By Ira Basen
First, let’s deal with the term “brand journalism.”
It is somewhat misleading because newspapers, broadcasters and blogs can all be considered “brands” in their own right, and therefore, anything produced by them is also “brand journalism.”
Perhaps the most useful way of looking at brand journalism is to think of it as “owned media”; meaning that brands that aren’t traditional media companies can produce and own their own content. A company that manufactures widgets can publish stories about the widget industry that does not necessarily promote their own widgets, but can still meet the needs of customers, enhance their reputation amongst journalists and social media influencers, and attract the attention of search engine algorithms that demand a steady flow of fresh compelling content.
It’s a fact of life now that in a world where virtually anyone can publish on the web at very little cost, all companies have become media companies, and that is something that both readers and traditional media outlets will have to learn to deal with.
So what does it mean for journalists and journalism?
The good news is that companies that produce brand journalism are interested in hiring journalism students and unemployed journalists, which is not something you can say for many traditional media companies these days.
Joe Pulizzi, head of the Ohio-based Content Marketing Institute, told me that he recently gave a workshop for thirteen technology companies, and every one reported they were looking for journalists, not marketers or PR people, to write for their websites.
Eric Schneider of Totem Brand Stories in Toronto, who hires dozens of “marketing journalists,” explained that “the story-telling and research qualities of journalists are incredibly valuable in the world of marketing.”
But is there such a thing as a “marketing journalist?” Kelly Toughill, who runs the journalism program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, doesn’t think so. She calls the phrase “a lot of hooey.”
Eric Schneider admits that the term is “provocative,” but justifies it by asserting that much of what journalists do is marketing anyway. He has no use for the “so-called editorial integrity” of many ad-supported consumer and lifestyle publications.
He believes they have been hopelessly compromised by the desire to keep advertisers happy. While you’re not likely to see a story about childhood obesity in a magazine published by Kraft (a Totem client), Schneider argues that you are equally unlikely to see that story in a traditional magazine that relies on Kraft for advertising. The difference is that one is being transparent with its readers, and the other is not.
An editor at The Globe and Mail described that argument to me as “self-serving nonsense,” but I’m not so sure. I have no doubt that at the Globe and elsewhere at the upper end of the journalistic food chain, the separation between “church and state” remains intact.
But for many struggling trade publications, small town weeklies and daily newspapers, the wall between editorial and advertising has largely disappeared. I frequently hear rather horrifying stories from PR people about publishers who, in exchange for buying ads, will essentially allow PR people to write their own editorial copy. And the more desperate these publishers become (and they are quite desperate), the more control they are prepared to cede.
This represents an important challenge for journalism. If we cede the ethical high ground to the apostles of brand journalism who argue that transparency trumps all, and believe that where content comes from is largely irrelevant, the case for content based on traditional journalistic values like independence and verification becomes harder to make.
Brand journalism makes a great deal of sense for many companies, and it will be an increasingly important part of the media landscape as new business models for journalism emerge. That means the challenge for those who continue to believe in, and practice journalism based on those traditional values will be to convince readers that not all content is created equal, and that those values still matter.