Categories: Content Marketing

Why the Controversy? Traditional and Brand Journalists Need to Hug it Out

Categories: Content Marketing

Why the Controversy? Traditional and Brand Journalists Need to Hug it Out

Jan 12, 2015

About a year ago I wrote an article about the rise of PR as evidenced by a statistic from the department of labor. According to their research, the number of working PR pros outnumbered journalists 4:1. Not only did this statistic point to a shockingly uneven gap between the people pitching a story and those writing a story, it also pointed to the rise of the brand journalist.

Since then, the employment gap between journalists and PR pros has only grown; it’s now closer to 5:1. And, while there are fewer journalists today, there is also more content in the world than ever before.

Why? The answer is simple, the rise of technology and the current media landscape have enabled citizen and brand journalism, which have essentially flooded the Internet with content.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

It depends entirely on which side of the fence you are standing. From the side of journalism, it likely feels as though content marketing and brand journalism are trying to take over. From the side of the brand journalist, it feels like an opportunity to expand our communications programs and educate our customers. Understanding what’s happening on both sides of the fence and how we got to this point will help both sides to be more successful, and possibly explain some of the controversies around “brand journalism.”

Wait, aren’t brand journalists and traditional journalists more or less the same?

No, they are not the same. However, they do have similarities.

According to the Content Marketing Institute, “Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.” Content marketing and therefore brand journalism ultimately seek to convert readers into customers who pay for goods and services through content.

The American Press Institute defines journalism as “the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information.” The purpose of journalism, they say, is “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

Both aim to provide useful information to their respective audiences, but their motivation comes from a different place. In the end, brand journalism is about business and traditional journalism is about providing needed information. Very similar, yet quite different.

How’d we get here? The rise of technology and shifting media landscape give birth to the citizen and brand journalist

Ten-twelve years ago, if you wanted to write and publish the options were limited. You could go the traditional route and work to publish your story through a newspaper or magazine. Or, you could write a book, but the chance of having success with publishing was low. To be a success you needed formal training, you had to be a great writer, neither of which applied to everyone with an idea.

Then, in what seemed like an overnight shift, technology, and the Internet took off; in a nanosecond, new publishing opportunities became available to the masses. We saw the birth of the blog, 140-character publishing through Twitter and the ability to have an entire “wall” dedicated to our lives (and our businesses) via Facebook. At the same time, newspapers began to decline in circulation, magazines folded, journalists started losing their jobs and the media landscape began to shift from print to digital.

In what felt like an overnight phenomenon, everyone was given an online voice, and many started to use this as an opportunity to speak to the masses. Blogs popped up everywhere giving birth to the citizen journalist. Very soon brands realized that the same communication tools powering the voice of the people were also amazing for their communications. Enter the brand journalist.

What’s controversial about brand journalism? The view from each side of the fence…

The term “brand journalism” is controversial because the term could imply that corporations are coopting the role of traditional news media organizations. Content marketers have not claimed the role of news reporter or investigative journalist. But they do write stories and publish the in a journalistic manner, creating some tension between the two sides of the fence.

  • Traditional journalists looking at brand journalism’s yard: Brand journalism is misleading if it implies that content marketers share the same purpose as journalists. For example, if you practice using firearms, study military strategy and embrace martial values; it wouldn’t make you a soldier. Likewise, if content marketers employ journalistic skills, study publishing strategies and embrace journalistic values, it doesn’t make them journalists. A journalist is a highly trained professional with a lengthy list of values they must live up to with every story. Journalistic integrity and an unbiased point-of-view are paramount to their success, which is not necessarily true for brand journalists.
  • Brand journalist looking at traditional journalism’s yard: Consider some of the articles in Boeing’s Frontiers magazine. In the December 2014 edition, there is an article profiling Terri, a member of Boeing’s Alternative Dispute Resolution team who has worked at the company for over 20 years. Another article tells the story of how Boeing trained 30,000 Air Force mechanics and flight engineers during World War II. These are both stories that mainstream journalists would have ignored. However, both stories are interesting and worthwhile for Boeing, their customers, and the airline industry; the fact that they were written by a Boeing writer does not devalue their existence. Without brand journalism stories would be missed, and brands would miss an opportunity to tell stories that resonate with their customers.

What does this mean for content marketers?

Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, makes a great distinction between the two in her book Everybody Writes: “An embedded corporate journalist is often more of a storyteller than a straight news reporter. All journalists (whether brand-side or not) deal in facts—they tell true stories well.”

Further, in a Content Marketing Institute article written in 2011, Joe Pulizzi offers, “All content is created by real people. If that content is transparent in terms of source and agenda, then it’s real. Whether or not it’s “journalism” is not really important.”

Both of these quotes point out that in the end it simply doesn’t matter if a story is the result of brand or traditional journalism. Both sides tell stories. If that story is useful, to just one person, then it matters, regardless of the source.

Brand journalists may be flooding the world with content, but I’d argue that a lot of it is good. And in many cases brand journalism keeps traditional journalists on their toes, pushing them to create increasingly better stories.

Conversely, traditional journalists bring forth a level of expertise, quality, and integrity that every brand journalist can observe, learn from and use as a lesson for self-improvement. Their resulting work keeps brand journalists on their toes.

Whether you are a journalist working for the New York Times or a brand journalist working for IBM, you are in the business of telling stories that resonate with your audience. And both are valuable. In the end, like most things in life that seem at odds, one does not negate the other’s validity. As long as “journalists” from both sides of the fence recognize the true purpose of their content and serve their respective audience, they can live in harmony. It’s time to hug it out.

Marc Cowlin @mcowlin
Contributor Bio: Marc Cowlin is a content marketer with a proven track record of driving buzz, traffic and conversion through top-of-funnel marketing (Public Relations, Social Media, Blogging). With nearly 15 years of in-house brand experience with companies such as Birkenstock and, Marc offers a unique perspective on the convergence of content with PR, social media and digital marketing. These days Marc leads content marketing for Thismoment.
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