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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.

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.

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