CJR: It’s Time for the Journalism World to Take Brand Publishers Seriously

“One day soon, native advertising may be recalled as a quaint evolutionary step, as brands are increasingly comfortable simply reaching an audience themselves.”

So says the cover story in the most recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. What it implies is significant. Are brands really just a step away from bypassing publishers to connect with audiences on their own? Is that the next phase in content marketing’s hastening evolution?

If only there was a simple answer to those questions. There’s much more to this story, a near-bottomless piece called “Should journalism worry about content marketing?” that examines branded content, its relationship to journalism, and the increasingly common practice among corporate brands of becoming media companies in their own right. Penned by CJR senior writer Michael Meyer, much of the report is devoted to exploring the marketing practices of St. Louis-based Purina. The Nestlé-owned brand is both the second largest pet food company in the world and a content publisher that creates “more than 1,500 pieces of content each day company-wide.” Every one of those days begins with The Daily Growl, a meeting of the brand’s content marketing team.

Meyer likens the meeting’s atmosphere both to that of a media startup and a newsroom. It’s the latter that he hones in on—in particular the idea that, at their core, brand newsrooms and traditional ones aren’t so different. In fact, branded content and journalism may have more in common than people (read: journalists) think.

It isn’t a reductive view. There’s no denying that it’s getting harder to tell content marketers and journalists apart. Not only are classically-trained journalists taking jobs producing native ads (including positions at Purina and agencies like JWT), but conventional publishers like The New York Times and digital media mainstays like The Huffington Post are writing pieces that primarily serve the interests of their advertisers. They’re careful to call them paid posts or sponsored articles, created not by their editorial teams but in-house brand studios. In the tradition of native ads, though, they often look so much like objective reporting that they could be mistaken for cover stories—and sometimes are. As Meyer notes, “The best content marketing blends news, promotion, and customer engagement so skillfully as to be unclassifiable.”

But classified it must be, at least in the minds of the consumers who are presented with branded content in numerous forms and on numerous platforms, some owned and others paid. Labeling is important, but so is understanding the nature of a story; Meyer sums up the issue by saying, “It’s not that readers don’t know where each piece of content comes from—it’s a question of how much they care.”

(Editor’s note: Take the piece you’re reading right now, for example. The Content Strategist is funded and run by Contently, a software company that connects journalists with brands, and helps those brands build owned publications and audiences. We were founded by a journalist, and our content team is given a great and rare degree of editorial independence. Nonetheless, we have an inherent bias, and we try to let our readers know that as much as possible. —Joe Lazauskas, EIC)

The question, “Should journalism worry about content marketing?” is as much about the role of journalism in branded content as it is about the content itself. The long-standing partnership between advertisers and reporters may not be without “inherent tension,” but is content marketing really a threat to traditional journalists? Does it behoove them to be concerned when a brand takes on serious, editorial-worthy issues when the message is, for all intents and purposes, underwritten by a brand? These are surely questions that journalists ask themselves every time they happen upon a corporate-sponsored story. By concluding that “The Purina operation is, in some ways, closer to a newsroom than journalists would care to admit,” Meyer seems to suggest the presence of an us versus them mentality, rooted not just in journalistic pride but in the social identity tied to the time-honored news media practice.

Writes Meyer:

“Advertisers and journalists have always been partners, and that partnership has always contained an inherent tension. Content marketing has the potential to turn that tension into an existential threat. Journalists like to think of themselves as protectors of the public interest, intermediaries who police both fact and rhetoric. The very premise of the profession is that it’s dangerous to have words pass straight from the mouths of CEOs or politicians to the public’s ear. This intermediary function is at the core of journalism’s identity and, though it wasn’t always thought of this way, the core of its business model. But each successful piece of content marketing is, in effect, a statement that a journalist wasn’t wanted or needed. Each time a consumer clicks on a piece of content marketing, or shares it with a friend, it’s confirmation that they’re very comfortable being out there in the information landscape on their own.”

It isn’t hard to imagine a journalist feeling infringed upon by the branded content game. Marketers no longer create content with the intention of getting more eyeballs and a greater share of voice than their competitors. Instead, they’re pitting themselves against digital media as a whole, fighting right alongside the news media for consideration in a world where attention spans are already stretched to breaking point.

What’s more, branded content can be good. Really good. It can address issues that resonate with consumers, like the T Brand Studio piece on women inmates produced for Netflix that ran in The New York Times. It provides value to its readers, whether they’re interested in learning how to care for their pets (care of Purina) or how to support sustainable agriculture (care of Chipotle). Branded content can, thanks in large part to the journalists producing it, be measured and rewarding. On top of that, it’s in demand. Chipotle’s videos have consistently generated millions of views online. Red Bull circulates 2.7 million copies of its Red Bulletin magazine.

“General audiences, especially millennials, are now very comfortable hearing from brands,” Kyle Monson, who started working in brand journalism after leaving PC Magazine, told Meyer. That might be because brands are simulating the high standards set by the publishing greats. Marketers are, as Meyer says, “really good at finding new ways to adopt the aspects of journalism that most appeal to the public—and they’re getting better at it every day.” In other words, they know how to market their stories—stories that are already starting to attract and sustain audiences all their own.

And yet the mood of the CJR piece isn’t one of contention. There’s no war coming to divide us, no impending new media regime. That said, it may be time for journalists to take content marketing more seriously. “Intermixed in all those social-media feeds, journalism and content marketing exist on the same spectrum,” Meyer says. Native ads make publishers money. Everyone wants to attract readers. There’s a commonality of interest between these two seemingly disparate groups.

The only question that remains is whether we can all play nice as content creators of all types compete for attention in this increasingly crowded, frenetic media world.

Image by Associated Press

Get better at your job right now.

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

Trending stories