The News Tip: Beyond A Strong Brand As more journalists are building up their personal brands, NPR's David Folkenflik cautions that the brand is only part of the equation. While having a star journalist can help a media organization, it can also create tension.
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The News Tip: Beyond A Strong Brand

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The News Tip: Beyond A Strong Brand

The News Tip: Beyond A Strong Brand

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In a new book coming out next month, business tycoon and sometimes presidential candidate Donald Trump estimates his entire net worth is $7 billion. Trump says a hefty chunk - some $3 billion alone - covers the brand value of the Trump name. Well, it isn't just pop-culture gadflies making a buck from that intangible factor known as brand value anymore. Journalists, too, are trying to build their own brands.

Here to talk to us about what this says about the media landscape is NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik.

Hey there, David. Tell us what the News Tip is this week.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, in the news business it's kind of the rage for individual journalists to create a strong personal brand. But today's News Tip is, creating a strong brand is only part of the equation.

CORNISH: But how is this any different from the old-school way of columnists, big-name sportswriters in any local news market? I mean, those folks always had their own brand.

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. I mean, look, you think of the late Mike Royko. When he walked across the street, from the Sun Times in Chicago to the Tribune, people didn't say, oh, here's an interesting Tribune columnist. They said, oh, there's Mike Royko.

At the same time, I think this goes far beyond the most famous op-ed page columnists, or the anchors who host the big nightly news programs. Andrew Ross Sorkin leads the Deal Book blog, and does a lot of the mergers and acquisitions coverage for the New York Times. They've now created a blog and a page surrounding him and his coverage. He's become a brand - wrote the book "Too Big to Fail." CNBC hired him as a morning anchor of one of their shows. Similarly, the Washington Post, this prestigious title and institution identified with covering politics and the federal government, it hired a very young analyst, Ezra Klein from a liberal blog, to look at health-care policy. And he has emerged, in some ways, as the paper's leading policy analyst. And so I think you're seeing them build - what they call inside the business these verticals, these identifiable, young voices.

CORNISH: So those are instances where it worked out for the journalists. But can you give us an example of times when there were tensions inherent in having a big brand?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, you can think of a couple of the most famous examples from cable television. In the last year, Keith Olbermann left MSNBC; Glenn Beck left Fox News. They were both stars of those channels, but they both had brands in different ways, and identities that clashed with those of their host channels.

CORNISH: What are the consequences, then, when those brands move on - for both the news organization, and for those people and their voices?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, take Glenn Beck first. Glenn Beck has established an online channel, in effect; a pay channel for subscribers. He's got some hundreds of thousands of people paying to access that. And he felt that his brand, in a sense, transcended that of Fox. But the price he pays - as for Olbermann, who's now at Current News, a much smaller cable channel - is a much smaller audience. And therefore, they're not really influencing the conversation of the upcoming Republican primaries, for example, in the way they might have in the lead-up to last year's elections for Congress.

CORNISH: What's your evidence to back that up?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, there's a very interesting article in The Wrap, talking about this. It's an online publication that had interviewed a number of people in both the television and the advertising world, saying these are no longer indispensible buys; we don't have to go to these people anymore. In part, you just don't see it happening.

CORNISH: So in the end, how do we know that these news figures really had independent influence?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think sometimes people confuse influence for power. I think if you look at somebody like Ezra Klein at the Washington Post, he has brought value. People feel that he is a must-read. They have managed to hold onto readers who they were concerned that new entrants, such as Politico or Bloomberg's news wires might have siphoned off. If you look at perhaps a smaller scale, the Poynter Institute, which is this not-for-profit journalism center down in Florida, it had for a decade paid a guy named Jim Romanesco to post things about journalism online. Very well-known in media circles; less well-known, perhaps, for a more general listenership.

When he decided to part ways, in part because they were critical of how he was blogging, he left and yet at the same time, emails that he's posted on his new site have shown that they sought to buy from him the right to continue to post things under his name and keep that title of his blog. There was a value to that larger institution to keep his name as a brand for themselves.

CORNISH: So, David, why does this matter at the end of the day? Is it that we care because it's a new way for journalists to make money, or does it say something about the way media business works?

FOLKENFLIK: I think the latter. I think what we're seeing is a recalibration of the relationship of journalists with the media institutions that employ them, so that readers and listeners and viewers have an identification with the people giving the news to them, whether on the air or online or in print. You see this at places like NPR, where people are devoted to the network, and they're also devoted to a lot of the people they've heard for years - people like Nina Totenberg or Linda Wertheimer. And I think that that calibration also brings with it certain tensions between the identities of news organizations, and those of the individual journalists themselves.

CORNISH: So, the News Tip?

FOLKENFLIK: The News Tip is branding can be useful for journalists, but it's only part of the equation.

CORNISH: NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik. David, thanks so much.



CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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