Independent journalist as brand

What happens when journalists become independent operators, when they become brands?

Shane Richmond of The Telegraph profiles a sports writer who was laid off from his paper and set out on his own: the stand-alone journalist. Rick Waghorn was inspired by Clay Shirky:

In January, on his 40th birthday, Rick read an article about Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, which quoted internet pioneer Clay Shirky. Shirky argued that, just as musicians no longer need a music industry, writers no longer need a publishing industry. Shirky said: “Do people care about good writing? Of course they do, and it’s the writers who can adapt to the new technologies. The only technological innovation that the newspaper industry is waiting for is a time machine so that it can turn back the clock.”

He was laid off and decided to go it on his own, supporting the site and even an employee with both subscription fees and advertising. Waghorn and Richmond readily acknowledge that building a brand and a personality at the paper helped build the site.

. . . .[J]ournalists become powerful when they develop into brands and it’s that power that Rick is now exploiting. . . .

I’m not sure how many journalists could take Rick’s route, surely you need to have your ‘brand’ in place? “Clearly it helps if you’re a long-established name,” Rick said. “Football is a great example because of the passion and opinion it arouses but why not your favourite restaurant critic or travel writer or motoring correspondent?”

I’ll ask why Waghorn need be completely independent of the paper. Why shouldn’t many of its columnists be on their own, building their own brand names — as they did in print — and their own businesses with the help of the paper, which can embrace their content without the cost of employing them and still support them with promotion and ad sales. It is, as the execs like to say, a win-win: The paper delivers these voices — and many more — to its audience still and saves money; the journalist gains independence and also builds a brand and a business. Think distributed.

This, too, is networked journalism.

Roy Greenslade points to a case where such a relationship seems to be working. I’m not sure about the syndication model but more on that later. Says Roy:

Similar entrepreneurial spirit spurred two reporters at a Californian newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News to set up their own website, VentureBeat. It covers venture capital start-ups in the Silicon Valley region and the fortunes of associated businesses, which they used to chronicle in a popular blog, SiliconBeat, as part of the Mercury News website. Although Matt Marshall and Michael Bazeley have quit their full-time jobs, they have struck a syndication deal with their former paper to run their new site in place of their old blog. It also means, of course, that Marshall and Baxeley will be able to benefit from their site’s advertising income.

Steve Baker of Business Week has long argued that journalists need to establish their own brands so they can work independently when that day comes (Steve is now working independently on a book — which started as a magazine cover story — while still blogging for Business Week). Terry Heaton calls this unbundled journalism. Chris Nolan calls it stand-alone journalism. Way back when, Fast Company and Tom Peters argued that in this new world, we are all brands. Gary Goldhammer writes a good post about what it means to be a brand with excellent advice for journalists.

So where does this go? It says that even while on staff, journalists will want to build and protect their brands. Oh, they always did to some extent; reporters have always tried to escape writing stories they think are bad and they certainly have always had egos. But now they realize that they can and perhaps must trade on their brands independently. So they will start acting more independently at work.

The next extension of this is, of course, that more and more journalists become independent as news organizations can’t afford to employ them all and as the journalists, or the entrepreneurially minded among them, realize that they may be better off building their own businesses than hanging onto the old, shrinking businesses that employ them, for now. (This is one reason why I am teaching a course in entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY.)

So what if the newsroom of the future isn’t a room at all but an open network of journalists who succeed or fail by the value of what they do and their reputations and credibility? What happens if they are all independent? Well, you could argue that the only stories that will get covered are the ones that people want to write about. But I think this becomes a purer market of news: Anyone can see a gap, something that isn’t being covered, and fill it. Some will complain that this becomes news-by-ratings. But, populist that I am, I’ll argue no; this puts a true market value on journalism; we have to trust the public. Well, won’t some broccoli news go uncovered? Yes, but that’s why we need other models, like, to publicly support that reporting.

Is there still a role for an editor? I think so. But it’s less about being the boss and about making assignments and more about finding, enabling, and educating talent and supporting their journalism in a network of quality. Some editors may dread this loss of organizational control. But I think many will embrace the opportunity to return to the essence of editing.

As Jay Rosen points out, the history of newspapers is that they built the brand and reputation and those who worked there traded on it to do their work; that is what got them access and attention. That is still true, of course, though now that we can hear our public speak, we are learning that news brands did not have as much trust and value as we had assumed (though more than their detractors assume). I do think we are seeing a shift of brand value over to the journalists. That could be dangerous: the rise of the egotistical blathering class (or as some would see it: the day when everyone becomes a blogger). But I think there are benefits to this: It places the responsibility for journalism squarely where it belongs: on the journalist. And because the public now has the means to tell the journalists the value of their work — through traffic, comments, links, criticism — they are more answerable.

And as everybody needs to learn, credibility, reputation, trust, and value — that is, brand — is not something you own but something you earn.

: LATER: Rick Waghorn comes to the comments to describe what he does and the value he brings.