Sunday, January 27, 2013

How journalist built his brand from college dorm room

Brian Stelter
2012 Media Bistro photo
Brian Stelter is my favorite example of how a young person can create a personal brand and build it into a career. I have talked about him in presentations in Latin America and Europe and his story never fails to make an impression. 

When he was a freshman at Towson University in Maryland in 2004, he launched his CableNewser blog with news and commentary about the coverage of the Iraq War by CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. He soon attracted a loyal audience of influential TV industry executives. No one dreamed the blog was by a college student.

He eventually parlayed his blogging experience into a job covering media at the New York Times, but that is getting ahead of the story.

In 2006 we included him in the Baltimore Business Journal's "Forty under 40" section that profiled young leaders in our community who were making their mark.

His story has been chronicled many times elsewhere.


In 2007 he described the launch of his blog for Towson University's website:

"Almost immediately [in 2004], CableNewser attracted an audience of television executives, anchors, producers and viewers. As a news junkie, I wrote about the good, the bad, and the ugly of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. The site started as a critique of the networks, but became more of a news feed of ratings, rumors and reviews. And readers loved it...I started the blog anonymously. I didn’t want readers to know I was a college student, because I didn’t think they’d take me seriously. As the site grew, maintaining my anonymity became a less realistic prospect. In May of 2004, I identified myself, and started corresponding with a reporter for the New York Times. The resulting news story revealed my day job as a college freshman."
What happened after the Times article? 
"The story caught the eye of an editor at a media networking company based in New York. He brought me to New York for a series of meetings, and two months later, I joined and renamed the blog TVNewser. I started writing about broadcast news networks like NBC, ABC and CBS in addition to cable news. When I started collecting a paycheck for blogging—something I was previously doing as a hobby—I knew the site had ballooned way beyond my expectations."
What makes your blog successful? 
"Passion is the most important trait I bring to my blog. I was motivated to blog every single day, usually at least 10 times. And I soon discovered that readers reward consistency. When I didn’t update the blog for 24 hours, I started to get e-mails from readers who thought I had vanished!"

Brian Stelter in his Towson University days

Big names followed him

Confirming the popularity and influence of the blog, Peter Johnson of USAToday offered several testimonials from news executives in a profile that appeared July 10, 2006 (the link to the profile only seems to be accessible through Among his quotes:

NBC anchor Brian Williams said TVNewser "is the closest thing to the bible of what's going on in our industry, but it's a little disconcerting knowing that the main pulse of your industry is being taken by someone who cannot legally take a drink."
CNN's Jeff Greenfield added: "What's striking about this (TVNewser) is he seems to be pretty good at separating fact from rumors. I don't care if he's 20. His standards are the right ones."

Professional standards

It becomes clear in the various interviews with Stelter that from the beginning, he lived by principles that are critical to success in journalism today. 
  • He saw early the importance of interacting with his community in social networks. Today @brianstelter has 166,000 followers on Twitter, and his Facebook fans share his stories throughout their networks.
  • He published frequently, as often as 10 times a day, so that people expected his blog to have breaking news. His followers checked frequently.
  • He acknowledged that his strength came from the knowledge and expertise of the community who followed him. "They know more than I do," he said repeatedly.
  • He sought readers' help in answering questions about specific events and trends.
  • He had high standards of accuracy. He did not publish rumors without seeking verification.
  • He made corrections quickly and apologized for errors.
  • He took seriously the responsibility he had to his community.
A career at the Times

Shortly after graduating from Towson, the New York Times hired him to cover media for their print and web editions. He quickly became recognized as an authority. He also changed his orientation toward print from the social web. Print was paying his salary. 

The documentary about The Times, "Page One," featured him in its coverage of how the newspaper is dealing with convergence of print and digital. In 2011, he signed a book contract with Grand Central Publishing to write a history of morning television programs, which is expected to come out this year. 

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