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My Brand Says We Can't Be Friends

Earlier this week, the New York Times appointed a new senior VP, who has a new (for the NYT) title: head of brand. In the wake of my recent article about why clickbait will save journalism, I can’t help but think about what branding means for newspapers, but more specifically the journalists behind them.

Back in the good ol’ days when we used ink on dead trees to broadcast our news — oh, people still do? — well, back when it was the main way of pushing information, the brand of your newspaper was very important. Some papers had a brand that promoted how reliable they were, some pushed that they would be the first ones with the story, others had the in-depth analysis. That stuck with us into the age of television and syndication, with branding working into account the biases of a given piece. In the words of Open Mike Eagle, “MSNBC is blue and to the left \ CNN is red, white, and black, and in the middle \ And Fox News is bright red and hollerin’, and on the right.”

Now, we’re watching what branding means for journalism change again. The relationship between publisher, journalist, and audience is currently in a massive state of flux, but it’s pretty clear that the journalist’s personal brand is becoming more important. You see it on Facebook, when it prompts you “See more from Morgan Sennhauser?” after you get done reading one of my stories here on elsewhere. You see it when you notice that the same writer is showing up on Medium, on Huffington Post, on the Washington Times.

As a journalist just entering the market during this transitory time, this is, frankly, terrifying. You have to worry about your Roman Catholic aunt being judgmental of your Facebook. Maybe you made the mistake of friending your boss. But you can limit posts, keep things private, and, worst case, just stop posting.

That’s not an option for me, and others in my position. Ignoring the importance of using social media to build your brand (I’m going to hate that phrase by the end of this rant,) my name is stamped under my work, and my work is publicly visible across the Internet. It’s one thing to build a bridge, it’s quite another to have to put your name on the bridge with your home phone next to it.

But, that’s what we have to do. Or else my writing is valued the same as well, anyone who can put finger to key and crunch out a coherent sentence. Er, using a lax definition of coherent, if we count my writing on Medium. On top of that, I’m expected to market my writing myself. It’s not just writing about what happened to Adrian Grenier, it’s sharing it and making sure people see it. Which means being active on social media. Absurdly active. Like, really absurdly active.

Which means I end up accruing followers. That is, rather, the point. Some of these followers I like, enough that they go from followers to “friends,” though of course “friends” these days means something very different than someone you head out to beers with, thanks to Facebook. This is wonderful, usually. More friends, even if they’re just e-buddies, is something most of us like, and I’ve got a suspicion it’s doubly true for those of us who have decided to make our way in communications.

But, and here’s where things get tricky, there’s more to branding than building a brand. You must also protect your brand. In the real world, you protect your brand with doing things like, well, not joining the KKK, and nodding along when people talk about how important it is to protect the poor. Basic stuff. But when it comes to protecting your brand online, it frequently means going past that.

It means limiting the, uh, discourse on my Facebook; curating away from slurs and cesspits. But it also means being particular about where I push my traffic, and who I associate with. While it might be fine for a car mechanic to get riled up when debating politics, I’ve got some pressure to avoid that. After all, one quote out of context, pushed high up in the Google rankings, and my brand is damaged.

But it goes past keeping a level head, which frankly we should all try and do. It means avoiding supporting things I find problematic. It stops being acceptable for me to just sit in a group of people I publicly associate with when they are complicit in bigotry, because well, isn’t it my job to speak (or write) against that? So each argument becomes so much more than whatever it is on its face. I’m forced into making it a platform for my brand.

Which, frankly, sucks sometimes. Sometimes, I’d love to let you go with your casual misogyny, I would. Maybe it was just a slip of your tongue. In any other situation, if I had almost any other job, I’d be able to let it slide. But I can’t. I have to either argue against it and make you mad, or cut you out so no one can say I condoned it. Because someone saying “emsenn, why are you friends with that racist?” isn’t just a personally shaming thing to hear. It’s something that, if more people were to hear it, can affect my paycheck.

I understand this is obnoxious to my friends. Why don’t I just shut up/let it go? Well, again — you’d be protective of the language around you if the language around you is how you kept your larder up.

So, to everyone who’s gotten short shrift or been cut out, I’m sorry, but my brand says we can’t be friends.

Editorial and License Information

My name is emsenn and I wrote this essay for the benefit of the commons. To the extent possible under law, I have waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to it. If you're viewing it on a remote server, you're encouraged to download your own copy. Essays like this are made possible with financial support from readers like you. Thank you. To read more of my work and to learn more about me, visit https://emsenn.net