All in all, last Friday was probably a good day for Dan Baum.
The former New Yorker staff writer’s decision to use Twitter to chronicle his unwilling exit from the magazine in 2007 has generated quite a bit of buzz and attracted a few hundred followers to his account.
At 1:46pm on May 8, Baum tweeted:
People often ask why I left the New Yorker. After all, I had a staff writer job. Isn’t that the best job in journalism? Yes.
In a second tweet, he added:
Nobody leaves a New Yorker job voluntarily. I was fired. And over the next few days, I’ll tell that story here, in 140.
It didn’t take long for Baum’s Twitter account to be linked, re-tweeted, referenced and blogged about. Baum told Bloggasm’s Simon Owens that he decided to tweet about being fired because he is often asked why he left the New Yorker when he is out promoting his book, “Nine Lives.” Baum also said that he decided to come forward now because although he hoped to get his New Yorker job back, it is clear that the “bridge is down, burned, collapsed and washed away.”
So with nothing to lose, this is a seemingly smart move for an author with a book to promote. In addition, if you look at previous tweets, it looks like Baum is having some trouble selling a new book concept, so the publicity might be a way to get some help with that, too.
Regardless of what Baum’s ultimate goal might be, he’s significantly elevated his personal brand, and his exercise highlights the increasing need for journalists to take charge and market themselves. While newspapers fold, publications lay people off and the opportunities open to professional journalists change, Baum’s exercise in personal branding is a pioneering move for journalists everywhere, who traditionally haven’t wanted to be involved in the marketing and selling of their work.
DigiDave has a good post describing this phenomenon, in which he encourages journalists to “live parts of your life online.”
Curious about what other journalists think about Baum’s tweets and the use of personal branding, I turned to three of my favorite journalists who each have different experiences in journalism and different perspectives on the industry. They agreed that personal branding is increasingly important for journalists, and the verdict is that Baum seems to have gotten it mostly right.
Journalists on the importance of personal branding for journalists
Erica Anderson who blogs at EricaAmerica, was the Washington, D.C. correspondent for MTV’s Street
Team ‘08, a group of citizen journalists assigned to cover the 2008 Election. “A personal brand, like what Baum is doing, helps to make him more competitive in the new media environment,” she said.
Anderson said that personal branding feels like “a strange popularity contest” and that she uses Helen Thomas as a guide for her personal brand. Thomas “always pursues the truth, no matter what side it implicates and never compromises her integrity for anything. Sure, Helen didn’t have to do it in a web 2.0 world. But we, young journalists, need to remember that the foundation of journalism ethics will always be the same – we just need to figure out how to apply them to a 24/7 news cycle that requires rapid-fire updates and aggregation.”
“Yes, personal branding is important for journalists’ careers,” according to Joe Grimm, the author of Poynter Online’s Ask the Recruiter column.
“It feels odd, though. Journalists TELL stories, we don’t want to BE stories. But, time and again, we see how journalists who create niches (brands) for themselves do better in salary and in terms of job security.” Grimm, who used to recruit for the Detroit Free Press, said,
“A journalist’s brand cannot be hokey. That can’t work. It has to be authentic and crisp. Think of reputation raised to another level. It is far better to be THE copy editor known as the Comma Queen (we hired here) or a great headline writer than to just be A copy editor.”
Marci Alboher , who writes the blog Working the New Economy on Yahoo!, points out, “Journalists can’t solely rely on news outlets to promote their work so they need to find ways both to reach their readers and, on a more practical level, to find the entities that will fund or sponsor their work. Those who take it into their own hands will likely do better on both of fronts.”
Back to Baum, did he do it right?
Baum’s creativity deserves high marks. But by deciding to base his bold move around an identity he no longer has, ie: New Yorker staff writer, he’s solidifying his personal brand as something he once was, even if it is a writer for a highly-regarded magazine. Of course, it’s worth noting this accomplishment in his bios and about sections, but people will know him as the guy who was fired from the New Yorker, not necessarily the guy who writes great books today. On the other hand, the authenticity involved with tweeting about being fired is powerful and perhaps the exposure from this serves him better than crafting a brand around being an author.
Anderson said it is a question of legality. “If he signed a non-disclosure, then he shouldn’t be doing it. But if he did not, and by tweeting he is adding a first-hand experience to a hot issue (magazines letting writers go) then I don’t see why not.”
Anderson has first-hand experience with this. “I blogged about not being paid on time by MTV – and tried to do it with a balance of ‘must tell story’ and ‘must not burn bridges.’ In the end it served the entire Street Team well. We were all given bonuses and a personal apology by the network a day later.”
Alboher thinks it was a “smart move” that is worth the risk of not being received well by some. “As for whether it will turn off some editors, I imagine it might. But it will also expose new editors and journalists to his work. I’d bet that on balance it does more good than harm.”
She said, “It helps that he’s a pro at what he does. If he were a shoddy writer, this would all feel like a publicity stunt. But because he’s got the goods, it works.”
But Baum did make one “unusual decision,” according to Alboher.
“He has amassed several hundred followers on Twitter and isn’t following anyone back. While he is successfully telling his story, he is missing out on a vital component to Twitter — the conversational aspect. So while he says that he started Twittering to answer a question asked by his readers, it doesn’t appear that he wants to have a dialogue with them — at least not on Twitter.” [Editor’s note: Baum was not following anyone when Alboher made this observation on Sunday. On Monday evening, he was following seven people].
Jaclyn Schiff is a professional journalist. Fascinated with the changing way that people receive and interact with information, she blogs and tweets about this and other media-related topics.