On Tuesday, Dec. 1, we hosted our latest #ConnectChat, "Understanding Middlemen in Media," with our guest Marina Krakovsky.
Krakovsky discussed the definition of a middleman, the differences between middlemen in journalism and PR, how understanding the middleman economy can make you a more valuable journalist or PR person and much more.
What is a middleman?
Although everybody knows that a middleman is a person between two others, I want to suggest a more useful definition. A *good* middleman is a person in a network who connects other nodes in the network to increase the value of the network. So it's all about adding value through the in-between position. Middlemen who fail to do that are the ones we resent or scorn.
How are journalists middlemen?
We're merchants of information--we offer our audiences access to information from our sources. For example, journalists are often scouting out information, story ideas, sources, etc. -- that's what Certifiers do. And when we put our name on the byline, we are staking our reputation on the quality of what we put out to our readers.
How are those who work in PR middlemen?
In a way, publicists are merchants of information, too—but their primary loyalty is to their clients, not to journalists. And that means journalists can't be mere conduits for what the publicists offer them—we must filter, and verify, and package.
Journalists' gatekeeping means that the most effective publicists give journalists good information in the first place. The best publicists think like journalists, and can put themselves in the journalists' shoes so as to give them what they need.
In general, effective middlemen usually find a way to provide value to both sides—to both the buyer and the seller.
Do people typically think of themselves as a middleman?
Most people don't—the word “middleman” has such strong negative connotations in English that most of us think of middlemen as other people.
So journalists sometimes see publicists as gatekeeping middlemen between the journalist and a hard-to-reach interview source. While publicists often see journalists as gatekeeping middlemen between themselves and the broader public.
So we're probably more likely to see others as middlemen than to recognize that we are middlemen, too.
For a journalist, how is understanding other people's roles as middlemen in other industries vital?
Much of our complex modern economy works because of middlemen. A supply chain is a series of middlemen. So any industry you cover will have middlemen playing key roles—brokers, agents, dealers, retailers, venture capitalists, etc.
At the heart of the so-called “peer-to-peer economy” is also a bunch of middlemen (Airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit, and the like). Seeing these people as middlemen simplifies matters greatly, helping you quickly get to the heart of what all these people do or what they SHOULD be doing, and for whom.
What about for those who work in PR?
It's the same idea: your client is either a middleman or must partner with middlemen.
What happens when you finally figure out that you are a middleman?
That's when you can decide what problems you're able to solve for your partners—because that's what effective middlemen do. For example, some middlemen solve the problem of accountability -- these Enforcers are able to keep both sides honest. The classic way a journalist might play the Enforcer role is to do investigative/watchdog reporting.
Scouting out and vetting sources is part of what I call the Certifier role, solving the problem of quality uncertainty. Many journalists solve the problem of information overload. There's this myth that because the Internet is full of information.
Everyone can do it all themselves—but information takes time to process. The “Concierge” can do it for you more quickly. Science writers play this Concierge role through explanatory journalism.
For PR pros, an important role is solving the problem of self-advocacy: it's hard for most people to toot their own horn. A publicist can play that “Insulator” role. But to do it credibly, the publicist needs to cultivate a reputation for honesty.
Why is having this big-picture perspective a good thing?
It just helps you get to the crux of the issue more quickly, so you don't get mired in the non-essential details. It's not that details aren't important—but you want to be able to see the forest for the trees.
Can understanding the middleman economy make you a more successful reporter or PR person?
I certainly think it can make you a more valuable one. Alas, whether the market recognizes your value is another matter.
How can anybody recognize who is a middleman and who isn’t?
I think it's pretty obvious—whenever someone is connecting people in some way, they're a middleman. The question is whether they're a good one—are they solving problems (facilitating commerce) or are they just standing there?
What are three things you can do to immediately be a better middleman in media?
1) Figure out whom you want to serve. 2) Decide what to specialize in--be selective. 3) Read my book! Seriously.
Reporters and publicists will find inspiration from seeing how middlemen in other industries deal with the same core issues.
Can you please tell us about your book?
It's called THE MIDDLEMAN ECONOMY: How Brokers, Agents, Dealers, and Everyday Matchmakers Create Value and Profit.
I interviewed a bunch of social scientists and also middlemen from many industries to get at what middlemen do to create value.
Did social media and the internet kill the middleman?
Definitely not! The opposite has happened, and economic data bears this out.
It's true that social media helps people bypass traditional gatekeepers—but, to reach large audiences in a credible way, there's nothing like a reputable gatekeeper, and look at the new middlemen in social media (social media marketers)--this job didn't exist 20 years ago. Every new network creates demand for a new middleman.
What did the rise of the internet do to media careers?
The answer is complicated because the Internet has had multiple effects, some conflicting. It enabled a service like Craigslist, which killed classified advertising and expedited the demise newspapers. On the other hand, the Internet enabled many other people to become publishers, with thriving media careers as bloggers, podcasters, etc.
Is there a difference between a reporter as a middleman and an editor as a middleman?
At the most obvious level, editors take a bigger-picture view, creating the kind of balanced portfolio that no one reporter can. That also means that editors can be Risk Bearers -- enabling reporters to take bigger risks than they could on their own.
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