Fame and Obscurity at The New York Times

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.

Fame and Obscurity at The New York Times