August 7, 2022 (Updated )
When I asked some older journalists whether editors and higher-ups in the newsrooms they worked at cared about their ‘personal brand’, they simply laughed. It makes sense — until the advent of social media, traditional newsrooms worked in a very different way. There was no such thing as influencers, large followings, or personal brands. As a result, managers didn’t care much for them either.
But these days, things have changed. Journalists have started to build a platform for themselves online, rather than just on their outlets. They share their journalism, daily musings, societal and cultural commentary, or short TikTok snippets online. Being noticed can lead to more work — we’ve already written about how it can help land a book deal, for example — but do journalists feel this is encouraged by their workplaces?
Do editors feel that writers fostering personal brands will benefit their publications and, if so, do they nurture writers to engage in more media appearances, put writers up for media awards, green-light other media work, and encourage writers to engage with the industry and community in a way that encourages professional and personal progress?
While younger journalists might care about growing their online (or offline) platforms, this was not a priority for the older generations of journalists.
Tiffany*, who has worked in journalism for more than two decades, says circumstances were different back then. “Nurturing? What’s that? I am 44 and one of the things that surprises me the most about the younger generation is their expectation that [their] bosses and companies will care about their personal development. Rightly or wrongly, we didn’t have this.
“A personal brand is something for people to develop independently if they want to work for themselves. It’s kind of a luxury. It’s much easier to do the job if you separate who you are as a person from what you are doing for a living, in most cases.”
Poppy*, who has worked at a national publication for four years, adds that many editors see the growth of individual players as posing a threat to the company. Essentially, employees should work on the company’s brand, not their own.
Journo Resources is here to navigate every area of your journalism career – even when things get a bit tricky. Check out our long-reads on:
“I don’t think certain editors care about our career development in general,” she explains. “It doesn’t make sense for them to nurture ‘stars’ who will be known in their own right — I definitely think competition plays a part in it, too.
“Basically, it’s easier for them to get you to toe the line and not speak up about your own development, which keeps editors’ jobs safe from young upstarts, and stops us saying anything that might harm the company’s reputation.
“This is my experience, as I know some other publications love to build their writers up, whereas I feel like a cog in a machine here, rather than a journalist in my own right.”
She adds that her team is encouraged not to talk about their own beliefs online, which she believes “stifles your ability to be part of the conversation”. The debate around social media impartiality for journalists has been fierce and long-running – with many organisations from Sky News to The Guardian implementing policies that restrict what journalists can and can’t do online.
Impartiality isn’t necessarily a barrier to building your own online brand – Sophia Smith Galer has built up more than 400,000 TikTok followers while at the BBC, telling Press Gazette that “being informal and human doesn’t suddenly mean you’re being heavily opinionated”.
However, for many journalists, blurry lines and ethical debates can make it tricky to build up a strong brand on social media platforms.
Poppy adds: “It’s been hard for me: I’m pretty outspoken and got into journalism to say things, but have been ground down by higher-ups who are so desperate not to rock the boat that they do so at the detriment of their staff’s creativity.
“[For example,] I’ve been refused television opportunities — which [I can do] as it’s in my contract — by bosses who didn’t feel comfortable with me expressing opinions.”
Poppy also says she’s been asked to take tweets down, even when they are “extremely innocuous tweets that aren’t inflammatory or threatening”.
An Uneven Playing Field Within Newsrooms
How much care is dedicated to the personal growth of staffers depends on the publications – and even then it can be a bit of a lottery. Natalie* has worked in several newsrooms, and says bigger companies are better at fostering individuals.
“In terms of training, investment, mentoring, and specifically giving you support to produce your own original journalism and push you to create great work, I’ve generally found that places which have very big budgets [are] good about that kind of stuff,” she explains.
Natalie then goes on to say that while some newsrooms do care about having star players, they seem to be based on random likability. “[There are] quite a few places where I’ve noticed a tendency, [to] have ‘favourites’. If they decide they like you — based on no objective reason except their own personal preferences — they’ll push you. Otherwise, they’re just not interested.
“I feel this a lot with the way some newsrooms have no formal standard on what makes a person worthy of a staff job compared with the next. It just seems to be based on likability.”
Irina* concurs. After having worked at a large media corporation with several outlets, she says opportunities for progression – and building your own brand – are hugely unequal.
“It’s totally based on personal preference. The managers will choose who they give opportunities to. At the company I used to work for, there [were] plenty of learning and development schemes, but they’re hard to access and actually make happen, so it’s more lip service. You basically have to back yourself throughout, which is what I’ve done.”
How Should An Editor Be Supporting You?
Journalist and former editor-in-chief at New! Magazine, Lebby Eyres, says that unfortunately, personal brands are not a top priority. This is because ultimately a publication’s branding is the most important, and personal brands are a relatively new phenomenon.
“There is a clear divide between those aged under and over 35. Any journo who [has] learned their trade prior to the rise of social media and confessional first-person journalism was taught never to make themselves the story. Only columnists were supposed to have a personality, and everyone else spoke with the publication’s voice. The idea of having your own brand did not exist.”
Eyres also highlights how there could be inherent clashes between a publication and a writer with a strong personal stance that they stick by as part of their own brand. “For the editor now, the problem with the personal brand is that it might conflict with the values or the stance of the publication, and bring the additional problem that the writer might refuse to do something which conflicted with their own brand. I can’t imagine an editor tolerating that.”
Traditionally, the writer is never the focal point. Eyres expands, “The reader always has to come first and so, in my opinion, any personal brands that an editor does allow to develop in the publication are those which are in alignment with the publication’s readership, or which present a certain image to the reader, or make the reader feel like they are part of an exclusive club.”
Eyres, who had run her own feminist website while working at New!, says she didn’t expect her editors to care about her personal endeavours at the time. Similarly, she would find it unusual if her reporters expected her to help them grow their own brand. That said, having introduced an appraisal system while in her role as magazine editor, Eyres says she appreciates the enthusiasm of younger staff in staying on top of their career progression from the get-go.
“All editors should be concerned with nurturing their staff’s talents with feedback, training, et cetera — ideally promoting them from one role to another within a reasonable time frame. Anyone stuck in the same role for years on end will become frustrated,” she concludes evenly.
While there seems to be a generational divide over whether editors should help grow their reporters’ platforms, online personas are becoming more important to writers, and the trend doesn’t seem set to stop. Could it be time, then, that editors began actively supporting such endeavours?