Ethics and Content Marketing: Ex-BW Writers Weigh In

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).

David Meerman Scott

David Meerman Scott

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.”

Joe Weber

Joe Weber

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 a subsequent post, Baker announced that he will be blogging for Teradata’s Smart Data Collective.

Stephen Baker

Stephen Baker

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.

4 thoughts on “Ethics and Content Marketing: Ex-BW Writers Weigh In

  1. John, thanks for writing this piece.
    As more and more journalists make the move to content marketing (and in B2B, that trickle is becoming a torrent), it will be crucial that we have a reasoned conversation about ethics.
    As that conversation evolves, let me say this to those journalists who are considering making the move:
    Don’t be afraid.
    Just as our profession has changed, so has marketing.
    For every old-style executive who wants you to write marcomm dribble, there will be one who understands that content marketing is something else entirely.
    So choose your boss (or client) wisely.

  2. I write-for-hire (I once was a news reporter and a news feature writer).

    Let’s be honest. When I write a story for a client (call it sponsored content or–my personal favorite–a content solution), I first have to agree to the deliverables —what does the client want, when is it wanted, and how is it to be done to their speicifications. The more sophisticated the client, the more sophisticated and subtle the marketing proposition will be—— included directly or indirectly in the content.

    In my old profession, as a journalist, the deliverable at best was the truth. I had to consider the who, what, when, and how of a story. And in a longer piece I got to do foot-work, I got to research, to take time, to dig stuff up, to think for myself, and I got to try and connect the dots, to make sense for the reader how the story figured in the larger scheme of things.

    Today, when writing sponsored content, I also research, but if I come across something that does not support the client’s claim for their business/product, or inadvertently promotes a competitor, I know enough to leave it out even if it is true and even if it might help the reader understand something better, or reach an understanding on their own, of their own.

    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).

    So go ahead, as a writer, call it what you want. Me? I call it for what it is. I don’t need to spell it out to you. After all, words are our job. What’s no longer our job as “sponsored content providers” is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

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