Over the weekend, one of my blog posts from several months ago provoked a comment that was simply too good to let pass unnoticed. It spelled out the feelings of many journalists when faced with the prospect of going over to the dark side, as David Meerman Scott has put it, by writing directly for a sponsor. The commenter’s position was that by doing so, you are inevitably compromising the journalistic goal of telling the truth.
What adds heft to this view is its basis in experience. The commenter, Marylyn Donahue, is a former journalist who now makes a living writing for businesses. As Donahue sees it, there is a clear dichotomy between journalism and sponsored content. In journalism at its best, she asserts, the deliverable is truth. In sponsored content, the deliverable is the promotion of the sponsor’s point of view. Anything that might throw that point of view in doubt has to be left out, “even if it is true and even if it might help the reader understand something better.”
Though content marketing may try to mimic the balance of journalism, it’s an appearance, she says, not a reality:
“The real (ethical, if you will) problem with content-solution, custom publishing writing is that it is deeply dishonest to the reader. The reader is left not knowing what they don’t know. And the writer is complicit in making that happen. Why then does the writer do it? Because he or she is quite simply getting paid to tell it the way the client wants it to be told—no matter how “unbiased” it may come off sounding. (Good content solution writers are adept at balanced-sounding, but in fact one-sided pieces).”
It’s hard to argue against a position based on experience. But even if Donahue’s experience represents that of most or all crossover journalists, I wonder if it has to be that way. Does content marketing inherently compromise journalistic ideals ? Or does the problem lie with clients like Donahue’s, who don’t understand the point of brand journalism?
It’s clear, I think, that content marketing proponents would argue that this is a problem of implementation. Take, for instance, Ike Pigott’s open letter to journalists on his blog earlier this month. He argues that journalists can in fact find “comfort in the belly of the beast” as what he calls “embedded” corporate journalists. Their purpose is emphatically not PR, he says: “People can smell marketing and propaganda coming around the corner, and they know when the pitches and puff pieces are missing that edge of neutrality.”
Helping to keep content marketing honest, says Pigott, will be the remaining independent journalists serving as editors and curators. “They will be the line of defense that says ‘This story from ACME stinks to high heaven, and I will blast them for their inaccuracy.’”
One embedded journalist, ex-IDG writer David Churbuck, agrees that corporate journalism is both possible and desirable. In a blog post several years ago, he described a corporate imperative to honor journalism’s passion for truth: “Organizations need to report upon themselves with the objective eye of a journalist, holding any statement or action up to the same skeptical, unconflicted scrutiny that an outsider would hold.”
This makes sense. But in practice, are businesses ready to adopt the practice of journalism so rigorously?
Rob Leavitt’s answer is a firm “maybe.” Reflecting on Pigott’s blog post, he thinks some companies will make the effort. But he’s not sure they’ll succeed:
“For now, B2B companies are mostly still struggling with how much to allow their own employees to go beyond strictures of message control and engage freely in social media and networks. If they can’t even do this, it’s hard to believe they’ll turn trained professional journalists loose in an even more ambitious effort to provide “accurate and fair” reporting with all the risks this may entail to their own reputation.”
Leavitt’s analysis speaks directly to Donahue’s objection that she must tell her story “the way the client wants it to be told.” The reality is, companies that want to control the message simply cannot produce authentic journalism.
I would like to think that as more companies get on the Cluetrain and realize that the new-media world is no longer about control, they’ll have a genuine interest in sponsoring legitimate journalism. But my optimism is theoretical. For now, at least, I will defer to Donahue’s dolorous voice of experience.