The balance of power in media continues to shift away from the major news outlets toward the journalists who work for them.
Ezra Klein's departure from the Washington Post for Vox Media is just the latest of a string of changes that illustrate the rise of the journalist as a brand.
For journalists working in the trenches who do not drive millions of page views a month, the trend represents an opportunity. More news organizations are recognizing that their competitive edge comes from having staff members who are subject-area experts the public trusts and relies on.
Beacons through the fog
As I touched on in a previous blog post, there is so much noise, gossip and garbage on the web that users are seeking beacons of credibility.
They are turning to social media, RSS feeds, automated searches and other tools to send them information they care about and can trust. The news they want is just as likely to come from a particular journalist or blogger as from a particular news outlet.
News organizations now find themselves in an awkward position. In order to ensure high traffic to their websites, they need to promote their journalists as brands. But in branding their journalists, they make it more difficult to keep them.
Today journalists have the opportunity -- the necessity, really -- to create their own brand identity to make themselves attractive in a volatile job market. A journalist's career may outlast the brand of the media organization they are working for. Large traditional news organizations are struggling financially, and digital news organizations often have a short life cycle. A personal brand represents employability, which is the new form of job security. Now is not the time to be modest.
One organization's strategy
American City Business Journals, which has weekly newspapers in 40 cities around the U.S. and websites in three more, has recently adopted a strategy of promoting its reporters as subject-area experts as part of a major redesign of its products and processes.
The redesigned print products feature "reporter pages," where journalists write insidery items that display their knowledge of local trends in real estate, banking, health care, energy and higher education, topics that have always been strengths of the Business Journals.
(Disclosure: I worked for ACBJ as an editor and publisher and recently worked for them as a consultant, but was not involved in the redesign project.)
ACBJ hired famed designer Mario Garcia's firm to guide the transformation from processes focused on print to a "digital first" news philosophy.
Reporters are adopting a more conversational style suited for the web, and they often go into how they got a story. This kind of transparency was not part of a print mentality but is fundamental on the web.
The Portland Business Journal's coverage of Nike's headquarters expansion offers an example of how the new strategy is supposed to work, Garcia says on his blog.
Rumors were circulating last August that Nike was being wooed to leave Oregon, which would have had negative economic impact on the state. The reporter covering Nike decided to look into the company's real estate holdings. Over several days of web reports, he revealed that Nike's recent purchases indicated it likely planned to stay in Oregon.
The reporter also described his reporting process -- "how I got the story" -- in a transparent way that was traditionally avoided in print but is part of the web's interactive relationship with the audience.
Spin forward into print
For Portland's print edition, the web reports were combined with maps and aerial photos in a multi-page package titled "Swooshville" (playing on Nike's Swoosh logo) "in the ultimate lean-back experience with a centerpiece story telling readers about the campus expansion, why it matters to Oregon and what could be next for Nike."
ACBJ's chief content officer, Emory Thomas, calls this "spinning the news forward" from the web into the print edition. Despite being bombarded with information on the web, readers actually want more information, in more places, more often about topics they really care about, Thomas said.
Implications for journalists
The media outlet no longer owns the audience. It has to share that audience with the people who generate it. The goal for journalists should be to distinguish themselves from the rest of the producers of web content by their high standards of accuracy and ethics as well as their communication skills.
In this environment, communication can't be one-way. Journalists have to engage with their audience because it is the audience that helps define them and their brand. That audience is loyal and it has value, a value that the journalist can carry wherever he or she goes. As many are doing now.
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