. And the reader will decide whether the journalism is selling a Cheez Doodle or is as stale as a Cheez Doodle.
For those with no commercial hang-ups – advertisers, sponsors, database marketeers, the journalist as a brand is an opportunity. PRs have always targeted and worked with journalists but can now look to niche opportunities provided by the fragmented nature of the web. It is up to the journalist to be transparent and accurate and investigative. It is up to them to be balanced and impartial. What their byline or brand stands for is up to them. And it’s going to be an even bigger deal in the future.