How does having a strong persona make online media journalists work more accessible and make them more valuable to the companies they work for? In answering this question, I will be looking at journalists who focus on things other than serious news, like the video game or Food journalists. I will be speaking about how people in this field have a strong online persona and looking at if this makes them more appealing to an audience, and more employable because of the audience they have collected.
Having a focus on the people behind the pieces, had not always been happening in the media. In the 1980’s tabloids, like the Sun, decided to use images of the writers in their paper to make the journalists become characters themselves rather then just invisible observers (Dugdale, 2000). This also allowed for a message to be sent to their readers, “this paper is written by people who look – and think – just like you” (Dugdale, 2000). By the mid-1980’s the more serious papers, also started to show contributors faces in the extra sections that started to show up during this time (Dugdale, 2000).
These days, with the popularity of Online journalism, having the journalist image under the headline is very common and so is having the ability to search a publication by author and see everything they have written. By allowing for a greater focus on the writer, rather then the written, this has created spaces where fans and fandoms of the writers can grow.
Fan’s and the Digital Era
According to John L. Sullivan, “Fans of popular television programs, movies, or books will often spend a great deal of time with their favourite texts, reading them closely and often repeatedly, looking for greater nuance and detail. However, audiences who are initially quite enthusiastic about their chosen media text want to do much more than simply consume the text. They want to share their passion with others, debate the finer points of the text, integrate elements of the media text into their own lives, and critique the text for any perceived deficiencies” (Sullivan, 2013).
Due to this power that fans have, engagement has become one of the top measures that digital services are judged on (Gaydon, 2020). It is widely accepted in online spaces that increased audience engagement builds brand value (Gaydon, 2020). However, in order for there to be value derived from said engagement, the engagement and brand value needs to be measurable and monetized (Gaydon, 2020). In terms of journalistic content that is produced for video sites like Youtube, this is measured by the amount of views that a view has, and this then reflects the ad revenue that a channel will receive. Therefore, to a company concerned about its bottom line, having more viewers and a dedicated audience who will keep returning, means that there is a greater chance for more revenue to be funnelled into the company.
The power of fans have long been clear in other industries as well, and this understanding predates the digital consumption era. Person states “Fan activities have many times at least indirectly benefited the powerful corporations that own the intellectual property they love. This can be seen with the popular myth of the Star Trek fandom: how Trekkies first saved the show from cancellation and then kept it alive during the decade between the demise of the original series in 1969 and the release of the first feature film in 1979” (Pearson, 2010).
In the modern digital era, this is done by making sure that every aspect of the brand is clear and can be identified by a potential new audience member quickly. This is why, having a clear ‘self brand’ is so encouraged to young, and up and coming journalists who are trying to make it in the industry and let their voice be heard, in whatever space they wish to work in, weather that be serious news, or not.
Your Brand and Audience Making You More Employable
Branding yourself is something that has become very common in the new age of social media, in almost every field. Most of the time this is done on social media, making sure that when your current or potential future employer decides to look you up on Facebook they will like what they see and find the things you have placed on there to be consistent with their views. As stated by Ilana Gershon “People are told that to be hirable they must use the concept of brand as a metaphorical ideology that can provide the communicative strategies to regiment a self into a legible employable persona” (Gershon, 2014).
An example of this happening in online media can be seen in the personal channel of producer and writer for Gaming Journalism Site, Polygon, Brian David Gilbert. Before being hired to work for the company, Brian had a small following online where he made short comedic videos. In December of 2017, he uploaded a video titled “This video got me a job”. This video was essentially the cover letter he sent to Polygon when applying, showing off his skills and education history. He also mentions the size of his audience at the time, and the fact that some of his videos had gone viral in the past. And there is a reason that Brian mentioned this when applying for a company who might value the audience that would follow him. This reason can be seen in the over 4 million views that the playlist of Brian produced videos.
By why follow people like Brian in the first place? When I conducted a survey, one respondent, who stated they enjoyed watching Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen stated “I love their content and the fact that they’ve built a brand around the shared experiences of numerous, unique individuals who bring different elements to the table.” Whilst others, stated the entertainment value and quality of information being presented is what draws them to the media that they watch. Some consumers even develop such a strong connection to the people that they watch that 70% of respondents stated they would follow their favourite journalists to a different company if they were to change employers. One respondent even stated that they had done so in the past, following a journalist to a different company when the company they first found them on, shut down.
It seems that the greatest reason that online journalists gain a large following is due to a personality trait that powers most of online content creation, having a distant, yet relatable personality. By having this personality, the viewers will connect with, and see themselves in the journalists and the media they consume. This can be seen in the recent popularity of a company that came up a few times in my survey responses, Bon Appétit and its Test Kitchen.
The Power of a Strong Online Persona
Back in 2016, Bon Appétit’s YouTube presence was what you’d expect from a Condé Nast owned magazine. All videos where close-up “hands and pans” recipe videos. The focus was on the food and how to make it (Strapagiel, 2020). This changed, when explained in an interview with Buzz Feed news, old footage of Brand Leone, now staple of the channel, making Kombucha was found, edited together and presented to the editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport (Strapagiel, 2020). Adam loved the video and was already considering taking the channel in that direction.
This video lead to many different series on the channel, including Gourmet Makes, one of the most popular, hosted by Claire Saffitz, or as she is more widely know, Claire from the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen. Each episode features Claire growing more and more frustrated as she attempts to recreated gourment and homemade versions of foods like oreos and skittles.
The reason for its appeal? Claire feels less like a professional chief, telling you how to make a better version of a food you already enjoy, but rather a friend, who also happens to be a very talented chef. As do the other Bon Appétit chefs who pop by to cheer Claire on or offer advice. As stated by Buzz Feed news, “The joy of the episodes isn’t the end recipe, but rather watching Claire slowly unravel before finally, in a blaze of glory, making a finished product (Strapagiel, 2020).” This appeal and success can be seen in the many different memes that centre around Claire, including the hashtag “I would die for Claire from the Bon Appétit test kitchen”
In a world where print is struggling to survive, Condé Nast said Bon Appétit’s subscriptions saw an over 600% increase during the 2019 thanksgiving period compared to the 2018 one and the median age of these new subscribers is 35 (Strapagiel, 2020). Additionally, Rapoport said the income from the YouTube videos has become a legitimate source of revenue (Strapagiel, 2020). It seems that by utilising, the people who worked for them, and showing off their unique personalities and strengths, Bon Appétit’s journalists, made themselves not only extremely valuable to their employer, but to any future employer in the same field.
Another group of people that came up in the survey responses was the hosts of popular Buzzfeed series “Unsolved” and “Worth it”. Unsolved revolves around the two hosts, Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej discussing cold cases from around the world and the possible theories surrounding what may have happened. They also investigate popular supernatural theories, and much of this style of video revolves around the difference between the hosts belief in the existence of supernatural forces.
Worth it follows Steven Lim, Andrew Ilnyckyj and Adam Bianchi as they venture around the US dining on a specific food each episode, but trying three different versions, at three different price points, to find what price the food is the most “worth it” at.
However, in late 2019, Ryan, Shane and Steven left Buzzfeed to start their own company, Watcher Entertainment. While they will be spending a lot of time working on their new venture, all three still have contracts with Buzzfeed to film episodes of their respective series (Spangler, 2019). The reason that Buzzfeed may have wanted to keep them on could have something to do with the combined 2 billion views that the 3 men brought to the company (Spangler, 2019).
This deal follows the slew of popular creators leaving the site to produce their own content, almost all starting with a “Why I Left Buzzfeed” video, explaining their reasoning for leaving and, for some, even creating their own competing media companies. As stated by Variety, many of the reasons listed was due to the lack of creative control and the issue of the non-compete clause that means they cannot work on any non-Buzzfeed projects (Spangler, 2019). This caused friction as Buzzfeed also encouraged its creators to make identity centric videos, but to keep that identity soley for Buzzfeed and its content (Spangler, 2019).
While it hasn’t been officially stated, having this deal with Ryan, Shane and Steven shows that Buzzfeed has the understanding that the reason many people flocked to the company was due to the persona centric content they were putting out, that made audiences relate to what was being put out.
Ultimately, the reason many people invest in these journalists, the content they create, and feel like they would follow them from company to company, is because they connect with the persona they have put out into the world, and the content they create for the companies they work for. The reverse then also becomes true, companies that promote their employees having a strong persona and their content reflecting that, is due to the audience that follows. This means that by having a strong persona, you have a greater opportunity to attract an audience, and by having the ability to attract an audience, you will have a greater value to a media company that values the monetary value an audience brings.
This is why companies like Polygon and Bon Appétit have such a great focus on the people who work for them, having a strong and clear persona and having the niche content they create reflecting that, is because they know that by having your audience have an emotional connection to the things you put out, they will keep coming back and back for more, giving each video more and more views. Which in the world of online journalism, means more and more revenue.
Dugdale, J., 2000. The Press’s Cult Of Personality. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/media/2000/sep/11/pressandpublishing.mondaymediasection> [Accessed 9 June 2020].
Gaydon, L., 2020. Monetizing Fan Engagement In The Digital Era. [online] Strivesponsorship.com. Available at: <https://strivesponsorship.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Accedo-Monetising-fan-engagement-in-the-digital-era.pdf> [Accessed 12 June 2020].
Gershon, I., 2014. Selling Your Self in the United States. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 37(2), pp.281-295.
Pearson, R., 2010. Fandom in the Digital Era. Popular Communication, 8(1), pp.84-95.
Spangler, T., 2019. Ex-Buzzfeed Video Staffers Launch Watcher Entertainment Digital Studio (EXCLUSIVE). [online] Variety. Available at: <https://variety.com/2019/digital/news/watcher-entertainment-buzzfeed-steven-lim-ryan-bergara-shane-madej-1203427669/> [Accessed 11 June 2020].
Strapagiel, L., 2020. How Bon Appétit Accidentally Made Youtube’S Most Beloved Stars. [online] Buzzfeednews.com. Available at: <https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/laurenstrapagiel/bon-appetit-test-kitchen-youtube-brad-claire> [Accessed 11 June 2020].
Sullivan, J., 2013. Media Audiences. Thousand Oaks, CA [etc.]: SAGE, pp.189-210.
Consent to information being used in survey