Who cares who’s a journalist?

Setting boundaries in the messy world of content marketing
October 31, 2014


By next year, Coca-Cola hopes to have killed the press release. It believes the corporate website is dead, and it’s shifting its money away from television advertising. It has little use for journalists who aren’t interested in stories Coke wants to tell. Instead, it’s decided that producing its own content is better than relying on others.

To that end, Coke–and Nestlé and Chipotle and Volkswagen and countless other companies–have blown up their marketing departments in recent years. They’ve infused them with something that looks closer to a newsroom, producing glossy magazines, blog networks, reported articles, long-form narratives, and compelling videos. One Volkswagen video alone, filmed in a Hong Kong movie theater, has drawn almost 29 million viewers on YouTube, proof that you don’t have to work in a newsroom to understand the dynamics of social media. Or check out a site produced by Red Bull on surfing: It’s filled with spectacular photography, short documentaries, the latest news on surfing, and very little about Red Bull energy drinks.

Our cover story this issue, on the rapidly growing field of content marketing, takes us on a journey inside one of these newsrooms, one that Nestlé built to promote its Purina pet food subsidiary. It may not be journalism exactly that they’re producing, but in some cases it’s a close cousin.

Many corporate newsrooms are fast to jump on the news. Most do original reporting in some capacity or another. They’re capable of masterful storytelling. And they’ve made both an art and science of connecting with their audiences. Plus, they hire top-quality creative talent and untold numbers of journalists. What’s more, these newsrooms are on a joyride while traditional ones are shriveling.

The similarities between these worlds are greater than most journalists would like to admit. Greater than I would like to admit. Some months back, I hosted a panel on native advertising and content marketing, and my guest was one of the wise men of this world, Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile. Being a journalist, I approached with truculence, asking several questions that were essentially variations on the same thing: Isn’t it deplorable that companies are trying to pass themselves off as journalists?

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And didn’t that make them some kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing?

My guest helped me see something I hadn’t. He pointed out the lack of evidence that the public cares all that much about the distinction I was making. To an average reader, the content from journalists and that from corporations can both be useful.

In other words, if people are offended by content marketing, why would a single Purina brand, Beggin’ Strips, have nearly 1.2 million Facebook fans, as Michael Meyer reports in his provocative piece on the subject, when Purina’s hometown paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, can boast a relatively modest 120,000 fans? What’s more, some of the larger corporate newsrooms are producing exponentially more content each day than traditional news outlets.

That doesn’t mean this content is all good, or accurate, or honorable in its alleged attempt to serve its audience. But then again, plenty of work coming out of actual newsrooms doesn’t meet that standard either. Both newsrooms have an interest in upping their game.

If anything, though, more responsibility lies with the media, which, in its desperation to attract revenue, can be prone to degrade its own standards. As Meyer notes in his piece, Time Inc.’s CEO now has editors report to managers on the business side and Vice Media has asked editors to assess any possible adverse impact on advertisers.

Who’s the wolf now?

Elizabeth Spayd is the editor in chief and publisher of CJR.