There’s a ton of confusion these days about the line between advertising and journalism. In fact, a lot of players on both sides of that equation seem to be doing everything they can to confuse the difference. Earlier this month, the managing editor of Gawker Media, Tom Scocca, let loose a hilarious fit of truth-telling. He wrote on Gawker:
“The ad that doesn’t feel like an ad — this is the grail right now, for everyone, Gawker Media very much included. So we get the occasional humiliating advertorial post, with straight-up garbage dressed to resemble actual content, through which the advertiser (or the publication) tells the reader, ‘We think you are stupid, and we have bad taste.’”
But actually, I think there is a clear distinction between advertising and journalism — at least in the broad definition of journalism as anything you’d find in newspapers and magazines from The New York Times to Vogue. My version goes like this:
— Advertising is something a company wants to say, regardless of whether it’s useful, informative or relevant to the audience.
— Journalism is useful, informative and relevant to the audience, regardless of whether it’s something a company wants to say.
By definition then, advertising is usually content a company has to push at the audience — often by paying for placement. Journalism is content that people seek out and pull to them.
But there’s an interesting twist to this these days, thanks to the democratization of media in the digital age.
Just a generation ago, journalism almost always meant content generated by journalists, who were deputized by the mainstream media. The idea that companies could create journalism was laughable. Or, if journalists created stuff for companies, they would be shunned by their peers. When I was younger, if a journalist moved into PR even for a second, the journalistic code dictated that he or she could never return.
In the digital media age, that’s changed. It’s become possible for companies to generate journalism, and for the audience to accept it. A number of times in this blog, I’ve highlighted Rapha’s Rouleur biking magazine as a prime example of this. I’ve also noted Kaspersky’s ThreatPost blog.
Those are successful journalistic endeavors because the companies behind them understand the difference between journalism and advertising. They are creating content that is useful, informative, and relevant to their audiences, regardless of what the companies want to say.
And here’s the interesting double-twist: When companies let go and actually create good journalism, the audience appreciates it. The good journalism can do more to build goodwill for the brand than advertising that masquerades as pseudo-journalism.
See, Gawker’s Scocca was right about the audience. Most people are smart enough to know the difference between journalism and advertising. And when companies try to fool the people, the people either ignore the companies, or feel insulted because the company is saying, “We think you are stupid, and we have bad taste.”