Personal branding should come easy to most journalists – it requires drive, networking and a hint of arrogance. It’s one of those buzzwords that gets bandied around frequently, and it’s used to describe a journalist’s image – what they do best becomes an extension of their name, and the two become one and the same.
We should really be living in a post-personal brand age – one where it’s become the norm and we know about what each individual does and what they’re good at. Two people who are endlessly cited as being masters of the personal brand to secure work are Josh Halliday and Dave Lee. I’m not going to repeat what’s been said elsewhere so you can read up on them at this BBC blog post, but they got their jobs at the Guardian and the BBC respectively by carving out a niche for themselves while still at university, Dave through his blog and Josh through a hyperlocal website.
Would students with comparable skills be picked up today? Unlikely. Take Marc Thomas, a student currently completing
an MA a postgraduate diploma at Cardiff University. He set up Plastik Magazine on his own and is using it to map alternative Welsh culture. He’s also released “Plastik Pass” – a citywide discount card that lets you save money at sandwich shops, boutiques and art galleries.
Incredibly innovative and forward thinking, and it’s the same kind of strategy that has made Monocle such a success story. As far as I’m aware, (and he’s free to correct me on this) Marc hasn’t been offered a full time job at any publications. I can’t help but think that if Marc was doing what he does now 2 or 3 years ago he’d be heralded as another wunderkind of journalism. Times move on, and the media industry’s mood changes. Something like a hyperlocal website isn’t particularly unusual anymore. Hell, even I run one.
At the beginning of the year I hurriedly penned a post on 3 Journalism New Year’s Resolutions. Point three was my worry that I had yet to develop a specialty in journalism, and that something transient like multimedia storytelling was less credible than a knowledge of finance or politics.
But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps the fact that online journalism constantly continues to evolve means that it can potentially become one of the hardest skills to master? Subjects like politics, international relations and science are locked in time. That’s not to say there is no progression in their fields, but they are rules-based systems.
Online journalism has no rules. And to be considered innovative over a sustained period of time you have to constantly keep up with the evolving ecosystem by signing up to new apps, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and testing out things that aren’t even built for journalists with a view to integrating them into a wider news operation. What’s impressive now may not be in a year’s time. Adam Westbrook was the only person on his course at City university who had a blog, and that was only four years ago – something that has definitely changed.
Josh Halliday writes in the above linked post:
As a friend once said to me: “The difference between those who make it into the industry and those who don’t is that the successful ones were student journalists, as opposed to being merely journalism students.”
I think this statement is problematic. A student journalist implies someone who produces journalism, and happens to be a student. Whereas a journalism student implies someone who is constantly willing to learn, be proved wrong and explore new (possibly theoretical) ways of storytelling within the conventional framework.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, but I think we should all be journalism students, from the unpaid intern to the overpaid executive. Without accepting that we all have things to learn then there will never be any progression in this industry. We’re all journalism students, and we should never assume that we’ve graduated – we’re just moving onto the next assignment.
And that’s where people like Marc come in. Marc is actually embarking on his own entrepreneurial adventure to commercialise Plastik Journal. We need to encourage more people like him – because at the moment being innovative doesn’t make financial sense.
Dave and Josh both plied their trade as prolific journalism students, but had to largely leave their personal brands behind once they entered the work of work. Witness Josh’s Twitter feed changing from patter about changes in local journalism and blog posts outlining online tools to an automated feed that pushes his latest article from the Guardian’s Technology section.
This is in no way his fault, but people like him, Dave, Marc and the Wannabe Hacks should really be given more say in the way an organisation is run. Right now the industry’s strategy seems to be offering conventional jobs to talented graduates who were spotted precisely because they were unconventional. And there’s nothing personal about that.