Read me, then buy my branded merchandise

News groups may become ‘platforms for talent’, but media stars are made, not born

 

Like most journalists, I’m widely regarded as an indispensable force for good in the battle to restore western civilisation.

Oops, I’m confusing my sorry CV with actual text from the website of Melanie Phillips, right-wing columnist, broadcaster and self-described civilisation-restorer, who has set up an e-book publishing venture called Electric Media (EM) to tell the world how she’s not really right-wing at all, but rather occupies an impossibly non-ideological “true centre ground” where common sense reigns.

Having “served as Britain’s political conscience” for more than three decades, Phillips is now taking the next logical step of branching into branded merchandise.

On Embooks.com, the faithful can buy baseball caps, tote bags and umbrellas carrying the EM brand. For what better weapon is there in the battle to restore western civilisation than a woman’s T-shirt emblazoned with the words “think the unthinkable, say the unsayable, do the undoable”? This, as the Independent on Sunday put it, is the dawn of “Brand Melanie”.

Not every journalist gets to occupy the outermost seat on the Question Time panel regularly. Not every journalist can claim to be “followed by members of the Royal Family as well as by homemakers”.

Then again . . . with her range of mugs and Kindle Touch covers, is Phillips on to something? Is this what they mean by “monetising” your personal brand in an age where big media corporates are regarded as inherently untrustworthy establishment institutions?

In a much-tweeted article for the Nieman Journalism Lab, thrillingly headlined “The end of big (media) – when news orgs move from brands to platforms for talent”, digital strategist Nicco Mele and Harvard colleague John Wihbey argue that technology empowers individuals over organisations and media companies that go with this flow will be the ones that thrive.

It’s a compelling vision in which news titles might be “reoriented” as the
“common institutional home” of
50-100 blogs produced by “news talents who convene discrete audiences”. Very little of the “manager class” would
survive this reorientation, with lean
companies “stripped down to the raw talent”.

Journalists work, after all, in an era where individual writers’ power to attract eyeballs can be measured instantly and oppressively via clicks and shares.

Big names abound. Caitlin Moran, the un- Times -like columnist for The Times , is credited with dragging a proportion of News International’s subscriber base through its brick-like paywall by the power of her turn of phrase, while the media “star” of the US presidential election, statistician Nate Silver, had New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson admitting “a lot of the traffic is coming just for Nate”.

Now commercial side-projects of old can become both the bread and the butter. Andrew Sullivan, author of The Dish blog, has even implemented a $2 a month paywall on his site.

But the relationship between leading lights and the news organisation platforms that connect them to their public is a symbiotic one. Indeed, journalists like Phillips and Sullivan grew to their current stature by suckling at the teat of major media companies, and continue to do so.

It is not always easy to pinpoint the precise locus of power. If it was, it would make those RTÉ presenter fee negotiations considerably more straightforward. Broadcasting, being inherently more glamorous than print, has long had to deal with the mixed blessing of creating monster-stars.

To what extent does a current affairs presenter such as Pat Kenny owe his listenership of 325,000 to his unique skills at handling complex subjects on air rather than his place in the schedule of a national institution like RTÉ Radio 1? There’s only one way of finding out – replace him – and it’s too risky to try.

And then there’s the problem that only certain forms of journalism lend themselves to high-powered self-marketing, and one of those is the near-sociopathic, fact-light, “say the unsayable” troll variety. For another kind of news, the story will always – and should always be – bigger than the byline.

Still, it’s tempting in an industry where freelances are paid a pittance on a per-story basis to welcome the potential offered by Mele and Wihbey’s world.

Speaking at a Public Relations Institute of Ireland conference, press ombudsman John Horgan noted how the advent of the journalist-as-celebrity genre may well be superseded by the “more promising” scenario of “journalists becoming brands”.

Already, I’m dreaming of a future where, frankly, you’re no one in the media hierarchy unless you’ve got your own bedlinen range in Debenhams.

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