The perils of hiring “name brand” journalists

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

In my interview last month with Jake Swearingen, social media editor at The Atlantic, Swearingen’s assessment of Twitter and its role in driving real traffic to news stories could only be considered bearish. “Twitter doesn’t drive a lot of referral traffic, and it doesn’t drive a lot of referral traffic for us,” he told me. “I think if we were just looking at referral traffic, we could stop posting on Twitter all together and we would take a traffic hit, but it wouldn’t be a significant one.” He had one exception to this declaration, however. “Ta-Nehisi Coates, pretty much anything he writes is going to do well, and where it does really well is on Twitter. Because when he says ‘I have a story,’ it’s something people pass around really quickly.”

In his several years as a senior editor and blogger at The Atlantic, Coates has benefited greatly from the institutional credibility the venerable magazine lent him and has successfully built his own devoted audience. As described in a great CJR profile of him, Coates has amassed a small army of intelligent, thoughtful commenters, the kind of community every editor wishes for as he gazes at the racist bile and detritus that floods nearly every article comment section on the internet. This loyal audience has made Coates extremely valuable to The Atlantic, in fact a case could made that he’s the magazine’s most valuable employee and the person whose departure would cause the most damage. This is because those fans who follow Coates and click dutifully on his Twitter links  do so not because he writes for The Atlantic, but because the content was written by Coates, and at this point he could pick up and leave, bringing the majority of those readers with him.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the Brian Williams fiasco still plaguing NBC News, it’s that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in a single media basket. What might have been an otherwise routine series of disciplinary actions taken against a TV journalist blew up into a network-wide crisis simply because NBC had spent the better part of a decade building a brand that rested upon a single person: Williams.

In a recent behind-the-scenes tell-all published in Vanity Fair, we learn that this over-reliance on the personal brand was compounded after Comcast’s purchase of NBC in 2010. The new raft of executives Comcast brought in “time and again proved unable to rein in the news division’s high-priced talent.” As one anonymous source put it, “You have kids? Well, if you let them, they’ll have ice cream every night. Same thing in TV. If you let the people on air do what they want, whenever they want, this is what happens.” Once you transfer too much power to a few on-air personalities, then each acts as a keystone, a central foundation, the removal of which causes the entire apparatus to tumble down.

NBC can’t be entirely blamed for this strategy, however. As Frank Rich lays out in a brilliant history of the network news anchor, this personality-driven approach to TV news has its roots in the mid-20th century, when networks eschewed journalistic pedigree and instead focused on hiring square-chinned entertainers with charm and good looks.

The network anchor’s roots are not in journalism but in the native cultural tradition apotheosized by L. Frank Baum. Like the Wizard of Oz (as executive-produced by Professor Marvel), anchors have often been fronts for those pulling the strings behind the curtain: governments and sponsors, not to mention those who actually do the work of reporting the news. With their larger-than-life heads looming into our living rooms, the anchors have been brilliant at selling the conceit that a resonant voice, an avuncular temperament, a glitzy, thronelike set, and the illusion of omniscience could augment the audience’s brains, hearts, and “courage” (at one point, a Dan Rather sign-off) as it tries to navigate a treacherous world. Just don’t look behind the curtain. Many of the charges leveled against Williams for conduct unbecoming an anchorman could be made against his predecessors too.

For most of news print’s history, the medium has avoided this personality-based approach to journalism. Sure, every reporter has a byline, and she is expected to gain credibility within her beat, especially among sources, but it was somewhat rare for a journalist to gain anything approaching celebrity status unless she published a book.

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All that has changed, however, with the rise of the internet and cable news. Beltway reporters now clamor to get invited on as on-air commentators for MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News, and in some cases their employers task PR staff to actively pitch these reporters to cable news producers. At the same time, every aspiring reporter is now expected to be building out a “personal brand” before even graduating college. In addition to the standard byline, most media outlets also include a small bio, along with a photo and link to the journalist’s Twitter account, at the bottom of every story. We’re now seeing the breathless coverage of reporter job hopping — Joe Weisenthal decamping Business Insider to join Bloomberg, Felix Salmon leaving Reuters to head up Fusion — that was typically reserved for celebrities in tabloid mags. A new generation of media-focused publications, from Capital New York to Digiday, have arisen to cover the inside baseball of these rising journo celebrities.

As I wrote last week, we’ve seen an increasing trend of writers and other artists finding ways to dispel of the middlemen, and media companies risk becoming nothing but dumb pipes through which readers flow to the real brands they’re seeking out: the journalists themselves. For the most part, news orgs are actively encouraging this personality brand building. One of the few exceptions is The Economist, which not only famously eschews bylines entirely, but also has an active policy not even to link to outside sources. It’s hoarding its readers, lest any of them decamp to a competing publication. With its circulation at an all-time high, its strategy has seemed especially prescient.

While The Economist’s approach might be a little extreme, it’s worth studying as media companies struggle to define their place in a world where the majority of traffic is now being driven through side doors like Facebook and Google. How many mini versions of Brian Williams, upon whom publications’ futures are increasingly reliant, are being unleashed upon the world, and how can investment in them continue to produce longterm value? The Atlantic was forced to confront this problem head-on in 2011 when Andrew Sullivan announced he was leaving the magazine to blog for the Daily Beast. At the time, Sullivan was responsible for up to 75 percent of The Atlantic’s traffic and had been widely credited for placing the magazine on the path to online profitability. Luckily, it was able to adjust to the loss and continue to increase its web dominance. Still, I can’t help but wonder if Atlantic executives, after facing the mass exodus of Sullivan’s audience, view Coates’s own success building a readership with a certain level of wariness. After all, how can they read about the comings and goings announced each week in Capital New York and not recognize that Coates — and his audience — are just one job offer away from departing?

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via The Lavin Agency