Branding — Feel the Burn

VENTURA, Calif. — The final day of the columnists’ 2009 conference sought both to expand their possibilities then return them to the glory of old-fashioned reader-beloved essays.

The background on The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow is easy to find online, including Zaslow’s experiences in creating the book. Jeff, of The Wall Street Journal, spoke both Friday evening as keynote then Saturday morning in a feature-writing workshop.

He knows his skills and his limitations. He admitted novel-like narrative is not his strong suit yet is a strong explainer in a journalistic style. “I am not a great writer. I am a hard worker, and I’m a storyteller,” Zaslow said, then turned his summary of negative Amazon reader reviews (of his latest, The Girls from Ames) back to the audience. “It’s most important [for us] to be clear.”

Jeff’s speeches to we columnists over the years have a similar format: He uses example after example of his successes and occasional missteps — he uses the funniest or the worst ones — then sums them up pithily.

“The days of the columnist as a rock star are over.” Rock star? Bob Greene and Mike Royko were rock stars in Chicago, he gave as examples, until scandal broke the career of the former and death took the latter.

“I realize that nothing I do in the rest of my life will come up to The Last Lecture. I know that.”

Still, Jeff has a bright future even in the near term, with The Girls from Ames just published and a co-authoring assignment that he is wrapping up with airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger.

The lesson he got as a journalist from professor Rausch?

“You all are storytellers. Go find those stories. And go hug your kids and your spouses.”

• • •

Marcia Meier of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference tells us columnists we “need an online presence: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the rest. You need to invest in a Web site.” More, clearer specifics from her might have been helpful.

• • •

Branding makes me queasy, as it’s the latest psy-pop jargon word, but I wanted to hear its advocates out. Erika Stalder is young but already a pro, a teen advice columnist online for the ABC Family channel. Robert Niles is well-known in journalism circles for his Internet acumen. His opinions on what works and doesn’t in newspaper Web sites make him divisive. I agree with him more often than not. Still it seems he’s been shoehorned into this topic, and I wish he could have been given his head on the weekend’s theme of how columnists can “Survive and Thrive” in our new world.

Niles noted his day job comprises managing a few Web sites, explaining, “I am the cockroach of the journalism business. I look to survive.”

“Don’t be afraid of working for yourself because ultimately that’s what you are doing anyway. That also makes you a pretty attractive employee, too,” he said.

Branding to Niles is “ultimately is the public’s perception of your relationship with them,” while Stalker quotes Amazon’s Jeff Bezos as saying, “your brand is what people say about you when you leave the room.”

Niles is optimistic that “journalist-entrepreneurs can make it,” thrive in this new news media world.

The branding talk, along with columnists hustling for a paid speech here and a library writing workshop there, makes me queasy. I think of psychotherapists and massage therapists who make $150 or $60 an hour, respectively. That’d be great if it’s 40 hours a week, or 60 or even 30 hours. But much of a professional’s time is spent between those hours in bookkeeping, marketing and washing linens, well that’s the latter. Such hours are not compensated.

I ask the two about the extreme this can go. To illustrate, I describe a friend who not only hustles writing assignments large and small, but solicits commercial photography gigs and even is skilled in audio and video digital editing. He has good months and bad despite this wide variety of marketable skills. Zeroing to my point, I note this gambit is highly likely to be impractical without health insurance through a family member or the upcoming national health plan. My friend gets his policy by working as a camera operator at a TV station, which sticks him with tough hours. I get shrugs for answers, but two conferees come up to me later in the day — and a third the next day — to thank me for posing the question.

Branding will come up later in the trip in a much more pragmatic discussion with a veteran of it, my brother. From him I understand it better than the conference programs. Maybe it helps that he’s not in the journalism trade.

When it’s used as a secondary strategy, I accept “branding.” To make such a process primary seems self-dooming, unless you’re in the self-help business and this is your latest topic. Still, Thurber didn’t brand himself in order to get published. If his kind of writing was popular today, he still would not need to think in those terms. Jim knew the kind of writing he excelled at and what sells, and his query letters for submissions surely reflected that.

If “branding” is today’s successor to yesterday’s “networking” — and my brother would say (did say) both are needed to succeed — then it follows that “branding” is self-oriented and that “networking,” just by dictionary definitions, is other-oriented. Now that says it all.

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