Tweets from the White House: A Veteran Journalist's Uncommon Path to Success
Paul Brandus knows big media. He's been a producer and senior editor at NBC News, CNBC and Fox News. 15 years ago, he helped launch MSNBC. But these days, Brandus's world of journalism is anything but big.
He's the man band behind the West Wing Report, a Twitter account that broadcasts news of the president, politics and policy inside the Beltway. Winning a Shorty award for best journalist on Twitter last year, which was sponsored by the Knight Foundation, Brandus has quickly become one of the most influential journalists in the White House Press Corps. And with more than 80,000 followers on the social network, he has found a way to make a living by tweeting.
"I think what I’m doing now I could not have done five years ago," he recently told me in a telephone interview. "You don’t need to own a printing press. You don’t need to own an FCC license. You don’t even need a big bricks-and-mortar location. All you need is a laptop with a send button. When you have that, it means the playing field is leveled."
Brandus is among the breed of veteran journalists who have not only adapted with the changing media landscape, but who have found ways to build businesses around emerging tools and platforms.
"I have a theory that people are over-scheduled and more pressed for time than they’ve ever been, and they want nuggets of information," he said. "You have to study how people consume content these days. Then you have to structure content in a way that people can access it."
With over 31,000 tweets in two and a half years (he ranges from just a handful a day to upwards of 50 or 60, depending on the daily events), most people would be shocked to find out he's not glued to Twitter at every waking moment. It's all a part of Brandus's business strategy to leverage content out to various channels.
He uses the image of a bicycle wheel, with a hub and spokes, to describe his model. The hub in the middle is where Twitter lives, and the spokes extend out to different platforms, such as radio, where he now has deals with various stations in major markets to deliver reports.
"It doesn’t take a lot to tweak it to put it out on the different platforms and sell it," he said of his tweets. "For an additional bit of effort, you can take all of that to a sponsor and work some kind of a deal."
One of the West Wing Report's sponsors is JetBlue. Periodically, he'll send out sponsored tweets on the airline's behalf.
Before deciding to run sponsored tweets, he said, he develops a series of guidelines with sponsors. They have no say in the content and Brandus rejects sponsors that may be related to issues that may be tweeted out on the West Wing Report.
Brandus's ability to leverage content is due in part to what he's covering. Not anyone can make it into the White House Press Corps, and he realized once he got in, he could fill a niche that wasn't being covered as well by larger organizations. With all the spin and noise of Washington, he recognized there was a disconnect between the political churn and what average citizens cared about.
"There's a mystique about the White House. It’s really complex," he told me. "I want to break things down and de-mystify it, and make it simple and understandable for the people."
Twitter, with its insufferably short character limit, is a great forcing mechanism to achieve that. That isn't to say, though, the rest of us can't replicate what he's done.
For Brandus, the nature and quality of the content matter more than the beat being covered.
"In Omaha, Nebraska, if you can deliver to your customers high-value, credible information that’s always there and always reliable, that can attract an audience," he said. "An audience attracts sponsors."
These days, Brandus is dealing with the challenges that come with having built a following on Twitter. A year ago, when he had 10,000 followers, he found it much easier to engage with individuals. Now, with more than 80,000, he finds it almost impossible to talk to people in the same way.
He has found, however, that 80 percent of the of the messages he receives from followers are about the same handful of topics, so he keeps engaging them by responding to those topics. Rather than write to 100 people, he said, he'll tweet generally to his followers.
"I get 225 new followers a day. I thought it was cool back when I had 100. I have to compete every day for their time and attention," he said. "I really do believe people consume information in a number of different ways and in a number of different places, and I want to be in all those places."