What Is ‘Lowercase-J Journalism’ and Why Do Brand Editors Love It?

Deirdre Hussey, the director of digital marketing and communications for Gap, knows a thing or two about the power of an important story. The longtime journalist and former editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Examiner wrestles constantly with the tough questions news folks mull over on a daily basis: What do readers want? How are you writing that story? How are you packaging it? How are you putting those stories out into the hands of readers?

When the Caitlyn Jenner story recently broke, Hussey recognized this transformative moment in history as one that also aligned with Gap’s values and longstanding support of the LGBT community. She decided to wade into the conversation with a short but compelling blog post about Jenner that drew the attention of Ad Age. The Ad Age piece detailed how Gap very carefully and thoughtfully entered a relevant conversation. “But more importantly, we were able to tell a broader story about the values of our company,” Hussey explained.

Hussey, who spoke on the “Happy Accidents and Epic Fails” panel at the June 9 Contently West Coast Summit held in San Francisco, shared the stage with an impressive lineup of speakers including Ann Hynek, VP at BlackRock; Ian Walsh, CMO and chief marketing maven of TrackMaven; and Tomas Kellner, managing editor of GE Reports.

(Full disclosure: BlackRock and GE are Contently clients.)

In 2011, Kellner faced a similar situation where he had to jump on a news story, but in far different circumstances. Three reactors designed by General Electric at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant had just melted down following a massive earthquake and tsunami. “We couldn’t just run away and hide,” he said.

Kellner’s team quickly set up a war room, located the people who designed the plants (retired in Florida, in case you were wondering), and poured over the structure’s microfiche blueprints for additional information. For months following the disaster, GE Reports, normally a digital magazine covering science and technology, became a destination for Fukushima news.

According to Kellner, on a typical day, GE contributors “build stories around research and produce good content.” Whatever they’re working on will somehow connect to GE, but oftentimes, “GE” won’t appear until the reader is well into the meat of the story. This phenomenon is known among content marketers as lowercase-j journalism—interesting stories, such as this piece about a GE team that 3D-printed a jet engine, penned by professional writers, that ultimately drive traffic to a brand’s site.

“It’s not fluff,” added Neil Chase, a digital media consultant and former editor for The New York Times.

Far from fluff, in fact. The goal here is to be educational, insightful, and entertaining—core tenets for any type of journalism. Stories on the BlackRock blog like “Finding a Discount on Your Next Bond Investment” focus on detailed investment strategies, the economy, retirement, and other important financial topics. All of the content comes from employees, including portfolio managers and investment managers, and is driven by Hynek, who also contributes stories like, “The $3M Question: Dream Wedding or Dream Retirement?” that contain personal anecdotes that readers can connect with even if they don’t have advanced financial knowledge.

It’s worth noting that lowercase-j journalism isn’t without its challenges. Timing, politics, and even the weather can affect a story’s success. “When you enter complicated societal conversations, particularly ones that are trending, you run a great risk of failing,” Hussey said. “You just never know.”

Panelists encouraged content directors to celebrate the small wins, like the buzz over Hussey’s Caitlyn Jenner piece, just as much as the big wins, such as when sites like CNET, Fortune, and Forbes picked up GE’s jet engine story.

And while Hussey admits that a blog post will not make anyone buy a Gap sweater, she believes the stories can still be impactful. “At the end of the day, if people are able to relate to Gap, Inc. as a company, they will be more loyal customers.”

Image by eAlisa

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