Last week Gene Weingarten wrote a scathing piece about the integrity of "branding", a new media phenomenon in which journalists create personal brands to stand out. Branding involves Facebook pages, personalized domain names, Twitter accounts, and sometimes even sharing personal details. In the Project for Excellence in Journalism's 2009 State of the Media Report for 2009, the shift "towards the individual and away from journalistic institutions" was identified as a major trend in the industry.
Weingarten's criticism is based on the idea that branding oneself is selling out, akin to journalists "marketing themselves like Cheez Doodles". In his Washington Post article, he claims that branding is redefining journalism "from a calling to a commodity". His remarks were triggered by a journalism student's letter, in which she asked about how he has managed to brand himself so successfully.
Critics agree with the journalism student: Weingarten has actually created a brand for himself, in spite of his disdain for the concept. Paul Carr from TechCrunch called him out, saying, "If you're going to embarrass a journalism student to set up a rant about personal branding and user generated content, it's probably not a good idea to do it in a photo-bylined column (personal branding!) in which you use a letter you received from a reader (user generated content!) to artfully position yourself as an old-school newsman..."
Fans on Twitter responded to Weingarter's article, but their loyalty and praise seemed proof of the journalist's successful branding. Steve Buttry compiled some of these reactions. One user tweeted, "@geneweingarten FANTASTIC piece on branding! Love your style, Gene."
Branding is all about style, writing well enough to attract readers time and time again, and about choosing topics that resonate with people. Weingarten allows his personality to shine through his work, both in the Washington Post and through his Twitter. Whether or not he accepts it, he is a textbook example of branding.
Besides, branding is not necessarily commodification. Lewis DVorkin at Forbes explained, "Pandering for traffic is not brand building. Winning the respect of your audience is." Developing a reputation for quality stories does not mean a journalist has sold out, but it does mean that he has become a "brand", whether or not he intended to. Matthew Ingram at Gigaom went as far as to claim that branding is inescapable. Individualism is a societal trend. Social media profiles and personal style can combine to make journalists individually identifiable, but that does not mean quality reporting is at risk.
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