Risks of personal-brand journalism

News organizations have no idea how to manage journalists who have followers of their own

In New York magazine’s exhaustive feature this week about broadcast journalist Lara Logan’s rise to 60 Minutes fame, and her post-Benghazi fall from grace, most observers detected a whiff of sexism. Or, if they didn’t consider the story itself sexist, they found it an object lesson in the perils of being a visible woman in broadcast journalism.

But while the sexist double-standards applied to women journalists are unfortunately nothing new, Logan’s rise and fall also illustrates a much newer media phenomenon: News organizations still haven’t figured out how to manage journalists with their own personal brands. In this case, the piece reports, CBS loved and made allowances for Logan’s brash war reporting and sympathetic interviews with military bigwigs—even though her style was out of step with the rest of 60 Minutes’ editorial tone. Until it went wrong.

Both executives and outside observers quoted in the story simultaneously respect Logan’s hustle to make a name for herself and see it as potentially destructive. She caught the eye of executives and got her full-time post at 60 Minutes because she courted attention to herself and her work, writer Joe Hagan reports. “I was really impressed by her courage,” says Laura Haim, a French journalist who was reporting from Baghdad at the time Logan was. “It was not bullshit. She really wanted to do things to make a name.”

It used to be the opposite: that “things you do to make a name for yourself” were synonymous with “bullshit,” and most journalists conformed to the style and standards of their employers. Now personal branding is a venerated skill of “Journalism 2.0,” but most outlets, which are brands in their own right, have yet to reconcile what that means. For employers, journalists with their own brands bring an interesting set of pros and cons. On one hand, news outlets can bump up their traffic significantly with a single hire. On the other, the journalist can always take that traffic with her if she jumps ship. On one hand, outlets get the sort of audience engagement that classic inverted-pyramid dry news stories often just don’t bring. On the other, encouraging individual journalists to carve out a style—and, sometimes, rules—of their own can backfire when the outlet is forced to defend the reporters’ actions.

Logan’s Benghazi story is an extreme example. More often it’s a stylistic clash—with some big-name writers getting away with things other staffers could not, or editors figuring out how those writers’ distinctly different tone should play with the rest of the outlet’s content. The digital-media solution has often been to offer branded journalists their own space, usually a blog but sometimes also a column or section—think of Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog at The Washington Post, or Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg’s former tech site, AllThingsD, at the Wall Street Journal—to make clear that their editorial decision-making metric is slightly different. Even then it can prove confusing to some readers.

It’s tough, though, to have a big name with a strong personal brand in a news organization’s central public-facing role—which seems to be the case with Logan and 60 Minutes. CBS higher-ups knew she had a habit of rushing into dangerous situations and was cozy with military sources, but “revamped the ¬≠foreign coverage to make Logan a star correspondent” post Rathergate anyway. “It’s not an accident that Lara Logan fucked up,” a colleague at CBS News told Hagan. “It was inevitable. Everybody saw this coming.”

The lesson might be to keep the biggest personal brands segregated in their own segments or verticals, not to place them in central roles that can affect the overall brand should things turn sour. And, no matter where their work appears or in what format, hold big names to the same rigorous factchecking and ethics standards the rest of the reporting staff. The rise of journalists with personal brands is only a negative for news organizations if they fail to adapt in response.

While the dilemma feels new to journalism, inaugurated in the blogging era, it’s been a part of TV news from the beginning. Even celebrated “impartial” broadcast journalists like Walter Cronkite were, in a way, their own brands—their names were shorthand for a specific style and quality of reporting, and viewers weren’t so much tuning into a particular network as they were following their favorite host. It’s just that those personal brands seemed to align more cleanly with their employers, and a strong support system of producers, editors, and factcheckers was there to ensure that brand never eclipsed accuracy. And to ensure reporters continued to serve the needs of the news organization and its consumers rather than simply following their personal bliss. It’s a special newsroom management skill to suss out whether a reporter is pursuing a story because it’s good for her career, or because it’s what her news organization needs right now. And if the answer is the former, put her back on track.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk