Confessions of a Brand Journalist

Brand journalist or content marketer? Are they the same?

Are you a brand journalist? A content marketer? A brand marketer? Experts in the field have been busy deciding what you and I should be called. In recent weeks, an online debate simmered, nearly smoldered out, then rekindled. VIPs in the online marketing domain took off their logo-emblazoned gloves. Things got snarky. Challenges to duel were exchanged. Some had their name dragged through the mud.

brand-journalism-Trevor-McClintock-BelfastIt was entertaining, in an “inside baseball” kind of way, at least to online marketers. For everyone else, there was the kid-with-a-lightsaber-slicing-up-a-toy-aisle-at-Target video. They had a belly laugh, at least. I, on the other hand, have tried ever since to pinpoint why both sides’ arguments exasperated me. Why is there so much indignation about whether someone calls himself/herself a “brand journalist?” I wondered.

I concluded it’s because journalism has changed in America, and not for the better. Many of us feel it’s not living up to its name, or worse its purpose. As a former San Francisco journalist, I agree that’s a valuable debate — if 10 years too late.

But, if you want the truth, the debate about journalism’s flagging substance is a red herring. The debate we’re talking about is whether brand journalism is an oxymoron. It goes back to at least October, when Contently’s Sam Petulla sounded his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the blogosphere to demand that people stop using the term “brand journalism.”

I agree with the stance Contently has taken for a long time: There’s no such thing as brand journalism. The reason why is simple: If your purpose is to increase ROI for a business by obtaining more customers, you’re not in the journalism game. And calling your branded content “journalism” is detrimental because it may come across as deceptive to readers. Instead, you want to build trust by acknowledging your subjectivity and bias as a brand.”

More honesty

Shortly after Petulla published his piece, Jill Golden, a former journalist who’s now a content strategist with the NEA, weighed in along the same lines — but, I thought, with more honesty. “The word ‘journalism’ overstates, even misstates, what content marketing is, which is why ‘brand journalism’ is a disingenuous label,” Golden writes.

I understand Sam and Jill’s wish to draw a red line and their nostalgia for a better journalism. But theirs is a narrow interpretation of journalism, if they’re talking about independent, unbiased, no-advertising influenced or favoritism journalism. When we look around at journalism today, or, really, any day in the past for that matter, that’s a mighty tall pedestal. From its earliest days journalism has been a dog eat paperboy world and yellow was the color of its banner. Absolutely, we should hold public-service journalism in highest esteem, as the fourth estate. But as Nicole Jenet rightly wrote for ScribeWise, that’s just the tip of the spear.

You could argue that lifestyle journalism and sports journalism aren’t necessarily journalism … Don’t even get me started on “celebrity news.” But, readers are interested in those topics, they click on those articles and they regularly pick up the paper to read those sections. They help to fuel the business of journalism.

b2b-content-marketing-challenges-2011-300x241I want to be clear: Readers aren’t fooled by brand journalists, if we’re talking about writers who create stories for branded websites. With the word “brand” in their job description, assuming so insults readers, if anything. Readers know brand journalism doesn’t come from the Baltimore Sun or The New York Times (although, I believe branding in newspaper journalism isn’t as black and white as many of us like believe either). It comes from brands, whether that’s a multinational conglomerate, a public university, or a freelance graphic artist.

Lush Digital Media’s Sarah Mitchell agrees. In a recent post on Ragan’s PR Daily blog, she didn’t mince words when she wrote, “I believe what’s at the heart of this debate is a kind of elitist opinion that traditional media is better or more worthy than brand media … Quite frankly, brand journalism is saving traditional journalism.”

The question remains

And yet. And yet. Each of these arguments fail to get at what brand journalism is. We’re not even sure we’re debating the same term. No one defines it. Instead, we argue about whether the term “journalism” deserves some endangered species protection. Shouting “Free Willie!” and buying dolphin-free canned tuna sounds great, but it doesn’t lead us to common ground or even a common understanding. Before we get into that, let’s pause and review:

  • First, readers aren’t fooled by brand journalism
  • Second, journalism, at least the the vast majority of it, doesn’t deserve to be paraded on such a high pedestal, and
  • Third, brand journalism is a threat to traditional journalism (But that comes from unbranded brand journalism, such as that peddled by Chevron. (That’s a hybrid that’s not mentioned or recognized in any of the posts I referenced here or any of the related ones I read on this topic — so, of course, I plan to tackle that in a separate piece in the near future. Stay tuned.)

The question remains. Should we stop using the term “brand journalist.” Is “content marketer” the right term, as Contently proposes? All brand journalists are content marketers, after all. All content marketers are not brand journalists, however. Farmer’s Insurance’s “Must Have Apps For a Safe Road Trip” and Nike’s debut of its Lunar Vapor Trout cleat in Oregon Ducks’ colors just before the NCAA Championship are content marketing. But they aren’t brand journalism. Want an example of brand journalism? Look no farther than your alumni magazine.

Distilled to its purest form

Brand journalists rely on background reporting, multiple sources and interviews, vetting, genuine quotes, and a news structure — often the inverted pyramid. A brand journalist doesn’t rely on a team of marketers to polish the edges of a story until it glistens like Mr. Clean’s countertop. In fact, that undermines the brand journalism. Instead, a brand journalist depends on openness, trust, and honesty. I like to say that a brand journalist tells no lies, which some might argue is a generous interpretation — being that it is marketing. It’s not that brand journalists are independent and unbiased, but readers know where we come from and we are careful to distinguish what we do from the marketing we grew up with: the marketing that told us Camel Cigarettes made you a man and Dr. Pepper was healthy.

the storyBrand journalists depends on real people to tell personal stories about a brand, whether that’s a hospital, a haircare product, or a neighborhood farmers’ market. Distilled to its purest form, a good piece of brand journalism is a personal endorsement, infused with the tension and drama of good storytelling. I don’t know if “brand journalist” is the best term for what I do, but I know that “content marketer” doesn’t convey the proper techniques or expectations to patrons.

Where do I come down on the question of brand journalist vs. content marketer? You don’t have to guess. A brand journalist uses his/her journalistic training to develop and craft stories in a way that many, no most, content marketers don’t or can’t — simply because they don’t have the background. When I say I’m a brand journalist, you know right away that I bring a depth of experience and training to content marketing that allows me to visualize a story from a journalist’s perspective. That’s not the end all be all; it’s not even better, necessarily. What’s better depends on your product/service, your marketing strategy, and your relationship with your customers.

And yet. And yet. If we can agree those two things — brand journalist and content marketer — aren’t one and the same, then maybe we can begin to have a debate worthy of the respected names that have weighed in and that many of us look to in the industry for best practices.

by Ed Carpenter | WebContentInsider.com »email WebContentInsider@gmail | Twitter @EdInOakland

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About Ed Carpenter

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Posted on January 25, 2015, in Branding, Business, Higher education, Marketing, Nonprofits and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.