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.

The power of personal media

I had the good fortune of spending a few minutes today with Amy Wood, the social media pioneering TV News anchor from Spartanburg, South Carolina (WSPA-TV). Amy has an enormous following online and was a very early practitioner of personal branding. Far more people in the market follow Amy than the TV station she works for, which is the point of working social media as a single entity over a “brand.” Her father recently passed away, and the outpouring of love she experienced online was absolutely overwhelming. Enjoy the next 16 minutes and learn a few of Amy’s secrets to success.

The future of journalism is independent contractors

Dad's new master bedroom

Dad’s new master bedroom

I recently finished a small remodeling project at my house, and I learned something that validates a suspicion I have about the future of work and specifically those who work in journalism.

I turned a bedroom/bathroom combination into a second master bedroom, because my 90-year old father-in-law is coming to live with us. I wanted to give the old guy some privacy, and putting the bathroom “inside” his space did the trick. The guys who built it were independent contractors who were paid by the contractor I hired. Sears delivered dad’s new mattress and box spring, and the deliverymen, while wearing Sears shirts, were independent contractors paid by Sears. Empire Carpets came out and installed hardwood flooring. The two guys who did the work were independent contractors paid by Empire to install carpets, tile and hardwoods.

I spoke with each of these people about working as independent contractors instead of employees, and while they all bemoaned the lack of benefits, they all said that working for themselves had some advantages, especially when it came to taxes.

Clearly the business world is moving in the direction of independent contractors, and I’ve been writing for ten years that this will one day be the model for media companies. In the beginning, it will likely come about as a cost savings, but in the end, I think it’ll also be a part of acknowledging the growth of what J. D. Lasica first termed the “personal media revolution” in his 2005 book “Darknet, Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation.”

Right now, in every community in the U.S., there are people practicing a form of journalism who aren’t employed by traditional journalism companies. Athletes, actors, retired journalists and TV people, elected officials, municipalities, police and fire departments, writers, moms, dads, students and many others are self-publishing content worthy of consideration as “news,” and tomorrow’s news organization will aggregate all of it. And if news becomes a matter of aggregating, then it makes sense for those who are currently “employed” to work for themselves and the highest bidder. This could upend the entire local media farm system, which finds young people just passing through small markets on their way to jobs in bigger markets. Smaller markets will be home to those who wish to live there, and I feel that would be quite a good thing for journalism.

Forbes is already practicing a form of this, as is the Huffington Post. Don’t be surprised when local media companies begin to move in this direction.

Amanda Palmer: We Are The Media

Pop star Amanda F–king Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign has been well-chronicled elsewhere. She abandoned recording labels four years ago and released a new album via a highly successful kickstarter campaign ($1,192,793). The record hit Billboard today at #10. There is much to be learned from this, and I want to leave you with just one sign that Amanda presented in her “This is the future of music” video. Enjoy (and don’t forget it).

Amanda Palmer rightly notes that everybody is a media company today

An open letter to newsroom employees everywhere

The business of media has been a part of my life for over 41 years. I care deeply about it and especially the people who are in it for reasons of journalism. It is to you that this open letter is addressed:

    To Whom It May Concern:

The time to prepare for the collapse of the institution that employs you is at hand, and I thought it would be useful to lay out a scenario in which you come out on top when it happens. You may think I’m nuts or overly negative or a doomsayer or whatever, and that’s all right. I claim no special vision of tomorrow; I only follow the bigger trends as they relate to culture and our profession, and frankly, there’s just not a place for specialist newsrooms that pay living wages in the world into which we’re heading. You don’t have to believe that for it to be true, but it would be wise to at least consider the road ahead.

Most media companies are publicly-owned. In such cases, management has a fiduciary responsibility to the company’s shareholders. This is as old as the stock market, but a sweet return on investment for those shareholders is getting harder and harder to provide. That’s because it isn’t about revenue with these companies; it’s about growth, and in a fragmenting, disintermediated marketplace, the lack of growth is a real killer. Privately-held companies can absorb stymied growth somewhat better, but even the people who own these companies would like to see their compensation growing instead of shrinking. There are only two ways to produce growth: either increase revenue or reduce expenses, and these two challenges are not going away. Ask anybody who’s been in media management for very long, and they’ll tell you the growth is gone. Political advertising produces gold every other year, but there’s no guarantee this will continue and it’s a poor model to begin with.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a TON of money being made in the media world, but the industry has matured and the ROIs just aren’t what they used to be. There’s no sign either that things will ever be what they once were.

This reality exists in the background, as we go about our daily lives holding our collective breath. The TV upfront season is upon us, and there’ll be increases announced. The illusion will be that everything is fine. The NAB conference in Las Vegas next month will be filled with positive statements and sessions about how to capitalize on this innovation or that one. The NAA’s mediaXchange conference in Washington, D.C. next month promises that “media thought leaders” will “provoke and inspire attendees.” But managers in the industries of media know well that these are challenging times, and that the background threatens to become the foreground with each passing day.

So how does this impact you, and what should you be doing about it?

If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to begin building and refining your personal brand. The good thing about this is that you’re in charge, so you get to pick and choose how and how much you are promoted in the world of personal media. It’s not necessarily the size of the fish in the pond that will succeed tomorrow, although that’s always a nice advantage. What will be important is your niche and how valuable you are within that niche. This will produce value to the people who will want exclusive or first crack at the content you’ll create, regardless of the financial structure available. If aggregation and curation are the filters for media consumption downstream (they are), your place in the queue matters much more than which corporate brand you represent. You control this through the quality of your work and attending to the marketing of yourself. You can’t blame anybody else for success or failure here.

For lots of excellent and practical advice on personal branding, I highly recommend tuning in to The Personal Branding Blog. It’s a wonderful resource for the hows and what-to-dos of personal branding. Spending a few hours here will shortcut your learning.

This is incredibly important for you, because, like it or not, we’re moving to a scenario where you very likely won’t be employed directly by a media company. You’ll work as an independent contractor and sell your work in a variety of ways. It’s simply more cost effective for media companies to hire independent contractors than it is to carry the burdensome costs of employees, but that’s not the only reason you should be thinking this way. Telecommuting is one of the big trends in employment in 2012, and people who play in this world really, really like it. You — the currently employed — will be able to live a happy and successful life outside the bonds (that’s right) of employment. Absent the old, colonialist practice of “owning the help” through a paycheck and benefits, you’ll do better, more important work, because you’re doing it for yourself. You’ll enjoy working from your home. You’ll enjoy the growing tax benefits of the independence, and I’m convinced that insurance companies will happily create umbrella options that will work better for everybody. The whole world is drifting in this direction, and the benefits vastly outweigh the negatives, the chief of which is simply fear. Fear is tissue paper disguised as a brick wall. Never forget that.

Don’t get caught up in the details, because they can and will all be worked out. Don’t judge tomorrow’s opportunities by today’s seeming reality. Even if I’m wrong (I’m not), you can still benefit from the advice to hone your personal brand. Remember that in the world of work, the only person who really cares about you is you. Technology has given you the opportunity to better yourself through personal branding, and I strongly recommend you get busy. Don’t fall for the illusion that you just need to hang on for a few more years and everything will work itself out.

  • Internally insist that you do nothing for pay that doesn’t directly or indirectly promote you and your brand. Nothing. Don’t be a fool here and get yourself into hot water over this, so let it be an internal driver only. Don’t worry; you’ll find ways to accommodate your mandate. It simply needs to be top-of-mind.
  • Pick a niche, something for which you have a deep passion, because passion can literally take over when everything else fails.
  • The days of a mile wide and an inch deep are over. You must become a/the valued expert in the information niche of your choosing.
  • Deliver the goods. Be the best you can be at news and information (or whatever) for that beat. Let no one best you. You’ll establish yourself through your work, not what you say about your work. Spend the hours up front that it’ll take to relentlessly pursue the promotion of you, your work, and your brand, but above all, be known by and for your work.
  • Get off the market-hopping merry-go-round. Seriously. Put down roots somewhere you want to live, and start living! Roots are an enormous asset even today, but tomorrow their value will be incalculable. A part of owning your niche is geographic, for parochial attitudes and beliefs govern many issues.

Blossom where you’re planted, and Life will show you the rest. Knowing that your brand’s value will increase over time, plan accordingly. But do plan! Take a really hard look at what you want and what you need. If your needed level of compensation is above what the market will pay (be realistic here), give serious consideration to doing something else, but also weigh that against the possibilities you have as an independent contractor. Is your niche such that you can find additional compensation elsewhere? Take your time with this, for your future is at stake.

I believe that a Great Winnowing is at hand, when those who’ve chosen journalism as a way to make a difference are separated from those who view it as a channel to be a big shot. Humility is a wonderful human attribute, but one that’s increasingly absent in the people who’ve chosen this career path. This winnowing will relieve us of many of the ego-driven personalities found in those who are using their employers to see their names in lights. Again, it’s your work, not you, that matters in a meritocracy. Embrace that or find a different way to make a living. You will not get paid in media just by showing up, not in any capacity.

Be smart and begin to disassociate yourself with the industrial age concepts associated with modernity. Don’t put yourself in a position where you function as a virtual slave to the one who signs your paycheck. Put your dependence where it belongs and move it away from your “employer.” You want to be self-reliant? You can do it, and there’s no time like now to get started.

And to the managers who work in newsrooms, it’s in the best interests of your company to assist in promoting the personal brands of your employees. You know and understand the marketing value of the mass. You know that it works. You also know that there’s a commensurate value that comes back to you in promoting the people who work under your brand. Moreover, your reputation as one who advances the personal brands of those who work for you will get around. Don’t you want the top of the class working for you? Don’t you want the real experts in the community working for you? Don’t you want those people free to grow their own followers beyond the reach of your signal or your circulation? Of course you do, so do what you can to puff your own, for it’s the smart — although initially counterintuitive — business path to tomorrow.

Understand that there are personal brands with “media” minds already growing in your community, and that some of them (even one) might provide very useful content as an independent contractor already. Begin looking at systems and compensation programs that will benefit everyone.

Also to the managers, begin studying and examining the processes and systems you’ll need to create a genuinely virtual newsroom. Embedding journalists in the community makes much more sense today, because the need to work from a centralized location is increasingly unnecessary. The cloud is the center today. More time in the field produces results, from both quantity and quality perspectives. Time is, after all, the new currency.

To managers in sales departments everywhere, personal branding applies profoundly to you and your team as well, and the same rules, responsibilities and opportunities that exist for news people are also there for sales people. People buy from people, and the net provides a unique connective thread that we didn’t have just a few years ago. We’re seeing some areas where car sales people, for example, are buying ads at the hyperlocal level in order to raise their profiles in the community. We should be doing the same things — and more — with and for our people.

When is all of this going down? Gradually, at first, perhaps in the next 3–4 years. Unless something positive and dramatic happens with the economy, 2013 is going to be an absolutely brutal year for the industry (again), and all of this will accelerate. Don’t wait for somebody else to do it; YOU do it, regardless of your position within the whole.

Again, you don’t have to believe any of this, but my money’s on the folks who take advantage of what’s at their fingertips in building for themselves a better chance when the winnowing accelerates. Others will sit back and wait for more obvious signs that they’ll have to do something. By then, however, it’ll be too late. Nobody can rest on their laurels. Nobody.

Please accept this in the spirit with which it’s intended, and good luck.

Terry

   

 

“It served its purpose”

Syed ShabbirVia Newsblues this morning comes word of a young reporter with a new job. He’s Syed Shabbir, and the lucky TV station to acquire his obviously brilliant services is KSHB-41-NBC in his hometown of Kansas City (Market #31). He must be brilliant, because he’s only been in the business for two years, having begun in Topeka (Market #136), where he worked for a year before jumping to WCPO-TV in Cincinnati (Market #35) a year ago.

He told Cincinnati.com that working in his hometown has been his dream since the 8th grade, and now he’s made it. He’s a big city kid. Good for him. Bad for the business.

“I came to Cincy, because I needed to get out of Topeka,” he tells Cincinnati.com. “It only took me a year before I got tired of the small market stories and small market pay (in Topeka). I knew WCPO was only going to be a stepping stone, so I only signed a one year deal. It served its purpose, and I guess I’m lucky things are going according to plan.”

According to plan. Yep. That’s the way it is. Along the way, everything this young man did was to prepare himself for his dream, and this is the curse of the ego it requires to “be on TV.” Mr. Shabbir’s concern as a journalist in both Topeka and Cincinnati was for what those stops could do to fulfill this dream, not in serving the community. I’ve seen it a million times. The job reel is more important than serving the news needs of the community. Moreover, these kinds of people who are  just having their purpose served have no interest in the roots of their stepping stones, because they’re not really in it for the news; they’re in it for their own purposes, and one foot is already out the door at the moment the other foot steps in.

A commenter to the Cincinnati.com story, Steve Gaines, wrote: “loved being your ‘stepping-stone’ .…pls feel free to come back to cincinnati & walk on us again in the future…but honestly, i don’t even know who you are..”

I hate this about our industry. It cheapens what we do and robs smaller markets of what they need and deserve. Parochial news coverage wanted by small towns gives way to the cosmopolitan stories that look good on a young person’s reel. The retort, of course, is “pay me what I’m worth, and perhaps I’ll stay.” No you won’t. It is what it is. What you’re worth? Give me a break! You’re not in this for a “living wage” in a small town, because your definition is a better-than-living-wage. You’ll add “who doesn’t want that?” to which I’ll reply “go to law school.”

Maybe I’m the prick here. Maybe I should instead be chiding broadcast companies for not paying people more. I don’t, because I honestly don’t believe it would solve the revolving door problem. Besides, it’s extremely unrealistic economically. These people likely believe that they’re doing the Topekas of the world a favor by loaning them their brilliance for a year or two. Oh. Right.

Moreover, the egocentricity of young news people is an evolution that took place during my lifetime in news management — on my watch. People used to get into “the biz,” because it was a way to make a difference. Today, it’s all about “being on TV” or “being a star.” Watergate produced Woodward & Bernstein, and they became the poster boys for a new generation of journalists and journalism instructors. Shortly after that, trust in the press began to decline. Around the same time, communications schools began popping up to feed the growing beast known as television news, and the industry borrowed from the newspaper paradigm of small-market-to-big-market.

The Personal Media Revolution challenges all this, and I believe the day is coming when communities themselves will grow their own journalists. The Syed Shabbirs of the world — with their 8th grade dreams — will build and study their craft at home and work their ways into positions with local media companies. They will then be people with roots who care deeply about the communities they serve, whether it is governed by geography or issue. That will be good for journalism, it seems to me, because what we have now are gunslingers passing through towns, people generally who are a mile wide and an inch deep (but look good on TV).

Like Mr. Shabbir, they’re serving the purpose of self, and crapping all over the public in the process.