Personal brands are a reaction to institutional failures

Journalism Twitter fights do little for the reputation of the profession. Gawking at them would lead any sensible person who doesn’t spend much of their day in the Twitter fighting pits to conclude that this is a woefully insular industry of toxically grump people who have a dark view of humanity. For that reason, I try to avoid these periodic flare-ups since they tend to be much ado about pretty much nothing important.

Last weekend’s eruption about the role of “personal brands” in journalism is an exception. It was sparked by some great reporting inside The New York Times by Steven Perlberg at Insider. Steven detailed how the Times, inarguably the most powerful news brand in English, is struggling with how to balance that institutional strength with the current trend of “personal brands.” Steven quoted departing Times reporter Taylor Lorenz as warning the Times is at risk of falling behind, well, the times. Here’s what she told Steven:

"When you think about the future of media, it's much more distributed and about personalities. Younger people recognize the power of having their own brand and audience, and the longer you stay at a job that restricts you from outside opportunities, the less relevant your brand becomes."

That sparked a back-and-forth between Lorenz, who is heading to the Washington Post, and prominent former colleagues (Maggie Haberman, in particular) and prominent new colleagues (Josh Dawsey, et al) over whether there is room in journalism for “personal brands.”

On one level, this is a lot of gatekeeping nonsense. People like Haberman and Dawsey have assiduously cultivated their own personal brands, even if they abhor the term. Personal brands have long been part of the Times and the Post.

What I think the back and forth misses is the future shape of publishing businesses. Last week, I wrote about how publishing brands are starting to exist on a continuum between institutional and individual. We currently live in a world of extremes. But my belief is this is a rip in time, and we will eventually, as always, return to somewhere in the middle. Believe it or not, there is room for the solidity and resources of institutional brands like the Times and Post and the scruffily entrepreneurial world of Substack.

Those operating on the extremes will move toward the center. Institutional brands like the Times, The Atlantic, The Information and Morning Brew are increasingly emphasizing individuals. At the Times alone, reporters like Haberman, David Leonhardt as well as “stars” like The Daily’s Michael Barbaro are personal brands, whether they find the term icky or not. The Times has long relied on its stars trading on their personal brands and affiliation with the Times through lucrative cable news contracts and book deals.

What seems like a clear divide between institutional brands and personal brands will inevitably blur. Bari Weiss is expanding her newsletter brand to include others. On the vertical side, The Ankler is in the midst of growing from its roots as a brand tied to Richard Rushfield to adding other voices. My plan for The Rebooting is very similar. A middle ground will emerge, taking the best of institutional brands (health insurance, legal help, resources, enterprise value) and what’s attractive about individual brands (relatability, lower overhead and autonomy).

The sniping also speaks to a generational divide. I’ve come to realize that Boomer isn’t defined by an age range but by a worldview and sensibility. Many of the people sniping at the conception of personal brands are Boomers in outlook. They’re the cool kids at the cool kids table in the journalism cafeteria. To even talk about “personal brands” is gauche, even if they’ve clearly benefited from building their own prominence and pretended to just be a regular working stiff.

The visceral distaste for “personal brands” or “influencer journalists” is premised on these terms being cover for vacuity and garden-variety narcissism. In this view, covering the internet culture isn’t “real journalism” on par with war reporting or a privileged perch at the White House. Newspaper journalism, in particular, has long been premised on paying dues with nostalgia for smoke-filled newsrooms fueled by coffee. Times change. The Rebooting reader Geoff Isenman made the point that building on your own simply wasn’t possible until recently.

What's changed is not the power of the brand or the desires of the journalists, but rather the availability of the tech to go straight to the reader (Twitter, Substack). Some decide to stick with the big brand that helped make them famous and potentially sacrifice freedom to say what they want on social or be a paid consultant on a TV show, and others go off on their own and take their personal brand and build upon it to have subscribers and advertisers and book deals.

The tools are important, but I believe underlying this is journalists wanting to build their own brands. It is a reaction to the failures of these institutions. Anyone who has been in journalism long enough has been laid off because of boneheaded decisions made by the supposed experts in business. (Who forced publishers they had to pivot to video again?) Young people have entered the profession with eyes open; they don’t fall for the “mission” stuff that’s used as an excuse for low pay, shitty managers and support, and assembly-line management approaches like subscription quotas dressed up as “goals.” Unionization spreading across newsrooms since Gawker kicked off the trend in 2015 is a symptom of a deeper malaise.

All across the economy, The Great Reassessment is being driven by people wanting more autonomy. The reason people aren't keen to return to the office isn’t a fear of Covid. It’s because the office has been the locus of a command-and-control approach to work that’s alienated workers by forcing them to sacrifice their autonomy. People want more control over their lives. If they have to take a sick aunt to the doctor’s office, they don’t want to ask some middle manager for permission. They don’t want to commute an hour each way in order to waste time in meetings so a middle manager can cosplay leadership lessons picked up from a LinkedIn post.

Being treated as disposable is jarring and disorienting, even humiliating since we all have egos. Companies peddle the bullshit of “we’re like a family,” only it’s impossible to square with how they treat people. Building a personal brand is a way to have leverage and options; no wonder those on “the other side” of the newsroom inequality divide aren’t into it. Back in the first summer of the pandemic, I came across a letter in the Financial Times that resonated with me and what I wanted to do after Digiday: “Life begins when we rip up the scripts that were handed to us and begin to write our own.”

The publishing companies still to be created will address that desire for autonomy. In the words of Vice Australia head of editorial Brad Esposito, “The future of media is individuals that represent a brand, not a brand that represents individuals.”

5 things to check out

I was quoted in The New York Times in a piece about Axios’s ambitions. Katie Robertson wrote a detailed look at how Axios is betting on its expansion into local news, enterprise software and paid products for its next wave of growth. As I told her, I’m most skeptical of its effort to sell software because of how different the businesses are – and the terrible track record for media companies acting like tech companies.

Consider supporting independent media in Ukraine by donating to this fundraiser. With the economy devastated, there is no advertising market and few people have money for subscriptions, so the only way for Ukrainian media to survive in the meantime is support from outside.

Making progress in narrowing inequality is a generational challenge. What’s becoming clearer is just how much the deck is stacked against workers. For capitalism to survive, it needs to be reformed to shift more of the reward to those doing the actual work vs deploying capital.

Launching a media brand now is a completely different proposition than it was just five  years ago. Troy Young goes into the mechanics of modern brand building and how fundamental community is for a building block. As he puts it, “Nobody will underwrite a website.”

Competition is often misconstrued. The way most people treat it is adversarial, but competition is actually about seeking out in the company of others. Too many people with fixed mindsets see that as pitting people necessarily against each other when competition actually makes us better. Runners know this. As my running coach says, “Want to get faster? Run with people faster than you and try to keep up.” We would all do better to stop measuring ourselves against others.

Thanks so much for reading. Send me your feedback by hitting reply. If you’re interested in sponsoring The Rebooting, check out the sales kit and get in touch.