Branded but ‘independent’ media

The pros and cons of trying to do real journalism at a non-media company

Jessica Bennett worked for seven years at journalistic stalwarts like The Boston Globe, the Village Voice, and Newsweek. But after years of sleeping on couches when she went on reporting assignments and watching her friends take buyouts, she was ready for a change. So she accepted a job as executive editor of Storyboard, an independent journalistic publication housed within Tumblr, a blogging platform and community.

Just 14 months later, Tumblr opted to kill Storyboard, abruptly firing Bennett and her two colleagues, editor in chief Chris Mohney and editorial producer Sky Dylan-Robbins. As someone who was also fired after barely a year because my bosses weren’t interested in producing independent journalism anymore, I was dying to talk with Bennett about her experience. So as soon as she finished negotiating her severance, we settled in for an epic Gchat conversation.

“From the start, I worried that a company like Tumblr wouldn’t have the same commitment to journalism as a place like Newsweek,” she says, “but the idea of being part of something new, in a field that’s changing faster than we can keep up, outweighed any doubts. I didn’t want to end up doing a bunch of bullshit PR, and I think that’s the risk of doing ‘branded’ content at a lot of companies. But there are ways around that, and I think we found them.”

So if it wasn’t PR, what was Storyboard? “Everything had to relate back to Tumblr in some way. So, we could produce kickass journalism and longform features and videos and whatever else, but somehow the piece had to mention Tumblr. Getting that mention in there without sounding like total cheerleaders, or the opposite: making the connection prominent enough that it proved our existence at the company was worthwhile, was always a challenge. Basically we didn’t want to end up like Facebook Stories.” She’s referring to Facebook’s in-house effort to produce original content about the people who use the site. Facebook also hired a traditional-media journalist, Time’s Dan Fletcher, to run the publication. He recently left the position after a little more than a year.

“I didn’t even realize how big the brand journalism thing had gotten until I got canned,” Bennett says. That’s when other brands trying to do journalism started to ask for her thoughts on the matter. Consumers are getting smarter about traditional advertising and marketing, she adds, and some companies are taking the unorthodox approach of directly employing journalists—whose ideas and copy they don’t directly control—to cover their brand or community. “Sixteen-year-old kids can see through some rewritten press release bullshit in a way their parents might not have been able to,” Bennett says. “Consumers are savvier, which is where I think some of the drive to hire journalists for some of this content comes from.” For reporters and editors tired of layoffs and buyouts, these jobs offer a middle ground between journalism and copywriting, a way to take home a decent paycheck without feeling like you’ve sold out completely.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a stigma. “The biggest annoyance for me was trying to prove to people—sources, media colleagues, my parents—that I was still a ‘real’ journalist,” Bennett says. “The best way I could think to explain it was that if Tumblr was a city of 100 million people—that’s the number of users—then we were covering the trends, ideas, themes, and culture that were coming out of it.” They profiled superfans and made infographics about One Direction, a boy band that’s hugely popular among Tumblr users. They profiled some of the people behind Tumblr blogs, like the guy who snaps portraits of New Yorkers on “Humans of New York,” and the New York City pothole repair crew behind the “Daily Pothole” blog. And they were even nominated for a James Beard Award for their food coverage.

Those stories weren’t vetted by higher-ups at the company, Bennett says. “I did not feel like a PR person ever—but we were super conscious (and open, from the very start of our conversations with Tumblr) that that’s not what we would be. We often got the feeling that they might have liked us to be a little more PRy, but I think Chris and I were pretty much willing to leave or be let go before we would do that.” It sometimes proved difficult to find writers who were familiar enough with Tumblr to come up with good story ideas, but independent enough to make those stories appeal to a mainstream audience.

In fact, many Storyboard articles were republished in traditional journalistic outlets like Time and Mother Jones. “I’d tell people this, and they’d be simultaneously wowed and appalled. Like, is this a new kind of advertorial? Is it somehow more or less acceptable than advertorial?” Bennett says. “But the reality is that most mainstream outlets like the ones I just listed are struggling. So whether or not you think Tumblr is a legit journalistic entity, if some editor is coming to you with a package that is written, produced, edited, and good, and offering it to you for free, news editors are pretty much like, fuck yes. Plus, partnering with Tumblr made them cool!”

She continues, “There is a lot of crap journalism out there, so sometimes it bothers me when people get all high and mighty about branded content. I really think it’s the story, not where it comes from.” But it’s increasingly difficult to figure out where a story comes from. As sponsored journalistic content and branded advertorial and brand-affiliated independent publications proliferate, the lines are getting blurrier and blurrier. It might be helpful for media consumers to demand more up-front information on how a story was produced—who paid for it? And who signed off on its publication? The Storyboard editors never published a statement explaining their editorial independence or decision-making process, though Bennett says, “we probably should have.”

Maybe all of this is moot. Many non-media companies tire quickly of their experiment in paying for independent journalism. “If we do too much storytelling ourselves, the fear is that we’re going to take away from our community of storytellers,” Tumblr cofounder David Karp said on a podcast recently. “They’re already terrific at this.” It sounds pretty similar to what Fletcher, the former managing editor of Facebook Stories, recently told students at Washington State University: Facebook “doesn’t need reporters” because it already has a billion members supplying content.

What advice would Bennett give to a journalist considering a job at a brand-affiliated publication? “Decide if you’re comfortable feeling like a PR person, and if you’re not, make sure you can do content that doesn’t suck. Or just say fuck it and take that $$$$$$,” she says. “No, but seriously, I think it’s possible to create good, compelling content for a brand—and you’ll likely be given the resources to do so, but I think it all depends on the brand and the bosses. One thing to ask: Will your work have to be approved by PR?”

Also, be aware that there is a significant culture gap between traditional media companies and tech startups—for better and for worse. “Tumblr has no phones,” Bennett says. “So we get there, and I’m all, ‘I need to do interviews,’ but everyone’s like, ‘Oh, we just use our cellphones.’ This was before they hired a sales team. So I’m conducting interviews on my cellphone, which cuts out constantly, in the hallway in the elevator duct, ‘cause there were also no phone booths. I had Aziz Ansari on the phone one time, and I couldn’t hear a fucking thing he was saying. My phone dies as I’m trying to record it. Ultimately we almost had to kill the interview because it was so bad.”

If you do take the leap, don’t expect any more stability than you had at your old-media job. “In the end, Tumblr decided it didn’t work, for reasons we’re not sure of,” Bennett says. “The truth is, I don’t have any regrets about going to work for Tumblr. Getting to experiment in this space—even if it ultimately led to being unemployed after barely a year—was way more exciting than watching budgets shrink, ad pages shrink, and everything else that has happened at old media outlets like Newsweek over the past year.”

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk