When The New York Times hired 21-year-old Brian Stelter to write about digital media and television for the paper’s Business section, most stories about the hire noted two things: Mr. Stelter’s age, and his success in turning TV Newser, a blog about, mostly, cable TV, into a must-read in the industry.
Three months later, it seems clear the hire means a lot more than that. It’s a sign that the Times is transforming its oldest institutional prejudices and promoting its reporters as brands in themselves.
Mr. Stelter was hired under The New York Times’ “8i” program, which for years hired young reporters on a probationary basis, rotating them around usually to several different desks and then opting to make them permanent (union) employees if they proved themselves. No one was expected to start in the program with a specialty already developed (at least, developed to Times specifications). But sources said it seems unlikely, now that his TV Decoder blog has launched (complete with his photo) and his noncompete from his former employer, Mediabistro, expires in two months (which means he’ll be able to start writing about his specialty, cable news), that the Times will suddenly decide to switch Mr. Stelter to, say, Metro.
After checking with his editor, Mr. Stelter said he could not comment for this story.
Mr. Stelter’s rise to one of the most coveted jobs in journalism as a probationary reporter is proof that a bit of conventional wisdom for success on the Web—establish a brand!—is now good career advice at the newspaper of record, too.
Not too long ago only the giants of the mainstream media world—the Tom Wolfes and the Joan Didions—were bona fide media personalities. It was a class you aspired to, and few reached. Someone, usually Esquire, was always there to cut the likes of Gay Talese a fat check, and Tom Wolfe’s adoption of the trademark white suit was hardly an accident—it was a deliberate extension of Tom Wolfe, the brand.
That was before anyone with a blog and a Flickr account could burrow into a writerly niche and, if all went according to plan, come out burnished by the soft glow of Internet fame. The days when a writer actually had to have a body of significant work in print to be famous are over. Now, a sort of equivalency gets established between Tom Wolfe and … Perez Hilton?
“Reporters used to be one more byline in a sea of bylines,” said New York Times media columnist David Carr. “But through the nature of the Internet, people can become their own destination. I think a tendency to focus on personality and celebrity accrues, in a small way, to journalists. The cult of personality rolls over to all endeavors.”
At one time the whole appeal of the life of the young journalist was that you could happily slip into one world, and then slip out into another; to start out writing about the Vatican and find yourself, years later, reviewing restaurants. And if you were good enough, you got yourself a late-career sinecure that was the love of your life. First came the work, then came the brand.
The idea that a personal brand was necessary to start out in this brave new economy accelerated in 1997 with the publication of an influential Fast Company essay, “The Brand Called You,” by the business management guru Tom Peters (author of such self-helpy tomes as The Pursuit of WOW! and The Circle of Innovation: You Can’t Shrink Your Way to Greatness). “We are the CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc.,” Peters wrote. “To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”
It used to be okay for, say, salespeople or career coaches to establish Me Inc.
But in the past couple years, journalism seems to have steeled its palate for the rotten taste of personal marketing.
On Oct. 13, Columbia Journalism School held a day-long workshop called “Building A Personal Website and Your Online Brand”; the attendees were all “working journalists.” In the morning session, the workshop leader, Columbia J-school Dean of Students Sree Sreenivasan, led the participants through a number of journalists’ Web sites, and asked which sites they found useful and which they didn’t. One woman of a certain age raised her hand. “I went to one Web site, I can’t remember which, and the journalist had written her bio in the first person!” she declared. “I didn’t like that. Bios should be written in the third person.”
But with the onslaught of commercial blogs and the royal “we,” the third person has gone the way of the IBM Selectric. The journalistic culture in which columnists were the only ones allowed to have a personality, and everyone else’s bylines were practically interchangeable, is practically gone.
In geological terms, this is just the latest in an ancient shift. The Times didn’t even have bylines for all its reporters until the 1970’s, reserving the privilege for star reporters and/or exclusive, Page One stories. It was a big deal when a reporter got his or her first byline; in his autobiography City Room, Arthur Gelb recalls that when his byline first appeared in the paper, in October 1948, it was cause for celebration at ‘21’. The reasoning was, as editor Murray Schumach explained, “When the credit goes to the paper rather than the reporter, you get more teamwork among the staff. Personal vanities are curtailed. You are important not as an individual but because you represent the New York Times.”
Today, even Times reporters who are hardly household names are encouraged to set up pages on nytimes.com with a list of their Web site “picks,” so we can get to know them better. Why does it matter that science reporter Andrew Revkin reads the Bad Astronomy Blog? Mr. Revkin’s Web site picks, along with those of several of his peers’, can be found in the “My Times” section of the paper’s Web site. My Times is only the latest manifestation of the reporter “brand” at the paper; in a 2001 interview, Renata Adler remarked that “the moment of the reporter’s becoming a celebrity himself, or herself, is not unrelated to that moment” when bylines were instituted.
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.”