Dear Gene: A Self-Branding Reply To Gene Weingarten's Self-Branding Column About Self-Branding

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Dear Gene,

I was just reading your most recent Washington Post column: an open letter to a j-school student who wrote to you, at her professor’s behest, asking how you built your “personal brand” in journalism. You sure showed her!

Of course, you’re absolutely right that the desire to build a “personal brand” has encouraged some journalists to eschew good reporting in favor of self-aggrandizing positioning statements calculated to increase their own popularity. Similarly, I share your frustration at how user generated content is taking over from real journalism. No-one hates “users” more than me, Gene.

Still, a couple of points you might have considered before filing your column. First, If you’re going to embarrass a journalism student to set up a rant about personal branding and user generated content, it’s probably not a good idea to do it in a photo-bylined column (personal branding!) in which you use a letter you received from a reader (user generated content!) to artfully position yourself as an old-school newsman…

“When I was a hungry young reporter in the 1970s, I thought of myself as a superman, an invincible crusader for truth and justice — even though, looking back at old pictures, I now see that I resembled an emaciated weasel in unattractive clothing. My goals, however, were unambiguous, and heroic: 1) Get great stories that improve the world. 2) Get famous. 3) Get doe-eyed young women to lean in close and whisper, “Take me.” Note the order. First came the work.”

Second, before you get carried away gushing about how much better the old days were — “the media superstars of today are no longer people such as Bob Woodward, who break big stories, but people like Bill O’Reilly…” — it’s worth remembering that Bob Woodward was, and is, a model self-brander — a man who co-wrote a book, that later became a movie, about how he and his partner brought down a president. In fairness, though, Carl Bernstein was even better at it: see William Goldman’s account of how Bernstein insisted on tweaking the screenplay of All The Presidents Men to make himself seem sexier.

The truth is, Gene, there’s no reason why good journalism and personal branding must be mutually exclusive. Or that they should be. In fact, in a world in which news has been commoditised to the point where no-one will pay for raw facts, it’s the self-branders — those who inject personality, attitude and (dare I say?) opinion into their reporting — who will keep readers flooding through the paywalls, ensuring the survival of the industry we both love.

Speaking of which, who was it who inspired you to get into this game in the first place, Gene? Was it Woodward? Tom Wolfe? Hunter S. Thompson? Whoever it was, I bet he or she was a self-brander — they just didn’t use the word back then.

Keep fighting the good fight!

Paul