Click here or on the image for the full series.  Original image by Roman Iakoubtchik on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Click here or on the image for the full series.
Original image by Roman Iakoubtchik on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Note: This is the first in an ongoing series on MediaShift about the rise of personal brand journalism. Look for more stories coming over the next few weeks.

The balance of power in media continues to shift away from the major news outlets toward the journalists who work for them.

Ezra Klein’s departure from the Washington Post for Vox Media is just the latest in a string of changes that illustrate the rise of the journalist as a brand.

For journalists working in the trenches who do not drive millions of page views a month, the trend represents an opportunity. More news organizations are recognizing that their competitive edge comes from having staff members who are subject-area experts the public trusts and relies on.

One organization’s strategy

American City Business Journals, which has weekly newspapers in 40 cities around the U.S. and websites in three more, recently adopted a strategy of promoting its reporters as subject-area experts as part of a major redesign of its products and processes.

The redesigned print products feature “reporter pages,” where journalists write insider-y items that display their knowledge of local trends in real estate, banking, health care, energy and higher education, topics that have always been strengths of the Business Journals.

(Disclosure: I worked for ACBJ as an editor and publisher and recently worked for them as a consultant, but was not involved in the redesign project.)

Mario Garcia. Photo by  Nordiske Mediedager and used here with Creative Commons license.

Mario Garcia. Photo by Nordiske Mediedager and used here with Creative Commons license.

ACBJ hired famed designer Mario Garcia’s firm to guide the transformation from processes focused on print to a “digital first” news philosophy.

Reporters are adopting a more conversational style suited for the web, and they often go into how they got a story. This kind of transparency was not part of a print mentality but is fundamental on the web.


The Portland Business Journal’s coverage of Nike’s headquarters expansion offers an example of how the new strategy is supposed to work, Garcia says on his blog.

Rumors were circulating last August that Nike was being wooed to leave Oregon, which would have had negative economic impact on the state. The reporter covering Nike decided to look into the company’s real estate holdings. Over several days of web reports, he revealed that Nike’s recent purchases indicated it likely planned to stay in Oregon.

The reporter, Matthew Kish, also described his reporting process — “how I got the story” — in a transparent way that was traditionally avoided in print but is part of the web’s interactive relationship with the audience.

Spin forward into print


For Portland’s print edition, the web reports were combined with maps and aerial photos in a multi-page package titled “Swooshville” (playing on Nike’s Swoosh logo) “in the ultimate lean-back experience with a centerpiece story telling readers about the campus expansion, why it matters to Oregon and what could be next for Nike.”

ACBJ’s chief content officer, Emory Thomas, calls this “spinning the news forward” from the web into the print edition. Despite being bombarded with information on the web, readers actually want more information, in more places, more often about topics they really care about, Thomas said.

Implications for journalists

The media outlet no longer owns the audience. It has to share that audience with the people who generate it. The goal for journalists should be to distinguish themselves from the rest of the producers of web content by their high standards of accuracy and ethics as well as their communication skills.

In this environment, communication can’t be one-way. Journalists have to engage with their audience because it is the audience that helps define them and their brand. That audience is loyal and it has value, a value that the journalist can carry wherever he or she goes. As many are doing now.

Image for personal branding series by Abe Novy via Flickr Creative Commons.

James Breiner is a consultant in online journalism and leadership. He is a former co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University and a former Knight International Journalism Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. He is bilingual in Spanish and English. You can follow him on Twitter here.

ijnetlogoThis is an edited version of a post that appeared on the The International Journalists’ Network’s site, and before that, on the blog News Entrepreneurs. IJNet helps professional, citizen and aspiring journalists find training, improve their skills and make connections. IJNet is produced by the International Center for Journalists in seven languages—Arabic, Chinese, English, Persian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish—with a global team of professional editors. Subscribe to IJNet’s free, weekly newsletter. You can also follow IJNet on Twitter or like IJNet on Facebook.