I have heard the clichés that newspapers and magazines are dying for the last four years. The comment usually stems from someone I see as a non-believer-who doesn’t understand the power of reporting or great writing. I put my faith in journalism, but have still faced unexpected and unpleasant complications.
Shortly after interviewing Marco Ursi, the editor of Masthead Online, I played back the recording only to hear the eerie hum of static and distant mumbling. I started to panic. None of my interviews had properly recorded. The little device that connects my tape recorder to the phone had malfunctioned. I frantically rushed to the store where I had bought it, expecting an in-out transaction. I was informed they no longer carry this item. Eight stores later, I was still empty-handed. I was left without options and without hope-for my story and the future.
Is the journalism industry becoming as defunct as the equipment? Then I realized, even though technology scorned me, it is key to promoting journalists as brands. And strong brands weather recessions. To get ahead in any industry, not just journalism, reputation makes or breaks a career.
Branding, for the journalist, is about marketing yourself as a product so your name is readily identified with a specific type of service or writing style. You might keep a blog where your commentary has evolved into expertise, or you may have published several books in one area of interest.
Last April Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error and co-author of Mafiaboy, published a post (“Freelancing the Future”) about changing the way the freelancer does business. He writes, “We often define ourselves by the brands we work for (‘I write for The New York Times,’ etc.), rather than making those brands a part of our identity. Someone will tell you whom they write for and expect that name brand to tell you something about them. Freelancers need to create their own personal brand-something that can attract clients in this Googleized world.” In other words, it’s professionally responsible to develop a reputation via your own means. You don’t want to be the phone tap-known for becoming obsolete.
Shortly after his blog, regrettheerror.com was launched in October 2004, he was encouraged by a Canadian literary agent to write a book. While the blog was about a selection of errors, the book was about investigating accuracy. It took his blog into another spectrum- he was now getting paid to do what he previously did for free. “It’s essential to build a brand people can identify with,” he says from his home in Montreal, “It’s about presenting a view of yourself to the world that reflects what you want to be.” His post emphasizes delineating yourself as a journalist first, and then as a publication’s writer second. As Ursi points out, in most cases you can’t be a brand all your own, you still need a publication to either employ you or publish your work. “How are you going to make money?” Ursi asks. But still find a niche and make it your own, while making your expertise valuable to a publication.
Charles Montgomery, award-winning author of The Last Heathen, is known as the Happy City Guy because he has written extensively about cities all over the world and has pursued stories across four continents. Branding can backfire if it starts to limit the opportunities that may be available to a writer. “This so-called brand goes both ways,” he says, “Some editors don’t call me anymore to write travel stories or service travel stories.” But, he says, if an editor is thinking of a piece on a specific city or cities of the future, his phone rings. Montgomery says becoming limited is natural in the journalistic realm, especially when you specialize in one area.
Becoming successful in one area helps you become known as that type of writer, says author Brian Payton. But if your interests shift, the opportunities may not follow suit. Luckily for him, venturing into books paid off. “With pay rates, it’s good to think in terms of longer projects,” he says. Diversifying the media in which you’re able to work in is a step closer to assuring you’re more financially secure and employable. “In this climate, the more skills you have, the better off you’ll be,” he says
This is easier said than done. “Every journalist wants to build a name for themselves,” Ursi says, “But, only a handful of people can obtain that.” Ursi rattled off Canadian writers Andrew Coyne and Malcolm Gladwell, two journalists who have successfully created brands for themselves. It’s almost unnecessary to list Gladwell’s resume because his New Yorker articles have allowed his name to speak for itself. Similarly, one might think of Jan Wong and her eyebrow-raising column “Lunch With”, without solely identifying her with the Globe.
Building a brand is not an overnight process. Once you’ve determined an area of interest you need to write. A lot. Transforming features into books is one way to start forming a strong reputation. As journalists we know the majority of information we have for a feature is never seen by our readers. All those extra scenes, anecdotes and background can be used to continue to the story in book form. To further associate yourself with a particular writing style or topic, ensure you can be easily found online. Besides having a website, a blog is a useful tool that allows you to self-publish and generate publicity. If what you’re writing about is interesting and important enough to start people talking, your name will be associated with those ideas. For example, D.B. Scott has become very well-known through his blog Canadian Magazines, which reports daily news about the magazine industry.
But having a blog or books also doesn’t guarantee you work. “The market just keeps getting more and more crowded,” Ursi says. The challenge still remains the same, with or without brand.