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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
May 2005

Brand Names and Journalism

What do swimmer Amanda Beard and audio writer Michael Fremer have in common?

I'll let you have a minute to think.

Give up? Both are brand names.

According to a USA Today article, Beard, a seven-time Olympic medallist, is "the face of Speedo's new active wear line, Axcelerate, and she'll be featured in more than $1 million in print advertising this year." She's also launching her own personal-care line, including skin-care, hair-care, fragrance, sunscreen and body-wash products. The goal is for these to gross $100 million a year by 2010.

Fremer, on the other hand, has his writing in Stereophile and, moreover, a plug from John Atkinson, the magazine's editor, who has called him, along with a few other audio writers, a "brand name," the audio world's equivalent of Levitra and Bagel Bites. There is nothing in USA Today about advertising or product lines to which Fremer is linked, perhaps because Madison Avenue hasn't latched onto his unique appeal yet.

Or perhaps because journalism is an occupation in which building and maintaining credibility and selling out are mutually exclusive. In this line of work, keeping a respectful distance from your subjects is not just important -- it's mandatory. Distance helps create objectivity, and objectivity should be the goal of every journalist. In the spirit of writing a complete article, an audio writer may need to talk to the designer of a component to discover the rationale and method for creating the product. High-end audio allows this, as most companies are small and the designers are accessible. It's tougher with cars, for example, but still possible, and encouraged. It's simply a matter of doing good research.

But how seriously could you take Michael Fremer if his name were used to promote a line of loudspeakers or turntables? Would any professed journalistic standards change the perception that a conflict of interests exists?

No one will question Amanda Beard, a retail and consumer sciences major at the University of Arizona, for capitalizing on her athletic prowess, good looks and professional interests. She could be doing reality TV, infomercials and the like, but she has chosen a different path, one that will put her in charge of whatever products she creates instead of becoming a temporary celebrity. Renowned athletes often chase the fast buck, especially as their careers wind down. Beard's specialty in the pool was the 200-meter breaststroke, but she is competing in a much longer race now. Good for her.

I have never met Michael Fremer, so I won't speculate on what his aspirations might be. However, perhaps branding is central to Sterophile's new corporate strategy for competing in a world that continues to move away from print. When you want to find out about a product, any product, do you go to the newsstand and thumb through magazines in hope of finding an article on it, or do you enter the product's name in Google or Yahoo?

Yeah, me too.

You should judge audio writers just as you do audio equipment: by their output. Is what you read unbiased and informative? Is it accurate? It is by such criteria that a journalist sinks or swims.

...Marc Mickelson

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