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Your Brand Or Their Brand?

Much has been made of the decline of corporate brands and the rise of personal ones. In journalism, media companies have been coaxing—sometimes dragging—their reporters toward using social media tools to gather their own audiences believing that writers can bring them more eyeballs and do some of the work of marketing their own content. Two new studies cast some doubt on that strategy and beg the question: Are journalists’ brands more valuable than the names they write for?

The annual State of the Media report from the Pew Research Center, released this week, shows that most Americans still turn to traditional names when they go online to get news. Newspapers, cable news and network news sites make up 17 of the top 25 news websites, a proportion that has remained pretty much constant in recent years. The notion that news brands still hold tremendous value with consumers is reinforced by how readers find them. Despite the frantic moves by many news companies to get eyeballs from Google and Facebook, a majority of their traffic comes from users going directly to their sites. Social media accounted for only 9% of traffic last year, although that number is growing rapidly.

Far from being out of touch with news consumers, journalists themselves feel much the same way, according to a survey of financial journalists released this week by Gorkana. Reporters named legacy news operations—including newspapers, wire services, cable stations and magazines—as the most influential brands in their business. Web-only operations such as Zero Hedge and Business Insider garnered no more than 2% of the votes. The fact that older news brands remain the most trusted, even after many stumbled onto the web in disarray and still lag in many aspects, speaks to how sticky news values can be with readers and viewers.

But what about the power of the Web to turn a great writer into a one-person brand? The Gorkana survey asked reporters to name the ten most influential journalists covering business, too. Not surprisingly that list is also dominated by traditional news names like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Which is where things get interesting: many of the “most influential” have inarguably had their reach and personal brands extended by the Web. Felix Salmon as a blogger for Reuters, Jim Cramer as a contributor TheStreet.com, Paul Krugman on The Times’ website, to name a few.

News brands, when they want to, have done a great job of helping their stars build personal brands. Now they want journalists and web content writers to return the favor, if for no other reason than that they are having a hard time figuring out how to deal with social media. Pew reminds us that while Facebook and Twitter can help news companies get their content in front of more people, those same platforms are also competitors for advertising dollars and are gaining ground where traditional media are losing it. Newspapers are, frankly, as scared of Facebook as they are of Google.

While Facebook has taken steps to help content publishers—with social readers, for example—the social network, like Twitter, is really made for the personal brand, not the corporate one. The ‘Subscribe’ button introduced last fall is becoming a windfall for well-known writers—The Times’ Nicolas Kristof had 385,000 subscribers in January—while newspapers and other traditional brands still struggle to make up online what they’re losing offline. The ability of marquee brands to create marquee writers may outlast the pessimists. Will Facebook and Twitter help writers return the favor, or simply allow talented journalists to strike out on their own once their name is in lights?

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Peter C. Beller

Peter C. Beller is director of content at Ebyline. He was previously a staff writer for Forbes and has freelanced for numerous publications. He can be reached at peter@ebyline.com.

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