Message to today’s journalists: You are a brand

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Later today I’ll be speaking to a group of college students about what I do. One of the things I always bring up during such discussions is how the days of working for one prestigious company — and assuming they will be loyal to you as you collect paychecks and wait to retire with a gold watch — are over.

The model for success for journalists and writers in today’s “free agent nation” seems to be to build a marketable brand and an independent distribution network (the latter, of course, is much easier today due to social media.)

ABC News’ Rick Klein advises young journalists to become “platform agnostic.” He’s right. It’s probably no longer enough to be a solid writer or even a very good reporter. Being good on TV and/or having a large Twitter followings are also mandatory for most. Add this to the list of things young journalists will probably have to master in addition to the normal responsibilities (often for free) in order to become (and remain) a valuable and marketable commodity.

The downside is that, in today’s world, change is perhaps the only constant. Even when it feels like you have job security, you just never know. Your boss could be fired … your company could be taken over by Arianna Huffington. This will sound callous, but today’s journalists must ask: “Are you making yourself a desirable “product” in case you lose your job?”

The good news is this is an opportunity for entrepreneurial folks (many of whom would never have had an opportunity in the old days) to excel. An AP story about user burnout recently reiterated my belief that a “Twitter following is like ‘portable equity’ that gave [me] an edge over more established writers earlier in [my] career.” This is no doubt true.

The lower barrier of entry which exists today allows new media outsiders to challenge traditional media outlets and journalists. It also means that new media outlets will steal talent from traditional outlets in a transparent attempt to trade money for credibility (this is often is a win/win for the new media outlet and the “star” whom they woo.) On other occasions, this empowers the journalists to transition from being the “talent” to also being content “owners.”

As the Guardian notes,

“[I]n a world where social platforms allow journalists to form their own followings, create their own cultures and cults and be far more in control of their own work, the publishing brand becomes a less significant factor. Smart journalists like the Wall Street Journal’s Kara Swisher, who created and runs the well respected technology blog All Things D, are using their time in bigger institutions to transport their own franchises elsewhere, for larger sums and greater equity.”

This is an exciting time to be a sort of journalistic intrapreneur. But as prestigious outlets like the New York Times have their top talent poached, my guess is there will be attempts to reverse the trend.

How long before some authoritarian media outfit tries to claim they “own” your Twitter feed if you work for them — that this is their intellectual property? (If and when that happens, it will be interesting to see what kind of push-back they receive.)

Matt K. Lewis