For the past week or so, in the wake of Paul Conley’s skeptical assessment, I’ve been mulling over the future of brand journalism, aka content marketing. His doubts were not, as some readers thought, about the benefits to non-publishing companies of treating content more journalistically. Rather, he was questioning whether most companies were really prepared to be more journalistic, to accept journalistic values.
A few days after Conley’s interview, my friend and ASBPE colleague Robin Sherman had this to say on LinkedIn about the concept of brand journalism: “Whatever it is, it is not journalism. It might use some techniques that journalists use, but the goals of brand journalists and real journalists are different. If a journalist becomes a brand journalist, that person is no longer a journalist.”
For journalists, who face ever-diminishing opportunities with traditional publishers, does working for a brand mean they must give up their identities as journalists? Is there really no place for journalistic values in most companies?
These questions came to mind yesterday when I read about the one-year anniversary of the hiring of journalist Jesse Noyes by Eloqua, a marketing automation company. Eloqua is clearly not a traditional outlet for journalism. But with a background at the Boston Herald and the Boston Business Journal, Noyes clearly is—or was—a journalist. After a year on the job, what, I wondered, would he make of Sherman’s and Conley’s concerns?
In an e-mail, he told me that he actually agrees with many of their points:
Let me tackle this from my personal point of view. “Brand journalism” is a kind of catch-all neologism; it’s used to describe a fairly new, relatively unexplored and broadly defined practice. Typically, when speaking to people in person, I refer to myself as a “brand reporter” rather than a brand journalist.
I think there’s a valid point in saying the goal of journalists and brand journalists are not precisely aligned. When I was hired it was clear I wasn’t recruited with the purpose of exposing the next Enron. For me, the goal of the journalist (traditionally defined) is to provide the public with the facts and context they need to make informed decisions—political, business, consumer and personal decisions—without regard for what “sells”.
But as he then points out, even most journalists in publishing companies don’t meet this definition:
Now, that being said, I would say this makes up the minority of what passes for journalism today. Many traditional journalistic enterprises are very concerned with doing content that sells copies and catches eyeballs for advertisers than truly informing the public, which is part of the pain I think Paul describes so well. (Jay Rosen, who I do not always agree with, makes some particularly salient points on this very issue.)
But I’m not here to defend or argue the points of journalism. The reason I call myself a reporter is because what I bring to my employer are the skills I picked up from my years working for traditional journalistic enterprises. These would include investigative skills, knowing where and how to look for data, how to discover trends, how to pursue and interview various people, how to frame all of the above into a cohesive narrative that informs or entertains or does both. Marketers are trying to learn how to speak to people in a human way. Reporters (or journalists) know how to do this, and that’s why Eloqua came to me.
In the end, he suggested, the important question is not whether you lose your identity as a journalist by working for a brand. Rather, the question is whether you can bring your skills and values as a journalist to helping a company become a better, more credible, and more open communicator.
The goal of a company that hires a journalist is not to win a Pulitzer. It’s to draw people in, to provide some form of value that will establish a level of credibility and intelligence that will create a stronger relationship with the brand’s customers and potential customers. Ideally, reporters should become the employees who do more than research and write articles. They should take their natural curiosity and investigative skills to uncover the needs, desires and pain points of the market the brand serves and report that back to the company. They should also be hell-bent on providing stories and articles that help their readers or viewers do their job better, rather than sell them some product or service at every turn. And, finally, they should teach their colleagues how to do this as well. If this is what happens, I see it as both beneficial for the brand and the brand’s customers.
To the points Paul made, I can see how this frustration arises. I’ve always said that if the brand wants to hire a reporter to essentially write copy for them, it’s not going to work. Journalists are curious people who want to meet people, explore new ideas and tell stories—not sell widgets. If the brand isn’t ready to give a long leash, the experiment will fail. Honestly, I’m not surprised to hear it has.
In the years I was a reporter in the newsroom, I encountered fuzzy areas almost every month where I felt a conflict could arise. In my time at Eloqua, I have never felt conflicted or uncomfortable. My company respects boundaries and doesn’t want to ruin the trust we’ve established with our readers. Any brand thinking about hiring a reporter should understand they’re not hiring a traditional marketer. And journalists considering working for a brand should know they aren’t going to work for a traditional newsroom.
It’s clear that Noyes has given this issue a lot of thought. In fact, he will be participating in a panel on “Brand Journalism in the Real World” at South by Southwest next March 12, along with Twitter editorial director Karen Wickre, Mashable contributor and content marketer Erica Swallow, and Ann Handley of MarketingProfs.