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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.”


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.