Brand journalism: Why the faulty arguments must end

Recognizing the overlaps of and distinctions between content marketing and traditional journalism is crucial to helping each entity thrive, the author asserts.

A recent article in Contently stated in bold letters, “There’s no such thing as brand journalism.” It then supplied a handy graphic intended to define the important terms of content marketing:

  • brand publishing
  • branded content, a.k.a. custom content
  • native advertising
  • sponsored content
  • brand journalism

I had to smile; it included brand journalism in its list to affirm that it doesn’t exist. It’s like putting a word in a dictionary just to say it’s not a word.

Let the brand journalism rant begin

Contently recommends brand reporting. It also encourages brands to build media empires and be proud of the effort. It has lots of articles talking about brand journalists and journalists working for brands. Yet it continues to say, in bold letters, that the waddling, quacking, feathered fowl is not a duck. I say it is.

It’s not just Contently taking this stance. Many traditional journalists feel the same way. The wonderful Jill Golden published an article on LinkedIn called, Please Stop Calling Content Marketing Brand Journalism.

The former journalist turned content marketer admits her blood pressure rises whenever she hears the term brand journalism. She asserts:

“Journalism should be agenda-less, agnostic and objective. Journalists should cover both sides of a story, giving the audience a clear, accurate and unbiased account.”

That would be wonderful, but I don’t think there’s a news outlet in existence that’s completely unbiased—at least not anymore. News organizations have agendas. They have political leanings. They have editorial guidelines that say what they will and won’t cover. They take positions. They choose sides. They endorse political candidates. They influence who the next music or movie star will be. They influence what the next fashion trend will be. They influence what kinds of food we’ll eat and who will be the next celebrity chef. And they do it all under the veil of objectivity—so let’s not fool ourselves here.

An elitist’s view of journalism

I believe what’s at the heart of this debate is a kind of elitist opinion that traditional media is better or more worthy than brand media. The arguments used against brand journalism tend to center on the issue of transparency—as if there’s an inherent intent on the part of brand journalists to deceive or confuse the public.

I think that’s a bit precious, to be honest. The best content marketing and brand journalism puts the customer interests at the forefront of everything.

It’s interesting to note that less than two years ago, Contently was talking about how social media is stripping away the taboos of brand journalism. So, it’s done a flip itself.

Saying brand journalism can’t be journalism because the consumer might get confused does two things:

1. It makes the assumption that the reader or viewer isn’t smart enough to discern good content from bad.

2. It ignores the fact that a lot of journalism is rotten, too. The tabloids and plenty of mainstream media outlets don’t have the lofty standards the brand journalism naysayers use to demonstrate their point.

Does sports reporting favor the hometown team? Does entertainment reporting court local celebrities? Do local news stations give equal coverage to rival cities? That doesn’t mean those reporters are not journalists or working in journalism. Like sports, entertainment or local interest stories, brand journalism is just another flavor of journalism.

To take this thread a bit further, can you say animated films are not cinema? Would you say a podcast is not part of radio? Are illustrations not art? I know debate rages around each of these topics, but the popularity of all of them—albeit a burgeoning popularity for podcasts—shows the public doesn’t really care about high-brow views. They’re happy to consume content that informs or entertains.

Where brand journalism differs

Here’s where journalism and brand journalism differ. Brand journalism has an objective: to get you to participate in the brand, usually through purchasing a product or service. (Wait a minute, aren’t journalists focused on getting readers to purchase a newspaper or watch a newscast? The publishers certainly have that goal.)

Brand journalism includes a call to action, but it doesn’t negate the reporting any more than a paperboy’s yelling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” and asking for money before handing over the news. In most cases, brands provide their content free of charge. Newspapers don’t. TV and radio force you to sit through advertisements.

I believe another difference is fueling this debate. Journalists, by nature, are skeptical. Many of them are downright cynical. You can’t bring a chip on your shoulder to brand journalism, but lacking cynicism in your work doesn’t make you a fraud and it doesn’t make you unethical. And, honestly, it doesn’t confuse the general public.

Content marketing is not native advertising

As long as I’m ranting, let me set another thing straight. Contently is also confused about content marketing. Joe Pulizzi took The Wall Street Journal to task last week for making a similar mistake. Contently says content marketing is, “the overarching practice of using information and entertainment to promote a brand or a product.”

That’s a bit thin. I prefer Pulizzi’s definition:

“Content marketing is a strategic 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.”

Just because something is published, that doesn’t make it content marketing. Advertising is not content marketing. Native advertising is not content marketing. PR is not content marketing. As Pulizzi asserts:

In content marketing, you own the media. It’s your asset. In native advertising, you are paying someone else to distribute and (ultimately) own your content.”

Daniel Hatch, the marketing and media editor at The West Australian newspaper, covered The Sticky Problem with Native Advertising at the Global Copywriting blog. His piece provides significant insight.

Why the debate should end

Journalists and brand journalists bickering and trying to discredit each other over semantics is a problem. We’re missing out on the opportunity to keep the public better informed and better entertained.

Good brand journalism—like good traditional journalism—rises to the top. Brand journalism is full of traditional journalists, and that’s only good for the consumer. It raises the bar on what brands can do. It makes marketing better.

Quite frankly, brand journalism is saving traditional journalism. Brands are buying media companies, and brands like Red Bull are creating media that’s selling in traditional channels. (The Red Bulletin magazine is now for sale on many newsstands in the U.S.)

Traditional journalists working for brands are better compensated and have more job security than ever before. This is the beginning of a new age for journalism, and there’s room for everyone.

What’s your view on the brand journalism debate? Please offer your opinion in the Comments section.

Sarah Mitchell is head of content strategy at Lush Digital Media. A version of this article first appeared on the Lush Digital Media blog.

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