BREAKING NEWS: Sponsors now doing “journalism”
What you’re about to read is a piece of original journalism, brought to you by the sugary zing of Old Brown Cola. Ahhh, you can’t beat the refreshing taste of Old Brown.
That statement isn’t true. There is no such company and this article isn’t brought to you by anyone, or any brand, whose core business isn’t (and hasn’t always been) journalism.
But it’s 2012. How sure of the independence of all the sources of your information can you really be?
Last week on The Punch, Sydney University student Michael Koziol wrote about journalism’s impossible maths problem. That is, how do you find work for an unending supply of wannabe journalists in an industry with fewer and fewer jobs for them?
You can’t, really, and as Koziol pointed out, many graduates will give up on journalism and find jobs on the proverbial dark side; in public relations. *Shudder*.
And that fact gives rise to the next most obvious question. What happens to the PR industry when “there are no newspapers left to puff to”?
“Perhaps Ogilvy should buy a printing press,” Koziol wrote.
The truth is they already have one. It’s called the Internet and in the US, it’s given rise to a lucrative and powerful industry known variously as “brand journalism”, branded content or content marketing.
The fact is, dozens of brands (including individuals such as rapper Jay-Z) are already using free, simple to use publishing tools, social networks and video platforms to skirt the traditional media and “manage” their own message.
Many are also using their large stores of cash to hire professional journalists, editors and photographers in order to produce content that engages audiences and tells whatever “story” the brand is keen to tell.
Mashable contributor Shane Snow put it this way in a panel discussion on the subject during Social Media Week in New York back in February.
“Journalism is about telling true stories”.
“Advertising and public relations are also about storytelling; Telling stories through commercials, through ads in newspapers and on the radio; Telling stories to reporters, hoping that they’ll write something about you.
“With the advent of social media, what we’re seeing today are brands (who were once simply advertising, or whispering in the ears of the press), are now starting to talk directly to their audience.”
Duy Linh Tu, Head of Digital Media at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, told the panel the practice was “just truth-telling in a kind of way that highlights a lifestyle, or an idea or a possibility for a product”.
“Brand journalism is just telling stories that engage an audience, not unlike what airlines did with airline magazines before digital.”
Companies who’ve opened a direct dialogue with their audiences include American Express, Johnson & Johnson, Red Bull and Burberry.
But their message is not always as aggressive or in-your-face as you might think.
In fact, at least as far as some branded journalism is concerned, the brand underwriting the content is often only subtly apparent, if it’s apparent at all.
Why? Because companies have worked out they can build loyal, engaged audiences - even generate revenue through traffic to their own websites - by serving up content of quality and value.
“It’s important the information the brands are producing is non-branded,” Matt Creamer, a writer with Ad Age told the Social Media Week discussion.
“It has to be good, useful information that’s detached from the branded communication a brand is going to do. It can’t just be advertising,” Creamer said, citing American Express’ Open Forum, a website offering resources for business owners, as an example.
“You don’t have to be an American Express consumer to find value there.”
The question is does it matter and do we care?
Our hearts say yes. But like so many things in life, the truth is it depends.
Information, whether it is provided by The Wall Street Journal or McDonald’s has an inherent value, so long as it’s both current and correct.
If new mums and dads find value in the popular Baby Center website, can anyone really argue against it, just because the information comes courtesy of Johnson’s?
But information by itself, without analysis or context, no matter how slickly presented, isn’t journalism.
And stories underwritten by brands, no matter how they move or engage audiences, can never carry the same weight as journalism produced by real media organizations, because their motives are different.
One wants to sell cars and sugary drinks and concert tickets and the other wants to make enough money to produce news that often isn’t sexy.
“What kind of breaking news could you do for Axe cologne?” Columbia University’s Duy Linh Tu asks.
“I just can’t see it”.
But brands are playing the game now, none-the-less.
And that means increasing numbers of journalism students will find their first job in the industry isn’t with the local radio station or newspaper, but a major brand or business who’s decided that “journalism” is a useful means to an end.
“We’re in a position where we have to recognize that our graduates come out with huge debt and they’ve got to pay the bills, so in one way, if they can still write then they’re still in the game”, Linh Tu said.
“We just have to figure out how much of their work can be for The New York Times and how much it can be for Ford.”
Until then, here’s a quick word from our sponsors…
Follow Greg on Twitter @barilski
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