Journalists: Brands Not Commodities

Reading about Glam Media’s “Facebook in a box for content creators” reminded me of Gene Weingarten’s article in the Washington Post a few weeks ago lamenting the deleterious effect of branding on journalism. The Glam tools, of course, exist to help its writers develop and build their own brands. What’s more, Glam believes that authors will have to “create social networks around themselves” to be successful, a notion that would no doubt be anathema to Weingarten.

While confusing pandering for readers with a writer creating a brand, Weingarten suggests that the craft of journalism is being redefined “so it is no longer a calling but a commodity.” A suggestion that implies that somehow news organizations brought this fate on themselves by no longer giving readers “what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want.” Within the craft of journalism, apparently,¬†there is no greater sin than meeting market demand. What Weingarten seems not to understand is that even in the good old days of newspaper prominence, readers never ate their vegetables if they didn’t like them, they simply turned to the sports page, or the comics. The newspaper, as a package, exists because it has to give readers a lot of what “we think they want” to subsidize what “we think they need.”

Out of all this, Weingarten comes to blame the commoditization of journalism on branding when, in fact, branding is the solution. When faced with commodity prices for its microprocessors, Intel branded them with its Intel Inside¬†campaign. Think of Florida Orange Juice and Chiquita Bananas – successful branding campaigns that rescued products from commoditization. As a collection of blogs and micro-sites, Glam may have a more immediate reason to create writer brands, but it’s a model that can be followed by news organizations. And, except for the fact that in the past only a select few of its writers became brands, it’s a model that is familiar to them. Columnists have always been brands, but brands created by their employer. Today those brands, the newspapers, are declining, and becoming simply a collection of writers. And a collection of unbranded writers is just a heap of “content.”

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