As journalists continue to witness the decline of traditional job opportunities, more of them are looking closely at content marketing. Consulting journalist Paul Conley has argued for several years now that content marketing represents one of the most promising career choices for journalists. Similarly, but from a marketer’s perspective, David Meerman Scott has told journalists that they have “an amazing career opportunity on the dark side” (which he calls brand journalism rather than content marketing).
Scott’s “dark side” reference rightly implies that journalists won’t take this step without trepidation. The rules for writers and editors in traditional journalism are clear; not so in content marketing. Journalists entering this uncharted territory must improvise their own code of ethics. But can writers alone ensure an ethical product without a similar commitment from their sponsors?
The recent experience of BusinessWeek writers laid off last month illustrates the kind of soul-searching that working directly for sponsors can provoke. Former BW tech columnist Steve Wildstrom wrote on January 4 that he had accepted a gig writing for chip manufacturer Nvidia. While such “direct sponsorship” went against his instincts as a longtime journalist, he recognized that “we are going to have to find new models to survive.” Prominent among those new models is content marketing (though neither he nor his colleagues discussed here use that term).
Refreshingly, Wildstrom doesn’t romanticize old media. It was, he says, an “elaborate infrastructure” that “separated the sponsors—advertisers—from the sponsored—journalists.” That arrangement, he admits, “was never as pure as we liked to believe.” Although he sees the “potential for pitfalls” in “sponsored journalism,” he thinks it can be made to work.
Writing to his former BW colleague, Joe Weber, now a journalism professor, Wildstrom argued that “the old rules of journalism have to change”:
“What are the ethical rules for this new world? No one seems to know. They sure can’t be the old world, where we lived off advertising support and pretended that it had no relationship to what we did. Now we have to get up close and personal with the people who pay the bills. The old rules don’t work and it’s everyone for [himself] figuring out the new ones.”
Weber observes that it would be naive to assume that sponsored editorial doesn’t curb the independence of the writer. But, he goes on, “the new one-on-one sponsorship arrangements need not be corrupting or unethical.” Much as Virginia Postrel recently suggested regarding the New York Times, he argues for judging by the output rather than the input. “So long as the work that does appear is untainted by the sponsor and reflects a writer’s best reporting and judgment, how is that any different from work we would have done for the old pubs?”
Another of Wildstrom’s ex-BW colleagues, Stephen Baker, has also taken up content marketing. Baker sees it as both a necessity and an attractive opportunity, given the changed landscape for business writers:
“More and more journalists are on our own now, either by choice or necessity. And when we look around for revenue opportunities, fewer come from the advertising-based models we’re accustomed to. The way things are going, loads of retail, service and manufacturing companies are producing their own stuff. They’re becoming media companies, and many of them need help.”
In the new media world, he explained, “we journalists and writers (‘content creators,’ in the new jargon) increasingly must fend for ourselves. This means cutting our own deals and figuring out how to do the reporting, get paid, and deal responsibly with ethical issues.”
As Baker and Wildstrom both realize, there are no established ethical guidelines for them to rely on in writing for sponsors. What this means, says Weber, is that readers and writers alike must tread carefully: “Readers, for instance, need to be aware of who is paying the freight and stay alert for bias. And writers, of course, need to be cautious about muzzling themselves to the readers’ detriment.”
What Weber doesn’t mention here is a critical third party—the sponsors. Except in self-published venues, a writer’s resolve alone is not enough to ensure ethical journalism. The publisher must have a similar commitment. So as advertisers become publishers, they will need to define new ethical responsibilities for themselves.
How rigorous those responsibilities should be will depend on the sponsors’ goals for their content. But for content marketing to succeed as a true alternative to independent publishing, sponsors will need to join their contributors in adopting and disclosing ethical standards.