29. Are journalists plug-and-play? Uber drivers are plug-and-play — give them any assignment and they can jump right in. SWAT team members are not plug-and-play — drop a new one into a new team and they must get to know their teammates before they can be effective in dangerous situations together.
To what extent do journalists create the same content, no matter which publication they work for? Does the effectiveness of journalists dip every time they move from publication to publication and get used to new teams? Relative to other jobs, are there synergies to be had between journalists, and thus benefits to having journalists under the same publication, for a long time? If so, are publishers taking full advantage of these synergies?
Or are journalists fluid, mostly working as independent brands, with separate sources, knowledge and interests, and only dependent on publications for their delivery channels and monetization processes? If so, and the whole of a group of journalists is not greater than the sum of its parts, does it matter to the consumer where they work? Will this matter less and less as aggregators and social media channels surface journalist’s content across platforms, regardless of where it originally appears? Should all journalists be freelancers?
As reporters leave and join Politico, does it take a while for them to be “installed” in their new publications? Or do they pretty much produce the same work, regardless of what publication employs them? To what extent do reporters at Politico collaborate with one another, relative to other publications?
Chief among these ideas is that we live in an entrepreneurial age, not an institutional one. Until recently, most reporters derived their impact — and often their sense of professional esteem — from the prestige and gravity of the organizations they worked for. The Web, among other forces, has demolished much of the comparative advantage that big newspapers and networks once enjoyed. Today, many of the reporters having the most impact are those whose work carries a unique signature, who add a distinct voice to the public conversation. Their work, in other words, matters more than where they work.
Risky Business: John Harris, Jim VandeHei, and POLITICO: PART A
Columbia University Journalism Knight Case Studies Initiative
By Kathleen Gilsinan
Individual brands. By early 2006, [POLITICO co-founder John] Harris thought he had identified two trends changing the character of competition among media. One was the very nature of the competitors. Harris saw more and more writers develop as individuals the kind of influence and large readership traditionally enjoyed only by larger institutions, like the Washington Post. He knew many such writers personally. “The institutional brand you were affiliated with [used to be] the most important thing about you,” Harris observes. Yet he now noticed that “there were people who were developing brand names and franchises to themselves that were quite independent of whatever institutional platform they worked for.” The Web had been a part of this transformation, rendering it easy to read the work of a favored correspondent or commentator without necessarily consuming the rest of the publication in which it appeared.
Among his friends and acquaintances who followed or practiced political journalism, it was increasingly individuals, rather than the institutions for which they worked, whose opinions shaped the dialogue. Referring to Time magazine political commentator Mark Halperin, Harris notes that “[they would ask] ‘What’s Halperin’s take on this?’ Not, ‘What’s Time magazine’s take on this?’”
At the same time that there were some star writers who outshone their institutions, there were others who simply made their own institutions. Josh Marshall, a former editor for the liberal magazine the American Prospect, had begun his own blog, “Talking Points Memo” (TPM), in 2000. By 2006, Marshall had been able to hire additional reporters. TPM had broken several stories of national significance, and was often cited in other media.9 Marshall’s was a small operation with a major impact. More than that, while stagnating ad revenues menaced newspapers, Marshall’s blog — financed by a blend of niche advertising and voluntary reader contributions — was self‐sustaining and growing. Observes Harris:
[Marshall] doesn’t need the New York Times platform to give him influence and the ability to drive conversation among people… He built his own brand. That’s a huge change… if you compare who had influence and how they got that influence in context with let’s say 1985 which was when I first came to the Post as a summer intern.
If institutions continued to decline in influence and importance relative to individual writers, Harris feared, it could be another sign of trouble for the Washington Post.