Is Brand Journalism A Farce?

Business woman puts her feet up on her desk on the phone

Can you describe content marketing as journalism? Storyation’s Lauren Quaintance asks the question.

I wrote my first story for a newspaper when I was 11 and, nearly 30 years later, I still describe myself a journalist. The only thing is, I don’t actually work for a publisher anymore. I run my own content marketing agency and we help brands to create editorial-style content to run on their own digital platforms.

Can that content be described as journalism? That’s the debate that’s been swirling around the Internet in recent weeks and it’s starting to look like a nasty turf war. Marketers have begun appropriating terms like “journalist” and “newsroom” and writers and reporters toiling in media companies aren’t happy about it at all.

When Tourism Australia’s outgoing CMO Nick Baker announced this month that the organisation plans to become a publisher and launch a brand newsroom, media types openly guffawed. Since Tourism Australia was inherently biased, it couldn’t possibly be compared to Fairfax, the ABC or News Corp.

When I first wrote about this more than a year ago in a provocatively titled piece “Brands can do better journalism than publishers” the Twitterverse lit up with indignation. Without seemingly reading the piece journalists leapt in, all but blaming me for single-handedly causing the downfall of the media industry.

Others such as the Australian editor for Chief Content Officer magazine Sarah Mitchell have suggested the reason for all this animosity is a holier-than-thou attitude from traditional journalists. She blames “an elitist opinion that traditional media is better or more worthy than brand media”.

The crux of this debate is the assumption that to qualify as journalism, content must be independent and objective. Yet if you check the definition of journalism in just about any dictionary it doesn’t mention this at all; it’s defined as the gathering and dissemination of information. And that’s what content marketing is. It’s not writing about a product you’re trying to sell; it’s useful, inspiring or informative content that creates an affinity with a brand.

That said, I would argue that there are two types of journalism. There is what George Orwell meant when he said “journalism is printing something someone doesn’t want printed”. The hugely important stories that expose corrupt governments, lead to Royal Commissions and free the wrongfully imprisoned.

And then there is a whole lot of journalism that is just useful, informative or insightful information. You might call that service journalism. Think of stories such as “Get Fit at Your Desk” and “Recipes for a Meat Free Monday” (both of which are running on The Sydney Morning Herald’s site as I write this). There is absolutely no reason that brands can’t do service journalism as well as traditional publishers. In fact, since brands have deep insights about the wants and needs of the audiences they are trying to reach, there’s no reason they can’t do a better job.

But back to my original question: do brands have the right to call this journalism? I’m not sure it really matters. The fact is that the audience will decide whether content is good enough to spend their time on and, just as importantly, to share. And no debate about whether it’s technically journalism or not is going to stop them.

Lauren Quaintance is head of content for Sydney agency Storyation

Disclaimer: Tourism Australia is a client of Storyation.

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