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So What’s So Wrong with Branding?

Is there anything more tiresome than an old-media guy bemoaning the new-fangled ways of new media?  A friend sent me a recent piece by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten in which he responded to an email query from a young journalism student in this way:

At the behest of your instructor, you emailed me to ask how I’ve “built my personal brand over the years.”  I’m answering with this column.

The best way to build a brand is to take a 3-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot.  Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.

Very funny.  Weingarten is a clever writer, but even making allowances for a columnist’s need to come up with topics to be witty about, I’ve seen this kind of piece too many times.  Grumpy Old Guy – and it always seems to be a guy – laments/satirizes/excoriates/bitches about some new trend that he doesn’t get. For me it’s too often the case that the proud curmudgeons who write these pieces are just not mentally agile enough to understand that perhaps some ancient wine is being rebottled with a new label.

What sets Weingarten off here is the word “branding” – a term he doesn’t like at all. As he puts it:

We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity. From this execrable marketing trend arises the term you ask me about: “branding.”

I would ask Weingarten a few questions about his piece:

First, who said the craft of journalism is a “calling”? Hasn’t journalism always been a “commodity” in that journalists are traditionally paid for their work? As A.J. Liebling said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

Photo of Andy Rooney

Another old-media crank announced his retirement from "60 Minutes" this week.

When did ink-stained wretches and scribblers become “journalists”? Answer: only about 1820, when this rather high-falutin’ notion was imported from France. The notion of journalists as a self-appointed priesthood set up to pursue “truth,” guard the temple of news, and interpret it for readers is not unique to Weingarten, but neither was it handed down in a holy book. It wasn’t until 1922, in fact, that the American Society of Newspaper Editors adopted a Statement of Principles, which they aptly called the “Canons of Journalism.”

Isn’t a journalist’s “brand” really another name for a very traditional notion – reputation? “A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has said. “You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well. “

We have a whole string of synonyms in English for this much-desired attribute – “regard”; “esteem”; “good name”; “street cred.” It’s true that the word “brand” emphasizes the self-promotional aspects, the hustler’s side of reputation, but I think ambition is far from unknown in the newsrooms Weingarten has inhabited throughout his career.

And what, by the way, is your personal brand, Mr. Weingarten? The conventional new-media wisdom is that you find the Brand of You by Googling your name and seeing what turns up on the front page. (If Google’s top 10 contains people with the same name as yours – but not you – you have a real problem.)

I took the trouble to Google Weingarten and was not surprised to discover that he has a platinum-plated brand. Google kicks off “Gene Weingarten,” with one of his Washington Post columns (on DC voting rights), then lists his column in general in the Post, and then a Wikipedia entry beginning with these words: “Gene Weingarten (born October 2, 1951 in New York) is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known for both his serious and humorous work.”

Photo of Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso as a grand old artist.

Then we get his Twitter account, a form for sending him an email at the Post, and a Pulitzer-winning article he wrote. A journalist’s brand does not get much better than that. Weingarten’s brush-off of the branding query from the wannabe-journalist kid is like the grand old jet-setting Picasso telling a starving young artist, “Ah, don’t worry about your reputation, don’t be concerned with finding a gallery. Just paint.”

One last point: in the Web world in which we all dwell, you don’t have a choice about this brand thing. Branding is like making decisions about your personal wealth. Even if you decide to do nothing – that is, not to play the game – doing nothing is a decision about your money. If the kid journalist doesn’t make an effort to brand herself, the world will soon brand her.

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