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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 ...

Add to that the mainstream media’s ongoing trust issues (55 per cent of Americans surveyed in a recent Gallup poll said they had “little or no trust” in mass media outlets), and you begin to understand why many large companies are now adding the position of Chief Content Officer to their executive suites.

The hard-news deficit

Most of the attention of brand journalism is focused on “service journalism” – recipes, product information, household hints and other “news you can use.” These have traditionally been profitable staples of mainstream journalism. Advertising sold in those sections of the newspaper have helped subsidize the messy and expensive business of reporting crime, politics and foreign wars – areas where brands are unlikely to tread.

But if brands continue to cherry-pick the profitable bits and pieces out of the mainstream information menu, and publish their own content rather than pay to advertise it, where will the money come from to pay for news?

Totem’s Mr. Schneider believes there will always be a demand for high-quality “critical journalism”, but it will now have to be subsidized by readers, through paywalls, subscription fees and other mechanisms, rather than ads.

“The model around traditional journalism is going to start to skew towards quality,” he argues. “We are at a point of transformation now where I think you are seeing beacons of hope where for a media property, the massive value proposition is in the content and the way it is created, to such an extent that I’ll pay for it, just as I’ll pay 99 cents for a song.”

Down for the hit count

Meanwhile, the idea that content is content, no matter what its source, has expanded far beyond service journalism.

Governments and political parties invest significant resources to create content on their own websites, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, and blogs, all intended, they argue, to provide an opportunity for citizens to get information “unfiltered” and “unmediated” by the press.

That’s true of sports teams as well.

In January 2011, Ted Leonsis, the owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals told a symposium on the business of sports sponsored by the Washington Post that “I used to live in mortal fear about what you (the Post) would write. Now, I don't care. I think it's something that you need to internalize: that we're our own media company. …

“When someone goes to find out something about me or a team or a player,” he said, “and they go to Google and they type that in… I don't want The Washington Post to get the most clicks. I want the most clicks.”

And that’s the way it is

Scott Gurvey acknowledges that the growth of brand journalism, and the idea that every company is now a publishing company, does make the business case for mainstream journalism more challenging. But he’s convinced that brand journalism will be part of whatever future emerges out of journalism’s current crisis.

“If [a company] can convince enough reputable writers to work for them and give them the freedom to do it, then it may be a form of journalism that can continue and expand the profession.”

As Mr. Pulizzi tells the journalism students he meets, “You might not get to be the chief editor at the New York Times, but you could get to be Chief Content Officer at Cisco.”

“In an ideal world, it probably isn’t the world’s greatest thing,” Mr. Gurvey concedes. “It would be wonderful if everything were dispassionate and we’re back in 1974 and I’m still in journalism school and I’m watching Walter Cronkite every night.”

But that world won’t be coming back. In its absence, he says, transparency will have to be the new objectivity: “The key for branded journalism sites is they will have to be very clear about who they are and what they’re doing.”

As for the possible conflicts in this hinterland between journalism and PR, he is keeping one eye open: “There is a point that you know you’ve crossed the line. … But that line is sometimes grey and squiggly.”

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