Personal brand journalism — where the messenger becomes the message

Michael Wolff writes: There is a new vision of journalism – call it the auteur school – in which the business shifts from being organized by institutions to being organized around individual journalists with discrete followings.

The latest development is the announcement by Ezra Klein that he will likely leave the Washington Post and is looking for investors to back him – with a reported eight figure investment (ie more than $10m!) – in an independent enterprise.

Last week Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, who ran the Wall Street Journal tech conference AllThingsD, announced that, following the WSJ ending its relationship with them, they were setting up in business backed by NBC and other investors.

Glenn Greenwald, who broke the NSA-Edward Snowden story for the Guardian, is the headliner in a new left-oriented journalism venture backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

The former New York Times data wiz-kid, Nate Silver, has left the Times to set up a new site and vertical business under the auspice of ABC and its subsidiary ESPN. Andrew Sullivan, a blogger first at the Atlantic and then at the Daily Beast, may be the grandfather of the auteur school, leaving the Daily Beast a year ago to set up his own subscription site.

In fact, one might as well include here Tina Brown, who used the seemingly attractive economics of the web, along with her personal brand and the backing of Barry Diller, to claim journalistic independence with the Daily Beast – and in the process lost, I am reliably told, an astounding $100m.

And that leads to my cautionary question: is this all journalistic vanity and hubris, ending in certain tears, or is there plausible economic logic to individual journalistic fiefdoms? [Continue reading…]

It’s natural that a lot of attention is focused on the economics of journalism these days, since newspapers are struggling to survive, but even if it turns out that the trend towards personal brand journalism provides a viable business model, it’s questionable whether it will result in good journalism.

There’s no good reason to uncritically accept something just because you read it in the New York Times. Equally, there is no good reason to agree with an opinion just because it was expressed by someone like Glenn Greenwald. Yet one sees this all the time. Instead of his media appearances generating much serious discussion, there’s much more cheering in response to knockout punches. Another opponent eviscerated. Whoopee!

“I’m with …” goes the all-purpose expression of allegiance. Which is as good as saying: I don’t think; I’ve found someone else who can think for me.

Unfortunately, in the political arena — perhaps more so than any other arena where ideas supposedly matter — there is far too much signalling of affiliation and far too little independent analysis.

As a publication, The Economist (a name whose mention might cause some brains to freeze, given its ties to the corporate establishment) has one particular merit: they avoid the use of the byline.

Why? Because they believe “what is written is more important than who writes it.”

That idea is of course completely at odds with the idea of personal brand journalism where what is important is apparently determined by who writes it.

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3 thoughts on “Personal brand journalism — where the messenger becomes the message

  1. Werner Simon

    Please, I’m enough of a skeptic already! Where is Joe Pulitzer and Ed Murrow when we really need them. Personally, who can come to any conclusion about anything important without also sampling foreign media, too?

  2. Paul Woodward

    It’s strange that Greenwald presents his response to a reader in front of the questions he’s being asked. Colby D. Phillips’ letter is a fraction of the length of Greenwald’s response. There’s no reason to abandon the convention of questions coming before answers — unless of course you want to gloss over the fact that some of the questions don’t get clearly answered.

    This is Colby’s most pointed challenge:

    Finally, there is the issue of the remaining Snowden documents. The whole situation gives the impression that the documents belong to you, rather than the public, and that at least some of them are being withheld for the upcoming publicity blitz.

    Greenwald’s response is evasive because he focuses on the suggestion that documents might be withheld because their publication is being suppressed by Pierre Omidyar. But Colby is clearly not alluding to this kind of cockeyed conspiracy theory. He is instead suggesting that a cache of headline-catching stories might be held in reserve for no other reason than that this would serve First Look’s commercial interests. Since Greenwald doesn’t address that question, the doubt remains and it is a perfectly reasonable doubt.

    Moreover, if Greenwald expended as much energy in shining more light on his own editorial process, he could probably dispense with these lengthy rebuttals directed at his critics.

    But beyond the Snowden story, here’s where in my opinion Greenwald needs to think more deeply about what it means to be independent: “I have a large long-time readership which will be quite vigilant and vocal if I change what I do in any way, big or small.” Which sounds like saying: my readers keep me honest.

    Maybe I don’t have sufficient respect for Greenwald’s readership (and I say this fully aware that some of his most loyal readers also visit this site), but from the evidence I have seen he has succeeded in attracting a lot of followers and people who acquire followers invariably become ensnared in a feedback loop. They recognize their followers’ appetites and they dutifully deliver the goods.

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