The Benefits and Dangers of Personal Brand Journalism

Earlier this month, John Allen, Jr. announced that he would be leaving the National Catholic Reporter to take a new position at The Boston Globe. In its press release about the hiring, the Globe included this interesting nugget: “(Allen) will also help us explore the very real possibility of launching a free-standing publication devoted to Catholicism, drawing in other correspondents and leading voices from near and far.”

Allen’s move comes days after Wonkblog founder Ezra Klein’s pitch to the Washington Post for “an ‘eight-figure’ investment to launch a new site focused on explanatory journalism.” It also comes as Nate Silver, erstwhile New York Times employee and current Editor-in-Chief of FiveThirtyEight, prepares to re-launch his site as a Disney venture.

These and other recent high-profile journalist departures from newspapers (Walt Mossberg from The Wall Street Journal, Glenn Greenwald from The Guardian) are the latest indicators of what Michael Wolff calls the rise of “personal brand journalism.” Wolff argues:

There is a new vision of journalism – call it the auteur school – in which the business shifts from being organized by institutions to being organized around individual journalists with discrete followings… That’s a new notion, this solipsistic brandedness. The old organizational notion in journalism was exactly the opposite. There were never enough readers interested in one subject or one writer so you created a package of many subjects and writers, sharing the attention and the rewards.

Wolff focuses on the profitability of personal brand journalism in his column, but another question arises from his astute observation. Is personal brand journalism beneficial or harmful to the integrity of news reporting?

Newspapers, of course, are not doing well. They are losing both money and readers and have been for almost a decade. It would seem that high-profile reporters like Klein, Silver, and Greenwald would thus benefit the entire industry by leveraging their reputations to deliver high-quality reporting and content. Klein’s demand for $10+ million to start his new site seems outrageous at face value, but it suggests he is serious about providing an excellent and informative product with broad public appeal. This is certainly a good thing.

The problem with “personal brand journalism” is that while its lead figures may intend to provide substantive and objective reporting, their central roles might preclude the balanced, wide-ranging coverage that traditional news organizations provide. This doesn’t refer so much to an implicit ideological slant as to the fact that coverage will be largely aligned with each founder’s primary interests, or a more narrow news spectrum than “old media” organizations. Wonkblog tackles a pretty wide range of policy issues but does so from a specific “wonkish,” graph-based perspective. FiveThirtyEight will utilize data analysis to report on politics, business, sports, and more. Mossberg’s site focuses primarily on technology and culture.

The risk is that each of these individual ventures will lead an increasing number of viewers into more limited sub-strata of news coverage that (perhaps unintentionally) masquerades as a holistic overview of the news. Some people might argue that Wonkblog can be categorized as an objective news source that replaces the need for the Washington Post, but it’s a tough argument to win. That Klein’s name is so integrated with the site’s genesis and production reinforces the idea that it is not a true equivalent to the Post and cannot serve as a 1:1 supplement in its reporting and scope.

This issue isn’t particularly urgent at the moment. Major news sources, which provide broader coverage and demarcate news and opinion, are sufficiently vital to act as complements to personal brand journalism. But the trends are increasingly ominous going forward. The rise of “sponsored content” at sites like Time and The New York Times suggests readers will have to be more vigilant about what information is news and what constitutes well-integrated advertising. If this trend continues, more people will flow to personal brand journalism portals for their news than today, and fewer stories will be sourced from independent news organizations.

This is, in other words, a double edged sword that threatens to strike at the profitability and sustainability of objective news. The incorporation of too much sponsored content risks diluting the reputations major news organizations have developed as impartial and comprehensive, while personal brand journalism features an inherent risk of bias based on limited coverage and the influence of each key figurehead. Personal brand journalism might result in devoted readership bases that help prop up the news industry, but it does not necessarily follow that personal brand journalism is helping save the industry. The actual result might be precisely the opposite.

Of course, it’s not fair to group all of the aforementioned personal brand journalism purveyors in one uniform pool. Different blogs or sites have different aims and some might be more inclined to produce objective reporting than others. We might distinguish the problematic potential of personal brand journalism by breaking its purveyors down into different categories. Wolff distinguishes ventures like The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Business Insider from Klein and Greenwald’s sites by noting that the former are “working at a self-sustaining level.” I’d say it’s more a question of scale. The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have expanded to a point where the editorial spectrum is no longer dictated by a single person. In contrast, people like Klein and Greenwald will have more significant influence on what their sites publish.

In addition to these two groups, I would add a third category to personal brand journalism in order to recognize a separate type of new media entity: the professional blogger-curator whose only original content is his/her personal analysis of the news. The commonality between the Huffpost / Greenwald groups is that they provide readers with either original reporting or sophisticated data analysis. Larger media organizations like Huffpost might feature editorials as a driving source of traffic, but they do publish independent reporting as a key part of their content stream.

In contrast, the blogger-curator publishes no independent reporting and primarily serves as an aggregator of both original journalism and other blog content. My main point of reference here is Andrew Sullivan and his site, the Dish. Sullivan left The Daily Beast just over a year ago to launch his popular blog as a “freemium,” paywalled independent venture. The Dish is a curated collection of articles supplemented with Sullivan’s commentary; as of now, aside from interviews with Mikey Piro and Dan Savage, the Dish has published no independent journalism or sophisticated data analysis. All of the Dish’s exclusive content has been based off of Sullivan’s own reflections or ruminations.

Sullivan’s work is perhaps the most dangerous case study of how of personal brand journalism could siphon resources and traffic away from news organizations providing original content and reporting. One of Sullivan’s goals since going independent was to provide groundbreaking long-form journalism, but it remains uncertain whether Dish revenue will be able to support this initiative. In the interim, Sullivan is essentially charging readers for personal commentary and article aggregation. That readers are being asked to pay for full access to the Dish means money is flowing away from alternate news organizations that do produce independent reporting.

I do not mean to unfairly malign or downplay the quality of the work that Sullivan produces, nor do I mean to suggest that the Dish’s published material is of negligible value. The Dish is a wonderful site with an unparalleled range of content and commentary and Sullivan has every right to ask people to pay for his analysis of contemporary culture. But it seems hypocritical to hear Sullivan argue how the Dish is “building a future for a whole range of new media on the ashes of the old.” In no way has the Dish, as constructed, been able to replace traditional old media without losing the core principles of journalistic integrity that Sullivan lionizes.

Again, this is not a pressing issue now, and the popularity of personal brand journalism does not mean traditional reporting is soon to be extinct. But the question still remains: is there a way to combine the best of personal brand journalism with the broader objectivity of old media?

Perhaps this is where John Allen’s new deal with the Globe could prove instructive. Allen’s case is unlike any of the other personal brand journalists listed here. He is a reporter first instead of a commentator, and he’s partnering with a major old media institution to create something new. He’s clearly going to be the most important figure in this “free standing” Catholic publication but it’s not implied that he will be a dominant figurehead a la Klein or Silver. In many ways, it seems like Allen is splitting the difference: leveraging his credentials to do something new and specialized within the context of a broader reporting service.

This seems like a good path for old media organizations to follow: hire high-profile, respected reporters (and commentators) to run specialized affiliates that combine intensive reporting and high-quality analysis. A well-run niche site will always have viewers, and tying that site to a major news brand allows readers to access both a broad spectrum of news and a specific range of coverage with personal flair. Wonkblog is probably the most successful example of this now, though Ezra Klein’s initial influence on the site (and his affiliation with things like JournoList) skews it slightly more towards the “personal brand” side of the spectrum. That said, if I were Jeff Bezos, I would pay Klein to start that new site and try something even grander. In this climate, there will be no great rewards without risks.

It is good to see so many “new media” organizations arising amidst the ascendance of personal brand journalism. Readers are better off when there is more choice and better argued interpretations of current events. To this end, there is certainly a place at the journalism table for Sullivan’s passionate opinions, Silver’s statistical analysis, Klein’s wonkish lens, and Greenwald’s political focus. Let’s just hope “old media” organizations will be able to capture the vitality of these branded publications and employ it in the service of continued objective journalism.