Individual as Brand – Sustaining news during the Unthinkable

March 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Journalists, Media, Print

A picture from the top of the Geoman Press at ...

Who else can have an opinion on Clay Shirky’s Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable? Me, apparently, but maybe I’m coming at it from a different angle. When thinking of a business model destroyed, the first thing that came to mind was recent discussions about the individual as a brand. Specifically Andy Dickinson’s contribution to the Carnival of Journalism in December 2008, where he said 2009 is the year of the individual journalist. I’m not suggesting I have any answers, but here’s one of those fanciful theories: Maybe the individual as a brand can sustain news beyond “The Unthinkable”.

The December 2009 Carnival of Journalism host was founder David Cohn and, ever the optimist, the topic of discussion leading into 2009 was Positive new media predictions for the year 2009. It was in this context, looking for the good in the approaching storm, that Dickinson predicted the rise of the individually branded journalist.

This post began as a comment on Ben Wilks’ blog, and is here expanded.

As “fixes” for the news industry go none have been found, and Clay Shirky suggests none will be found.  I’m in agreement with some of what Shirky says, that there is no single solution that will be able to be successfully applied to every newspaper or traditional media operation.

As someone who occasionally muses about the future of journalism, I no longer try to think of a panacea for the news industry, but rather about new approaches that might help the individual survive, whether they be content maker, distributor, or distiller. That leads to the question of what now defines a “journalist”, but I won’t go there now.

When applying to myself that consideration about what is best for the individual I don’t see it as selfish at all. If I can discover something that will financially sustain me as an individual journalist and, by extension, my family, it may also prove useful to others. Through my “brand” – be that this website, my other social networking homes, or my employer – I can distribute that information to others, and from there my success or failure can be adopted in full, copied, edited or mashed up to create a new, better solution.

As much as I dislike engaging in marketing-speak, I think it entirely plausible that the individual as a “brand” can be self-sustaining in niche reporting. Not only that, the individual can more quickly adapt as and when required to new technologies or techniques. If innovation is a faster process at the individual level, a higher volume and speed of experimentation allows ineffectual ideas to be sooner discarded and, for the optimist, a good chance of sooner solving their corner of the puzzle.

Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

Clay Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

Finally, if the individual creates something sustainable perhaps its form will successfully translate to larger groups. Maybe, just maybe, the sustainability discovered by and for just one person can eventually return full circle to a business model that can work for mainstream media.

If you haven’t read it, Shirky’s Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable (which, for a differing view, has been well critiqued by Adrian Monck) suggests the current situation newspapers are facing is similar to that of the introduction of the printing press around 1400. There was literary history before the printing press, where books were unknown, and literary history after the introduction of the printing press, where the old, impractical forms of reading were left behind. Shirky suggests the history people forget is that of transition, a time of wild experimentation and epic failure, where nobody could possibly know what a successful product was supposed to look like.

It is that history of revolutionary transition Shirky suggests newspaper journalism should consider itself to now be in. The “unthinkable” is that prospect that nobody wants to talk about, a business model that has so irrevocably changed that there is no going back to what was there before.

Further Reading:

Excellent post by Dave Cohn about “branding”:It is NOT personal branding – it’s Just living your life online.

Some Australian Twitter examples from Tiphereth: What’s in a name? More on building brand You.

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2 Responses to “Individual as Brand – Sustaining news during the Unthinkable”
  1. Dave Earley says:

    @Dave I agree, it’s going to be interesting who the “journalists” are. It’s either going to be the traditional “journalist” working in a mainstream media newsroom or, as you say, self-proclaimed journalists, or people who have become an authority figure or trusted source in their area/s of interest. And they’re likely to not feel any identification with the “journalist” tag.

    And it’s so easy to start a blog or some other form of online publication (YouTube videos) to just show yourself for who you are.

  2. Digidave says:

    I really think it is going to come down to “personal branding” although as I explain in the post – that just means living your life online.

    In other words: Start a blog and prove your own credibility and value. 

    If you don’t do that – why would anyone trust anything you write? Why would a struggling news org hire you? 

    The internet causes hyper-connections. So the connections that you foster are going to be with individuals. Same goes for journalism – which will be practiced by people who are self-proclaimed journalists, or people who just happen to be doing journalism.

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