November 13, 2020

The One Area of Media Where the “Individual Brand” Model Breaks Down

The creator is the product. Media companies are talent businesses. These narratives are increasingly popping up in conversation and for good reason. They have tremendous truth to them.

Let’s use this tweet as an example:

Jarrod and I could create a book with all the DMs of us talking about these sorts of things incessantly. This is an example of where a theoretically good idea could get lost without finesse and media companies would make mistakes.

Before we jump into that, let me talk about the election for a minute…

When the election was happening, my girlfriend wanted to turn on CNN because she remembered Wolf Blitzer. Despite the fact we never watch cable news, when it came time to watch the results, Blitzer was the go-to choice. He had developed a brand as someone that was informed.

For the record, we turned the TV off after about an hour because it wasn’t giving us what we wanted and we realized it was simply making us more anxious. There’s something special about cable news where anchors can take a single shred of news and turn it into hours and hours of content.

And yet, there’s one person who is more informed about the Donald Trump White House than anyone else. That’s The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman. In this piece by Ben Smith:

That was the beginning of the end of one of the most astonishing runs in the history of American journalism. Ms. Haberman has been, for the last four years, the source of a remarkably large share of what we know about Donald Trump and his White House, from the Mueller investigation to his personal battle with the coronavirus to his refusal to accept defeat. She’s done more than a story a day, on average, and stories with her byline have accounted for hundreds of millions of page views this year alone. That’s more than anyone else at The Times.

Despite the fact Haberman would know better than anyone else, it never once crossed my mind to seek out her tweets or articles. Why is that? I don’t passively make the connection of her expertise until I am actively thinking about it.

There are two reasons this might be the case. First, Haberman doesn’t introduce opinion in her reporting; it’s just reporting. I never hear what she thinks. Second, the user experience of The New York Times gives a tiny amount of exposure to the individual reporter; instead, the focus is on the brand of the paper.

This, by the way, contributes to why Haberman has a love-hate relationship with the people that read her reporting. As Smith explains:

Women in journalism, and high-profile women at The Times, in particular, receive unending abuse on the platform. The worst of it has come courtesy of Mr. Trump. “I don’t think that people fully understand what it’s like when the president of the United States is personally attacking you,” she said, noting that while it’s simply the way Mr. Trump works, among his supporters “there are enough people who think that’s real and who don’t get that.”

But other days, the abuse has come from Mr. Trump’s critics, who are sometimes simply shooting the messenger. And there have been times, Ms. Haberman said, that she just sends an off-key tweet to her 1.5 million followers and tortures herself for it.

When she writes something that is negative on Trump, the more liberal audience of The New York Times loves her. And when her reporting is neutral or positive on Trump, that same audience hates her.

I use this as a qualifier to Jarrod’s tweet because I think this is missing nuance that is worth discussing.

Opinion supports this model; not news

If we go back to a point I made above: “There’s something special about cable news where anchors can take a single shred of news and turn it into hours and hours of content.”

The way they do this is by introducing more than just news. Whether it’s in their style of interview where they forcefully push back on a source on camera or it’s because of the opinion and analysis that’s discussed, a single shred of information suddenly stretches. Throughout that hour of cable I watched, I hear the words “I think” many times.

That “I think” is introducing opinion to the discussion. People like to hear expert’s opinions. People are likely to gravitate toward experts with the same opinion as they have. And over months and years of similar “I think” statements, viewers quickly understand whether they are aligned to those views.

To be clear, I fit in the same bucket as a CNN anchor (though perhaps a bit less sensational). I have an opinion about media. I’m pro-vertical media. I’m anti-pivot to video. I’m pro-diversified media business. I’m increasingly anti-programmatic. A solid number of my subscribers work for vertical media companies that are diversified and haven’t invested a ton in video.

I’d like to believe that people that don’t fit those opinions will still want to subscribe to A Media Operator for my analysis.

I have been able to build a business around my thoughts. Everything I have achieved over the past 14 months is because of this. The consulting deals I’ve done. The tens of thousands in subscriber revenue. The new, exciting job I have. All because I started sharing my opinions and thoughts about the business of media.

If all I did was report on what was happening in media without including any of my thoughts to it, I question whether I would have as thriving of a community.

All of this is to say that building franchises around individual people, like Jarrod is suggesting, is very easy when that person is stepping forward with their opinion. However, when there is no opinion for an audience to relate to, it becomes harder to build a franchise around that person.

Why I bring this up

The statement that “exponential growth based on the amount of creators, each as their own business” could result in media companies making bizarre pivots to new models when the strategy might not make sense for their structure.

For organizations with people offering their opinion, follow Jarrod’s tweet verbatim. CNN doesn’t matter; Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer matter. Find ways to extend those talented people and accrue more value from them. You are a talent company.

For organizations that are primarily news driven, it’s unlikely that any of the journalists are going to become brands in and of themselves. They may develop small followings, but by and large, the value of their work accrues to the brand that they work for. In Haberman’s case, that’s The New York Times.

Because the individual is simply reporting on what’s happening, it’s unlikely we can create a brand and franchise around them. When your job is to get other people’s thoughts on paper or in audio, any great thoughts come from other people rather than yourself.

Where this shifts is when a news organization can introduce opportunity for their reporters to offer “I think” statements. When they can answer questions about what they think will happen rather than what other people are telling them will happen, communities start to be created. That’s something people gravitate to and, ultimately, pay for.

So, before media companies start making this drastic pivot to create franchises around individuals, it helps to analyze what type of organization you are. Are your people simply reporting what others are saying or are they offering their own opinion and analysis?

Sometimes we don’t need to pivot to the next major trend.