Why one journalist made the leap into branded content

Photo courtesy of Matt Meuse

By Robert Delaney

Photo courtesy of Matt Meuse

By Robert Delaney

The subject of brand journalism has trended recently in Toronto (see #3TYYZ and @AMAContentMarketing for some of it). Is this content marketing approach effective? Is it disingenuous? Justifiable? Inevitable? As someone with two decades of experience in journalism who recently jumped to the branded variety, I’d like to weigh in. But first let’s put the subject in the context of recent industry developments.

The Globe and Mail has lost, eliminated or replaced its editor-in-chief and managing editor, as well as the editor and deputy editor (me) of the paper’s Report on Business section, all in the past six months. Meanwhile, the editors-in-chief of two of the world’s most prestigious newspapers, The New York Times and Le Monde, were replaced amid disputes with those above and below them.

The Globe, the NYT and Le Monde all have impeccable news pedigrees, but that no longer guarantees reader loyalty. Many at the Globe understand the challenge they face, but the tendency to package news in a way that looks good on the bleached remnants of pine trees hasn’t been completely eradicated. That’s why the newspaper and nearly all of its peers worldwide find themselves trying to change their cultural DNA. This is a self-eviscerating process that leads inevitably to management cutbacks and shrinking newsroom headcounts. And this is why I found myself being escorted out of 444 Front Street not six months after I started there. Within a few weeks, I had to make a decision: accept an offer from /newsrooms, a Toronto-based front-runner in brand journalism, or continue interviewing for positions that I expected to disappear in roughly the same timeframe as my Globe stint.

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Meanwhile, Buzzfeed, Vox, Monocle and niche publications such as Marginal Revolution forge ahead. Free of the constraints of a print deadline orientation while leveraging technological dexterity and social media know-how, these 21st century publications know that generalized news “audiences” and “readerships” have given way to many millions of individuals who want to engage with, not just read, content that’s relevant to them every time they look at their mobile devices.

In this environment, where content is amplified through social media and optimized for mobile, those consuming and engaging with news are increasingly channel agnostic. Brand journalism has found a place in this new media ecosystem, where traditional media are trying to adapt. And with this proliferation comes questions about brand journalism’s legitimacy. Brands can’t produce real journalism because everything they do must contribute to the bottom line. The profit motive, some argue, disqualifies brands from trying to produce objective news. Outlets whose only business is news claim the high ground because they’re striving for transparency and objectivity.

That assumption made my decision to join /newsrooms difficult. But three months in, I still haven’t had to write a sales pitch or figure out how to dress up a special offer. Instead, I’ve been able to interview specialists in fields including natural resources and IT enterprise financing. The work isn’t much different from what I did in my years with Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Globe and the Financial Times, except that I have a much deeper understanding about how content works across social media, where audiences are migrating.

My career shift has also given me a chance to reflect on the assumptions I carried into the /newsrooms office. One development that played out at one of my former employers helped to revise those assumptions: Bloomberg News killed a feature story about the financial holdings of China’s top leaders. The company’s editors claimed that the story, lead written by Mike Forsythe, lacked evidence. Forsythe had already led reporting on a series of features on this subject, work that earned Bloomberg a George Polk Award. Those earlier stories prompted China’s foreign ministry to retaliate by holding up the visas of the company’s China-based correspondents. So Bloomberg News backed down. Eventually, the company fired Forsythe for divulging to The New York Times details of Bloomberg’s rationale for spiking his China feature. Peter Grauer confirmed suspicions that Bloomberg put business interests before transparency when he was quoted as saying: “We should have rethought” such reporting.  

Forsythe and I overlapped for a couple of years in Bloomberg’s Beijing bureau, and I can say unreservedly that he never submitted a story that couldn’t stand up to scrutiny. That’s one of the reasons he wound up as a Washington-based manager of more than 40 editors and reporters, with the full confidence of Bloomberg’s most senior editors.

Bloomberg isn’t the only news outlet where business interests sometimes trump objectivity. One of the newspapers I worked at has an unwritten rule that managing editors must review any story that mentions one of its owners, a large publicly listed company. I never saw any edits made to protect this company’s reputation, but the existence of such a rule shows some weakness in the cloak of objectivity.

At the Globe, videos about Margot Robbie’s sex scene in The Wolf of Wall Street and naked yoga in Edmonton each stayed on its landing page for more than a month, “front-page” runs that lasted longer than any others I ever saw at the company. No one tried to pretend that such content was anything other than click bait.

The Wall Street Journal? Suffice it to say that it’s the brand newsroom for the American Chamber of Commerce.

None of the above should be considered criticism. No one who needs to be informed should start their day without scanning NYT, the Globe, Bloomberg, and WSJ. I’m only pointing out that some compromises are made in the process of producing the best that journalism has to offer. And it would be wrong to allow these minor transgressions on the one hand and, on the other, contend that brand journalism is inherently wrong.

Brands have a right to publish, particularly because the era of the sales pitch is coming to an end. Anyone researching a product or service relies on peers and influencers to make a decision; marketing messages are tuned out. This has put pressure on brands to build trust with potential customers in other ways, and this is why brand journalism has become not just an option, but an imperative for many companies.

If an experienced journalist interviews independent analysts about the market outlook on behalf of an established bank, that content may attract an audience and build a relationship. If the same journalist working for the same sponsor interviews sources for a report on the superiority of that bank’s services, the content will fall flat. Audiences know the difference.

The rise of brand journalism may be inevitable as the tumult seen in the newsrooms of the Globe, the NYT and other traditional publishers continues to play out. Consider this comment from Service Canada: “The emergence of new job opportunities has not compensated for job reduction in the more traditional sectors. Given that media consolidation, mergers and convergence are expected to hold and even intensify, the number of journalists should decrease significantly in the next few years.”

In the end, it’s not for me or any other individual pundit to decide whether brand journalism has a future. The social media conversations that surround content, branded or otherwise, provide the ultimate judgment of what is genuinely objective, informative and valuable.


Robert Delaney is vice-president, managing editor at /newsrooms and a freelance correspondent for the Financial Times. He spent the first 14 years of his career in Asia, where he worked as Bloomberg News’ Beijing bureau chief among other roles.



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