Profile in Brand Journalism: Jon Leiberman of Howard 100 News

Jon Leiberman
Jon Leiberman of Howard 100 News

As a follow up to my contributing post to the Public Relations Society of America’s PRSay blog for their #PRin2012 series (“Brand Journalism Brings New Ethical Perils”), I had the opportunity to interview Jon Leiberman of Howard 100 News (which I mentioned as one of the examples of Brand Journalism success).

I’m a big Howard Stern fan (hey now!).  Allow me for a moment to justify the intellectual merit of my fanboy-ism by noting that well-heeled and respected intellectuals like NPR’s Terry Gross and Author Jeff Jarvis are also fans of the Stern Show.

Even if you detest him, you can’t deny that he has been a trailblazing pioneer throughout his career.  He’s conquered virtually every form of mass media (save, I would argue, the Internet – though he does well for himself on Twitter when he can manage to tune out the haters).  He virtually single-handedly legitimized satellite radio.

When Stern moved to Sirius, one of the best moves he made was to create his own Brand Journalism arm in the form of Howard 100 News.  The outfit has been staffed with award-winning reporters since Stern moved to Sirius back in 2005 and has produced a wide-ranging array of stories – many of which have been picked up by the national news media as well as various trade news media.

About Jon Leiberman

In this tradition of excellence most wouldn’t expect from a figure like Stern, Leiberman has an impressive pedigree in investigative journalism.  He’s been a reporter for WBFF and WIYY in Baltimore, KOAT in Albuquerque, contributed to the Pew Center on the States, and held news posts across the US including Washington DC (as the Sinclair Broadcast Group Bureau Chief).

Had Sinclair Broadcasting heeded Leiberman’s advice, their stock might not have lost half its value (and incurred threats of lawsuits from investors) when they made the ill-fated decision to run the documentary “swiftboating” John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election.

As if that weren’t enough, he’s also been a regular guest on CNN HLN, Fox News, MSNBC, the Today Show, Nancy Grace, The Maury Povich Show and Shepard Smith’s Fox Report.  He is perhaps best known as producer and investigative reporter for the long-running “America’s Most Wanted.”
Near and dear to my heart as an educator is his extensive curriculum vitae: he’s taught at the Iowa School of Journalism, the University of Maryland, and McDaniel College.  He also teaches courses at MediaBistro.

Making the Transition From Traditional Journalist to Brand Journalist

All of Leiberman’s previous roles have been essential to his success with Howard 100 News.  He cites his broad experience in a variety of roles, markets and formats as one of the major things that helped him move into his job on SiriusXM radio.  In his own words:

“there’s no more ‘old school journalist than me – I went to Northwestern,  got a traditional journalism education.  I have a background in traditional investigative news, went to America’s Most Wanted and got into more advocacy/entertainment journalism as a correspondent.  I wasn’t necessarily an objective news reporter (we were focused on tracking down fugitives), and I started the transition then.”

In the online classes Leiberman teaches for Media Bistro, he counsels his students that they have to diversify.  It’s critical to get the basics of reporting down, but you need to seek a broad range of experience so you don’t end up pigeonholing yourself.

One of the other challenges Leiberman has overcome is negotiating the line between personal and professional relationships in the studio.

“The difficulty is that as a journalist you’re now covering people that you see everyday, versus covering issues and people who are a few steps removed from you.  The biggest hurdle is becoming comfortable with asking tough questions that you have to see everyday and who are your colleagues.”

Creating a Brand Journalism News Bureau

It can be a complicated affair to create a news bureau to cover one’s organization.  Balancing the privacy of employees, timing the release of information (particularly for publicly-traded companies), and responding to crises are important challenges to prepare for.  Journalists seeking to make the transition to working for an organization will need to consider the social ramifications of such a role, as Leiberman did when he joined the Stern Show.

Describing the environment, he noted this specifically as one of the hurdles he faced:

“As a journalist is that now you’re covering people that you see everyday, versus covering issues and people who are a few steps removed from you.  The biggest hurdle is becoming comfortable with asking tough questions that you have to see everyday and who are your colleagues.

They do have a newsroom at Howard 100 News, but police scanners aren’t blaring,  and the AP wire isn’t dinging every second with breaking news.  Another difference is that it’s more of a controlled environment (not editorially, but controlled in terms of set number of news casts).  On a weekend.”

Leiberman notes that his transition was made easier by the fact that Howard 100 News had been up and running for a few years, so standards for conduct between reporters and staff were better-established.

Previous reporters have been occasionally challenged by the reality that they occasionally become part of the story thanks to the …let’s say ‘eccentric’ nature of the staff and personas that surround the show.  (Traditional journalists usually aren’t subjected to dozens of musical prank calls, nor do they frequently have their anatomy featured in the jingle that precedes their updates – both of which happened to Steve Langford, Leiberman’s predecessor.)

As an example of the journalistic standards the team adheres to, recently News Director Brad Driver recently  made the call to remove one of its reporters from a story because comments made on the air reached one of the subjects of the story which created a conflict, so Leiberman was reassigned to cover that topic.

By no means, however, does that mean that Leiberman isn’t expected to apply all of his investigative skills to his daily work.

Reporting Restrictions?

For reporters at Howard 100 News, there are very few restrictions (and they’re frequently handled on a case-by-case basis in consultation with Stern).  Right now, for example, show writer and personality Benjy Bronk is in a relationship with musician Elisa Jordana.  That sort of development is grounds for coverage by Howard 100 News (and by extension, other news outlets), but Leiberman has been treading carefully to ensure Bronk retains a semblance of a personal life.

As Leiberman puts it: “We’re not out to ruin lives.  At the end of the day the Howard Stern show is an entertainment show – so to the extent that the stories that can entertain people, those are the stories that will be told most often.”

Fortunately Leiberman says the ethical dilemmas are few and far between.

A Journalist’s Existential Crisis

Joining Howard 100 News was not a decision that Leiberman took lightly given the credibility he worked hard to earn throughout his years as a traditional journalist.

“‘Can I stay true to who I am as a journalist’ – that was a big concern.  Once I got there and saw how everything worked – I found that that I’d be using every journalistic principle I learned – but on a different subject matter.  I’m still an investigative reporter doing sometimes funny news and sometimes serious news – but always as myself.”

Leiberman analogized his multifaceted role to Stern’s recent move to become one of the judges on “America’s Got Talent,” replacing Piers Morgan.  As Leiberman puts it: “Howard Stern can do AMT and do one side of himself (with no profanity) – and can be on his radio show and be another side of himself.”

A thorough understanding of the mission of an organization is also key to success in Brand Journalism.  Leiberman explained his interpretation of his role saying “at the end of the day the Howard Stern Show is an entertainment show – so to the extent that the stories that can entertain people, those are the stories that will be told most often.”

Perhaps the best advantage Brand Journalism offers an organization like the Howard Stern Show is that it creates the possibility of breaking “real” or “hard” journalism.  Howard 100 News has broken a number of news stories that have been picked up by the traditional news media, including the case of a hit-and-run driver who struck the vehicle of Stern’s partner on the show, Robin Quivers.  They also reported on the drunk driving arrest of a former staffer and broke the news of adult film star Raven Alexis had stage four metastatic cancer that had spread to her brain, which was carried by the trade news of the adult entertainment industry.

One of the things that has helped assure Leiberman that he’s still got his journalistic street cred is a call he received from a former colleague from his days with America’s Most Wanted who remarked that his reporting style had remained completely intact from his AMW days.

The Benefits of Brand Journalism

The Howard Stern Show has found numerous benefits from its journalistic wing, the most important of which Leiberman sees as keeping everything current and relevant:

“Howard is on the air a certain number of hours a week – all of those other hours, [Howard 100 News] is a vehicle to keep everything fresh – we have dozens of stories airing every day when the show isn’t live.  The fans are now engaged, they know what is going on – it’s a ‘Headline News’ for the Stern Show when the show isn’t on.  It does nothing but enhance the brand because it keeps people tuned in during hours when they might otherwise go to somewhere else.”

Leiberman sees Brand Journalism as a tonic for the over-saturation of information people are presented with every day: “in this day and age when people are so inundated with information and press releases – I can’t think of a better way to enhance one’s brand.”  He added “any press is good press; even the negative stories because we’re still covering the brand, and they’re contributing to the conversation.”

For Leiberman, a personal benefit of his role is the exposure he’s gained from being on the Howard Stern show:

“It’s unique to Howard; he has such passionate fans – you would be amazed at the number.  We treat the fans as sources and take them seriously and respectfully.  Certainly some of them are crazy, but some of those types of fans provide the best tips.  Being at Howard 100 News for five months I’ve had more exposure than at 15 years in all other places.”

In Summary

Hopefully more organizations begin to experiment with brand journalism.  Even though it comes with its own set of barriers and risks, no medium of communication can boast of being free of those downsides.  The reality is that the influence and paradigms of the traditional news media are changing as a result of social media and the democratization of information.  This gives organizations vastly more opportunity to have unfiltered access to their publics – without the worry over loss of message control/clarity that dogs traditional public relations efforts.

Baba Booey to you all!

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