Economy

You, too, can be a journalist (or a corporate message control specialist)

I asked my students as the semester ended: “How many of you do not want to be journalists?”

Most raised a hand, albeit timidly. (I am, after all, a professor of journalism.)

“How many of you wish to work in PR or advertising?”

Several raised their hands. I smiled – in the evil way they say I do when I’m setting them up for the kill.

“If you plan to work in PR and advertising, then I’ll bet you’re going to be working as a journalist,” I said.

Confused looks ensued.

Suppose they take jobs with a mattress company, thinking they’ll be pushing sleep products — writing ads, doing media buys, all the sorts of things PR and advertising flacks do.

But at Casper, a start-up company, they’ll likely be working as journalists.

Journalist at work?

Jack Marshall and Steven Perlberg, writing in The Wall Street Journal, report this:

Many companies have hired editorial staffers in recent years to write content for their blogs and be their voices on social media. Now, some are going further by building full-blown media properties of their own.

Take startup mattress brand Casper, for example. The company is currently hiring journalists and gearing up to start its own standalone Web publication about sleep. The site doesn’t have a name or a URL yet, but it’s slated to launch later this spring.

So, too, write Marshall and Perlberg, is Dollar Shave Club. You’ve seen the TV ads, right? “They don’t want you buy their razors. Well, I want you to buy mine.”

Increasingly, corporations are creating their own “content destinations.” None of this is surprising; social media, for example, have made it possible for anyone to create a “content destination” and control a message. Politicians, for example, no longer need to thread the needle of traditional media gatekeepers. They (and celebrities and sports superheroes) break their own news on their own schedule using Twitter, Facebook et al.

Now corporations are playing that game. The operative reason, as usual, is control the message.

Again, from Marshall and Perlberg:

“Sleep is a growing subject that lacks a true editorial authority,” said Lindsay Kaplan, Casper’s vice president of communications. … The broad goal of the Casper site is to “own the conversation around sleep,” Ms. Kaplan said.

Casper’s serious. It’s hired big-time journalistic talent: Elizabeth Spiers — former editor in chief of the New York Observer and founding editor of Gawker.com — and Jeff Koyen, a journalist with start-up experience as the founder of Pressland and Assignmint.

Other corporations are onto this. Report Marshall and Perlberg:

Previously, PepsiCo.’s Mountain Dew brand started a lifestyle-focused site at Green-Label.com in 2013, for example. Elsewhere, numerous business-to-business brands have invested in content and standalone websites in an attempt to position themselves as “thought-leaders” around certain issues.

More use of journalists for corporate message control will come. Once an organization fully realizes it has the technological ability to control its message, or corral a content arena, it will do so. All will claim, no doubt, as Casper’s Koyen does, that this is journalism, not marketing.

“I don’t feel like I’ll be doing branded content. The goal is to launch an editorial venture and standalone media property,” he said, adding, “I’m hiring journalists; not marketers.”

Eventually, that will claim will devolve to bullshit. Why? I don’t mind marketing. But any publication whose principal purpose is to foster the financial fortunes of its corporate owner sure as hell isn’t producing journalism. (Yeah, yeah, I know: Profit-making media corporations own newspapers, broadcast operations, websites, etc. I said principal purpose; surely, there’s still at least a shred of public service remaining in traditional media properties.)

Meanwhile, it’s another avenue for my students to obtain useful employment using the skills I teach them. It may challenge the ethics I also teach them from time to time, but at least they can begin paying off their student loans.

9 replies »

  1. I know all about this! ‘Cause it’s a great deal of what I do, too. Our situation is an interesting one: the for-profit company I am editorial director for, Natural Habitat Adventures, is the travel partner of the world’s largest conservation non-profit, World Wildlife Fund. We donate a share of our proceeds to WWF in exchange for cross-marketing and co-branding, including on our blog, Good Nature, which contains some pretty decent conservation-focused journalism and travel writing. Plenty of our contributors don’t pay any heed to the fact that their work is serving a bigger marketing purpose than just informing an interest niche about wildlife trafficking, or the impact of climate change on polar bear habitat, or what the Galapagos National Park Service is doing to remove invasive species…It’s only sneaky editors like me who pop a keyword (search term) into a story to get SEO traction, or add a discreet link to one of our trips, that reveal the “principal purpose” Denny discusses.

    The idea, which is at the heart of content marketing, including Casper’s sleep venture, is to provide information that is of genuine interest to an audience (read: potential consumer/donor). If it smacks of underhanded salesmanship, people will disregard it. We build our brand by giving people what they really do want. That said, we DO believe in the value of conservation travel: while we make money off it, we run trips that help protect wild places and wildlife by providing economic sustenance to local people who would otherwise be forced to cut down trees or kill animals for illegal trafficking. It’s probably true that were it not for ecotourism, mountain gorillas would be extinct — and that’s just one example. So, I am able to do my work not only with a clear conscience but knowing that I may actually have a greater impact reaching people with this message than trying to get a story into a “disinterested” news outlet.

    Another good example of content marketing of real value to an audience is REI’s blog: you won’t find a single thing there about gear or equipment — it’s all about trails, hikes, kayaking trips, undiscovered destinations, etc. What you’d call journalism on an unbranded website. But considering that so much content in “legitimate” news outlets originates from PR-spawned press releases, too, it’s getting harder and harder to say what constitutes genuine, disinterested journalism. These cross-fertilizing realms are becoming ever more hybridized — and certainly a growing source of jobs for journalism grads.

  2. I should add, too, that I’ve published travel and conservation stories on Huffington Post and Budget Travel online that identify me as a contributor from Natural Habitat Adventures. Is this PR or is this news? It’s both. I’m paid nothing for these stories, of course, as their publication is a perk for our company while filling space with quality content (as opposed to amateur crap, or ads) for these outlets hungry for content. Here’s an example – reporting on the U.S. ivory crush while encouraging safari tourism to help protect elephants: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/natural-habitat-adventures/the-time-to-see-and-save-_b_4302929.html.

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