How should journalists build their social media brand?

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For better or worse, I can almost guarantee that every young journalist will have come across the phrase “JournoTwitter” at least half a dozen times as they work to break the glass ceiling in their industry. This kind of Twitter community, like many, functions as a virtual clique, where established ‘It’ girls, and an insular social hierarchy, in which everyone seems to know each other despite never having actually met. Ironically, despite the inherent openness of online platforms, it feels impossible to try and penetrate into this little circle where all the big names — and career opportunities — inhabit. 

Couple this with print journalism continuing to be phased out, news platforms continuing to experiment more with social media and over 4.5 billion people using social media globally, it is clear why many journalists feel like social media is the future, and in turn place a lot of importance on their individual brands. In the past year alone, nearly half a billion more people started their social media journey: so it’s no surprise that one of NeimanLab’s 2021 industry predictions was the rise of the journalist-influencer.

“Though we like to consider ourselves distinct by dent of our craft’s supposedly elevated calling, journalists are really just creators by a different name,” Business Insider reporter Mark Stenberg, who made this prediction, wrote. Indeed, 2021 saw the rise of journalists making their own substacks, freelancers campaigning for Twitter verification and a growing number of journalists doubling as TikTok creators. 

Now, as we go in 2022, the line between a journalist’s portfolio and ‘brand’ has become more blurred than ever, with major news outlets like New York Times and Buzzfeed having difficult conversations with their employees about how much ownership they have over their work and to what extent they should be able to cultivate their own brand rather than just representing their newsrooms’. But is the growth of journalists as an individual brand something to be celebrated? As I found by speaking to freelance journalists, staff writers and lecturers at top journalism schools, the answer is more complicated.

Laura Garcia, a BBC journalist and lecturer at Kent University’s Journalism School, told me that having a social media ‘brand’ as a journalist is especially helpful for those coming from underrepresented backgrounds. “For some people, if you have the right connection, if you already know the right people having a brand feels too self-promotional and achy. But not all of us have that privilege.” 

For Yasmine Summan, a freelance music writer and TikTok creator, curating a social media brand has been “pivotal to [their] career.” They have nearly 150,000 TikTok followers, 14,000 Twitter followers and bylines in NME, Slate and Refinery29 among others. “As a brown queer person there have been limited opportunities for me in the past,” they explained “But having a presence online has allowed me to find a community of my own people and support one another, and prove to naysayers that my work has value and you should invest in me. It’s just platforming my work to a global level and proving traditionalists wrong, really.”

As well as helping to level the playing field for more underrepresented people in journalism, Garcia told me that having a strong social media presence as a journalist helps to verify and legitimise your work to others. “As a journalist, particularly one up and coming, you can make strategic choices to build yourself a brand online, to a level that you feel comfortable,” she said. “This is really helpful to find new stories to find new audiences to provide transparency and verification.”

She added, “If I email someone for an interview and say that I work for the BBC, one of the first things this person is going to do is Google me. And if I have a presence online, that is consistent in its theme, that provides instant verification that I am who I say I am. And we kind of have to pretend like that step doesn’t happen, [but] we Google everybody all the time —  we Google each other.”

In 2018, the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey estimated that there were 78,000 journalists in the UK. By 2020, this had increased to 96,000 –  the highest figure ever recorded. Comparatively, there were an estimated 55,000 journalists in 2017. This means that when it comes to journalism, competition is more fierce than ever. For Chris Stokel-Walker, a technology journalist and lecturer at Newcastle University’s Journalism School, that is precisely why having a brand on social media is so important. 

“You need a brand in order to differentiate yourself from the competition,” he said. “That’s particularly important as employment in the media industry becomes more precarious as outlets move from employing staffers on permanent contracts to relying on freelancers for an increasing proportion of their output.”

He added that in this day of age, having a social media ‘brand’ as a journalist is unavoidable. “Anyone who thinks they don’t have a brand as a journalist is lucky enough to have built their brand without trying,” he explained. “But they still have one, and many of those who have been claiming loudest not to have one has been doing so to millions of followers precisely because of that brand.

Buzzfeed News internet culture reporter Kelsey Weekman expressed similar sentiments, telling me that “everyone with any kind of social media or influence has a ‘brand’ whether they like it or not. The word “brand,” like “influencer,” has become a sort of dirty word that implies vying for attention in a lowbrow way,  but what is more influential than someone who gathers information in search of the truth to share with a wide audience?”

“Everything you do as a journalist builds upon your brand,” Weekman added. “Your beat and the way you interact with people is your brand. What you share and how you share it is a brand.” According to Weekman, “denying that you have a brand or hesitating to develop it is a surefire way to make sure your contributions to your reader and our culture fall behind on what is actually needed of you.”

She says this is because “the information you gather based on YOUR interests fires its way through YOUR neurons and is processed through YOUR voice and YOUR outlook — so your brand is born.” Acknowledging the existence of your brand, in turn, is “a basic level of self-awareness,” Weekman added. 

But having an elevated social media status as a journalist doesn’t come without issues. “You’re scrutinised far more, almost like a celebrity, instead of a journalist who can make honest spelling mistakes or grammar errors in a tweet,” Summan explained. “You’re expected to know absolutely everything ever at all times, and whilst I’d like to think I know it all, I really don’t. Nobody does.”

Clearly, the pressure that comes with having a strong social media ‘brand’ as a journalist can be profound. This is a big reason why Hannah Shewan-Stevens, a freelance journalist, editor and disability activist, is staunchly against the concept. “I think it places a lot of pressure on people to become experts in social media alongside being experts in their chosen field of writing,” she said. “This means we’re actually going to miss out on a lot of amazing talent from people who either don’t put themselves forward for things or miss out on opportunities that are only available or advertised via Twitter, So I think there’s a lot of pressure placed on people to have this brand to push themselves forward in their career. And for many, it feels like the only way they can propel themselves forward.”

She continued, “I’ve certainly fallen into that trap, where I kind of made more of a concerted effort to be present on Twitter.  I felt so much pressure to have a really specific brand in order to be a successful journalist, and I just don’t think that needs to be the case. I question how far we go down this road of like, everyone must have a brand before we get to the point where it actually compromises the journalism because surely the most important thing should always be the story, not the person writing it.”

Sawdah Bhaimiya, a junior strategy reporter at Business Insider, is also concerned about how much social media centres the individual journalist over their work. “I’ve definitely noticed that some journalists use these platforms more religiously to build their brands and become so-called journalist influencers,” she said. “I’m not opposed to this, but platforms like Twitter tend to reward the most opinionated, controversial and argumentative tweets. I’ve seen many journalists use Twitter and other platforms in this way to build clout, but this seems to contradict our role as journalists to prevent misinformation.”

She continued, “Contributing to mob mentality and controversy is not what I signed up for. My profession is as a journalist, not an influencer.”

Ultimately, having a social media “brand” as a journalist can be a double-edged sword, but according to Jem Collins, the founder of not-for-profit JournoResorces, it is possible to find a balance. “If it’s done right, i’s not really any different to having a specialism you report on,” she said. “I’m a big believer that you should always focus on bringing something topical and useful to the social media conversation, rather than going for the rage clicks – and showing up regularly with well-informed reporting on a niche is a smart move.”

“The only time I think it gets a bit icky, is when you make yourself your brand,” she added. “There’s a big difference between being an expert on a subject you talk a lot about, and just selling yourself and your lifestyle. One is a smart move, the other isn’t journalism.”

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