The landscape of journalism is shifting more and more every year. As technology improves and communication is easier, the pool of information available to consumers becomes larger by the minute. This large amount of information has bred a new type of consumer: one that is skeptical and doesn’t trust everything she sees. Typical marketing techniques of the past like billboards, television commercials, or print advertisements don’t reach consumers like they used to. This has caught the eyes of many journalists, including ex-Newsweek writer Jessica Bennett. In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review, Bennett states, “Sixteen-year-old kids can see through some rewritten press release bullshit in a way their parents might not have been able to.” To cope with this challenge, companies have begun using journalism techniques to tell stories about their products and their brand. This marketing technique, know as content marketing or brand journalism, has many people divided. Some believe that the integrity and objectivity of journalism is compromised when companies pay journalists to market their products. Others believe that there is room for investigative journalism and brand journalism to coexist, as well as pointing out that traditional media outlets may not have been as objective as most thought in the first place.
Traditional journalism is finding itself providing to a smaller audience every year. People are turning to other non-traditional sources to get their daily dose of news. Also the amount of people creating media has increased, and with that increase comes a smaller chance for your material to be the content that any given viewer consumes. This sharp drop in consumers reading traditional journalism has caused many layoffs and cutbacks in traditional news outlets. Some, like author Andy Bull, have noticed that these layoffs are bad news for traditional media outlets. On his website Bull states the facts about brand journalism stating, “Here’s another reality: brand journalism is a fact. It’s here and it’s growing. Brands, organizations, charities, campaigns and causes have the money to employ journalists, and to use journalistic techniques, to engage with the public. Increasingly, they are choosing to do so, while traditional media companies are downsizing.” Bull continues to point out that consumers are choosing other avenues to get their news and information, “…I see that many people are choosing to get their information through social media, rather than through the products of traditional publishers and broadcasters.”
As far as breaking news is concerned, social media and live streaming have become the place to go for many to get fast updates. In many instances, social media outlets are able to break news much faster than traditional news media can release a story. According to data gathered by Social Media Today and represented in this infographic, big stories like the raid on bin Laden’s compound, the Hudson River plane crash, and the revolt in Egypt were all broken over social media.
Traditional media cutbacks have ramifications outside of the news outlet itself. Because of this downsizing, many journalists, such as Jessica Bennett, are seeing no choice but to turn to brand journalism for a living. In her interview for CJR Bennett speaks of a job market where you have to find a middle ground between objectivity and making a living, “For reporters and editors tired of layoffs and buyouts, these jobs offer a middle ground between journalism and copywriting, a way to take home a decent paycheck without feeling like you’ve sold out completely.”
While some journalists are finding homes writing for companies, other journalists and media gurus are unhappy with the latest trend. In his article for Digiday, Ricardo Bilton points out that many more seasoned journalists have difficulty finding positions in content marketing jobs. Bilton writes, “Creating effective branded content requires a specialized, almost paradoxical, set of skills. Not only must the creator write content in a way that is easy-to-read and informative, but they must also answer to people on the business side and take criticism from clients — something that journalists have not traditionally been good at or willing to do.” In his article, Bilton says that Journalists tend to get into the field because of their egos, and having to check them at the door is not something that comes easily. Younger journalists, like Jessica Bennett, have found that taking content marketing positions have led their peers to questions their credibility as journalists. Bennett states, “The biggest annoyance for me was trying to prove to people—sources, media colleagues, my parents—that I was still a ‘real’ journalist,” Bennett says. “The best way I could think to explain it was that if Tumblr was a city of 100 million people—that’s the number of users—then we were covering the trends, ideas, themes, and culture that were coming out of it.”
“True” journalists have always prided themselves on their integrity, and for good reason. In its handbook on ethics, NPR holds its journalism under the tenets of accuracy, fairness, and completeness among other factors. Other journalists tend to follow these guidelines as well in order to maintain their objectivity and integrity. This is important as journalists with integrity tend to be trusted and listened to more than journalists or media outlets with tarnished reputations. Those who argue against brand journalism tend to say that journalists working for companies can’t write objective articles about their products as that same company signs those journalist’s checks.
Many supporters of brand journalism are quick to point out that traditional journalism has rarely been purely objective. Traditional news outlets often have goals they are trying to accomplish in the background. According to Bull, “The reality is that publishers – those lauded guardians of pure journalism – are brands too. Anyone who has worked on, say, the Daily Mail, or on many a Murdoch title, knows they are working for a news brand… many media brands have an agenda and a world view, and the way they select news, and report it, reflects the agenda of the brand. Journalists who work for such media brands quickly learn to inhabit that worldview. Or they leave.”
While both sides of the argument have plenty of players, some think that there is room for traditional journalism and brand journalism to play nice. In his article for Forbes, long time journalist Lewis DVorkin says that most traditional journalists stray into the streets of marketing every now and then, “Those of us with long careers in journalism have moved in and out of the gray zone between journalism and advertising. Special features, special sections, sponsored content and similar revenue-driving content features involve editorial conflicts that result in professional compromises, some more uncomfortable than others.”
Journalists like DVorkin believe that brand journalism and traditional journalism can coexist. He believes the solution to fixing the distrust that branded journalism brings with it is to have full disclosure and clear labeling. ”BrandVoice and similar content marketing initiatives can be discomforting for traditional journalists. They needn’t be. Products like BrandVoice draw a bright shiny line between journalist and marketer for all to see. The critical requirement is transparency, which means proper identification and labeling.”
A big problem with the DVorkin’s labeling solution is that brand journalism pieces are often not labeled as marketing material. In his blog for the Wall Street Journal, Jack Marshall is quick to point out that readers often don’t know that what they’re reading was written for marketing purposes. “…the IAB and market research firm Edelman Berland exposed 5,000 U.S. users to mock sponsored content placed on business, entertainment, and general news Websites. The fake ads resembled those currently found on those types of sites… 59 percent of respondents said it was either ‘not very clear,’ or ‘not at all clear’ that the content they were shown was sponsored. Just 13 percent of respondents said the mockups made ‘very clear’ that the content was sponsored, while 28 percent said it was ‘somewhat clear.’” writes Marshall.
Some argue that the current titles being bandied about are the real problem. “Content Marketing” and “Brand Journalism” seem to put the worlds of marketing and journalism at odds with one another. In her blog PR Conversations, Judy Gombita writes about an interview she had with Ira Basen. In it, he states that another term could replace the current ones that tend to bring along so much hostility. Gombita points out that with the Internet in the pocket of nearly every person on the planet, every corporation has the opportunity to be a media producer. Basen says that the term “corporate media” is much more useful, “Corporate media spans the entire spectrum of publishing by a corporation. It can include material that is journalistic in its construct and intent. For example, large companies such as Cisco, IBM, and Intel employ people who used to be senior journalists and veteran broadcasters to produce corporate media, but is that journalism? If corporations want to produce journalism they have to approach this goal in a different way. I think corporate media could win a Pulitzer Prize if done right. And I believe it will happen—I’d like to help make that happen.”
While the debate rages on, the truth is that it appears that brand journalism is here to stay. Regardless of terms, labels, or tradition people will continue to have a thirst for information that must be sated somewhere. Whether that is from a content marketing driven article on golf clubs or a piece on war in far off lands is yet to be seen.