Journalism, Professionalism, and the Turing Test

What’s the way forward for journalists? Doubling down on the traditional ideals of objectivity and impartiality? Embracing the subjective, personality-driven approach of social media? Or is there some uncertain, ill-defined middle way?

Turing Test By Bilby (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThose are some of the questions being raised recently by a number of new-media observers, most notably GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram, who’s lately been rolling out one must-read blog post after another.

The problem with traditional news is that traditional journalists are increasingly unnecessary to produce it. Robot reporters are cornering the market on facts, as companies like Narrative Science and Automated Insights perfect the science of teaching software to turn data into news stories.

If basic news becomes a fungible commodity, one obvious alternative for journalists is what Ben Huh says great reporters already do: convey not simply the facts, but their subjective emotions about those facts.  But this, he says, is a “very, very dangerous” approach.

That’s one lesson that could be drawn from reporter Anne Sutherland’s recent suspension from the Montreal Gazette for remarks she made on Twitter. Covering a “nearly naked” protest by university students, she tweeted a number of photos of the protestors accompanied by “snarky” comments about their physiques. Neither her Twitter followers nor her employers found it amusing.

Writing about Ben Huh, GigaOm’s Ingram says that “in order to be effective, journalism needs to be personal.” But doesn’t Sutherland’s seemingly personal reaction to the protestors prove the opposite, and that the dangers of being personal outweigh the benefits?

I think not. I don’t know her, of course, but I’d guess the problem isn’t that she was being human or that she was being too personal. Rather, she was responding to the wrong instincts and emotions.  She was there as a journalist, but reacting as an average, and thoughtless, bystander.

In a post written before Sutherland’s misstep, Steve Buttry addressed a similar issue in explaining “how to respond to staff members who were using crude language and behaving unprofessionally on Twitter.” On social media, he says, journalists must be personable, yes, but also professional:

“A professional journalist using Twitter should behave professionally. Your profile should identify you as a journalist with your news organization. You should behave accordingly.”

I don’t disagree. But I wonder if professionalism is sufficient. The problem for me is that professionalism is more shield than guiding light. Too often, it is just a way of doing what won’t get you fired.

To succeed in a personal medium, you ultimately need a personal standard. The preeminent question to ask yourself now may not be Is this a professional and objective statement of the facts? but rather Is this my best, most honest, and most personally true assessment of those facts?

This might not seem like the appropriate corrective to the all-too-personal Sutherland. But I suspect her reactions were not truly personal. They sound, rather, like received views, the trite and formulaic reactions not of a person, but of a type of person. It is a behavioral response that could be easily programmed into a Narrative Science algorithm: If see hairy body, then tweet “Ewww.”

In gauging how to handle social media, maybe what journalists need is not so much a standard of professionalism as a kind of Turing test. That is, could what you’re writing be produced by a computer imitating a human reporter?

The test is not whether the content is dryly factual or snarkily silly, superbly impartial or grossly biased. Those traits are easy to replicate. Instead, the test should be whether the prose is truly personal. Does it reflect a real consciousness struggling to find the truth, or an automaton juggling ones and zeroes?

Such a test can never be very precise. But journalism, whether conducted in traditional or social media, would be the better for it.

Paul Conley: Has the Content Marketing Dream Become a Nightmare?

Paul Conley

Paul Conley

In the trade magazine business, not generally known for early adoption of new-media developments, Paul Conley is something of an anomaly. He is, as he puts it, “hypersensitive to how new technology opens up opportunities in old worlds.” He was among the first in the trade press to recognize the significance of social media. And though he is now beginning to question its potential, he was an early advocate for content marketing as a promising new career path for journalists.

As early as 1996, not long after the birth of the World Wide Web, he founded a business-to-business internet news service. Though that effort failed, it provided the foundation for a subsequent career in new media, beginning with CNN’s web unit, CNNfn, and then key roles with Primedia, Bloomberg, and Conley is best known, however, for his subsequent work, starting in 2004, as a consultant and blogger. Throughout the last decade, his blog was required reading for anyone concerned about the future of trade publishing, and has made him, as he puts it, “weirdly famous in some cool media niches.”

In 2008, Conley’s focus began to shift from traditional trade journalism to content marketing, which at one point he described as “the most exciting part of the B2B world today.” By last year, he said, his working life was “consumed” by content marketing.

In a recent interview, however, Conley told me that he has begun to worry about the viability of content marketing. While “the biggest opportunities in B2B media are clearly in content marketing,” challenges to its potential as a new outlet for journalism are growing rapidly:

Much of my business in the past few years has involved helping non-publishers enter content marketing. And my experience has been that the overwhelming majority of these companies don’t have a culture that is open to journalism. These companies don’t have the stomach for news and the confrontations it can promote. They panic when someone complains. They’re afraid of controversy.

Journalists by the hundreds—both newcomers and legacy—are being recruited for these jobs. But once they get there, they find that their skills and their mindset are not appreciated.

Though he once hoped that content marketing “could be a new form of journalism,” and that it would both employ journalists and serve readers well, he’s less sanguine now. With a few exceptions, such as, he says, “content marketing has turned out to be nothing more than a slightly cooler, slightly hipper form of marcomm and advertising.”

It doesn’t help, Conley adds, that traditional publishers are also entering into content marketing.

What they’re selling in the market is the ability to co-opt their journalists! Legacy publishers are telling advertisers that journalists will create content marketing for them. And the journalists who balk at this find themselves facing an enormous amount of hostility from their bosses.

This situation is rapidly turning into a nightmare in B2B. Marketers claim to be journalists. Journalists are hired as marketers. Publishers sell the use of their editorial staff to the same companies that buy advertising. Readers can’t tell if they reading editorial content or vendor content or vendor content that’s written by editors and then published by a magazine brand or editorial content written by editors but published by vendors or vendor content written by vendors but edited by editors and then published by a magazine brand as a column. There are some verticals in B2B now that are completely polluted by this crap.

Conley does not seem to have given up all hope for content marketing as a robust alternative to traditional journalism. But, he says, “finding a way to navigate this new world will be the biggest challenge for B2B journalists and readers for the foreseeable future.”

Paul Conley is one of eight new-media thought leaders profiled in the forthcoming e-book, the New-Media Survival Guide. More of my interview with him, in which he describes the ethical challenges facing B2B publishing, will be has been published soon on the ASBPE National Blog.

Journalists, Content Marketing, and Tough Questions

If not yet a B2B meme, recommending the use of journalists for content marketing is at the very least a growing trend. Well-known influencers like  David Meerman Scott, Valeria Maltoni, and Joe Pulizzi have all made the case that journalistic skills like telling stories, doing research, and understanding audiences are critical to effective content creation. But one journalistic skill rarely mentioned is the ability both to ask and to answer tough questions.

Not all journalists can claim that talent, but the best can, and it’s what makes journalism shine. But are B2B brands ready for tough questions?  As I’ve worried before, maybe not. But if that’s the case, they aren’t ready for marketing in the social media world either.

By tough, I don’t mean adversarial or unfriendly. Rather, I mean any relevant question that might make someone uncomfortable, whether the person posing the question, the person answering it, or both.  Asking tough questions is the journalistic equivalent of due diligence in business. Both are critical to getting the facts right and avoiding disaster.

I’m not suggesting that content marketers undertake investigative reporting. But they can benefit from an ability to know when the easy answer is not the right answer, and when they need to probe more deeply to, in the words of Jesse Noyes, “create content that will challenge long-held assumptions.” The trick, of course, is to challenge your brand and your audience in a positive and constructive way—as good journalists have learned to do.

In the old days of mass media and mass marketing, tough questions could be avoided. But markets are now conversations among equals. As companies like Nestle and Dell have learned, educated buyers empowered by social media will ask tough questions. Educated content marketers will answer them. Better yet, they’ll ask themselves those questions before anyone else does, and share the answers. It’s a role good journalists are made for.

A word of caution to marketers, though: as I’ve suggested, not all journalists can pass the toughness test. So before you hire a journalist to ask tough questions, make sure he or she answers yours first.

Brand Journalism Trend Heats Up in UK

In a blog post today, Ian Burrell, the media editor for The Independent, offered fresh evidence that, at least in the UK, the growth of brand journalism (i.e., journalists moving into content marketing) is more than theoretical. Though Burrell  never names it as such (a “web version” of “customer publishing” is the closest he comes to labeling the trend), it’s clear from his opening that he’s talking about content marketing:

“Get used to it. The big publishers of the future may no longer be the news organisations of old but companies that want to sell you stuff: shoes, gadgets, holidays. Companies that have a story to tell and the money to get it told.”

Because these new types of publishers want to avoid “clunky advertorial, laden with overt brand value and PR messages,” they will be hiring experienced journalists to build an audience of loyal customers. As evidence, he cites three hirings in the last month, all in the fashion sector:

It remains to be seen whether what these editors produce in their new roles is remotely journalistic. Fashion retailing has always thrived on telling stories, but usually not real stories.

Burrell observes, however, that the trend is not limited to the fashion business, but is “part of a wider pattern that is greying the boundaries between journalism and marketing.” He points out that, as has been noted on B2B Memes before,  traditional publishers want to play the content marketing game as well. His example is News International, which hopes to enhance its traditional publishing business with “a stronger commercial relationship with readers.”

Whether these high-profile moves in the fashion industry are leading or trailing indicators of brand journalism growth is unclear to me. Though I’ve heard stories here and there of similar trends in B2B, for instance, I haven’t seen any examples as definitive as those Burrell cites.

In other words, the brand journalism trend is real. It’s just not clear yet what stage we’re in.

Content Marketing’s PR Problem

With publishing luminaries like Paul Conley, Joe Pulizzi, and David Meerman Scott urging journalists to turn to content marketing for rewarding career options, you might think there would be a stampede of ink-stained wretches leaping into the field. But though you can find examples of such career shifters, the numbers are small. In part, this may be because the field is still nascent. But it’s also due to a public relations problem. I mean this literally: to many journalists, content marketing is just another term for PR.

Three weeks ago, in my last post on this blog, I asked the question, “Is B2B Ready for Corporate Journalism?“. My silence since then, alas, doesn’t mean I found the answer. (For my lack of production, blame a combination of travel, special projects, and, of course, my lizard brain.) What spurred my reflections was a comment from a journalist who didn’t believe that content marketing could live up to its journalistic ambitions.

That journalist, at least, understood those ambitions. But for every one who does, there must be 10 others who don’t.

Recently, for example, an esteemed B2B journalist I know said that content marketing is not new: “we used to call that PR.” There are two serious problems with this common confusion.

First, it means that journalists don’t recognize the challenge that content marketing poses to their traditional livelihoods. Unlike PR, which relies on third-party publishers to disseminate its message, content marketing simply cuts out those middlemen. Instead, companies that used to be advertisers go to the audience directly, in essence becoming publishers themselves.

But the confusion is also a problem for the discipline of content marketing. To fulfill its potential, it needs journalists. If those journalists think it’s all PR, they won’t bite.

So let’s try to clear it up.

Journalists: Content marketing is not PR, nor is it, in any sense you expect, marketing. In the broadest sense of the term, it’s publishing. It may not always be practiced with traditional journalistic values, but it often is.

Content marketers: Let’s face it, you have an image problem with journalists. If you want them on your team, you’re going to have to talk less about marketing and more about journalism. I agree that neither David Meerman Scott’s favored term, brand journalism, nor its cousin, corporate journalism, quite fits. But unlike content marketing, neither phrase makes journalists want to run for the hills.

Corporate journalism has a bright future. But until content marketers and journalists speak the same language, it will remain stubbornly in the future.