And now comes the death of another Times-ian bugaboo: the notion that the genius of the true Times reporter was proved by working in Washington, then Hollywood, then Iraq, then in Styles; that when your byline became synonymous with a certain beat, it was time to switch, not time for a raise.
That philosophy has not disappeared; Rome bureau chief Frank Bruni, for example, is now the paper’s food critic, and star reporters like Jennifer Steinhauer (now the Los Angeles bureau chief) were allowed to rotate through various high-profile beats.
But nor is Mr. Stelter the only exception to it; in the past year, the paper has put more and more of its stars online and turned them into their own personalities. Former Metro wunderkind/byline enthusiast Sewell Chan was put in charge of the Metro blog City Room; Business desk wunderkind Andrew Ross Sorkin started the Dealbook blog. The difference, of course, is that those two are, for the most part, homegrown brands; Mr. Stelter was a brand that the Times wanted under its aegis.
“When an organization helps the individual build a brand, then the individual decides, I can detach from the mothership and do my own thing,” said Mr. Carr. “People should be really careful about that. Sometimes when I go places I feel like a really big deal—but I wonder how big of a deal I’d be if my last name wasn’t New York Times. I’m not addicted to that, but I’m ever mindful. When people are kissing me on both cheeks, one of those cheeks says New York Times. I’m not under any illusions, but there are people who have left the gravitational pull of the organization they represent.”
But not all young reporters have Mr. Carr’s faith in the future of media’s great old institutions. They’re blindsided by this increased trend towards specialization and the sense that if you don’t have a blog, your byline is essentially interchangeable—and in their minds, that is not a good thing.
Perhaps no one in the current New York media landscape has taken this anxiety further—or transformed it to greater effect—than Julia Allison, the 25-year-old former AM New York/current Time Out dating columnist and Star magazine “editor-at-large” who’s combined Paris Hilton’s love for the camera with an Ann Coulter’s willingness to be quoted saying anything, anytime, and Ayn Rand’s ruthless brand of self-preservation.
“I looked around, and I saw that the people who were getting assignments and getting paid really nicely for it were names. They were brands,” said Ms. Allison. “All journalists are journeymen. You might have a P.R. team you work with at your magazine that’s taking care of the magazine, but who’s taking care of YOU? Ultimately, you’re replaceable if you’re not a brand.”
Ten years ago, most journalists bristled at the description of themselves as “brands”; they probably would have agreed with Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, who wrote in 2000 that personal branding is “distasteful for being blatantly ambitious, sneaky and superficial.”
For Robert Boynton, director of the magazine writing program at New York University’s journalism department, the language of branding is inherently galling. “Marketing, to me, always assumes the product is fine, we just have to figure out how to get people to buy it,” he said. “With journalism, the product isn’t fine! The idea that everything’s okay, we just have to figure out a better way to penetrate the market—no! We have to train people to be thoughtful and suggestive, creative writers.”
Today, being “blatantly ambitious” has different overtones; we live in an era in which we’ve convinced ourselves that nearly any behavior is okay, as long as we’re up front about it. The only thing worse than blatant ambition, after all, is false modesty. Danyelle Freeman, who started the food blog Restaurant Girl in February 2006, was hired by the Daily News to be its restaurant critic less than a year and a half later. “I did want to create a brand I could carry out and replicate, because I think that it’s important for people to find a voice that’s credible enough for them to be loyal to and believe in and trust their judgment,” said Ms. Freeman, who is 33. “I plan on keeping my blog forever. It wasn’t a means to an end—I believe in my Web site as much as I believe in the Daily News.” She plans on expanding the Restaurant Girl concept to other cities, “like a Daily Candy. Obviously they’re on a much larger scale, but something like that type of branding, the same way Zagat and other people do it.”
Talking to Ms. Freeman—who has come under fire for revealing her identity and taking her meals on the house when she reviews a restaurant—journalism sounds rather more like a business proposition than a vocation, with its own oaths, its own ethos, its own purpose.
The questions is whether the new new new journalism will ultimately be rewarded or discarded by the media mainstream.
“There are people who have tried to brand themselves, but they don’t have the goods,” said Mr. Carr. “That never works. People don’t want marketing—they want the goods. Branding is fundamentally meritocratic; it’s not smoke and mirrors.”