The Journalist’s Last Laugh: The Liberation of Digital Media Talent

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The Journalist's Last Laugh -

As a journalism student at NYU, I remember my immigrant dad interrogating me suspiciously about a profession he couldn’t possibly understand. He asked me the kinds of questions you’d expect from an engineer who just risked everything to drag his family out of the Soviet Union. “How will you make money?” he’d ask in his thick Russian accent.  “What kind of (stupid) job is writing?” He would have been more proud if I majored in mink skinning or Zamboni maintenance.  Slowly, he chipped away at me until I gave up my journalistic dream.  For the past 10 years, it seemed like my dad’s fresh-off-the-boat wisdom paid off.  I was having a successful career in business while the field of paid journalism looked like Courtney Love circa 5 a.m. – a hot mess.

Courtney Love - Journalist's Last Laugh -

By the early 2000’s, the noble craft I studied no longer existed.  Unscrupulous, out of touch, overpriced universities churned out huge surpluses of hopeful journalism grads.  Many of them toiled in unrelated jobs, cranked out technical manuals, or spent their days slaving away for free at Huffington Post – or, polishing Arianna’s fleet of jets, yachts and tanks. The good news? Things are about to come full circle.  As I sit, writing a (free) piece for Harvard Business Review, there’s an unstoppable, digital force about to transform the field of journalism once again. In this new world order, the journalist will be king. That’s right, Walter Cronkite, Julius Caesar and Mark Zuckerberg are about to have a lovechild.  Though they don’t realize it yet, non-writers will also enter the field.  Here’s my prediction of how it’s going to happen and how journalists can take advantage.  (In a separate piece, I’ll write about what large media companies could do about it.)


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Notice something peculiar in your Facebook feed lately?  You don’t really know any of those strangers posting witty comments or family photos, do you?  Chances are Facebook recommended them to you through that mysterious little “People to Subscribe To” box.  The only way you’d meet any of them is at the risk of a restraining order.  You’ve crowded out your boring, old friends in favor of strangers with far more interesting updates than, “At the [insert name of crappy airport here].”  

Social Bonding The subversive thing about this little subscription feature is how much it’s allowed individual journalists (and non-journalists) to gain followership, or even “stalkership”.  They’re able to establish a personal connection with you that’s equal to your mom’s or best best friend’s.  In fact, all three now compete for your attention.  Except, one will never ask you to do the dishes…or have anything to do with you at all. However, the dialogue they generate will create bonds that will turn into real money very soon.  I’ll explain…

We Only Pay in Followers, Mr. Friedman Sites like Huffington Post and Business Insider offer their free laborers a chance at fame in exchange for countless hours of keyboard pecking, presumably from small, rent-controlled apartments. The first form of “payment” was posting writers’ Twitter links.  This was fine, if a bit superficial – in the way that 140 character exchanges are short and superficial.  The real coup came in the form of Facebook and Google Plus.  Their “follow” links open an entirely new world to writers, giving them access to your precious, personal feed…and digital life.  It’s a power not to be taken lightly.  Many traditional publications, online magazines, and user-generated video sites also let readers follow their contributors.  By doing so, they’ve unlocked a genie that ain’t going back in no stinkin’ bottle.

The Most Specialest Business in the WHOOOLE WIIIDE WOOORLD If you work for Microsoft, no one will ever know about that awesome PowerPoint presentation you made this morning.  Those amazing slide transitions, that inside joke about Steve that everyone loved, and that beautiful call to action slide you ignored your family to work on.  NO ONE will know or care about your white-collar conquests.  If you ever wanted to leave Microsoft, to recruiters you’ll remain some anonymous drone forced to prove his worth by meekly recounting tales of past glories. (Like Al Bundy and his four touchdowns in one game story.) 

Not so in journalism.  Your work is there for all to see. It’s 100% public by design.  Now, thanks to the magic of Social Bonding, you might also have 200,000 Facebook or Twitter followers to certify your worth.  Not only will they vouch for your work, but they are a portable audience you could bring to any prospective employer, presuming you want one.  (I’m getting to that, I promise…)


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The Branding Trickle Down Just like the phone went from being linked with a place to representing a person, so will news. This will start will tech journalism, where audiences and writers are more likely to connect online.  Soon, it will spread to Good Housekeeping and even Vogue, where reading is optional.  As Social Bonding takes hold, the trust and followership typically associated with monolithic brands like NEW YORK TIMES will trickle down to its writers and contributors.  (It’s a juiced-up, Mark McGwire-like version of how working for a respected company gives your personal credentials a boost. ) In media, news will finally have a face, or many faces.  Writers will connect with audiences in profound, personal, almost voyeuristic ways. It’s a bond readers could never have with New York Times, Inc. At first, companies will not be threatened by it since those writers will make their audiences stickier (not in a dirty way). That will change.

Bonding Upgrades There will be a whole series of technical improvements by Facebook and others that make Social Bonding something even the People of Walmart can figure out.  Facebook will add threaded comments so responses to posts don’t look like a huge, impenetrable pile.  Commenters will be rated so people can filter responses based on reputation.  New sharing options will make comments seem less alien and more contextual.  Outside of Facebook, new services like Pintrest, even Youtube will allow visual and video-oriented journalists to create new communities and loyal following.  

War for Talent Once they accumulate enough Bonded Followers*, top talent will either leave or wield infinite leverage.  It’ll start innocently enough. A few journalists will organize events, self-publish successful books, and get media attention simply because of how viral their work is. Once those activities start earning real money, the digitally savvy will be emboldened. The technophobic will have no choice but to jump in. I’d pay good money to watch Barbara Walters upload a video.


Provocative predictions & prescriptions on where innovation, economics & culture will take us. Fearless. Funny.

*Note: I define “Bonded Followers” by 1. The number of followers 2. Consistent volume of likes and comments and 3. Quality of the follower and dialogue.  (Happy to build you an algorithm…for a modest surcharge.)  


There are plenty of clues of how this war might play out:

1. Big, Fat Geek Leverage Rumor has it, that New York Times popular tech writer, Nick Bilton (99,000+ Facebook Followers), was offered between $300-$500,000 in salary and a $1M book advance to join CBS.  Nick is as sharp as they come, so I suspect he knows exactly what he’s doing in rejecting that offer.  He might not be done building his Fame Machine, powered by the gentle wind of New York Times’ prestige.  The potential for much bigger money and leverage awaits him. Ben Parr (71,000+ Facebook Followers) from Mashable and several others are in the same boat.

Joshua Topolsky The Verge on Jimmy Fallon -

2. Start Competing Media Ventures: This is already beginning. The talented team of tech writers at Engadget mysteriously stopped enjoying being in the AOL family. So, Joshua Topolsky and company parlayed their fame and Jimmy Fallon appearances into an instant hit blog called The Verge.  A few years ago, tech luminary Leo Laporte turned his likability and TechTV and radio fame into a multimillion dollar podcast empire.

3. Corporate Advocacy Corporations love smart people who can attract an audience, enhance their brand, and keep lawyers off of speed dial.  After all, talent is talent. Clear thinkers, visionaries, and good communicators are always in demand.  Well, meet Robert Scoble, the most connected, influential, non-journalist on the digital earth.  Robert became a popular, non-stop tech blogger since leaving Microsoft years ago.  Since then, he has amassed such a rabid following (91,000+ Facebook Fans, including Mark Z. himself) that Rackspace hired him as a roving embassador and discoverer of new technologies.  A job that never existed before, but will from now on.

4. Non-Media Ventures  Michael Arrington started TechCrunch and recently sold the popular blog to AOL. Since leaving AOL (notice a trend?), Mike will put those freshly printed corporate dollars to use in his own hedge fund, CrunchFund. Some of his popular TechCrunch writers are coming along for the ride.  Media coverage and fame can sure help make a case for a fledgling Crunchfund portfolio company.  This model is not unprecedented. In 2006, popular finance writer Scott Burns co-founded money management firm Assetbuilder.

5. Corporate Clampdown and Economist-ization Media companies won’t take all this lying down (or bent over, for that matter).  With enough talent bleed, media companies will resort to all sorts of tactics from limiting exposure to personal accounts, to re-writing non-compete clauses to going The Economist route and eliminating all bylines. (Unbelievably, The Economist almost never shows you who wrote the article.)  Of course, there will be a backlash by writers, lawsuits, and a war the corporations will likely lose.  Already companies are suing former employees for their social media identities.  (Phonedog, you will lose, you know that, right?)  

6. Non-journalists enter the fray  In that same recommended list, employees, executives and janitors at Facebook, Twitter and other employers with digital cache are amassing followers.  If they can really engage those followers, they too will become journalists with leverage.  Make that “journalists” with leverage.  Either way, they’ll command bargaining power with their current employers and in the media space. The most influential will likely leave their firms to flex these new muscles.

7. A Devil’s Choice Many journalists will face the temptation of taking big money or the risk of starting their own ventures. Freedom to fail or subjugation from not trying?  We’ll see who chooses what. Will those new ventures end up using the same low-wage, search-engine tricks as the media giants they escaped?  Time will tell.  


A whole slew of new opportunities will open up as this story unfolds.  Here are just a few imminent ones:

DamnYankees -
  1. The biggest opportunity is marrying talent with capital.  Investors will have a chance at a “sure thing” if they back some of these emerging media superstars.  Best to start those conversations now.
  2. Pooling/Supergroups: Remember when Ted Nugent, Tommy Shaw from Styx and the guy from Night Ranger got together?  Well, the same is about to happen when you combine multiple, socially-bonded media magnets into a single venture. Careful, audiences overlap, so combining non-overlapping audiences might work best.
  3. Need for media executives: most journalists are not business people.  However, there is a hungry, middle management layer at big media companies that should start nuzzling up to some of these talented creatives and plotting their world domination… Leo Laporte hired a CEO for his company so he could focus on content creation.  Hopefully, this new class of executive will manage these businesses in a way that’s consistent with the personalities and ideals of these rising stars.
  4. Centralized/shared infrastructure and management: Each of these media businesses doesn’t really need a separate set of management or to individually decide which blogging platform to use.  Much of the business management can be done jointly.  Existing companies that are further up the curve can offer fee-based management services to these new upstarts.
  5. Digital Agents:  Non-techie writers who are popular (just like grandpa), might need a little help getting on Facebook. Enter: the digital agent or business manager.  This new breed of rep can bring analog talent to the digital masses. Just be careful they don’t start posting their credit card numbers on Facebook!
  6. Event organizers What do you get when you cross popular digital journalists with event organizers? Geekfest 2012? Maybe. Hell, I might even do my keynote dressed as a Gamorrean Guard.
  7. Premium content.  A select group of writers may be able to charge for their Facebook or Google Plus feed content.  More likely, they can produce research reports or other subscription services to be consumed by corporations.  This will open some jobs for junior-level analysts and those awesome “barrel of pretzels” delivery services for their coffee rooms.
  8. Plenty of work for lawyers on both sides of the aisle

My advice to journalists everywhere: take advantage of your digital fame now!  The corporate clampdown may be near…  Plot your next move, carefully.

As I wrote about in my book, fame is the new job security in the digital era.  Stay anonymous at your own peril.  If you’re an anonymous corporate drone with hidden talents, consider a gig at Huffington Post.

So what can large media companies do about this turning tide?  Stay tuned to ideafaktory to find out.


Moleskin notebook -

Funny how things come full circle.  I left my kush corporate gig to start new ventures and write. Though I have some amazing businesses in the works, my book is made of dead trees and I’m drafting an article for a 100+ year old publication. I might as well be chiseling my own gravestone!  Someday, I hope to upgrade to a mechanical typewriter. Of course, I plan to write all my newfangled ideas down in a Moleskin notebook.  It’s not important until your musings are ensconced in animal flesh.  

by Steve Faktor at

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Provocative predictions & prescriptions on where innovation, economics & culture will take us. Fearless. Funny.