Why journalists should build personal brands, and why those who disagree also are correct

Get ready for a tailspin of a ride regarding the personal “branding” of journalists.

The Internet — more specifically, Facebook — has been abuzz with reporters and television folks, freelancers, photographers and bloggers all creating their own Facebook pages after the social media-focused company created its Facebook + Journalists network.

It wasn’t until Facebook began connecting reporters across the globe that I realized branding is important on a personal level. We have no idea where our industry is headed, and for those of us employed by news companies, we never know what tomorrow brings. So we work and do our job and hope that we’re able to come in the next morning and pick up where we left off the night before.

This past week, for instance, we saw Gannett announce layoffs of some 700 employees companywide and implement mandatory 15-day furloughs for executives whose salary figures are above a certain number. We see newspapers closing, television newsrooms shrinking and more bloggers willing to work for free to produce work even a middle school journalism enthusiast would do a better job covering.

But it’s all part of an industry in a never-ending fluctuation.

So what’s a journalist to do? Market themselves.

We learn at a very young age to market ourself in a way that makes us stand out among the crowd. Resumes and cover letters are supposed to make hiring managers and editors stop in their tracks as a potential job seeker highlights his previous experience.

It’s not about embellishing, but rather, about the ability to showcase your skills in a manner that proves you’re capable of the challenges that could be ahead.

So when I created my Facebook + Journalist page, I took into consideration not just my reporting ability, but other media-focused things I’m interested in. I also considered my human interest side.

The outcome is a brand that showcases my reporting skills, writing abilities, volunteer work and a softer side that includes my passion for a certain long-running television series and my love of all things Pittsburgh.

The page isn’t branded as “Bobby Cherry — Trib Total Media,” but rather as “Bobby Cherry, a reporter with many skills and interests.” That’s not to say readers haven’t “liked” the page. A few have, and I want more to as well. I want them to be able to interact with me and get to know me in a capacity that doesn’t say, “Yo man, let’s go drink,” but instead says, “I’m your local reporter. Tell me what’s happening.”

We are in a different world now than 10, 20, 30 years ago. While I can’t speak first-hand about what reporting was like before cable TV and the Internet, I am led to believe that, at the bottom of it all, journalism hasn’t changed over time. The way in which news is consumed has changed, though.

So when I read things that question why journalists are branding themselves, I can’t help but wonder how those folks think people will receive the news in 20 years.

Take, for instance, Gene Weingarten’s column in Thursday’s Washington Post, whose column was written to a graduate student asking how he has branded himself over the length of his career. He replied by saying that branding is ruining journalism.

These are financially troubled times for our profession, Leslie — times that test our character — and it is disheartening to learn that journalism schools are responding to this challenge by urging their students to market themselves like Cheez Doodles. — Gene Weingarten

While I wish Mr. Weingarten would have spoken more about how branding is ruining journalism (I’d enjoy hearing more about his thoughts), I did agree with his comments on how newspaper companies think user-generated content is necessary.

Newspapers that used to allocate their resources to deposing dictators and ferreting out corruption are now using them to publish snapshots of their readers’ cats. This trend is called “user generated content,” or UGC. (Yes, in the new lexicon, “readers” have somehow become “users,” as though, in an effort to habituate people to our product, we’re lacing it with crack. Which we are, sort of. Pandering, and getting pandered to, can be addictive, and it is bad for you.) …

Newspapers used to give readers what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want. And what we seem to think they want is happy, glitzy, ditzy stuff, which is why in recent years newspapers across the country have been replacing sections named, say, “Viewpoint” with online Web destinations named, say, “Wheee!” featuring multiplatform, user-interactive content-sharing with clickable portals to “Lolcats.” — Gene Weingarten

He’s right. News companies have focused more on poking the reader for their thoughts and less on making the reader the audience. The readers do everything except sit in the newsroom with us. Every story seems to end by saying, “What do you think about the sky being blue? We want to hear from you!”

There’s nothing wrong with asking readers for feedback. In many ways, newspapers ALWAYS have relied on reader content — news tips, submitted photos, letters to the editor, community briefs, school accolades. But we’re at a point where we seem to want user content more than our own, unique content.

So I understand why Mr. Weingarten seems frustrated.

But I don’t understand his correlation between a personal brand and implementing more reader content.

Whether in a formal or informal way, newspapers always have branded themselves as the town’s focal point for news, views and information. So it comes as no surprise that now, as newspapers struggle to survive financially and struggle to compete with other venues, reporters are creating personal brands.

I want people to read my content. I want them to see what’s happening in their town. Journalism always has been about marketing one’s self. If we write a story and tell nobody about it, then what the hell was the purpose of writing it?

We’ve got to make a name for ourself, and for our newspaper. If a reader enjoys what I’m writing, they’re (hopefully) more likely to see what other stories and work our newspaper features.

Where I struggle to support a reporter’s personal branding is when the individual wants to share information and photos of their cat or their grocery cart filled with food. I’ve found many reporter Facebook pages that are filled with more content showcasing the individual at charity events or outside of the news world, rather than content relating to news.

While readers might be interested in seeing photos of our animals, I question the professionalism of such information. If you’re writing a column about a trip to a dog park and you add a photo of your pup, that’s one thing. But when you’ve uploaded a photo of your dog sleeping with a caption that says, “Rover is tired,” I really have to question it.

It’s about giving the reader what they don’t know they need.

And in today’s world where a century old newspaper is competing with a blog created yesterday, we — the reporters of the world — need to prove to people why our work, backed by intelligent editors who are passionate about journalism, can offer better content than a fly-by-night blogger.

So if that means branding my work and letting potential readers get to know me on a level beyond my byline, I’m OK with it.

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