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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 ...

Scott Gurvey never imagined his journalism career unfolding quite this way.

He had worked for CBS News in the 1980s, then NBC, followed by 22 years running the New York bureau of PBS TV’s Nightly Business Report. But after the 2008 financial meltdown, corporate sponsors started cutting back. In late 2010, Mr. Gurvey left PBS and joined the thousands of other journalists cut loose amid the decline of the mainstream, mostly advertising-supported media.

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Testing the freelance market, he was surprised to find that one of the most interesting offers came from Cisco Systems, the giant California-based manufacturer of computer networking equipment. Cisco didn’t want Mr. Gurvey to churn out press releases – it wanted him to be a journalist, reporting on many of the technology topics he’d covered at PBS, for the company’s new website, The Network.

And that is how Mr. Gurvey became an adventurer in the strange new realm known as “brand journalism.” Brand journalism is storytelling meant to draw readers to a company’s field of expertise, without laying on the hard sell.

Familiar examples include the cocktails-and-recipes magazines you might pick up at the liquor store, or inflight magazines on airplanes that report from exotic destinations.

But the digital age has given brand journalism a new urgency. It’s becoming a force that could shape the way all of us receive our information.

Most purchasing decisions today begin with a search query (“What kinds of snow tires should I buy?”). The vast majority of clicks go to the top two or three results on the search page. And in recent years, Google has been tweaking its search algorithm to highlight sites that provide fresh, relevant content.

As a result, says Joe Pulizzi, the founder of the Content Marketing Institute, every company now must also be a media company. “If you want to connect with your customers,” he says from his office in Cleveland, “you’d better be where they are online, and you’d better have some interesting information to share with them.”

That story about snow tires at the top of the Google results page could come from the auto section of a newspaper, but it could just as easily come from a site published by a tire manufacturer whose engineers can share their expertise, without the pushy tactics that turn off both customers and search engines.

“Today’s consumer is looking for helpful information that will help them do something better in their jobs or live better lives,” Mr. Pulizzi argues, “and corporations can provide that just as well as media companies.”

How can you distinguish between these sponsored stories and the ones in a conventional newspaper, magazine or website? It’s not easy, and that’s what makes some experts nervous.

The difference is not so much how the story is done, but why it’s done: Brand journalism is produced to meet business objectives. The stories may be fairly and accurately reported by respected journalists such as Mr. Gurvey, but the fundamental aim remains marketing. It is always more about the brand than the journalism: It’s not an attempt to ferret out the truth between opposing narratives.

Another question is how media outlets that rely on advertising from brands can survive, when those brands have begun competing with them for readers.

The ‘church and state’ barrier

Independence is one of journalism’s most cherished values. Young journalists are taught that you can be a marketer, or a journalist, but you can’t be both. Most media outlets consider the separation between editorial and advertising (“church and state”) to be sacrosanct.

Kelly Toughill, the Director of the School of Journalism, at the University of King’s College in Halifax, says independence has been essential in establishing trust between journalists and their readers. “Journalism explicitly promises to serve the interests of its audiences and its community first. But in brand journalism, that is not the case.”

Still, she concedes: “You can have some very good journalism occur within an outlet that is not necessarily within a journalism outlet. And that's part of the paradox of this new age that we live in, where we're trying to sort out how good journalism arises.”

Mr. Gurvey agrees. The articles he’s written for The Network since he signed up earlier this year haven’t mentioned Cisco products. One was about a pioneer in open source networking, a trend which actually runs counter to Cisco’s business model.

“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.

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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