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Below left: Totem Brand Stories
Below left: Totem Brand Stories

Is that an ad or a news story – and does it matter which? Add to ...

“Every major broadcast operation,” he says from his home in Montclair, New Jersey, “is owned by some huge corporation with all sorts of interests other than journalism. Half of the online web world is captive in one way or another to different groups.

“The issue for me was how was this going to be operated, and nothing the Cisco people ask me to do compromises the reporting of the stories I’ve done, so I have no problem with this.”

Everything old is new again

The basic idea of brand journalism has been around for a long time. In 1895, the John Deere Co. in the U.S. created The Furrow, a magazine to promote the company’s products, but also to educate farmers on new technology and developments in agricultural science. Now it boasts more than a million readers in 40 countries.

Today, Canadians’ exposure to what marketers like to call “content marketing” comes mostly through magazines like Food and Drink, published by the Liquor Control Board in Ontario; CAA Magazine, from the Canadian Automobile Association; or Rouge, from Proctor and Gamble.

Some are distributed free in stores, by mail or as newspaper inserts, some are available online and some are for sale directly alongside regular magazines.

One of the leading firms producing content for such publications is Totem Brand Stories (formerly Redwood Publishing), which boasts that “our Marketing Journalists craft business objectives into engaging narratives.”

Many of the roughly 120 people employed at Totem’s downtown Toronto headquarters are former journalists or journalism students, writing consumer advice, recipes, health-and-beauty tips and other stories that would not look out of place in Chatelaine or Canadian Living.

“We are living at the intersection of journalism and marketing,” says Eric Schneider, the South African-born chartered accountant who founded the company more than a decade ago. “In our world, our position is transparency. It’s clear to our audiences that we are promoting the business services of our customers. There is no presumption of editorial integrity.”

Who pulls the strings?

Can the interests of readers really be served – indeed, can journalism even exist – in the absence of editorial integrity?

Most mainstream practitioners of the craft say no. But legions of bloggers, content marketers and brand journalists beg to differ. Replace independence with greater transparency, they claim, and readers come out ahead – especially if that much-vaunted editorial integrity isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.

Samantha Sheppard, a content marketer at Totem who is responsible for Inspired, a food magazine published for the Sobeys grocery chain, believes it’s a more honest publication than many traditional ones.

“When I think back to the beauty magazines and other magazines I was involved with earlier in my career,” she argues, “it was all about which PR person had the better relationship, and that’s how product could get into a magazine.”

However, Ms. Toughill of King’s College says the advocates of brand journalism vastly overstate the extent to which marketing dominates editorial decisions in mainstream media.

Content marketers like to claim that transparency is the new objectivity. But transparency is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And by hitching their wagon to it, they shift the burden of separating fact from fiction squarely onto readers’ shoulders.

Do most readers really have the time, the resources or the inclination to do the kind of filtering and critical thinking formerly done by editors?

Consider the source

Brand journalism tends to assume readers are aware of conflicts of interest and able to draw their own conclusions about the credibility of information.

Yet there is evidence that faced with a tidal wave of content from all corners, consumers – especially younger ones – are increasingly ignorant or indifferent about its sources.

A study released earlier this year by the Canadian Council of PR Firms found that while only 10 per cent of Canadians aged 35 to 54 found company websites to be a trusted source, nearly a quarter of those aged 18 to 34 considered them to be credible news suppliers.

“Young Canadians are hand-picking who they want to pay attention to, no matter the source,” the survey concluded.

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