Should Brand Journalism Just Be Called Journalism?
I was doing research for a Kuno blog post this weekend when I stumbled upon this LinkedIn conversation on the Brand Journalism group page. The gist: Talented reporters who have made the leap into brand journalism talk about the benefits of their new writing jobs. It reminded me of the path I could have taken earlier on in my career… had I not seen the writing on the wall.
My Journalistic Dreams
In 2004, I was on track to become a journalist. I was editor of my college newspaper. I knew I wanted to write for stories for a living. But then I attended the University of Georgia’s Management Seminar for College News Editors.
The actual program was spectacular. We learned about how to manage an editorial team, how to teach reporters to write fair stories with accurate quotes, and how to prevent errors from appearing in the publication. All awesome stuff that I still carry with me today.
Part of the seminar was a trip to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the flagship publication of Cox Enterprises. Instead of talking about how a reporter does his or her job, we learned about blogging. That’s right. Blogging. The AJC’s lifestyle blogger told us all about what she did for the online division. And at that moment, I knew the party was over. I wasn’t going to be a reporter.
Going Content… in 2005
So I went into what was then traditional marketing and public relations, getting my first job at an art museum’s publicist in 2005.
Two things happened while I was there:
- I couldn’t get the local newspaper to cover our exhibits no matter how hard I pressed.
- Eventually the editor of a newspaper’s weekly entertainment magazine just asked me to write the articles myself.
Writing articles for a newspaper was and is different than writing marketing copy, but it’s what I already knew. I was happy to do it right. It got to the point where I was writing articles for an ill-fated attempt at an alt-monthly from the same company that published the newspaper. So the journalist in me didn’t die. He just found another way.
This trend continued one way or another at every job since then. I launched blogs that complemented print publications, and pushed those print pubs away from the standard newsletter model creating more of a trade magazine. Eventually I managed a staff of more than 20 writers who contributed to a corporate blog that published stories daily, the biggest challenge being killing the hard sell.
At the same time, I or another writer developed articles or blog posts that appeared in traditional trade media outlets, sometimes as sponsored posts, sometimes as regular editorial.
So in my experience, brand journalism has always been practiced and has never been separate from journalism. The only difference is that the traditional media outlets have cut their staff, making it harder to get coverage, and harder to connect with readers.
I bring all this up because of the LinkedIn conversation at the beginning of this article and because I know journalists who bristle at the idea of either writing “brand journalism” or having their own publication provide content services to private companies. Yet, I’ve had just as much editorial independence writing for private companies than I would have as a traditional reporter. Maybe more.
Today, the media landscape is much different than it was just a decade ago. Former newspaper journalists are creating their own websites and selling content writing services because of it (MedCity News). Traditional media outlets are buying blogs that are more thoughtful and well-researched than their own reporting (FiveThirtyEight). Public service and investigative reporting, the primary function of the fourth estate, is going non-profit (Pulitzer-Prize winning ProPublica).
And of course, there’s the hyper-partisan nature of the cable news media, that unfairly makes the whole industry look like the party-sponsored newspapers of the late-1700s, early-1800s, or Hearst/Pulitzer “yellow journalism” that was powerful enough to start the Spanish American War.
On the flip side, Google’s algorithm changes, combined with the significance of social media sharing, mean that companies have no choice but the create fresh, quality content to get found. In the coming years, that emphasis on quality will also likely mean that using content to simply “get your message” will be a losing proposition. Corporate editorial will be forced into being more like traditional reporting than it is today.
This is where brand journalism evolves.
Brand journalists have more in common with trade journalists than they do newspaper or broadcast news reporters. And in my experience, trade media outlets are even tougher to penetrate than print or broadcast news because they are usually running on a significantly more scaled-back staff when compared to their niche, but international coverage areas.
There’s a void that must be filled. Adobe already did this by creating CMO.com. So did Intel, launching Intel Free Press. HSBC has Business without Borders. And as a movie buff, my personal favorite example is the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas LLC’s Badass Digest. Each of these examples is more like journalism than actual trade journalism. And because these sites position themselves as media outlets, they can and should be held accountable for what they publish if it isn’t fair, accurate reporting.
Journalists who are looking to make the leap into writing for a company should not ask, “Am I willing to give up my dream of being a reporter?” Instead a journalist should ask, “What am I really passionate about and how can I write about it for a company?”
Me, I studied not just journalism but also media. Today, I work for a marketing agency where I get to write about changes in media. (I also write about movies on two non-company blogs on the side.) Sure there’s marketing consulting involved, specifically focusing on marketing analytics, but I get to research and write, just like I wanted to when I had dreams of reporting. More importantly, I hold myself to the ethical standards of a reporter because, even if I don’t, readers certainly will.
Journalists have an opportunity that many never saw coming here. The old adage “You’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people” has become “You’ll never go broke overestimating the power of one smart American with a blog.” Because the user is in charge and communications departments can’t “control the story,” journalists can help remake marketing as we know it. All they need to do to help the future is to look toward their past.
There’s hardly a difference between Adobe’s CMO.com today and Texaco Huntley-Brinkley Report of the 1950s. Real journalism always needed sponsors. But it’s up to the journalists to protect their turf in the face of new sponsorship pressures. This is how brand journalism becomes journalism. We just need the reporters to do it.
Image Source: rcade