By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President | November 22nd, 2011
I had a great trip to Fort Worth recently to visit our SPJ folks there.
The weekend was in keeping with a long-standing tradition that a newly elected SPJ president’s first trip is to Fort Worth.
They also have a nice tradition of presenting the president with a branding iron with his or her initials. Getting through the airport screening was a bit tricky, but I managed.
The branding iron got me to thinking about the value of having one’s own brand, or as the saying goes, “to thy own self be true.”
For some people in this Internet age, that doesn’t seem to be a value anymore.
Consider the curious case of Mike Winder, the mayor of West Valley City, Utah, who recently admitted to writing a series of “good news” stories about his community under the fake name of “Richard Burwash.”
The mayor wrote several stories for the Deseret News and other outlets. He even went so far as to create a fictitious e-mail account and talk to an editor over the phone under his assumed identity according to a story in the Deseret News.
Let’s leave the mayor’s dual identity for a moment though and consider the Deseret News’ role in this story.
The “Burwash” stories flowed into the paper after the News decided a year ago to lay off a significant number of reporters and turn instead to filling its pages with what some outlets call “user-generated” copy.
Editors at the News claim they had safeguards in place to prevent this kind of hoodwinking.
But the fact remains the mayor/Burwash got away with his deception for more than a year. And according to the paper, editors only became aware of the mayor’s ruse after he voluntarily told them about it.
What’s troubling to me about this story is how a paper that gave up of having some of its “branded” writers — people who were authentic and accountable for what they wrote — to other folks for whom such concepts were foreign.
But we’re not taking about them here. I’m talking about hard-working Utah journalists who lost their jobs because of an economic decision, not an ethical lapse.
I’m not against the idea of engaging your audience or fostering citizen journalists and community input. But sometimes, you need a professional journalist. Accept no substitutes.
To me, the incident with the mayor highlights what may be the lasting value of professional journalism, especially in an Internet era where others have taken to hiding behind fake personas or fictitious Twitter and Facebook names.
In the frontier era, a brand had real meaning. It signified who a person was and what belonged to him.
I would argue that in the Internet era, there’s a similar value in being true to your own brand, of being authentic and accountable and ethical.
Being true to yourself has meaning and value that will endure.
That’s my opinion, and this is my brand.