Is Branded Journalism Still Journalism?

It’s called “branded journalism,” or “content journalism,” and it’s the next big movement in communications, but traditional media figures are shaking their fingers.

“It’s journalism perhaps, but not as you know it” explains Tom Pullar-Strecker in a recent article for stuff.co.

Says Pullar-Strecker:

“Businesses in Europe and the United States have begun contracting and even employing journalists to write stories for their websites and social media in a recent trend called ‘branded journalism’”

BestBuy and Cisco are among the businesses that have jumped on board the bandwagon that may tow us towards the future of online content.



(right) Best Buy’s YouTube channel & Brand Blog

“At it’s most basic level, brand journalism involves honest brand storytelling that invites audiences to participate” says Kyle Monson, former tech journalist and editor at PC Magazine. In his article “Dispelling the Darkness with Brand Journalism,” Monson defends brand journalism as “a powerful combination of honesty, narrative, and audience participation”

The goal with branded content, explains social media expert Shel Holtz, isn’t necessarily to solicit profits, but to make companies visible, because these days, if your business doesn’t have content on the world wide web, you’re essentially invisible—even if you have a company website. Holtz says that branded content “isn’t trying to sell a product or bolster a reputation, it is just telling good solid news or feature stories that 10 years ago the news media would have been calling them about” (qtd in stuff.co).

The static corporate website is quickly becoming obsolete, and many smart businesses owners have realized the importance of generating relevant, community-focused content to keep their brand top of mind.

The trend in the US and Europe towards branded journalism underscores Silicon Valley Watcher Tom Foremski’s 2009 proclamation that  “every company has to become a media company.” Foremski noticed early on how content is the meat and potatoes fueling our ever-hungry information economy, and he advised business owners to take note.

Despite the plethora of jobs that branded journalism could open up for writers, many traditional reporters are worried about the fusion of content and commerce. Author Paul Carr worries that writers will increasingly be forced to compromise journalistic integrity in the name of the Almighty Dollar. Says Carr:

On one side, those content producers who choose to stay on the free-and-open web will be forced into making more and more ethically dubious decisions to stay profitable. Out will go professional writers and church-and-state separation of content and commerce; in will come more Groupon-style “reader offers”, affiliate links behind every keyword and an Idiocracy of dumber and dumber linkbait.

Carr’s opinion echoes that of many orthodox reporters, who worry over the future of content in the digital age. The attack against “branded journalism” follows the below logic:

a.   branded content is produced in the name of capital

b.   because branded content is produced in the name of capital, businesses and brands will have a vested interest in obscuring certain world-views and highlighting others (i.e. those that support the structure of a capitalistic consumer society).

c.    because of a & b, “branded content” is different than journalism, since journalism is a deeper, more authentic mode of truth-seeking and telling.

Perhaps the heated debate between traditional journalists and brand journalists is simply an issue of semantics: Would traditional reporters and journalists be happier if we called branded content just that, and avoid the label of “journalism,” which is supposed to suggest a deeper, unperverted love for the truth?

Furthermore, is Carr’s worry over the disintegration of the “church-and-state separation of content and commerce” even valid? Is it even true that, before the plethora of online information, that content and commerce were separate?

What many fail to remember when launching attacks on branded content is that branded content isn’t new. It is my argument that for as long as we’ve had the ability to produce and disseminate content, content has been “branded”—controlled by the power politics of publishers, editors and patrons.

We forget that The New York Times is a brand. The Globe and Mail is a brand. The Wall Street Journal= brand. Name any major news organization, and I will tell you that they are all brands, some more reputable than others.

There’s nothing more beautiful than when a news organization’s brand works; we know something to be true because we read it in The Financial Post or The Economist, and we trust the authority and the authenticity of that brand enterprise. While we may leave room for small mistakes—such as a spelling mistake here, or a misprinted number there—we, the reading public, trust in the practices and processes of that brand enterprise as a news organization.

As we have seen with the News of the World publication, when a brand behaves badly, they breach the trust of their readers and damage their brand credibility and value. But this isn’t a blog post about newspapers, it’s a blog post about branded content—which I’m arguing, is older than the printing press—however, to make this point, it’s important to note that even traditional reporters and journalists work for brands. Whether they like it or not.

Before the spread of literacy and the dawn of mass media, content was “branded” in the sense that is was commissioned by patrons; it was not uncommon in the early days of the written word for wealthy members of the aristocracy to house a writer or poet in exchange for well-written words. Many of literature’s most cherished and well-known works were what we’d today call “sponsored stories.”

For example, Author Mary Astell, who wrote some of the most important works in the history of feminism, was financially supported by Lady Catherine Jones and Lady Elizabeth Hastings.

Many of William Shakespeare’s works were also commissioned, including his famous Sonnet 18, also known by it’s first line, “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day.” This poem is  said to be dedicated to his patron Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton.

(left) William Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of   Southampton.

“Many works in the Renaissance were commissioned by the aristocrats and the church” says Claudia Corradetti, a fine art scholar studying art therapy Montreal. Corradetti told me that many painters were commissioned by governing bodies, such as  Velazquez’s, whose body of work was dedicated to portraying the Spanish Court, like his famous piece “Las Meninas” (below) 

Obviously, we’re taking a pretty liberal definition of “content” here, but why shouldn’t we include visual content when thinking about cultural content—both past and present? If sponsored stories and commissioned works of art have been around for centuries, then what’s so worrisome about branded content?

Nay-sayers worry that brand-sponsored stories will undermine journalism as we know it. These people fathom an Orwellian world where state powers shape the news to brainwash the nation. The Big Brother argument is the best argument I’ve heard against branded journalism, although, upon close analysis, it doesn’t hold ….

What we have to keep in mind is that branded content isn’t interested in covering the news (political campaigns, crime stories, etc); instead, branded content is interested in reporting the stories relevant to that brand’s industry. So, for example, I’m the content manager and head of social media at CRESCENT, Toronto’s leading communications agency. On our company blog, I write about brands that effectivly leverage social media. My articles aren’t so much selling as they are informing. In a similar manner, a popular retail clothing store like Diesel may wish to hire a blogger to write about designer jeans.

Brand journalism is about starting a conversation and inviting others to take part; it’s about developing credibility for your brand across a variety of channels; and, at the heart of it, brand journalism is about storytelling. It’s a good thing, too. In a world awash with poor marketing and loud advertising, we need better stories today more than ever.

This post was authored by guest blogger @AmandaCosco, resident writer, content manager and head of social media at CRESCENT, Toronto’s leading design & communications agency.

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