In the age of self-promotion, what happens to journalism’s quiet achievers?

Rachael Bolton ponders our brand new world. Cartoon by Bolton, too. From Issue 87 of the Walkley Magazine.

A curious scientist might examine Mark di Stefano, political editor of BuzzFeed News Australia, for the formula for modern journalistic success. He’s young, with a solid “mainstream” background — but also ballsy, social-savvy, and not afraid to rock the media boat.

“What the best journalists do is put in hard work in the real world, away from social media,” says di Stefano. “They work their arses off, produce something of high quality – that could be a video clip, a podcast, an interview with a politician – and then once or twice a day they come back to social media and plug it in.

“The best way to burnish your image is to get good stories.”

At least that’s the pitch BuzzFeed is hammering into its young writers at staff meetings. But we’ve all followed individual journos as they tweet their way through a press conference to make sure they have the scoop on their competitors.

Journalists have long needed certain traits to succeed: a burning curiosity, a natural cynicism, the confidence to speak truth to power. In the age of social media, we need some new ones: self-promotion and an instinct for performance.

Journalists have long needed certain traits to succeed: a burning curiosity, a natural cynicism, the confidence to speak truth to power. In the age of social media, we need some new ones: self-promotion and an instinct for performance.

And that’s changing what types of people succeed in our industry.

Social media is now a huge part of how we connect with the audience, secure our livelihoods and make sure we stay in touch. You need to relinquish at least some of your privacy to do that.

Having a personal brand — like Michaela Whitbourn, Annabel Crabb or Latika Bourke — gives you more power to negotiate in an ever-more-competitive job market.

And many of the new jobs being created out there go under the banner “content producer” rather than reporter, with social media promotion as a core responsibility.

In short: no play, no pay.

But there used to be a place for quieter reporters, those not naturally comfortable in the spotlight. People who rocked up for work every day for 20 years, knew their stuff and filed for the middle of the paper.

Now that the success of all our careers relies on feeding the personality profile machine, can such people still survive?

Whitbourn is a court reporter and “jack of all trades” at The Sydney Morning Herald — if you’ve followed ICAC or the Eddie Obeid saga, you’ve read her work — and a naturally private person.

But the reason you know her is not just from the result of paper inches. For all her high-profile series, you can be sure she’s tweeting updates as she goes. And that’s where most people are seeing her work.

“A photo byline was definitely my first foray into the realm of personal branding, and at first I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it,” she says.

She didn’t want to be pigeonholed by age, gender or appearance.

But opting out isn’t really an option for journalists anymore, she says. Fairfax doesn’t force journalists to use social media, but there’s plenty of informal discussion.

“Over the last six years [at Fairfax] I’ve seen the focus shift from a print to a digital product where there is a greater emphasis on building the profile of individual journalists.”

She’s made her peace with it now, but it certainly wasn’t second nature.

There’s another downside to the new social journalism.

People who exhibit high levels of non-clinical, everyday narcissism are quite willing to make things up or exaggerate the truth — a trend particularly worrying in professions like journalism.

If social media engagement and feeding your own personality cult is where you get your kicks, we’re getting into dangerous territory. Researchers refer to “healthy narcissism”, which leads to feelings of self-worth and self-assuredness.

Then there’s the other kind.

“The research shows that, as a gateway for self-promotion, social media tends to allow narcissistic individuals to develop a lot of shallow relationships that help them professionally,” says Dr Dirk Van Rooy, a senior lecturer in psychology at Australian National University.

“But the literature also quite clearly shows that the influence is not positive by any means.”

He says people who exhibit high levels of non-clinical, everyday narcissism are quite willing to make things up or exaggerate the truth — a trend particularly worrying in professions like journalism. Just think of the work of Stephen Glass or if you like, closer to home, Paul Sheehan’s story earlier this year of “Louise”.

Yet our jobs simultaneously require truthfulness and social media engagement. That’s a wobbly tightrope.

There are plenty of examples where a journalist has jumped the gun and published unsubstantiated claims on social media only to find themselves in hot water. Reporter Adam Schefter and his employer ESPN are facing legal action in the US after Schefter tweeted a photo of a medical chart alleged to be that of NFL player Jason Pierre-Paul after a fireworks accident damaged his hand.

“That people do that doesn’t surprise me terribly, but it’s totally at odds with our job,” Whitbourn reflects.

Her philosophy: “It’s not about me.”

“It’s about a story,” she says. “And besides, nobody’s winning a Walkley for breaking a story on Twitter.”

We’re not going to stop using social media. I’m not even saying we should. But fame is like a blowfish. If you cut it the wrong way it just might poison you and everyone sitting at your table.

And we need to be aware of what this shift has really cost us. We’re risking a rise in slap-dash sizzle stories that are tenuous at best, fabrications at worst. And we’re going to lose shy but solid writers in favour of showboaters who can leverage flash over substance in a job interview.

Between the purely functional “process” reporter and Miss Social Personality, there was someone of value. Someone who is perhaps now lost to our industry forever in a frantic rush for click-throughs.

Rachael Bolton (@mediahaze) is a freelance journalist and cartoonist.