It was November 2006 and I sat in my high school’s library as a university representative lectured a group of bored Grade 12 students about the importance of post-secondary education. I knew I was going to university. Both my parents had degrees, my brother was about to graduate, and to avoid that dreaded “black sheep” title I thought it best to do the same. But what would I study? I had failed math and barely squeaked by in science, ruling out the more logical left-brain careers. My only true passions were pot smoking, collage art and writing. The first two weren’t viable career options, so writing it was. In fall 2007 I was making the trek from the suburbs to my first Ryerson University reporting class, nervous and armed with the usual back-to-school necessities: pens, paper, high hopes and a copy of Charles Bukowski’s poem “So You Want to Be a Writer?” tucked into my notebook.
Later that first semester, when I struggled to meet deadlines or I found myself pulling caffeine-fuelled all-nighters, I’d pull the poem out and read it. It was my checklist: Did writing still roar out of me as Bukowski said it should in the poem? Did my words come unasked out of my heart and mind? I turned to that poem to remind myself why I wanted to be a journalist and to reassure myself that I still had “it” in me. In fact, those words guided me. If I could do right by Bukowski, I’d make it as a journalist—or so I thought.
Four years later, and four years older, I’m on the brink of earning my journalism degree. A little less naïve, I can say I’ve learned a lot since that first semester. I now realize that playing by a drunk, misogynistic poet’s rules may not cut it. It’s time to get down to business and think critically about my next moves. If I really want to make it in a changing industry with far more contenders than room in the ring, I need to find a way to stand out. It’s not enough to be Kristen Chamberlain—I need to be the Kristen Chamberlain. I need to…dare I say, brand myself? I still think of Coke and Adidas when I use that word. When did it morph from a noun to a verb? More importantly, how does a person become a brand and what does that entail? And is branding really what it takes to carve out a successful career as a journalist these days? I decided to try to find out.
The concept of personal branding was used by Tom Peters in 1997 in Fast Company magazine. Long before I knew what a nut graff or a lede was, long before I knew I wanted to be a journalist, Peters’s article about personal branding laid out the formula. It was systematic; it was cut throat; and it could be applied to any profession, any “human resource,” even a mechanic. Peters’s formula emphasized the power of networking, word-of-mouth marketing and, most importantly, realizing what makes you stand out from other people. Ultimately his advice was as simple as it was self-serving: brand yourself to set yourself apart from everyone else in your field; by doing so you will further your career.
So how does this branding concept apply to journalists? The need for journalists to brand themselves emerged with the evolution of the Internet, according to Allen Mutter, former city editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur. “The Internet made it possible for people to acquire vast amounts of information and content from around the world, and it also made it possible for them to contribute their own content. It was not only a tool for getting information, but for giving it; and as a consequence, there’s been a complete inundation of sources of information,” says Mutter. The number of people who sit down to watch the network evening news has decreased in the U.S. by nearly 44 percent since 1980. Newspaper circulation has dropped precipitously in the new millennium, along with media outlet revenues, and many magazines have folded. Previously as a journalist, you would have affiliated yourself with a major media source, where the power of that business and its control on the market would have ensured that your writing was seen and your voice heard, says Mutter. Now the number of jobs for journalists in traditional institutions has decreased. “The audience and sources of information have fragmented,” he says, “so if you want to be heard amid all the clutter, then you need to stand up and get noticed. And that’s why it’s important to build an audience.” Or to put it another way, build your own brand.
With social media becoming the obvious tool for getting noticed amongst members of my generation, I figured it was the best place to start exploring the idea of building an audience and, I hoped, my brand. Myspace is dreary. My Facebook account is too private. What about Twitter? Could I promote the writing I have been doing for an online fashion publication to a larger audience on Twitter and gain a larger following? I’d never actually understood the appeal of Twitter but, on my way to school, I read an article about Breanna Hughes-—a product manager by day and a Twitter celeb by web—in Metro, the daily commuter paper. The National Post had also just published an article featuring Hughes and her take on the power of social media. Clearly there was something to learn from her.
I arranged to meet Hughes at Dark Horse Espresso Bar in downtown Toronto, hoping she’d teach me everything there was to know about the social networking phenomenon (and hey, a person with more than 4,600 followers on Twitter isn’t a bad contact to have). One Americano and an hour and a half later, I went home and online to create an account, eager to conquer Twitter, and inspired by Hughes’s mention of getting all her followers to follow me. Well, she never did. And with my mere 32 followers conquering anything seems an unreachable goal.
Maybe the problem was that I wasn’t sure what I should be tweeting about—my few bitter anti-Rob Ford tweets around Toronto’s municipal election time clearly hadn’t made me stand out in the Twitterverse. I needed more advice.
Growing up, my favourite popular writer was Sarah Morrison. I looked to her to examine how she had built a name for herself. Five years ago, Morrison was an L.A. hipster party girl, rail thin with long black hair, door knocker earrings and an uncanny ability to capture and detail even the smallest of life’s moments. “I save old empty perfume bottles of scents I no longer wear,” she says in one blog post, “with just enough perfume left in it that when I smell the bottle I can smell the period in my life I wore it.”
When she wasn’t at work as resident door-girl at the famous L.A. nightclub Cinespace, Morrison shared her observations about her life on her Myspace blog. “I focused on the positive things, and you know, the funny shit that happens,” she told me in a phone interview. Morrison eventually branched out from her work as a “party girl” and focused on her writing, which was gaining more attention. “I wrote about my life all this time, hoping that someone would go, ‘Hey, her writing is good enough! We’re gonna pay her to write!’” And they did. Morrison went on to write for various publications including Vapors Magazine, a now-defunct lifestyle magazine that focused on art, fashion, music and skateboarding. She also managed lifestyle blogs for Urban Outfitters and Volcom. After three years of blogging, Morrison became online editor at New York-based Missbehave magazine, based on her maintaining her party girl persona, her personal brand built around revealing every detail of her drinking, partying and dating on the L.A. hipster circuit. But the gig was short-lived. In 2009, about a year after Morrison started at the magazine, Missbehave went under. “This was my dream! This wasn’t my five-year plan—this was my entire plan. I wanted to be Jane Pratt! I wanted to have my own Sassy! I wanted to be an editor at a fashion magazine. I got exactly where I wanted to be and watched my dream just sort of tumbling around me,” she says.
The hit was rough for Morrison. She once wrote that Missbehave was “that boy that got away, the one who left when everything was great and perfect.” And like many failed romances, it made her re-evaluate who she was. She ultimately gave up on being the Sarah Morrison. She still writes fashion editorials online but has stopped the type of tell-all writing that made her a brand. “I stopped writing like that when Missbehave folded. All of that stuff drains on you,” she explains, “Missbehave was pushing me to write and ‘tell that story about sleeping with that dude!’ And I called out everyone I dated. I called out all my friends.” She also admits that her writing wasn’t an entirely accurate portrayal of herself. She projected the image of a carefree, happy party girl, when in reality she had stopped drinking. “I’m not really the girl who I was on the Internet.”
There was not a lot of strategy in how Morrison built her brand, and no clear lesson in the way she’d built it for me to take away from my interview. When I got off the phone with Morrison I felt like I had when I found out Santa Claus didn’t exist. My initial thought was, “What do you mean she’s not real?” My second: “Wait, there’s a negative side to branding?”
My interview with Mutter suggested that branding is not only a professional strategy within our means to achieve, given technological advances, but something all young journalists must do to establish themselves in this profession. But could branding backfire?
I tried to contact technology host, journalist, strategist and brand extraordinaire Amber MacArthur, known by her brand name “Amber Mac.” For a young journalist, Mac has had much success. I hoped that an interview would help to validate my original idea that branding is a crucial part of building a career in journalism. After six rounds of email tag, she agreed to answer some questions over email—and then didn’t reply until three weeks later with, “Ugh, did I answer you yet?!”
I decided to move on and contact Hannah Sung, another favourite journalist and role model of mine from her days as a VJ at MuchMusic. Sung hosted The New Music, which presented current popular music in a broad social, political and economic context. She agreed to an interview but made it clear I’d only have 10 minutes of her time. When I placed the call to her New York home office at 10:30 a.m. on the dot, she greeted me with “Hey, can you give me a minute? I’m writing an email.”
Sung has successfully branched out from broadcast to freelancing. She contributes as a producer and story editor on Project Runway Canada and writes columns for Flare magazine. Coincidentally, she had just written an article on personal branding for Flare. In the article, she says personal branding “feels so calculated and gross.” During our interview, however, she said personal branding is something she is glad to have thought about. “I think everyone needs to think about personal branding, not just journalists,” she explains. “Hiding your head in the sand about it or having that weird notion of branding being in some way awkward or ugly doesn’t really do you any service.” And yet, like Morrison, Sung has felt the negative effects of being a brand. “To say I never had a day where I didn’t feel in any way pigeonholed would be a lie, of course,” she says. Ironically, despite Sung’s work on MuchMusic and The New Music, she never aimed to become a music journalist. “I wanted to be a more rounded arts journalist, which happened quickly for me, so I can’t complain,” she says.
But other journalists aren’t so lucky when trying to branch out from their original niche. Gail Vaz-Oxlade, now best known for whipping over-spenders into shape as the host of TV series Till Debt Do Us Part and Princess, knows this first-hand. Vaz-Oxlade’s reputation as a financial expert originally earned her a column in Chatelaine, as well as writing gigs with The Globe and Mail, Today’s Parent and the Toronto Star. But after eight years of financial writing, Vaz-Oxlade decided she wanted to expand to other writing genres. It proved to be virtually impossible. “They perceived me to be the money girl and that’s all they wanted me to write,” she says. After shopping herself around to major publications to no avail, Vaz-Oxlade did what she refers to as “falling off the earth,” meaning she moved with her family nearly 200 kilometres from Toronto, removed her website and stopped writing. “I never quite understood it, because I‘m a good writer. If I could make money frickin’ interesting, then you’d think I could make anything interesting!” she says.
It wasn’t until Vaz-Oxlade was contacted by a TV production company two years later that she returned from hiatus. Yes, the project was still money-related, and she would still be giving financial advice, but it would be on television—a whole new medium that piqued Vaz-Oxlade’s interest. She accepted the offer. Perhaps being on TV and reaching a larger audience meant she further solidified the brand she initially tried to escape.
Three writers. Three branding routes. Three different results. Morrison had flamed out with a blog-driven persona she ultimately rejected and was trying to rebuild a writing career from those party girl ashes. Sung’s television visibility had established her as a brand in a too-narrow field, but she managed to break out. Vaz-Oxlade was embracing the brand she had once rejected. And all had experienced the negative side of branding.
So where did this leave me? More confused than ever. The idea of personal branding still seemed to make sense. Maybe. Sort of. Or maybe not.
And then I talked to David Hayes. Rather than putting effort into building his brand, Hayes focuses his energy on the quality of his reporting and writing. He has published five non-fiction books and numerous articles for major publications such as The Walrus, New York Times Magazine, The Globe and Mail and Toronto Life, some of which have won awards such as the National Magazine Award and the Amnesty International Media Award.
When I emailed Hayes with an interview request, I got an “OK” as well as four paragraphs of brainstorming to help me with my story—a nice contrast to the brief “Sent via BlackBerry” emails I had become accustomed to receiving. We agreed to meet at 8:15 a.m. sharp on a Monday morning at the George Street Diner in downtown Toronto.
Hayes arrived right on time. He looked ordinary, carrying a backpack and wearing a black toque. A few minutes into our conversation he introduced me to the owner of the diner, Ash. Clearly, Hayes was a regular.
I asked Hayes what kind of writer he considered himself to be. He laughed and said, fumbling for words, “I would consider myself…well…not really.” It’s a tough question, he concludes, one he thinks someone else may have to answer. “I just think of myself as a slow and steady writer who always writes and has certain areas I write in. I’m sort of known, but I’m certainly not a name brand like Malcolm Gladwell or any of those people.” Interestingly, Hayes is currently focusing on ghostwriting, in which he is, in a sense, invisible. Though I wouldn’t call him modest; he’s quick to point out his accomplishments and the many awards he has earned. Perhaps it’s contentment. He is a writer who knows who he is and doesn’t try to be something he isn’t. “What I try to do is quality work all the time and that’s what gives me pleasure,” he says.
A few years ago, Hayes was in a bike accident that left him with both wrists and elbows fractured. While he recovered from these injuries, at the time he was unable to write. “It was horrendous; all I could do was read,” he says. An artist friend wrote the word “patience” on a foam board that is still up on Hayes’s office cork board. To Hayes, that single word means that all will work out, but you have to have patience. “When I talk to young writers, they’re often impatient. A career is something that happens over a long time, not a short time,” he says. Hayes believes that sometimes being obsessed with social media and branding yourself can end up running away with you. “Pretty soon all you are trying to do is build this brand and you’re not doing the work. And the work is going to last your whole life and make you successful; and what’s the brand going to do?” I sat back and considered what Hayes had just said. Of all the interviews I’d conducted, these were the words that resonated the most with me. You can’t brand what isn’t there.
Later as I sat to write this piece, I felt like I had stepped back in time. There I was, that same Grade 12 student, but instead of sitting in my high school library, I sat staring at an empty computer screen. Again, I find myself at a fork in the road. I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to write. I’m going to become a journalist. But just how I will do this is still the question. Maybe Sung was right: the term “self-branding” does feel “so calculated and gross.” And it sure isn’t easy to do, literally or emotionally, judging from Morrison’s, Sung’s and Vaz-Oxlade’s experiences. I went to journalism school because I loved writing, and call me old-fashioned, but why should my motives change now? Along with Hayes, I have faith that good writing is what will build and sustain my career. Of course, becoming a good writer won’t happen overnight. It will take patience. But one thing is for sure: if you’re writing for fame or money, as Bukowski says in his poem, “Don’t do it.” Those are the lessons I’ll take away, and those are the rules I’ll continue to play by.