Why You Need to Stop Using the Term ‘Brand Journalism’

By Sam Petulla October 13th, 2014

Recently, content marketing has been causing a commotion.

These past few weeks, both the Financial Times and Frédéric Filloux have both pointed out that “corporate journalism” and “brand journalism” are everywhere you look. Both the amount of content produced by brands and the amount of people reading branded content is rising quickly, and as the FT and Filloux both observe, many of these same brands are investing heavily in their PR efforts, increasing the ratio of “spin surgeons,” as the Filloux calls some PR professionals, to traditional journalists.

As Filloux explains, this is bringing forth some ethical land mines, but in the long run, it will also bring some great opportunities for the media business. In my opinion, however, there’s another unaddressed issue here: the use of the term “brand journalism” and “corporate journalism.”

I agree with the stance Contently has taken for a long time: There’s no such thing as brand journalism.

The reason why is simple: If your purpose is to increase ROI for a business by obtaining more customers, you’re not in the journalism game. And calling your branded content “journalism” is detrimental because it may come across as a deceptive to readers. Instead, you want to build trust by acknowledging your subjectivity and bias as a brand.

It doesn’t matter if your “brand newsroom” is stocked with current or former journalists. As Jay Rosen, author of the PressThink blog and professor at New York University, explained to Contently: “Content marketing with informational value is addressed to the customers. (Current and potential.) Journalism is addressed to the public.”

Rosen is no ardent alarmist about sponsored content or native advertising, either; he’s a defender of the practice, at least when it’s done right. His definition of native advertising as content that can “compete with the best material out there” is one that I and other Contently writers use all the time. But even when branded content is good enough to compete with the best material out there, it’s not journalism.

This may seem like semantics, but it’s an important point. Content produced by brands and distributed in the manner of a media is a relatively new phenomenon, and readers are still learning to understand it. If you’re a brand, right now is the worst time to confuse them and the best time to be transparent and proud about the informational value that you bring to the table. That’s how you’ll build trust over time.

After all, there’s a reason the “journalism” title is sought after: Journalism is trusted. And brands should still seek to build that same trust. But, ironically, using the term journalism is counterproductive to those efforts.

And that trust in branded content can be built. Research shows that there is an appetite for branded content. In many instances, it is even trusted as much or more than big media.

Not all agree that content marketing isn’t journalism, however. Objections often go as follows: The articles marketers create are just as informative and just as insightful as those created by the journalism gatekeepers, so why not call it journalism? And is what we know as “journalism” even unbiased anymore?

Those arguments can be compelling, but they’re fueled by some false logic. Though, as the recent VICE scandal showed us, there are legitimate debates to be had about whether all journalism is legitimate or just business development in disguise, that still doesn’t make branded content “journalism.” It’s simply not a term that can be applied to branded content.

So, brands: Do quality reporting. Shoot to compete with the best publishers out there, and steal reader attention away from them if you can. Build media empires, and be proud of your efforts. But put the term “brand journalism” out with the trash—and for Pete’s sake, get rid of “synergy” and “contentology” too.

Image by Everett Collection
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