March 31, 2014

A few thoughts on 'branding' and 'media gurus'

In my recent blog post about the good (well, maybe I didn't have much about that) the bad and the ugly at the newest version of Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, part of the ESPN stable, I didn't at all tackle one issue.

It's exactly the issue in the header. And, while it's not specific to him, his somewhat acrimonious divorce from his previous employer, the New York Times, and his move to a new one, ESPN, makes him the perfect lead-in.

From a New Deal liberal-type perspective, would be great to salute the likes of Silver, David Pogue and Ezra Klein (both of whom will also get more discussion below) as showing how journalists can empower themselves against the ongoing decline in the industry. After all, J-school grads at major shops (I'm going to call for-profit, big-biz type colleges "colleges" less and less in the future) are being encouraged to do just this. One could even argue that support for this is some sort of labor solidarity in general. 

Well, the initial sidebar argument is that if I want to support journalism branding, I'll say, great, let's help AlterNet brand itself better. The second argument is that, if I want to support rich entertainment journalists get richer (and I consider all three to be entertainment journalists in part, to some degree), why not support rich entertainers, like athletes and actors, fight back against sports owners and movie studios?

And, that rhetorical question should tell you a bit of how I feel about "branding" in general. Also, "branding," whether on the labor or management side, seems part of the rise of the culture of narcissism that's part of the Net 2.0 world. Old St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Kevin Horrigan has a great column with additional takes on "branding" that agree with mine.

That said, if one is to look at branding, let's look at all three.

Silver was driving jealousy at the Times, tis true. Especially with hindsight, while some of it was undeserved, to me, some of it clearly was deserved. Again, Nate, your choice on how you want to deal with critics. I'd suggest a different approach than your current on, but, maybe successful enough branding will get you enough fans seeing you as a martyr of old media.

And, of course, that's not true. In terms of today's world, ESPN is as much old media as is the Times. Given the number of properties the Times has sold off, in terms of today's world, ESPN is about as much of a Big Media outpost as the NYT, too.

You had a reputation, pre-NYT, for sports stats crunching. You'd moved into politics at the NYT. And now, with the hint of going from there into broader culture and science, you were meeting an ideal "sweet spot" for ESPN, especially if it had some plan already in place to further expand outside of traditional sports coverage. And, on the younger half (I think) of GenX age, you hit the demographic sweet spot, too. Congrats.

Klein wanted to expand his domain at the Washington Post. Unfortunately, he wasn't reading the tea leaves well, and that may say something about his chances of future success. The Post, like the Times, was contracting even before the Post sold itself to Jeff Bezos. The fact that, even after a few years, the Post didn't see fit to build on its location and strengths to do a Politico-style spinoff speaks volumes. And, given the degree of cost-cutting Bezos has done with Amazon, the idea that he'd suddenly open his wallet for Klein was a laugher.

So, Ezra was negotiating from a position of weakness, in a product market that, per Politico, is pretty saturated and, as far as I know, without a specific sales pitch for new lines and areas of coverage, contra Silver. And, as far as I can tell, even before that, his "brand" may not be as shiny and spit-polished as is Silver's.

Pogue was already writing for enough spots besides the Times that, at some point, there was going to be a parting of the ways. Because he wasn't intruding into sacred turf like the op-ed space (and Silver wasn't always totally right there), the separation here was much more amicable.

Whether Yahoo was at or near the top of his target list, I don't know. But, with it trying to make itself more relevant again, and knowing that because Pogue has written for a number of different publications before, he had a decent brand level, he surely became high on Yahoo's list once he became available.

I think that, in Pogue's own terms, he'll be more successful than before with the move. Will he be successful enough for Yahoo? That's still an open question.

And, while I already had tags for Silver and Klein, because of my interest in politics, I don't for Pogue.

So, there's kind of the branding lesson of the day. Part of building the brand is expanding the brand, and knowing how to do that when the time is right. Ezra's still a bit behind the curve.


That said, the bottom financial line on "branding" will be to likely increase income inequality within the media world. And, there's only one-quarter of a step between this and the likes of Pierre Omidyar's new venture, since it's based on Glenn Greenwald as a brand.

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