By Joe Pulizzi published February 24, 2011

Can brand journalists still be journalists? Does it matter?

I participated in a prep call today for our South by Southwest panel called “Debating Brands Roles as Publishers” (Saturday, March 12th, 9:30am, Ballroom F). The panel includes Tom Ashbrook from NPR, Lora Kolodny from TechCrunch, blogger and journalist Gary Kim, HiveFire CEO Pawan Deshpande and yours truly.

For those of you going to the event, get ready for a lively debate.  There was some interesting discussion about the idea that trained journalists who work for brands (non-media companies) can’t really be called journalists.  That once journalists take off their public service mandate and move to the “dark side,” they are no longer journalists, but just writers or copywriters.

After the conversation, I reached out to a couple of my favorite people, award-winning journalist and post-advertising age pioneer Kirk Cheyfitz from Story Worldwide, and David Meerman Scott, best-selling author of multiple marketing and pr books and international speaker. David wrote a great piece here on brand journalism, what we at Junta42/Content Marketing Institute call content marketing.

From Kirk:

Whether or not someone is a journalist has to do with training, experience and intent, not with who does or doesn’t employ them.

From David:

A storyteller is a storyteller no matter who he is telling the story to.

Not an Easy Answer

Honestly, I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer to what makes a journalist.  I don’t know if it really matters anymore.

Famed journalist and media maven Dan Gillmor wrote this fantastic article that brings up some important questions, such as:

  • If you are a creator of media, what should I call you?
  • If a person creates a “random act of journalism” does it make him or her a journalist?

Moreover, if you create outstanding journalism, but you work for a company like Cisco or John Deere, are you not a journalist? Does it matter? There may not be a right answer. The fact only remains that people of all shapes and sizes, media brands, non-media brands and individuals are creating random acts of journalism for a variety of reasons. They create content that solves the pain points of customers and forms a story that builds businesses and true customer relationships.

What is Journalism?

Gillmor goes on to state that if we are asking who exactly is a journalist we are asking the wrong question.  The right question is “What is Journalism?”

We are all creating media. Any one of us can, and many of us will, commit an act of journalism. We may contribute to the journalism ecosystem once, rarely, frequently or constantly. How we deal with these contributions — deciding to try one, what we do with what we’ve created, and how the rest of us use what’s been created — is going to be complex and evolving. But it’s the future.

Merriam-Webster says that journalism is the “collection and editing of news for presentation through the media.” A very broad statement. If that’s the definition, my nine-year-old son has practiced the art of journalism.

So back to Kirk’s point, who says that  journalism has to do with training, experience and intent, not who employs them.  Non-media brands have been hiring journalists for years now, not because they want to get better at journalism, but because they know telling a better company story will help their customers and thus, themselves. Good journalism, good storytelling is worth people’s attention. To get more attention, brands need to hire more journalists (which is why more and more brands are hiring journalists and storytellers into marketing positions – yes, marketing).

I am not a Journalist

Although I perform random acts of journalism on occasion, I am not a journalist and would never claim to be.  I’ve picked up enough tips from my journalism friends (from spending 10 years at a publishing company), but I am no journalist.  More than anything today, I’m an entrepreneur and I want to grow my business.

As a business person, growing my business means hiring journalists – or better said – people that understand the needs of the “reader” so much that their story makes an impact.  Why?  Journalists know how to tell trusted and interesting stories. Those stories are shared in many ways and are found on search engines and in lots of other places. As my friend Simon Kelley (also with Story Worldwide) says, “no one has 30 seconds for interruption, but everyone has 30 minutes for a good story.”

Amen!

No, It Really Doesn’t Matter

So, after coming to the end of this blog post, I received a very thoughtful, and provoking message from my good friend Rex Hammock, CEO of content marketing services company Hammock Inc. I decided to run the entire email in whole with Rex’s permission.

For context, I asked Rex the following:  “What would you say if someone said that corporate or brand journalists aren’t real journalists?”

____________

“What’s a corporate or brand journalist?”

If the answer is, “someone who is a journalist who works for a corporation like Bloomberg Inc. or Dow Jones Inc. or The New York Times Inc.,” I’d say, “As long as that person who is being paid by a corporation practices real journalism, then I guess they’re a real journalist.”

However, I assume, the assertion is being made by someone who is implying that no one who is paid by a non-media corporation can be a “real journalist” when it comes to writing about the corporation for whom they work.

It might seem to be a bit surprising, but I both agree and disagree with the underlying premise I assume is contained within the person’s assertion.

I don’t believe someone who is paid by the corporation to be an advocate on behalf of the corporation (for example, a public relations executive, lobbyist or investor relations person) can be a “real” journalist. When someone writes about the corporation in an advocacy or promotional way, then I don’t think the label “corporate journalist” should be applied to them.

But here is where I disagree with the premise.

The vast majority of writing and production in the development and execution of corporate branded media does not fall into the category of “news journalism” — it’s more likely service or business-to-business reporting, informing and story-telling. And, in such a case, I think individuals who work “for” corporations are as legitimate and “real” as those paid for by a “news” corporation.

Great companies can be “real” in communicating directly with their customers. Indeed, that’s one of the cornerstones of becoming a great company. Does this “real journalist” think a company must go through a third-party media corporation to engage in a conversation with its customers?

Great companies, associations and institutions realize that when people have stepped forward to buy-from or join or attend or support them, the role of the corporation is to help enable those individuals to be “better customers.” Helpful, informative and inside knowledge presented in insightful, entertaining or productive ways are what great corporate media should be all about. If the content is not legitimate, or is merely puffery, then it will serve neither the company’s nor the customer’s needs — and it will fail.

But “failing journalism” is another topic. We’re talking here about “what is real.”

Here’s what’s real: This topic has an air deja-vu-ness about it, as I recall the decade-old debates about the “realness” of citizen journalists. Despite being featured in Dan Gilmor’s seminal book on the topic, “We the Media,” for being the first “citizen journalist” (blogger) to blog from inside the White House, I never quite understood the term — for the same reason I don’t understand the term “corporate journalist.”

All content is created by real people. If that content is transparent in terms of source and agenda, then it’s real.

Whether or not it’s “journalism” is not really important.

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi considers himself the poster boy for content marketing. Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, Joe evangelizes content marketing around the world through keynotes, articles, tweets and his books, Managing Content Marketing and Get Content Get Customers. Joe's latest book is Epic Content Marketing (McGraw-Hill). If you want to get on his good side, send him something orange. For more on Joe, check out his personal site or follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

Other posts by Joe Pulizzi

  • http://postadvertising.com simon kelly

    Joe asked me the same questions and this is what I told him:

    “I’d tell them to get out more.

    I’d ask them how they would define ‘real’ journalism and then shoot them down as they will undoubtedly cite news journalists/magazine editors etc nearly all of whom have owners with vested political and/or business interests.

    Actually I’m pretty tired of such stupid head-up-their-ass questions so I’d probably tell them to go fuck themselves.

    Or all three. :)”

  • http://www.jeffmoskovitz.biz Jeff Moskovitz

    This is another case of technology surpassing conventional language. The question is really a matter of semantics…A rose by another name….

    The only substantive difference I can think of applies in a court of law. Traditional “journalists” are afforded certain protections under the law, which others are not, and even this distinction is blurring as technology progresses.

  • http://www.suddenlyfrugal.com Leah Ingram

    Here’s my response to this discussion: I have a degree in journalism (from NYU) but I call myself a freelance writer. Or a writer for hire. Most of my clients these days are custom publishers or content marketers, all of whom have hired me for my writing chops but which understand that they are, in essence, sponsored. I have no problem with this. In fact, I partner with corporate brands all the time, in my work as a spokesperson. Bottom line: If I can use my skills to bring in income, more power to me–and my bank account.

    • http://blog.junta42.com Joe Pulizzi

      Leah…Amen!

  • http://marketingtrenches.com Tracy Gold

    Great article, pinpointing a topic that tends to fly under the radar. Just a few weeks ago I talked to a class of high school journalism students about blogging, and the whole concept of writing for a company was foreign to them. So not only is it an example of technology striding past language, as Jeff posted, but an example of technology surpassing education. My job, writing for a marketing company and its clients, simply did not exist (or at least not in a widespread way) five years ago. The ethics and legitimacy behind corporate blogging and “journalism” is something that I think about often–good to see that I’m not the only one!

  • http://www.salesdujour.com Gary S. Hart

    Joe, here’s my thoughts. There is a tremendous amount of so-called journalism that is slanted and filled with commentary that qualifies more as editorial and propaganda. Information distributed by a media agency does not automatically qualify as journalism. When an article “presents facts or occurrences with little attempt at analysis or interpretation”, it should qualify as journalism.

    Corporate journalism in my mind is public relations, which the media expects to be news about the organization. The more PR becomes like an ad and less like news; the less likely the press will publish it and the more it qualifies as marketing.

    Our culture has become immersed in rhetorical semantic debates.

    If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a journalist, write news. If a news agency to doesn’t want to publish your articles, publish yourself :) Thanks for an interesting post.

  • http://blog.drakeco.com Becky Rasmussen

    I have to somewhat agree with Leah above. I have a degree in journalism (University of Missouri – go Tigers!) but I haven’t been called a journalist since I left school. I’ve been called a copyeditor, a managing editor, a writer, a communications specialist and now director of content management. Frankly, I don’t care what you call me – if you give me the chance to tell stories and produce content that meets the needs of the audience.

    Outside of the industry, I think most people have a limited view of journalism – as those who write/report the news (usually for a newspaper or TV station). But when I think back to journalism school, there was a much broader picture represented within those walls. Whether we were destined for consumer magazines, B2B, corporate communications, broadcast, radio, websites, media companies, PR, etc. – we were all trained together as journalists and were taught that journalism was as much a craft as it was a profession.

  • Jim Lichtenberg

    Joe, this is just a great discussion. In the course of my career, I have worked as a freelance contributor to the NY Times, and various other general news media, as a PR Consultant in a big corporate agency, and as a freelance journalist in B2B media writing about the book publishing industry.

    Rex Hammock’s comments are spot on!
    Great companies can be “real” in communicating directly with their customers. Indeed, that’s one of the cornerstones of becoming a great company. Does this “real journalist” think a company must go through a third-party media corporation to engage in a conversation with its customers?

    Great companies, associations and institutions realize that when people have stepped forward to buy-from or join or attend or support them, the role of the corporation is to help enable those individuals to be “better customers.” Helpful, informative and inside knowledge presented in insightful, entertaining or productive ways are what great corporate media should be all about. If the content is not legitimate, or is merely puffery, then it will serve neither the company’s nor the customer’s needs — and it will fail.

    In working with the Conference Board’s Digital Strategy Council over the past decade, the membership who are now involved with these kinds of corporate communications whether .com. mobile, or social, report exactly what Mr. Hammock says. If the communications from a corporate person (usually not a spokesperson) are transparent, honest, insightful and entertaining, then those consumers listening online or via social media respond well. However, they would also confirm that the public can spot an illegitimate or “marketing” message from a mile away.

  • http://www.michellerafter.com Michelle Rafter

    Boy, does this hit home with me.

    I’m a journalist by training, spent years in a newsroom, and currently work as an entrepreneurial journalist, aka, freelance writer, editor and blogger for several publications. One of my clients is Federated Media, which in addition to managing an ad network for major blogs, has a custom publishing arm that operates news websites for companies like P&G and American Express. I edit one of those sites, Inside Edge, a corporate finance site for mid-sized companies. I definitely consider what I do for Inside Edge journalism. Yes, we operate under certain constraints that would not be there if Amex wasn’t the publisher. But it’s not so very different from the job I had years ago as a trade magazine editor where the publisher sometimes dictated which companies I needed to talk to for a certain story.

    I agree with Hammock that a lot of what we do is “service or business-to-business reporting, informing and story-telling.” Then again, that’s the same kind of content you’d find in a trade publication, or even in the feature section of your local newspaper. And IMHO, we do our fair share of timely, topical pieces as well, and have run stories before anyone else, like our recent Q&A with the new CFO of Groupon.

    I’ve read elsewhere that the multi-billion dollar custom publishing industry had one of it’s best years ever in 2010, and this year is supposed to bring more of the same. More and more of those dollars are being spent on this hybrid type of journalism.

    Michelle Rafter

  • http://www.marketcopywriterblog.com Lorraine

    While their is much overlap these days, there is a difference between journalism and “brand journalism.”

    The ideal in journalism is to investigate news and report a story without bias. All journalistic information is sourced and presented without opinion to allow readers to form their own opinions. Journalistic stories have no objective except to report the news.

    Yes, journalists often fall short of this ideal: They write sensational news with the aim of getting attention, increasing page views and selling papers. And bias does creep in. The journalistic ideal, however, remains.

    “Brand journalism,” by definition, cannot be unbiased. The writer is a brand cheerleader–that is her job. No matter how subtle or non-salesy the content, it is not without objective: To move readers to action.

    There’s nothing wrong with brand journalism, but it’s not unbiased reportage.

    Journalists make great brand journalists and copywriters–when they can make the necessary mental shift. Several of my journalists friends, however, have trouble with this. After professional lifetimes spent striving for journalistic ideals–and telling unbiased stories–they find it tough to write stories that, instead, position, persuade and carry a brand agenda.

  • http://www.fusionspark.com Russell Sparkman

    In 2002 we produced a project for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Just to be clear, this project was funded with State agency funding.

    In 2003, we entered that project into the awards competition for the Society of Environmental Journalists, in the Online Reporting category. And we won, beating several well known traditional media outlets. The judge’s comments acknowledged, basically, the high degree of journalistic integrity applied to the project. I have the award hanging in my office. (view the recently relaunched version at http://www.floridasprings.org)

    Based on this experience, and many similar experiences since, I am a supporter of the notion that there is “branded” or “corporate” journalism.

    I just finished writing a 7 page letter to a major foundation who has recently come under criticism for “compromising media objectivity” because they have the funding to underwrite programming that’s shown up on broadcast TV, or articles that have shown up in mainstream media magazines, etc..

    This is on the heels of my own personal experience, as an elected official, with “traditional” journalism in which I saw first hand just how non-objective journalists who can argue with barrels of ink can be.

    So, taking all of the above into consideration, here are my thoughts on this:

    Everyone has the ability now, AND THE RIGHT, to publish their own stories. We’re no longer beholden to major media to reach who we need to reach. We don’t need to buy ads associated with their content, nor do we need to beg them for coverage of our businesses, foundations, etc. We can work with the best writers, photographers, videographers, to tell our own stories, and use myriad channels to reach our audiences, constituents and stakeholders.

    And to those who’d decry that this is the end of objectivity in journalism, I say that AUTHENTICITY is the “new” objectivity.

    So, I think that there will be different flavors of “journalism,” where some “journalists” are paid by corporate brands (and non-profits, and mom-and-pops, etc), and some are paid by media corporations.

    We will, through the immediacy of our social media connections, be “crowdsourcing” objectivity in the sense that we’ll be judging very quickly, and en masse, who to believe, and when. This process has already begun (through commenting, through reviews, and so on).

    This will force a level of authenticity in corporation communications unheard of before because as individuals we’re all just one click, one Wall post or one Tweet away from calling anyone, whether it’s a brand or traditional media, on their bulls$%t. Social media, it turns out, is a better system of “checks and balances” of who’s telling the truth, and who’s not, than a handful of wealthy publishers owning all of the major media outlets has ever been.

    Great topic. Thanks for posting this, Joe.

    Russell

  • http://www.ptc.com Rachel Nislick

    I love the term B2B reporter. The trick is instilling faith in these new marketing “reporters” that they can tell a good story. And just like anyone today can be a web publisher, reporting too, is no longer strictly sacred ground held by professionally trained reporters.

  • http://www.francis-moran.com Francis Moran

    I’ve navigated the divide between PR and journalism so often in the 32 years since my first page-one byline in a city daily newspaper that I’m tempted to say I can’t see the line anymore.

    But I’d be lying. The line is clear, and clearly delineated.

    The spectrum of what constitutes a journalistic endeavour has certainly widened since my first newsroom days when we still used typewriters and triple-copy paper. I have no issue with blogs — be they de facto major publishers like a Huffington Post or small, one-person operations — being defined as journalism so long as there is clear independence between subject matter and revenue source.

    The divide gets crossed, I would argue, when the entity being written about is the same as the entity paying the writer. So, for example, I would put Michelle Rafter’s work, referenced in a comment above, paid for by American Express, on the non-journalism side of the divide. I would put our own work on our own blog similarly on the non-journalism side of the divide even though both Michelle and we follow good journalistic practices in developing that content.

    None of this means that a person cannot work ethically on both sides of the divide so long as she or he is not doing so for the same employer at the same time, nor that solid newsroom practices cannot be employed by non-journalistic publishing endeavours.

    Bottom line is the old adage about he who pays the piper: At some level, the tune is being called and we’re being disingenuous pretending we can’t hear it.

  • http://www.copyblogger.com Brian Clark

    Like Joe, I’ve always resisted the journalism tag. We’re quite transparent in teaching content marketing and as content marketers that this type of content is ultimately designed to sell something.

    May years ago, though, Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 told me I was practicing journalism. He said it was an evolved form of trade journalism. That stuck with me, and we do consider Copyblogger to be more of a new media trade magazine than any other traditional analogy.

    Ultimately, as others have pointed out, it doesn’t matter. Content marketing is here to stay, and at least our biases are revealed instead of swept under the rug in the name of faux objectivity.

  • Craig Fitzgerald

    It all depends on the publisher.

    I worked for a magazine with a publisher that was scared to death that we were going to offend an advertiser. Is that “journalism?”

    If the corporate entity you’re working for adopts a hands-off approach, then what difference does it make who’s paying the tab?

  • http://www.reputationtorevenue.com Rob Leavitt

    Great post and discussion, Joe. I wonder if part of the challenge in addressing your question is that we’re bringing together a whole set of loaded terms here. not just “journalist,” but also news, media, storytelling, brands, marketing, etc.

    I have no trouble accepting the idea that companies can practice “journalism” broadly defined, and I think many of them should. But perhaps a more interesting question is can they support what we used to call hard news or even investigative reporting on their industry, their market, their competitors, and themselves?

    Telling great stories about customers, employees, or partners is one thing (quite useful for marketing, of course) but investing in warts-and-all reporting that could cause heartache in the executive suite is quite another. Even some news organizations have trouble doing that!

    I think this kind of hard news reporting can ultimately be very useful for companies given the realities of social media and transparency (BP anyone?), but I’m much less confident that many companies are ready to give it a go.

  • http://www.yadvertisingblog.com Jeff Sweat

    I edit the Yahoo! Advertising Blog and come from a journalism background, so this is a big question for me. The litmus test is always whether or not I’d be willing to post a bad story about Yahoo! or a great one about Google. (The answer in both cases? Yeah, not so much.) So no, we’re not journalists. But we’re writers, and the content is good and trustworthy. As long as you know our biases, as with journalists, you can proceed without fear. And in that sense, you’re right. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

  • David Drickhamer

    So many facets to this issue. There’s an underlying assumption in the question that being a journalist is superior (morally or otherwise) and therefore more noble and desirable (and worth the sacrifice of earning a low salary). But in most circles–where isn’t this true?–news priorities and newsworthiness is determined by what sells papers/ads or attracts eyeballs (if it bleeds it leads). Not the most important, truth-telling or critical story of the day.

    Personally, working with organizations and companies that “get it,” where the leaders want to build trust by providing valuable insights and information in a way that engages their constituencies, has allowed me to explore areas and tell much bigger stories than we had time or pages for in my so-called journalism days.

  • http://keithprivette.com Keith Privette

    This was a great blog post with solid debatable and discussion worthy questions and content. Here try this one on for size.

    How about an operational unit is set up like a news media company inside the brand (now the brand may have to be big to support the cost, but there is cost reductions and improved time to market to consider). This news media devision will have it all studio for live shots, 3-4 news shows for an hour, journalists, reporters, and platforms for sharing all the information that is getting pumped out through the different organizations. All internal. Now the E2.0 tools and resources will help tremendously making this seamless to the rest of the business. You could have featured stories, breaking news, etc. Now here is where it would get interesting turning these journalists loose inside your organization as investigative reporters to uncover bad practices, costly decision making, great in the community stories to really make the culture all working together to make it a better place. People always complain they do not know where information is and how to get it. Well provide your employees with a news media department equipped video, livestreaming, newscasts, podcasts, pictures, blog posts, expose reporting, etc.

    Now to me if a Brand Journalist was allowed to do this behind the firewall and in front of the firewall you could retain the Journalist Title. It is a little half baked and I know the legal, information protection, HIPPA, SEC, etc all have rules about this information, but is it worth investigating how a company needs to actually keep up with it’s own information publication process.

  • joie chen

    Great post, Joe… and a great conversation.

    Consider this– our company, Branded News Worldwide, was created more than a decade ago to do exactly what Keith suggests: allow ANY company to be its own media company. We built studios, hired ‘journalists’ away from legacy newsrooms, created programming, live newscasts, remote locations, news features, breaking news—the same kind of work we did when I was at the CBS and CNN (using some of the same reporters/producers/videographers).
    The mission is to complement the clients’ Comms/PR departments, not replace them. Those units continue to do promotional or messaging work; our content is beat reporting in the narrow field of interest of the sponsoring organization.

    Our content creators are ‘branded’ in the same way some reporters on local/cable/network news are. Yes, those programs often have segment ‘sponsors’ too– though the relationship is less transparent. (And when every commercial during the CBS Evening News is for a pharmaceutical product, what impact does that “branding” have on the news?)

    Sticking a qualifier in front of “journalist” (branded, sponsored, private) suggests the work is somehow inferior or compromised. I don’t buy that– and I’m not convinced it’s really any “different” from what folks in giant media conglomerate newsrooms are doing.

  • Bob Zeni

    “Brand” journalism is “commercial-publishing” journalism ( NYT, WSJ, etc.) without the objectivity and investigations.

    • http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Bob…if it’s not helpful and seen in some way as credible, it won’t be of much use anyway. Smart brands know this.

      • Bob Zeni

        Commerical publishing trafficks in the process story – the one where an issue is examined by presenting a set of facts with opinions about those facts from supporters and opponents. It’s done to present the idea that publishers are “unbiased” and “objective.”(Whether they actually are is another debate entirely.) Journalism in support of a brand does need the facts to be correct to be credible, but presenting detractors’ opinions would only dilute the brand

        And investigations into a company’s seamy underside could only destroy a brand. So that’s definitely not part of brand jounralism.

        • http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Joe Pulizzi

          Hi Bob…if brands decide to get into this area, they need to how both sides. I talked to a chief editor of a major telecom’s brand journalism project and said that if they don’t talk to both sides, they don’t do the story.

          And I don’t believe in unbiased journalism – see Fox news and MSNBC. Transparency is key to making this work for brands.

          • Bob Zeni

            Agree on both counts.

            • Nothing’s unbiased.• To build legitimacy, brand journalism should give space to an opposing opinion. Having consulted to dozens of corporate PR departments, I’m skeptical about how many will embrace brand journalism to that extent . . .

          • http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Joe Pulizzi

            Same here Bob! Thanks for chiming in. Good take.

          • Bob Zeni

            Good exchange. Keep up the insightful posts.