Did content marketing kill American journalism?
For some time, leading news organizations have warned that the collapse of American journalism is bad for democracy. Some have cast about for a scapegoat, most recently landing on content marketers.
Who wins, journalism’s proponents ask, if everyone in the country has read “How Well Do You Know Taylor Swift’s Cat, Olivia Benson?” but no one knows the benefits and drawbacks of the Affordable Care Act a year after it was fully enacted?
It’s a good question.
The sad collapse of American newspapers over the past 10-plus years has created a vacuum; one that personal, professional, and corporate publishing platforms have rushed to fill — the most common being blogs like this one. The new self-publishing zeitgeist is captured in its purest form in the adage, “Every brand is a now publisher” — a gleaming promise on the horizon of potential and prosperity, if nothing else.
It takes real world form in multi-page advertorials by corporate America high fliers, from AT&T and Lexus to BP (formerly British Petroleum) — moves that, from-time-to-time, have stoked debates when done in bad taste or “Advertising” wasn’t clearly stamped across the header. Similar debates have bubbled to the surface about the appropriateness and labeling of “native ads,” and about a growing number of news and entertainment sites that combine social curation and original reporting, BuzzFeed and The Daily Beast among them.
Influence in journalism
It’s also found its way into mainstream media through funding partnerships with corporations like the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation and through the collapsing wall that once separated, more or less, the news side of journalism from the marketing side, even at iconic publications like Time.
But in a class all its own (at least that I’m aware) is Chevron’s (unbranded) online newspaper, The Richmond Standard, which hired a real/former? (I’m not even sure what to call him) editor/reporter to cover Richmond, Calif. with the explicit understanding (wink, wink, nod, nod) that he wouldn’t bite the energy-conglomerate hand that feeds him. The move evokes a return to the days of the Dearborn Independent, when Henry Ford decided to buy a newspaper so that he could fill it with anti-semitic screed. If that doesn’t scare the crap out of Americans, nothing will.
So what is the threat to journalism? Is it content marketers and/or brand journalist, as some have suggested? That’s the gist of a series of recent attacks that blame them for driving journalism over a cliff, after all — attacks that are unfounded for several reasons, as I explained in a recent post. Content marketing is probably the least of the threats (if a threat at all) to journalism, consider the examples just cited — not to mention some I didn’t.
Follow the money trail
That brings us back to the question. Who benefits?
As a former San Francisco journalist, I was taught to follow the money. In every instance I’ve sited, business benefits. Business benefits. If that’s true, the debate between journalists and marketers is off base. It’s worse than that; it’s a diversion from the debate that, perhaps, we should be having about business, about ethics, about influence peddling, and, yes, about the roles of marketing and journalism.
What’s undeniable is that the content vacuum won’t be denied. As more people go online and mobile phones and wearable devices grow smarter, the demand will increase. The unyielding demands of consumers to have answers at their fingertips, and the advance of technology that allows marketers to serve ads based on a treasure trove of personal touchpoints, makes the future of content marketing and journalism more than secure. It makes them interdependent, just look the success of the Huffington Post and Mashable. The question is who can balance the “benefits.”
by Ed Carpenter — He’s a bad mutha … shut yer mouth.
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.
It 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.”
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.
I 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.
Brand 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
One of the best ways to promote your business, organization, or expertise is to be featured in the news. It’s an independent, unbiased endorsement, after all. Marketers call this earned media.
Put simply, earned media is the visibility you earn when a journalist reports on your product, cause, or organization. It’s not owned media — the channels, tools, and content that you control and use to publish your story. And it’s not paid media — a.k.a. advertising
How’s earned media work? Typically, you or your organization orchestrates a strategic news moment that you share with reporters. It’s not free media. You earn it — not only through the newsworthiness of your story, but through the sheer work it takes to land the coverage.
Sounds easy, right? Okay, maybe “easy” isn’t the right word. But what’s easy isn’t worth doing anyway — right? Have you ever wanted to be the brewmaster who is featured on the six o’clock news explaining how a revamped city ordinance led to brew houses sprouting up like recycled beer cans at an aluminum recycling center? To make that happen you could depend on providence — i.e. waiting around for a reporter find you, track you down, and call you. Or you could take the proactive approach recommended by brand journalist Phoebe Chongchua, a former San Diego-based news anchor/reporter, who has been helping clients reach the news media for more than a decade in print, in video, and now in a podcast — The Brand Journalism Advantage, where guests trade tips on storytelling and content marketing best practices.
Think like a journalist
If you’re looking to land some earned media coverage of your own, Chongchua has some tips for Web Content Insider readers. “The reason a lot of companies don’t get called by the media is because the media doesn’t know about them,” Chongchua says. “If you want free publicity from the media, you have to become a ‘notable resource’ to reporters.” That means “thinking like a journalist,” she says.
Here’s how to turn your business into a media darling:
1. Network with reporters. Just as it’s always good to know a great attorney, it’s also good to know a news reporter or brand journalist. Follow them on social media. Contribute ideas for stories not just on your company but on topics in the industry your company is in. If you post comments and begin feeding them unique and interesting stories, you’ll find that reporters will eagerly welcome your posts, emails, and even calls. Don’t waste their time. Be direct and offer pertinent and timely information.
2. Pitch your story and make it matter to many. The story you pitch has to have widespread interest coupled with a personal aspect. Don’t just pitch your company and/or product. Instead, offer to help with information that will benefit the news media audience. Then show how the personal element of the story plays a vital part of that story. Essentially, you’re storyboarding the report for them.
3. Make it easy to locate the “go-to expert” in your company for an interview. As a reporter, Chongchua called companies for interviews and was told, “We’d love to do this story, but the only person who can do the interview is our CEO and he won’t be back for a few hours.” What a shame. Make sure that your front office knows what to do when the media calls. Many connections don’t happen because a receptionist/staff can’t be bothered with a call from a reporter (because it wasn’t viewed as a sales call). How silly! That call could have generated extraordinary publicity and future sales.
4. Have real clients and people available that the media can interview. It’s vital to have past clients that you can recommend for the media to interview. Make sure you’ve pre-screened these clients and know that they can do a quality interview. Nothing is more frustrating than getting a lead for an interview from a company and then having the interview be awful because the referred client isn’t articulate or refused the interview.
5. Think like a journalist before you pitch to a reporter. If you’re pitching a story to a TV reporter, think about what video the reporter would use to tell the story. Some good stories are turned down on TV because there just isn’t any compelling video to accompany the story. It’s like saying you’ve got a good face for radio! Sometimes the story is simply better for print or radio. But if you can help the reporter understand the visuals, there’s a greater chance your story will make it on TV.
6. Use numbers in your press release. The media loves to throw numbers and statistics into news stories. Think about books and titles — numbers and statistics are easy to comprehend.
This video (above) was created for a rug company. It starts with a news hook: How much do college grads spend on home decor? That could easily be a news story that would interest traditional media. While the news media wouldn’t give the company the direct promotional exposure that this story does, it might easily decide to do a story based on the news angle and interview the rug company for the expert information that’s included.
Now that you know the basics, check out more tips from Chongchua on catching the media’s attention.
by Ed Carpenter — He’s a bad mutha … shut yer mouth.