Who Protects the Brand of Journalism?

The New York Times announced today that it has appointed a senior vice president and head of brand — a new title — reporting to the company’s chief revenue officer. That gave me pause.

I have no objection to the job’s duties, neither to its first inhabitant; I’m told by Twitter friends that David Rubin, ex of Pinterest, is a solid dude. And one shouldn’t read too much into job titles.

But I fear the result of making brand a function of marketing to the audience, rather than of serving the public, especially for news.

When I started Entertainment Weekly, I had the politically naive and overly optimistic idea that if we were going to criticize every other segment of media, we should criticize our own. So I assigned a magazine critic. What could go wrong? In the first outing, the critic had a few critical things to say about one of the company’s own titles, Sports Illustrated.

Well. At the weekly managing editors’ lunch — where much gin and bluster were served — the then-M.E. of S.I. took after me. The woodshed session went something like this:

Listen to me, you little shit. I am the editor of Sports Illustrated. And you know what my most important job is? It’s not assigning stories. It’s not making covers. It’s not editing. It is protecting the brand of Sports Illustrated. Nothing goes out — not a page, not a calendar, nothing — without my approval, because that is my job.

Never mind this:

Well, other than the Sports Illustrated Sneaker Phone, the editor was right. It was his job to protect — thus to be the boss of, to be responsible for — the brand. What the hell does “brand” mean? There’s hardly a more overused and — to journalists — uncomfortable word these days, as they are told to build their “personal brands” on what we dub social media.

At the core, the brand is still the expression of trust and value that the public — the public we serve — has in us. That says to me that an editor should be its proprietor.

Today, I’ll go farther. In my reaction to our CUNY study on the new jobs and skills needed in newsrooms, I speculated that there’ll need to be a new job: audience advocate. Except I also argued that I hate the word “audience.” So passive. So media-centric. So pre-Jay Rosen.

That leaves my friend Wolfgang Blau, now the chief digital officer of Condé Nast International, wondering what the hell to put in his latest job listing. His plea:

I can’t call our future ‘Audience Development Editor’ the ‘Editor of the People formerly known as the Audience’, despite my agreement with most of what Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen have written about the crucial change of relationships between publishers and readers or viewers. Now what? I still need someone with these skills plus a deep understanding of loyalty, engagement and how to explore the areas, topics and functions where we can serve the people and communities we interact with journalistically. ‘Scalable Relationships Editor’?

And I’ll complicate it yet more. We are talking a lot these days about another word that grates some journalists: “product.” I say that making new products and services that are more relevant to the people we serve and enable us to build relationships of greater value with them is at the core of a new and necessary strategy for news. So bring on the product-development chiefs.

But what is product, really? It’s editorial. It’s making what we give to the public. It’s advocating for and serving the public. It’s building trust and value with the public.

It’s brand.

That’s why I twitched at seeing the news of a “senior vice president and head of brand” at The Times. That’s why I grimace at the mention of “audience development,” because that’s so media-centric — we want more of you to look at what we make — rather than public-centric. Being public-centric — caring for and serving the public — is what separates journalism from mere manufacturing and marketing. That is the essence of the brand of journalism.

That is why in my mind, at The New York Times, Dean Baquet is the head of brand, no matter what it says on someone else’s business card. For at The Times the executive editor is ultimately responsible for what newspaper is and what it stands for. I’m not suggesting we change Baquet’s title to head of brand and chief audience developer. Heaven forbid. No, I’m suggesting that we continue to imbue in the title of editor the responsibility to serve the public and protect the brand.

So what should we call Wolfgang’s new colleague? I sympathize with his quandary. Perhaps chief relationship officer? Chief listening officer? Yeah, still yucky. How about public editor?

And what we do we call Mr. Rubin? Marketing seems to fit and there’s no shame in that. The Times brand is well worth marketing.