The lesson of Bill Simmons and ESPN

bs_report_300The always astute James Andrew Miller, writing for Vanity Fair, makes an important observation for all media in his “Inside the Shocking, Abrupt Divorce of Bill Simmons and ESPN.”

In the end, one could say with minimal originality, but considerable accuracy, that Bill Simmons simply flew too close to the sun. He miscalculated how much value ESPN put on him and on his unique abilities and talents. He might also have forgotten a cardinal company rule that remains sacred whether it’s ESPN’s Old Guard talking or its new one: Nobody, but nobody, can be bigger than those four initials.

On the other hand, it could be said that Bristol forgot a kind of cardinal rule itself: In an era where fans can get not just scores but highlights, and a ton more, on their smart phones, distinctive and original content is the way to engage and hold onto an audience plopped in front of big 99-inch screens. That content often comes with a big price tag—and with a requirement that the people with unique abilities and talent who create it be treated like the stars you’ve paid for.

In a world of mass media, the single brand of the company rides atop every other marketing concern. This is a core Madison Avenue concept and the truth behind Miller’s statement that “nobody can be bigger than those four initials (ESPN).” In the next paragraph, however, he describes the truth of Jay Rosen’s The Great Horizontal, which is the newer and greater reality of today and, especially, tomorrow.

So allow me to restate what I believe is obvious. Media is increasingly about personal brands, because those are what’s permitted in the revolutionary conversation taking place among the people formerly known as the audience (another Rosen witticism). Even where brands are able to “act” like people, they are not, and this is the harsh reality of doing commerce in the age of the consumer. Harvard’s brilliant Umair Haque noted long ago that companies should be spending money on products instead of marketing, and his justification was this very thing.

This is why I encourage students and people already in the media industries to expend the energy necessary to create and maintain their personal brands. In the end, it’s the only thing that really matters in a networked world, where exchanges of knowledge and information occur at the personal level. The age of slick marketing is drawing to a close. You won’t be able to buy your way into anything downstream, because the process for doing such is slowly disintegrating. In 15 years of trying, Madison Avenue has returned to an old stand-by — one that empowered consumers have already dismissed — the pop-up ad. It’s truly amazing that, just like The Odd Couple, this tired old irritant is back with a vengeance. How true is the old saw that if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Commerce in the Great Horizontal will require great products and services and people willing and able to pass them around. There’s already the idea that “influencers” at the personal level are what product manufacturers need to buy, but that’s merely wishful thinking from the hammer known as Madison Avenue. I don’t have a map with the route from here to there charted, but the laws of attraction will be more useful than the laws of promotion.

UPDATE: Independent Contractors for Media

I’ve been writing about the inevitability of media companies moving to independent contractors for over a decade, and the signs continue to point in that direction. As revenues slow, cost-cutting becomes the only way to maintain margins, and the one-to-many need to wrap employees into one super brand will become less important in the profit-driven minds of managers. Besides, the Net — which is where everything’s going — is more receptive to personal brands than those of industry. So-called “social” media is where you’ll find the people formerly known as the audience, and big brands don’t belong there.

INSEAD’s Knowledge blog uses the Dutch model to make the statement: The Future for Labour Is Self-Employment, validating the ideas expressed in an essay that I published five years ago.

nonemployerIn 2005, we crossed a milestone in this country when the number of people self-employed went over 20 million. Data from the Small Business Administration put that figure over 21 million in the latest year for which the information was reported, 2008. By now, we expect that number is approaching 23 million, as more and more people — especially older people — set up eBay stores or find other ways to support themselves and their families online. These people are well-educated in the ways of the Web and don’t spend their marketing money in traditional ways. This figure bears watching, for while they live and work in our communities and neighborhoods, the money they earn comes from everywhere. They are a part of a new subset of our economy, and…it’s actually growing.

The economy is better than it was in 2008, and much of that has been due to the continued rise of self-employment. A Business Week article in 2011 put the number at 40 million and offered the advice that “To boost the economy, help the self-employed.” As an optimist, I believe this is an issue that Congress will have to address sooner than later. The article notes “By 2019, the self-employed will account for 40 percent of all American workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” How can such a staggering number not include reporters, photographers and other practitioners of “the news” downstream?

Another Bureau of Labor Statistics article  published last year offers the below graph. Note that writers and photographers are already two careers with high self-employment rates.

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 10.18.49 AM

Revisiting the endangered species of news anchors

One of the most insidious problems with being on television is that one tends to view what one does as defining oneself personally. Trust me, you are not what you do. Nevertheless, the illusion that we are has led many down paths that others wouldn’t even consider in their right minds.

Last night, in what has to be one of the most remarkable of the many signs of the new media times, the primary anchor team of WVII-TV resigned live on the air.

The Bangor Daily News responded with the headline: “Take this job and shove it: Fed-up Bangor TV anchors quit on air.”

“We figured if we had tendered our resignations off the air, we would not have been allowed to say goodbye to the community on the air and that was really important for us to do that,” said (Cindy) Michaels, the station’s news director, who has spent six of her 15 years in Bangor’s radio and TV market at WVII.

Both Michaels, 46, and (Tony) Consiglio, 28, said frustration over the way they were allowed or told to do their jobs — something that has been steadily mounting for the last four years — became too much for them.

“There was a constant disrespecting and belittling of staff and we both felt there was a lack of knowledge from ownership and upper management in running a newsroom to the extent that I was not allowed to structure and direct them professionally,” Michaels explained. “I couldn’t do everything I wanted to as a news director. There was a regular undoing of decisions.”

The station’s GM, Mike Palmer, responded by referencing the big and positive changes the station has made recently, adding that the on-air resignation was “unfortunate, but not unexpected.”

Folks, let me cut through the crap here for you. This is an example of two anchors frustrated with changes to the industry and at their particular station. Rather than accept changes, they decided unemployment was a better option and that this stunt was somehow justified. It was not. Firstly, you never bolt a job without a job waiting, unless it’s not your option. Secondly, you don’t end with a flurry such as this, unless you really don’t care about ever working again in the industry. The issues that are plaguing WVII-TV are no different than those plaguing any other TV station, so who’s going to hire people that disagree with those struggling to change cultures within a TV station? Moreover, these two people held management functions within the newsroom, and therefore were under the authority of the general manager, who functions as the owner’s representative. If they felt unable to continue in that capacity, then they rightly should have informed management and moved to do something else.

In October of 2003, I published an essay called “TV News Anchors, An Endangered Species” in which I laid out the hows and whys of the lesser importance of anchors in the TV News ecosystem. In 2008, I helped write “Live. Local. BROKEN News.” with AR&D, where we laid out the new role of anchors as “chief journalists” within the newsroom.

Today, I feel that the anchor is the least secure of any position in a newsroom, and that we will soon be emphasizing reporters and reporting over the ability of a nice face to curate the news on our behalf. It just makes no sense anymore in the wake of today’s foundational disruptions in not only how news is gathered, but in how it’s presented. Authenticity demands reports from the scene without a go-between, whether that filter is somebody’s fancy infrastructure or another human being. We’re in the age of participation now, and we’re not all that big on experts, which is what anchors (mostly) pretend to be.

So while I admire the courage of Cindy and Tony in bolting this way, there is sometimes a very fine line between courage and foolishness. This, I’m sorry, crosses that line and proves once again that with an unteachable spirit, everybody loses.

Pity the Poor Anchor

There’s been a swirl of activity in the big money world of network (and local) anchors lately, a part of which includes new demands and skill sets required instead of what used to be just sitting in front of a camera, looking authoritative and reading a teleprompter. Anchors of that ilk are an endangered species, as I first wrote eight years ago, and one of the big reasons is that the job is changing – to one that is much harder. Join me as we visit the changing world of anchors and discover what might lie ahead.

Pity the Poor Anchor

Webcam from the anchor’s desk

Sherri Talley at KTBS has been live on the Web for a couple of days now in an experiment to see how well a single individual on camera can communicate raw information in an on-going story. It has been fascinating. The screen is split with chat on the right and Sherri on the left. She’s at her desk and interviewing local officials, newsroom personnel (even those not normally on camera: photogs, producers), and station meteorologists.

Sherri Talley live from her desk

Most fascinating to me has been the dialog in the chat window, which proves, once again, that the Web is a social tool, even in a crisis.

If you go take a look, this is definitely not TV. It’s raw and, in a strange way, compelling. The audience has been extremely pleased. Think about it. You have a question and can ask it directly of the main anchor in the newsroom. It doesn’t get much more interactive than this.

(FOLLOW) Aaron notes in the comments that the application doesn’t work in Firefox, and that’s bad. It was a last-minute add, and we’ll get it fixed for next time. KTBS is a client of mine.

Are you working on your personal brand?

If you’re not, you should be.

Jeremiah OwyangJeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst for Forrester Research and one of the smartest web guys around, has a provocative post on his blog about the honing of one’s personal brand. I’ve been thinking a lot about this myself, because I see the struggle between anchors and reporters who blog and the companies they represent. The media companies want their brands reflected in the work of “their” employees, but it may be smarter for these people to be allowed to develop their own.

Let’s face it; the day is coming when independent journalists will offer their goods and services to media companies, instead of the companies actually employing them. This is already happening on a small scale, but I expect it will increase as fiscal pressures squeeze the life out of media companies. Hard-working independent contractors can make good money, and it will cost media companies less to purchase their work.

And so my advice to journalists is to develop your own brands, and Jeremiah’s entry gives lots of good advice. Here’s just some:

There are so many brands now, in fact with the introduction of websites, and blogs in particular, many are developing personal brands, something not as easy to accomplish (as) in past years. With this profileration of brands, it becomes so much more difficult for brand to stand out from the millions of others. Sure, you’re thinking the long tail solves this, and well yes, in a way. In reality there are leaders and followers being created in each sub-niche, so the rules of getting noticed still apply.

He advises people to:

  • Have a goal
  • Develop a unique brand
  • Get personal
  • Attend local events
  • Lead events
  • Be interesting
  • Archive your achievements

There’s also great advice in the comments.

If you work for a local media company, I strongly recommend you start blogging and building your brand. If you’re a local media company, I strongly recommend you let your people blog, although you might want to own the domains that drive their brands.