I am honored that you have chosen me as the subject of your journalism school graduate thesis. At the behest of your instructor, you e-mailed me to ask how I’ve “built my personal brand over the years.” I’m answering with this column.
The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.
These are financially troubled times for our profession, Leslie — times that test our character — and it is disheartening to learn that journalism schools are responding to this challenge by urging their students to market themselves like Cheez Doodles.
I do see why it’s happening. The media is in a frantic, undignified campaign to economize while at the same time attracting more “eyeballs.” It’s a dangerous situation: Newspapers that used to allocate their resources to deposing dictators and ferreting out corruption are now using them to publish snapshots of their readers’ cats. This trend is called “user generated content,” or UGC. (Yes, in the new lexicon, “readers” have somehow become “users,” as though, in an effort to habituate people to our product, we’re lacing it with crack. Which we are, sort of. Pandering, and getting pandered to, can be addictive, and it is bad for you.)
Narratives that disclose news or express opinion used to be called “articles” or “columns” but are now universally referred to as “content.” It is as though all our words have become gauzy filler material, the pale fluff inside decorative throw pillows. Newspapers used to give readers what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want. And what we seem to think they want is happy, glitzy, ditzy stuff, which is why in recent years newspapers across the country have been replacing sections named, say, “Viewpoint” with online Web destinations named, say, “Wheee!” featuring multiplatform, user-interactive content-sharing with clickable portals to “Lolcats.”
We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity. From this execrable marketing trend arises the term you ask me about: “branding.”
Let’s step back a minute, Leslie, and let that expression marinate in its own fetid sauce. Let us contemplate its meaning and the devastating weight of its implications.
When I was a hungry young reporter in the 1970s, I thought of myself as a superman, an invincible crusader for truth and justice — even though, looking back at old pictures, I now see that I resembled an emaciated weasel in unattractive clothing. My goals, however, were unambiguous, and heroic: 1) Get great stories that improve the world. 2) Get famous. 3) Get doe-eyed young women to lean in close and whisper, “Take me.”
Note the order. First came the work.
Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the “brand.” That’s because we know that, in this frenetic fight for eyeballs at all costs, the attribute that is most rewarded is screeching ubiquity, not talent. It is why Snooki — who is quite possibly literally a moron — has a best-selling book. It is why the media superstars of today are no longer people such as Bob Woodward, who break big stories, but people like Bill O’Reilly, who yell about them.
Everything I’ve just told you, Leslie, is evident to anyone in journalism who has been around for a while. If you haven’t read it before, that’s probably because most of us haven’t had time to write it. We’ve been too busy building our brands.