Is Branded Content Journalism?

25 Feb

Like lots of young J-School graduates, I have one foot in the traditional journalism world and one foot…somewhere else. One former schoolmate works as a “community manager” at an Internet startup. Another friend is a Web editor/SEO specialist at an online newspaper. Yet another sunlights as “communications director” for a government agency.

As I’ve discussed before, I’m the editor of a lightly-branded media and marketing blog called Sparksheet, which is both an independent-minded industry publication and a strategic corporate property. So I’m always navigating the line between editorial and advertorial, zealously guarding my journalistic independence and integrity while making sure not to embarrass the company or its clients.

Which brings me to this recent blog post by Sally Gethin. A self-proclaimed “old fashioned journalist,” Gethin edits a respected inflight entertainment industry newsletter (yes, such a thing exists). Although I can’t say for certain, the post seems to be a thinly-veiled attack on Sparksheet.

(Note: For some reason she seems to have deleted the post. But here’s another Web lesson for Ms. Gethin: online content is forever. You can find a cached version here– just scroll down a few posts to “When news becomes clutter”).

Indeed, most of the post is an inchoate rant. She blames the Internet for killing investigative reporting. She laments that “There is too much online ‘chatter’ going on.” Regarding Twitter, she contends that “just the word itself defames the notion of real debate.” Really?

But the question of whether branded content should be regarded as credible journalism is a legitimate one. So here is my response (originally posted as a comment on her blog):

As a fellow journalism school graduate and someone who works in the branded media space, I couldn’t disagree more.

First, the idea that the Internet and “digital media” are killing investigative journalism is ludicrous. Check out websites like ProPublica, and Talking Points Memo, which have picked up the investigative torch dropped by newspapers, magazines and TV stations that are no longer willing or able to invest in proper muckraking.

It’s a shame that so many legacy media outlets are struggling. But “old fashioned journalists” and media executives are far from blameless. Ignoring what happened to the music industry in the face of Napster and iTunes, they failed to grasp the impact digital media would have on their outdated and inefficient business models (low subscription costs, print classifieds, un-targeted ads, etc.).  Instead of seeing the Internet as an opportunity, they saw it as a threat, and leaner, keener outlets rose up to fill the void.

Sure, there’s a lot of clutter online, but that’s not an Internet phenomenon—think of tabloids, trashy magazines and bad commercial radio. In any medium, the cream will rise above the clutter. And it’s the cream that legacy outlets should be afraid of.

Second, the notion that branded content is necessarily vapid or corrupted is just plain wrong. Custom magazines—from inflight lifestyle magazines to meatier publications like Benetton’s “Colors”— have been around for decades. Newspapers and broadcast outlets have always been beholden to advertisers, sponsors, parent companies and stockholders. As you suggest in your post, what distinguishes the credible from the cloying is transparency and disclosure. Personally, I have more faith in the candidly partisan Huffington Post than disingenuously “Fair and Balanced” Fox News. I also think Benetton’s “Colors” has more journalistic merit than AdBusters, and that Andrew Sullivan’s blog is far more credible than the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed page.

Finally, I dispute the notion that corporate blogs, Twitter accounts and any other branded community “simply places the sponsor owner in a strategic powerful position in a given market.” On the contrary, engaging in social media puts brands in an inherently vulnerable position. Press releases, direct mailing and other traditional marketing practices were all about controlling the message. Blogs, Twitter and other social media are about letting go. Again, it goes without saying that companies need to be transparent about their role in a branded space. But once they create that space, anything can happen. United Airlines and, more recently, Southwest Airlines learned that the hard way.

In some ways, the worlds of journalism and marketing are converging. Journalists are being trained to consider search engine optimization when writing headlines and assigning stories; marketers are realizing the power of useful content and powerful storytelling. As the editor of a branded blog/newsletter, I do need to stay on message—but not at the expense of core journalistic principles like accuracy, fairness and balance. I’m not sure someone who resorts to tired caricatures and name calling can say the same.

Note: This post is my own opinion and not necessarily that of Spafax, Sparksheet’s publisher.


2 Responses to “Is Branded Content Journalism?”

  1. Ched March 9, 2010 at 2:51 am #

    Wow, what an awesomely brutal deconstruction of her argument. Straight murder.

    Gethin is butthurt about her craft, and her deleting her original post shows that she can’t deal with it.


  1. Where I Am « Hopeful & De-Pressed - November 15, 2010

    […] I discussed in my previous post about branded content, my peers and I have been charting some new and ambiguous territory in the journalism world. […]

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