Thursday, October 31, 2013

Journalist as Personal Brand: The Economics

From the Nieman Journalism Lab:
Is the economic power of star journalists growing or shrinking? Depends on the news organization.

Divorces can be such fun, especially media divorces.

This week, David Pogue and The New York Times split after 13 years. Last month, The Wall Street Journal couldn’t renew their vows with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. Over the past year, Nate Silver’s bid adieu to the Times and Andrew Sullivan severed his relationship with The Daily Beast, just months before Tina Brown did likewise.

The terms of disendearment are never announced, and everybody wishes everybody luck in their new ventures.

What’s the value of media personality these days, and how is that value changing? There are always personality differences, miscommunications, and feelings of unshared gain (or sacrifice), as in all relationships. These more recent splits, though, may tell us about the new value of personality power in the digital media world — as well as its limits.

The Pogue parting is no big surprise. His far-flung business activities posed potential conflict after potential conflict; then-Times public editor Clark Hoyt’s 2009 column on Pogue served only as a public iceberg tip for concerns long simmering in the newsroom. Pogue’s own earlier statement, taken out of context, he points out — “I am not a reporter, I have never been to journalism school” — certainly didn’t help, as Gawker, among others, ridiculed that stance as disingenuous.

David Pogue is a wonderfully successful personal tech writer, probably more show biz than news biz, and now he’s taking his talents to Yahoo, where, according to CEO Marissa Mayer, he ”will lead a major expansion of consumer tech coverage.” Pogue gets more money and presumably less interference with his ventures, which include TV (PBS Nova specials, CBS Sunday Morning stories), books (Missing Manual book series), and magazines (a Scientific American column. A Broadway composer, you can check him out singing Tom Lehrer-like parody (“I Write the Code”) on YouTube. Pogue’s been multi-platform since before there was multi-platform.

Across town, The Wall Street Journal had developed its own multi-platform success. Since its launch in 2007, AllThingsD has moved comfortably from web to mobile, a top-three go-to site about digital deal-making, and back into the terrestrial world. The annual D conference is prototypical of the new events businesses now being jump-started by big and small publishers alike (“The newsonomics of the new Chattanooga Choo-Choo”).

Let’s consider the business case of star power. It’s morphed some since I first wrote about it three years ago (“The newsonomics of journalistic star power”) because of the changing economics of the business. Then it was institutions like Bloomberg and the National Journal making their moves, poaching higher-end talent like Fareed Zakaria and Howard Fineman.

Why invest in such talent? Certainly, there’s the barker factor. David Pogue, Marissa Mayer believes, will bring new readers into the Yahoo tech tent. More audience is, of course, the goal. But in 2013, audience growth is less valuable than it used to be. With the digital ad flatness that almost everyone other than Google, Facebook, and Twitter are seeing (Yahoo itself was down 7 percent in display ad revenue in Q3), the tie between audience growth and ad return is weakened. These days, the money is in matching audience to ad, as programmatic buying and other ad technologies transform the business. (Marketplace covered this issue well in its Pogue-related coverage; AllThingsD’s revenue plusses and minuses were best covered by Bloomberg’s Ed Lee.)

So how much, financially, is a David Pogue or a Nate Silver worth The New York Times?
The value equation has two parts. First, media can count the direct revenue driven by a contributor’s posts, columns, videos, or event appearances. Then there’s the elusive — but very real — brand-building. Personalities do help build brands.

The bigger the brand, though, the more value the brand may confer on the personality, as compared to the reverse. As we try to disentangle the value of Andrew Sullivan’s pay model from the value of his previous employers, we see that he’s both proving out a new model and showing us the limits of it. Both the Beast and The Atlantic, his previous home, conferred a fair amount of brand authority on him.

It’s an elusive relationship, as hard to achieve in media as marriage: “The sweet spot is the combo where both benefit from and feed off each other,” sums up Justin Smith, the new CEO of Bloomberg Media and former Atlantic Media president.

What we may seeing in the Pogue departure, as well as the AllThingsD split, is a new media company assessment of that brand value, as those companies struggle with lesser, ad-depleted revenue value....MORE
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