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Reporters Need to Understand Advertising. But Should They Be Making It?

By - February 17, 2013

(image) I know that when I do write here, I tend to go on, and on – and those of you who read me seem to be OK with that. But sometimes the best posts are short and clear.

That was my thought when I read Journalists Need Advertising 101 by Brian Morrissey, writing in Digiday last week. In fewer than 500 words, Morrissey issues a wake up call to those in journalism who believe in the old school notion of a Chinese wall between editorial and advertising:

What’s crazy is journalists seems almost proudly ignorant of the business of advertising. …it’s time journalists take a real interest in how advertising works. I’d go even further. It’s time they get involved in making it. Hope is not a strategy, as they say, and it’s better to deal with the world you live in rather than the world you wish you lived in.

Morrissey goes on to state that the banner ad – the staple of content-based business models for the past 20 years – is “going to zero,” and that the future of the business is in native, integrated content marketing. Journalists, he reasons, need to understand this and get with the program – which means helping to create the content for advertising.

Now, if you’re read me closely, you probably can imagine me nodding my head enthusiastically (though I think display is here to stay, in a renewed model). After all, I’m the one who wrote On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”  and The Evolution of Display: Change Is Here, For Good last year. I’ve been on about “native” for more than six years. The company I started in 2005 has been executing native programs since 2005. FMP has a “CM” practice that works with nearly half of the Fortune 100 doing content marketing and native advertising placements. Scores of our top publishers regularly make content for brands. And now that I think about it, it was a decade ago that I taught courses on the business of journalism to graduate students at Berkeley – because I believed that ignorance of business models spells doom for the fourth estate.

So I generally agree with Morrissey’s points – but with one possible caveat. I fully believe that great creators of content should be, well, creating great content on behalf of brands. The best filmmakers are also the best creators of 30-second spots, after all. But I wonder whether journalists – if defined as reporters who cover beats on a full time basis – should be making branded content if it conflicts with what they cover. A reporter’s contract with their audience is this: I will give you straight information about my beat, and I will not be unduly influenced by those I cover. It’s very hard make that promise if you are also being paid to make content for the brands you cover. Of course the truth is that anyone being covered by a reporter will try to influence them in any number of ways. But money complicates everything. The conflicts are deep – and it puts your audience’s trust at risk.

So should a reporter who covers, say, the auto industry full time, be creating marketing content for auto industry brands? I think we can debate this question. We used to live in a world of hard and fast, hierarchical rules. Now, we live in a world of communities who can and do attempt to understand each other. This is a good thing – a reporter can make his or her own decisions, explain them to an audience, and if the community accepts the result, all is well.

Whether or not you think it’s OK for reporters to create branded content about the industry they cover, I absolutely believe that reporters (and their editors, if they have them) certainly should be reviewing content created for that industry, and providing input on whether the content will resonate with the audiences and markets those reporters know best. And any media company that employs reporters should certainly have a content marketing function (if you don’t, why, give me a ring). Without input from publishers, branded content can fall flat, and fail to truly connect with an audience.

Branded content has to match its audience, and it must add value to the conversation. And most importantly, sponsor relationships must be clearly communicated. So how to do it? Branded content needs an understanding of the market, the talent to create content in that market and the ability to place its content in front of the market. If you want to be in a fast moving conversation, it’s damn hard to do all that without editors and reporters. As Morrissey points out, the flat-footed Scientology mess shows what happens when the Chinese wall between advertisers and publishers is overly imposed.

But let’s address the elephant in the room: should brands be asking reporters to make content for brands they directly cover? It’s debatable, but I’d argue it’s probably not a good idea.

Of course, this may be a question of degree. Is it OK for a reporter to write branded content if it’s not about the brand, but merely underwritten by the brand? That happens a lot already, to the point where it seems almost uncontroversial (although many “traditional” journalists decry the practice). What if the reporter writes content for a brand they don’t cover directly, but is in the industry they cover? Can auto industry reporters, for example, create content for other areas not on their specific beat, like say, for an auto insurance brand?  Is it only OK if they write whatever they wish to, editorially, but not alright if they are told what topics to cover?  I could go on for quite a while…

I’ve given a ton of thought to these issues, but it strikes me our industry hasn’t really codified a clear set of principles on the matter. And for content marketing to really thrive, we certainly should.

Perhaps a start to this conversation is the distinction between a reporter who covers a beat full time with a promise to an audience of unbiased point of view, and a strong voice in the industry who lives or dies based on their individual point of view, but isn’t a full time reporter working for someone else.  This has been a long standing point of contention since the rise of bloggers – what is a journalist, anyway? Is a blogger who regularly expresses a strong point of view on a particular industry a journalist?

Lord knows tons of folks have weighed in on this topic, but here’s my shorthand: I think everyone and anyone can be a journalist, especially bloggers. But not all journalists are reporters. There’s an important distinction here, and it’s one worth maintaining. I write a journal – this site. It has my opinion, my point of view, my voice and analysis, and every so often, a piece of reporting. But I am not a full time reporter. I believe readers are smart: They understand when someone (like me) is a voice in a particular industry. They also understand that someone with a passion who writes a site on food, or style, or entertainment, isn’t a beat reporter covering those issues full time, but rather a smart voice saying whatever they care to say, whenever they care to say it. If that person decides to take on sponsored work, that’s fine. If  the content they create is disclosed, of high quality, adds value to their community, and puts food on the table, everyone wins.

This is naunced stuff, and worth airing out. As content marketing becomes a standard in our industry, we need to open up this dialog and be willing to learn from each other. I look forward to the ongoing conversation.

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4 thoughts on “Reporters Need to Understand Advertising. But Should They Be Making It?

  1. Xenia Murrow says:

    There is one “characteristic” in the DNA of classic journalism that tends to go missing in these kinds of opining: accountability. There’s more to news than story-telling or opinion-giving. What creates the conflict of interest isn’t simply that a journalist cannot say anything bad or opine negatively about the brand paying their bills. It’s that the journalist has forfeited journalism’s responsibility to keep the brand accountable. With brands paying more of the bills these days, investigative journalism is at an all-time low, relegated to the few Deadspins in existence.

    • johnbattelle says:

      There are some glints of hope in terms of investigative journalism. What Phil Bronstein is doing with CIR, for example.

  2. Great advice on getting journalists to cover your brand. It’s one way of getting an outsider’s perspective on that brand but it shouldn’t be the only means for content creation.

    • johnbattelle says:

      For sure agree. Most of the folks who write branded content within the FMP network are not “journalists” per se, but professional curators and creators of content – for entertainment, information, or opinion.