In this article, journalist Ira Basen asks a pointed question: Is the growing trend of ‘brand journalism’ — corporations producing ‘content’ to promote their brands – good or bad for journalism and the public sphere? Is it ‘really’ journalism, and how do we define journalism anyway? If skilled journalists produce accurate articles for corporation web sites and magazines, who cares if it is not produced by the mainstream news media?
The debate, as Basen shows, is heating up. If brand journalism does not pretend to be editorially independent, then is it enough that it be transparent? As brand and non-brand journalism co-exist in a chaotic and growing media universe, will the public know the difference between the genres, and will they care? Basen’s article shows how a lack of clarity about what journalism is (and should be) makes it difficult for mainstream journalists to provide an unambiguous refutation of brand journalism, despite the fact that many are uncomfortable with the trend. (*editor’s note: an earlier version of this article appeared in the Globe & Mail.)
Scott Gurvey never imagined his journalism career unfolding quite this way.
He had spent a decade with CBS News in the 1980’s, then came a stint with NBC, followed by twenty-two years running the New York bureau of PBS television’s Nightly Business Report.
But after the financial meltdown of 2008, the Nightly Business Report’s corporate sponsors started cutting back. In November 2010, Mr. Gurvey left PBS, joining tens of thousands of other TV and print journalists in the U.S. and Canada who, over the past several years, have become victims of the economic downturn, and the simultaneous collapse of mainstream media’s advertising-supported business model as audiences migrated to online sources, most of which they got for free.
Mr. Gurvey prepared to test the freelance market. To his surprise, one of the most interesting offers came not from a TV station, newspaper or magazine, but from Cisco Systems, the giant California-based manufacturer of computer networking equipment.
Cisco didn’t want Mr. Gurvey to cross over to “the dark side”; to join their communications team and churn out press releases about Cisco products. They wanted him to work for them as a journalist on a new website they had created called The Network.
His assignment was to write about networking, cloud computing, and many of the other topics he had covered at PBS. What they didn’t want him to do was write about Cisco products.
Turns out that Cisco no longer saw itself as just a technology company, it was now also a publisher. Like many large brands around the world, the company had decided that it needed compelling content to meet the needs of its customers, enhance its reputation amongst journalists and social media influencers, and attract the attention of search engine algorithms.
And Mr. Gurvey had become a pioneer in what has become known as “brand journalism.
Bought & Paid For You By . . .
Brand journalism comes in all shapes and sizes. It might be a feature on how to drive safely in the snow, or a report on a conference or trade show, or a profile of a politician or star athlete.
How can you tell the difference between those stories and the ones you might find in an ad-supported newspaper, magazine or website? It’s not easy, and that’s precisely the point.
The difference lies not so much in how the story is reported, but in why it was commissioned, and who owns it. Brand journalism is bought and paid for by companies in order to meet various business objectives. The stories may be well written and fairly and accurately reported by respected journalists like Mr. Gurvey, but the fundamental objective remains a marketing one. Brand journalism is always more about the brand than the journalism.
The internet has removed barriers to entry that have historically limited the number of individuals and organizations capable of creating and distributing content. But in a world where everyone can be a publisher, how will readers be able to determine the difference between content driven by marketing imperatives versus stories that attempt to ferret out the truth from myriad opposing narratives? And how will media outlets that have traditionally relied on advertising from brands survive when those brands now compete with them for readers?
“We knew the media is in transition trying to figure out its next business model,” explained John Earnhardt, Cisco’s Director of Social Media in an interview from his office at company headquarters in San Jose California. Mr. Earnhardt was the driving force behind The Network, which launched in June 2011.
“Cisco has a very good business model and if we can support some level of journalism to tell stories that are important to our industry, just because it’s not ad-supported doesn’t mean that it’s not relevant or good content. We think you just have to look at the business model for producing content a little differently, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
In addition to Scott Gurvey, Mr. Earnhardt signed up an impressive list of freelance contributors who had formerly written for publications like Forbes, BusinessWeek, and the Wall Street Journal. The only ground rules, Mr. Earnhardt says, are “don’t hurt Cisco, and don’t highlight a competitor. Other than that, go for it.”
Mr. Gurvey decided to go for it. He was asked to do a series of profiles featuring trailblazers in technology and computerized networking, and people who were at the cutting edge of future innovations.
He has a degree in journalism, has taught journalism ethics, and helped write the standards manuals at NBC and CBS, so he knew that “brand journalism” is a concept that many journalists would have trouble wrapping their heads around.
After all, independence is one of journalism’s most cherished values. Young journalists are taught that you can be a marketer, or a journalist, but you can’t be both. Most media outlets consider the separation between editorial and advertising to be sacrosanct.
Last month, the Ethics Advisory Committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists issued a report on the question of “what is journalism?” “Journalists,” the report declared, “draw their own conclusions about the necessity and direction of a story…independently of consideration of the effect, for good or ill, of the coverage provided.”
Brand journalists need not apply.
Muddying the water
Kelly Toughill, the Director of the School of Journalism, at the University of King’s College in Halifax, says independence has been essential in establishing a relationship between journalists and their readers based on trust. “The big difference between journalism and what is being called brand journalism is that journalism explicitly promises to serve the interests of its audiences and its community first, but in brand journalism, that is not the case.”
But Ms. Toughill acknowledges that these days, the question of “what is journalism” does not lend itself to easy answers. When asked if what Scott Gurvey is doing could be considered journalism, she concedes, “it might be.” “You can have some very good journalism occur within an outlet that is not necessarily within a journalism outlet, and that’s part of the paradox of this new age that we live in where we’re trying to sort out how good journalism arises.”
Mr. Gurvey agrees. The articles he’s written for The Network since he signed up earlier this year haven’t mentioned Cisco products. One was about a pioneer in open source networking, a trend which actually runs counter to Cisco’s business model.
“The more I researched it,” he says from his home in Montclair, New Jersey, “the more I came to the conclusion that the waters out there are so muddy at the moment that I don’t know what the distinctions are. Every major broadcast operation is owned by some huge corporation with all sorts of interests other than journalism. Half of the online web world is captive in one way or another to different groups. The issue for me was how was this going to be operated, and nothing the Cisco people ask me to do compromises the reporting of the stories I’ve done, so I have no problem with this.”
Brand journalism has been growing rapidly over the past few years, but the idea has been around for a long time. In 1895, the John Deere Co. in the U.S. created The Furrow magazine to promote the company’s products, but also to educate farmers on new technology and developments in agricultural science. Today, it boasts more than a million readers in forty countries.
Canadians’ exposure to what marketers like to call “content marketing” comes mostly through magazines like Food and Drink, published by the Liquor Control Board in Ontario, CAA Magazine, or Rouge for Proctor and Gamble. Some are distributed free in stores, through the mail or as newspaper inserts, some are available online, and some are for sale on newsstands where they compete directly with ad-supported consumer magazines.
One of the leading content marketing firms is a Toronto-based company called Totem Brand Stories, which boasts that “our Marketing Journalists craft business objectives into engaging narratives.” Many of the roughly 120 people employed at Totem’s downtown Toronto headquarters are former journalists or people with journalism training, now transformed into “marketing journalists” writing consumer advice stories, recipes, health and beauty tips and other content that would not look out of place in magazines like Chatelaine and Canadian Living.
But there is at least one important difference. Ad-supported magazines are admittedly not oblivious to the needs of their advertisers, but the principle under which they operate is one of editorial independence. The implied contract they have with their readers is that stories appear in the magazine because they meet editorial, not marketing objectives.
Brand journalism stands that principle on its head.
“We are living at the intersection of journalism and marketing,” explains Eric Schneider, the South African-born chartered accountant who founded Totem (formerly known as Redwood) more than a decade ago. “In our world, our position is transparency. It’s clear to our audiences that we are promoting the business services of our customers. There is no presumption of editorial integrity.”
Can the interests of readers really be served, can journalism even exist, in the absence of editorial integrity? No, say most mainstream practitioners of the craft. Yes, say legions of bloggers, content marketers and brand journalists. Replace independence with greater transparency, and they believe readers come out ahead, especially if that much vaunted editorial integrity isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.
Samantha Sheppard, a content marketer at Totem who is responsible for Inspired, a food magazine published for the Soebys grocery chain, believes there’s greater transparency in her magazine than in many traditional consumer publications. “When I think back to the beauty magazines and other magazines I was involved with earlier in my career,” she argues, “it was all about which PR person had the better relationship, and that’s how product could get into a magazine.”
Kelly Toughill agrees that as the business model for journalism changes, “people are playing around with what the role is for advertising and the relationship between advertising and editorial,” but she believes the advocates of brand journalism vastly over-state the extent to which marketing imperatives now dominate editorial decisions in mainstream media.
Can transparency replace objectivity?
Content marketers like to claim that transparency is the new objectivity. But transparency is a means to an end, not an end in itself. By hitching their wagon to transparency, they shift the burden of separating fact from fiction squarely onto the shoulders of readers; large numbers of whom have neither the time, the skill nor the inclination to do the kind of filtering and critical thinking formerly done by editors.
One of the underlying assumptions behind brand journalism is that readers are aware of various conflicts of interest and are able to draw their own conclusions about the credibility of where information is coming from.
And yet there is evidence that faced with a tidal wave of content from all corners, consumers, especially younger ones, are increasingly ignorant and/or indifferent as to the source of that content.
A study released earlier this year by the Canadian Council of PR Firms found that while only 10% of Canadians aged 35-54 found company websites to be a trusted source, nearly a quarter of those aged 18 to 34 considered them to be a credible news source. “Young Canadians are hand-picking who they want to pay attention to, no matter the source,” the survey concluded.
Add to that the mainstream media’s ongoing trust issues ( 55% of Americans surveyed in a recent Gallup poll said they had “little or no trust” in mass media outlets), and you begin to understand why many large companies are now adding the position of Chief Content Officer to their executive suites.
It has not always been an easy sell.
David Meerman Scott, a Boston-based marketing strategist and author of the book New Rules of Marketing and PR, says that when he first started talking about brand journalism six or seven years ago, “people thought I was insane.” Traditional marketers had trouble understanding the importance of companies having their own voice. “You don’t need the media to write about you, and PR people have trouble getting that.”
Every company is a media company
Joe Pulizzi believes that omitting brand journalism as part of a company’s marketing strategy is no longer an option. He’s the founder of the Content Marketing Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting the idea that every company is now a media company, and that creating relevant, compelling, search engine-friendly content is critical to attracting and retaining customers.
The vast majority of purchasing decisions begin with a search query (“what are the right kinds of snow tires for me to buy?”), and the vast majority of clicks go to the top two or three results on the search page. Over the past couple of years, Google has been tweaking its search algorithm to reward sites that provide fresh relevant content. Which is why generating content, and lots of it, has become so important.
“If you want to connect with your customers,” Mr. Pulizzi explains from his office in Cleveland, “you’d better be where they are online, and you’d better have some interesting information to share with them.”
That story about snow tires at the top of the search result page could come from the automobile section of the local newspaper, but it could just as easily come from a site published by a tire manufacturer whose engineers can share their expertise without indulging in the kind of hard sell that turns off both customers and search engines, and it could still enhance the brand’s reputation and credibility.
“Today’s consumer is looking for helpful information that will help them do something better in their jobs or live better lives, “ Mr. Pulizzi argues, “and corporations can provide that just as well as media companies.”
And who better to produce compelling brand stories than trained journalists? “The story-telling and research qualities of journalists are incredibly valuable in the world of marketing.” observes Totem’s Eric Schneider.
There are lots of seasoned pros like Scott Gurvey who have been cut loose from mainstream media outlets, and thousands of young journalism grads who are far more likely to find work with brands than traditional media companies.
Mr. Pulizzi 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. “You might not get to be the chief editor at the New York Times,” he tells journalism students, “but you could get to be Chief Content Officer at Cisco.”
Skew toward quality?
Most of the attention of brand journalism evangelists like Joe Pulizzi and Eric Schneider is focused on “service journalism;” recipes, product information, household hints, “news you can use.” These have traditionally been profitable staples of mainstream journalism. Advertising sold in those sections of the newspaper have helped subsidize the messy and expensive business of reporting crime, politics and foreign wars. Those are areas where brands are unlikely to tread.
But if brands continue to cherry-pick the profitable bits and pieces out of the mainstream information menu, if they choose to publish their own content rather than pay to advertise it, where will the money come from to pay for news?
Mr. Schneider believes there will always be a demand for high quality “critical journalism,” but it will now have to be subsidized by readers, through paywalls, subscription fees and other mechanisms, rather than advertisers.
“The model around traditional journalism is going to start to skew towards quality,” he argues. “We are at a point of transformation now where I think you are seeing beacons of hope where for a media property, the massive value proposition is in the content and the way it is created, to such an extent that I’ll pay for it, just as I’ll pay 99 cents for a song.”
But the idea that content is content, no matter what its source, has expanded far beyond service journalism. Governments and political parties invest significant resources to create content on their own websites, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, and blogs, all intended, they argue, to provide an opportunity for citizens to get information “unfiltered” and “unmediated” by the press.
That’s only part of the story. The traditional notion that the media play a unique role in informing the public no longer appears to apply. “News” can now come from anywhere and be reported by anyone. American media critic Jay Rosen has called this the “de-certification” of the press, arguing that politicians are now often more interested in being the press than meeting the press.
And that’s true of sports teams as well.
In January 2011, Ted Leonsis, the owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals told a symposium on the business of sports sponsored by the Washington Post that “I used to live in mortal fear about what you (the Post) would write. Now, I don’t care. I think it’s something that you need to internalize: that we’re our own media company . . . When someone goes to find out something about me or a team or a player, and they go to Google and they type that . . . I don’t want The Washington Post to get the most clicks. I want the most clicks.”
Scott Gurvey acknowledges that the growth of brand journalism, and the idea that every company is now a publishing company, does make the business case for mainstream journalism more challenging. But he’s convinced that brand journalism will be part of whatever future emerges out of journalism’s current crisis.
“If a company that wants to do it can do it in such a way that it isn’t advertising or direct marketing, and it can convince enough reputable writers to work for them and give them the freedom to do it, then it may be a form of journalism that can continue and expand the profession.”
“In an ideal world, it probably isn’t the world’s greatest thing,” he concedes. “It would be wonderful if everything were dispassionate and we’re back in 1974 and I’m still in journalism school and I’m watching Walter Cronkite every night.”
But that world won’t be coming back, and in its absence, Mr. Gurvey believes transparency will have to be the new objectivity.
“The key for branded journalism sites is they will have to be very clear about who they are and what they’re doing,” he argues. Meanwhile, readers will hopefully be able to process that information and become their own editors.
As for Gurvey and others like him who have signed up to push the boundaries of traditional journalism and explore the boundaries between journalism and PR, “there is a point that you know you’ve crossed the line,” he concludes, “but that line is sometimes grey and squiggly.”
Ira Basen began his career at CBC Radio in 1984. He was senior producer at Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He has been involved in the creation of three network programs; The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997), and Workology (2001), as well as several special series, including Spin Cycles, an award winning six part look at PR and the media, News 2.0, a two part exploration of news in the age of social media, and Engineering Search: the story of the algorithm that changed the world.
Ira has written for The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and the Canadian Journal of Communication. He writes a column on media for cbc.ca, and is a contributing editor at J.Source.ca.
Ira is currently teaching at Ryerson University and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. He is the co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists (Knopf Canada, 2005).