Can Brands Ride the Explanatory Journalism Wave? A Brand Newsroom Brainstorm With Scribewise’s John Miller

Brand newsrooms are complex beasts; they’re modern-day griffins, really, that sport the head of a marketer and the body of journalist. And somehow, those two halves have to figure out how to coexist gracefully.

Brand newsrooms are also something that you can’t talk about with just anyone. Bring them up too many times at happy hour with your friends, and you stop getting invited to happy hour. (Trust me.) So that’s why I sat down last week to Gchat with John Miller, president of Scribewise, about brand newsrooms and the content marketing universe. Scribewise serves as an “outsourced newsroom” for brands, while also publishing a very good content marketing blog.

Over the course of an hour, we discussed how brands might be able to ride the explanatory journalism wave, the biggest challenges brand newsrooms face, and the benefits of pounding a conference room table.

John: So… Whaddya think of The Upshot at NYT and “explanatory journalism”?

Joe: I think it’s really interesting that the explanatory journalism thing feels so new and revolutionary. I mean, there was a Pulitzer for explanatory journalism in the ’80s. Wikipedia has been killing the game for over a decade. It’s like everyone woke up and realized, “Hey, the Internet lets us explain things in depth really easily!”

John: True, except that everything has been getting more and more surface-y for decades now. So this is a boomerang back in another direction. And… it’s hard to do well. I feel like much of the longform writing is just… long (cough … Grantland … cough).

Joe: Let’s not get into a flame-war over Grantland yet. I’ll defend them all day. But that’s a good point. I think there’s a big question on how you monetize it. I mean it’s not a niche subject area. I actually think this is an area where brands could thrive. They have the money to do explanatory journalism well. Many of them are experts on topics. It’s an area where the fact that they’re a brand is an advantage, in terms of subject matter expertise. I mean it can’t quite be journalism, but it can be explanatory editorial.

John: Agree. I’d even say, at the risk of flattery, that your recent e-book on the state of content marketing is a direction brands should explore. All of these e-books being worked on could be great, but they typically need a true jolt of journalism to do that.

Joe: Definitely. I mean, for us, our e-books are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s definitely more technologically savvy ways that we could let people dive into this whole content marketing/brand journalism thing in-depth and in a focused way. Can’t imagine you haven’t had similar thoughts at Scribewise.

John: Yes, we’re working (more slowly than I’d like) on a couple of bigger projects that intend to dive deeper into how content marketing works/could work.

Joe: Nice. I think about it from a content recommendation standpoint, too, though. Like how can we let readers dive into the rabbit hole on a topic in a way that’s way more intuitive than just tags and hyperlinks. Luckily, the Ezra Kleins of the world are figuring that out for us right now. Anyway, speaking of brand newsrooms—I just read your “9 Things Your Editor-in-Chief Does Every Day” piece and it was deadly accurate. Nicely done.

John: Hey! Thank you!

Joe: At the risk of sounding self-promotional, I do notice a common thread amongst successful brand publishers—they all have good editors. I think there are a few different levels to good editing. The base level is just proper grammar and copy editing. I think that a lot of brands only concern themselves with this part, and think that if something doesn’t have any blatant mistakes, it’s edited. The second level is actually knowing how to make a story compelling, and knowing when a story shouldn’t run. [Recently], failed here, for instance, when they ran that insane, bogus, and completely circumstantial DeSean Jackson gang story. But what I’m talking about even more is that third level. Good editors have great instincts when it comes to content strategy. And a lot of brands are having their content strategy dictated by CMOs who have never worked in editorial. It’s insane.

John: Yes—the key to a good editor is having one eye on the big picture vision/strategy and the other eye on the nitty-gritty stuff, and making sure the two align. And the strategy must must must be audience-focused.

Joe: That’s a really good point. Figuring out that audience requires an editorial touch though, right? I mean consumer psychographics don’t really tell you what content to create.

John: Yes—how much is buyer persona science and how much is editorial intuition?

Joe: 53-47, I’d say. Just kidding, but it does feel like a 50-50 proposition to some extent.

John: I recently wrote this for Media Post about a Princeton company called 48 Bricks that’s making the case that buyer personas are, ostensibly, a waste of time. They require a yeoman’s effort to create, and then aren’t very effective. I don’t agree with that 100 percent, but I do agree that there’s a point of diminishing returns in the big effort to create personas.

Joe: Agreed. You definitely need an idea of who your audience is, but there’s a lot more that goes into identifying the opportunity at hand. And a lot of that is trial and error. A lot of my belief in the power of content marketing comes from the fact that our content drives almost all of our inbound leads at Contently, and we’ve seen our audience grow five-fold in the past six months. (*Brushes dirt off shoulder.*) And a lot of that has been driven by looking at data and then making common sense editorial decisions on what’s working. What do you find are brands’ biggest challenge?

John: There are several challenges brands face. Typically, if they’ve come in [as clients], they intellectually agree with the concept of creating audience-focused content, but erasing that old muscle memory is difficult. As you submit the first few articles to them, they often say “shouldn’t we talk about our solution here?” And we say no. This is a new way. The audience knows you’re there; they’ll investigate your solutions when you’ve earned their trust and demonstrated your expertise. One of the challenges in selling content marketing is that that is a very simple concept… and yet a huge hurdle. Dovetailing back to the explanatory journalism approach, if a brand is going to dive into explanatory journalism, or explanatory content marketing, does it require an even higher level/different type of buy-in from the C-suite?

Joe: I think so, especially since it requires such a mass amount of content. We’re even seeing struggle with this now, since they decided to launch before really scaling up their content. But the thing is—brands are willing to plop down $4 million for a 30 seconds of airtime during the Super Bowl. Why not invest half of that in an editorial operation that’s going to give you a huge marketing advantage for the next 20 years?

John: If I could answer that…

We had a very similar scenario last year. We met with a major B2C company, leader in their industry, that spends tens of millions a year on… wait for it… newspaper ads. GAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!

I wanted them to spend 1 percent of their budget on content, and we could kill it.

Joe: Great way to get to that hard-to-reach caged ferret market.

John: But on the other hand, as far as they’re concerned business is good, so why change anything? Hahaha.

Joe: To me, the argument is that brands that don’t own an audience will be at a huge disadvantage in a few years. Traditional advertising is working less and less, and the content space is getting more competitive. At the same time, there’s a ceiling to how much attention people have to give to content.

Joe: It’s going to be much harder to develop your audience in 3 years than it is now, but if you do develop an audience, you have a magic weapon over all your competitors. Unfortunately, that’s hard to do when the average tenure of a CMO is only 3 years. Brand advertising would probably be much better if CMOs were appointed like Supreme Court justices.

John:  Right, and while marketing automation is really cool and powerful, it can turn the whole game into a very tactical equation that focuses on sales right now, negating the long view.

Joe: Right, that’s when content marketing becomes display ads in sheep’s clothing. When you’re just buying Yahoo Stream Ads and plugging in “articles” like “10 Reasons You Need This Enterprise Email Solution Right Now!”

John: Yes. It’s very hard to hold the line on that sort of thing (and we don’t always succeed in doing so) when the marketing automation platform is tied to CRM and SEO has a seat at the table, etc. We have to make the case of art over science, which often won’t resonate. The key is to fill your art with science.

Joe: Just keep screaming, “Do you want a penicillin shot today, or a cure for cancer in three years?!?!” while pounding the conference room table.

John: I may try that tactic.

Joe: Please record it.

John: God knows I love pounding a table.

Joe: Unfortunately, I’ve got to go in a few minutes to a lumber yard because I’m too cheap to buy overpriced bed slates from IKEA. Final thoughts on brand newsrooms?

John: Brand newsrooms can be awesome. But they require a delicate balance of someone who has that journalistic background, has managed people and projects before, but also understands the business needs. You?

Joe: Final thoughts: If brands actually want to talk about newsrooms, they need to live up to that term. They need to cede creative control to a great editor. They need to shell out the cash to attract the top freelance storytellers in the world, and they need a data scientist to crunch those numbers and predict what’s next. And they need to measure things the right way—visits and pageviews only matter if you’re selling ads. A very different set of numbers matter to brand publishers. (And, shameless plug, we just released a product that takes care of that.)

(Editor’s note: This exchange has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Contently arms brands with the tools and talent to become great content creators. Learn more.

Get better at your job right now.

Read our weekly newsletter to master content marketing. It’s made for marketers, creators, and everyone in between.

Trending stories