Tag Archives: journalism

The Difference Between Journalism and Advertising

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.”


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Contently: New Way for Journalists and Brands to Find Each Other

One of the most interesting things about the new web service Contently, which launched today, is the introductory statement on the site: “Contently powers content creation for cutting-edge brands and forward-thinking media companies.”

Just a year ago, no site like this would’ve included the words “cutting-edge brands” as part of the equation.

Contently is a site where freelance journalists can, essentially, hawk their wares. They can create a profile and aggregate their work, and even use the site to take payments through PayPal. Presumably, if the site draws in enough journalists, entities in need of good writing will come to the site to find a good writer.

In the past, the gigs freelance journalists were looking for involved newspapers, magazines, news web sites, and the occasional gray-area publication like an airline magazine. And when corporate brands went looking for writers, they generally didn’t look for journalists — because the brands weren’t creating content that was journalistic. Brands pumped out marketing — a kind of writing that acts like kryptonite on most journalists.

All that’s changing. Journalists and brands are meeting in the middle, to benefit both. Brands are finding that journalistic content works — as has been described in a number of posts on this blog. And journalists are finding that they can cut deals with brands to do credible, authentic work that’s not anything like marketing messaging.

As Contently founder Shane Snow told Columbia Journalism Review: “We thought if we could connect good professionals who are now out of work with publishers who care about professional quality work, not SEO, content-farm stuff, then we could create a business out of that.”

If Contently can create that marketplace, it could give a lift to branded journalism.

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More On the Magazine Tailspin

David Carr, in today’s New York Times, uses Tina Brown’s seemingly impossible task of reviving Newsweek to tell the continuing story of the mess magazines find themselves in.

It’s interesting that the truly precipitous decline in magazines is happening now. The first wave of the Internet had more of an impact on newspapers. Web sites and computer screens in the 2000s were relatively low-fi, and that was competition for newspapers, which offer news in a relatively low-fi way (grainy photos, mostly text).

High-gloss and well-designed magazines had an edge over the web of that era: They could present beautiful images in ways the web on computer screens couldn’t, and they could present longer-form stories (think The New Yorker) that proved clunky and unreadable on a computer screen.

But now the web on an iPad or even on a modern laptop screen is a beautiful thing. It looks every bit as good — maybe even better — than a magazine page. Long-form stories can be packaged and presented in elegant ways on screen, while Kindles have gotten us used to reading text as long as War and Peace on screen.

Print magazines not long ago could hold onto an edge over the web in the total experience they could present — but that edge is gone for most publications. The web now delivers as good an experience in a more convenient package. So the web wins. (I wrote about how that experience-vs.-convenience dynamic works across all kinds of industries in my book Trade-Off.)


What does this mean for brands thinking of doing content? For one, it should make them think twice about delivering content primarily as a print magazine. Sure, there certainly are a lot of people who like a print magazine, and it might make sense to give them one. But the logic of what’s happening the market says that print should follow digital — not the other way around anymore. In other words, design a beautiful digital version first, and then turn it into print.

Here’s another take-away from the decline of pint magazines: The transition to digital is going to continue to be painful for magazine publishers. They’re going to cut pages, cut staff, probably even shut down magazines. That will send yet more journalists and designers into the marketplace — a talent bonanza for brands. And if publications disappear, that could open opportunities for credible, journalistic branded content to take its place.

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Investing In Community Through Journalism

For each kind of company or organization, there’s a matching kind of journalism that, if it thrives, helps the company prosper. Hollywood is helped enormously by movie reviews and celebrity tabloid crap (which, oh my God, I hesitate to call “journalism,” but whatEVer). Technology companies need tech journalists to air new ideas and share advances.

Journalism has a lot of social functions that we don’t readily recognize. It’s an important way a community — geographic or based on interest — talks to each other and builds bonds. It’s part of a community’s glue, along with things like live gatherings and, these days, social media.

So if you’re guiding a company or brand, and you look up and realize that the journalism your community needs is non-existent, or not as good as it could be, or crumbling, what might you do?

Most brands, of course, do nothing. Smart brands, though, would understand the gap and realize the benefit of helping to close it.

Bike apparel company Rapha recognized that good journalism about hard-core biking would create more interest in the sport, which would in turn create more potential customers for Rapha — and, somewhere downstream, more sales of Rapha products. So Rapha started a hard-core biking magazine, Rouleur.

Not every brand wants to actually own and operate a magazine or other form of journalism. But what about more arms-length relationships? Like maybe help back a journalistic start-up where it makes sense.

A couple of years ago, a friend and colleague in journalism, George Quarashi, saw a need in the U.S. for thoughtful, New Yorker-level journalism about soccer. He and pal Mark Kirby started Howler — a magazine, web site and app — and have slowly crawled toward a launch. They’ve had to rely on a lot of free help from journalist friends (including me) and funding through Kickstarter.

But it would be smart of Major League Soccer to back Howler. As a brand, MLS has a smallish base that it needs to grow. Its community has a fraction of the journalistic glue enjoyed by the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball. MLS knows all about the Howler venture. Investing in it would be a pretty low-risk, low-maintenance form of branded journalism. Brands should think that way. Too often, they don’t.


A lot of thoughtful, journalistic discourse is disappearing from a lot of communities that are important to brands. Anyone running a brand should consider what that loss means to its audience. Somewhere in there is an opportunity.

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The Opening for Branded Content

This is from a deck we’ve been using at VSA to talk about branded journalism.

“Branded journalism” is fast becoming a vital, exciting way to build and activate brands.

— Effective owned content has to be GREAT content — credible, useful and/or delightful, absent of corporate-speak or marketing-speak.

— It has to be good enough so people want to own it, talk about it, share it.

The opening for brands right now

— Business publications keep cutting back. With fewer outlets, fewer print pages, and smaller staffs, the focus is increasingly on news, not trends, visions and big ideas. Credible, thoughtful content is waning.

— C-level executives, customers, business people and consumers want trusted resources that rise above the noise. They used to rely on mainstream media. Now there’s a gap waiting to be filled. (A recent Edelman Trust Index found a “flight to credentialed spokespeople.” CEOs are trusted by 50% in 2011, up from 31% in 2009.)

— Great writers and editors are available. Experienced reporters, columnists and editors are gone (or have fled) from the major publications — but they’re still around, and many are available to create great content.




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New Ways to Build Belief

The name of the game in branding has always been about belief. A company has to get the public to believe something about a brand.

For a long time, that was done primarily through advertising, but it’s gotten pretty tough to create an ad that people actually believe anymore. (Some clear this hurdle: See Apple’s iPhone ads. Apple has people believing Siri can actually do all this crap.)

Starting around the 1950s, public relations became a path to belief. Get a third party — the press — to say good things about you, and people will believe it more than they believe ads.

But the press is sinking, and social media lets people say anything they want about a brand while Yelp offers ratings and search engines uncover everything. PR was about spin, and spin is now left naked. Everybody sees right through it.

So what’s next? The Arthur W. Page Society, a prestigious marketing group, says belief has to be built through things like authenticity, credibility, and trust. No more lies. No more spin. A successful brand has to offer something that feels real and true to the public.

One of the effective ways to do that now is to offer information that’s valuable or useful, or non-fiction storytelling that’s instructive or enriching. This is the kind of stuff that newspapers and magazines have always done — but increasingly don’t do anymore because they don’t have the staff or the pages.

If the content is really great, people won’t just believe it — they’ll pass it around on Facebook and Twitter and tell other people to believe it. And if the content makes sense for the brand, all that good feeling will get associated with the brand.

I recently ran across a nice example of this, called Threatpost. It’s a news blog about computer security and viruses. It’s funded by Kaspersky Lab, which happens to make computer security software. But Kaspersky hired two long-time tech journalists — Dennis Fisher and Paul Roberts — to run a credible journalistic site.

As far as I can tell, Kaspersky keeps its mitts off the journalists. So the site has become much read among people who are interested in security. That leads to some trust of Kaspersky. And Kaspersky gets another benefit: by writing about every security threat that rears its head, the site helps convince people they need security software. Even if all the site’s readers don’t then buy Kaspersky products, certainly some of them will.

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Ancient Branded Journalism

Even Elvis had his predecessors. Likewise, branded journalism isn’t a completely new concept. We’re seeing a ton of emerging forms and models of branded journalism, and there are new reasons this kind of content is important and effective, but it’s all built on the shoulders of some pretty amazing predecessors.

Two of the best: the Mobil Travel Guide and the Merck Manual.

The Mobil Travel Guide was created by Mobil Oil in 1958. It’s purpose wasn’t so much to market Mobil gas in particular — it was to spur driving and, not exactly as an afterthought, gas consumption. The guides used experts to rate hotels and restaurants — giving birth to the Mobil star ratings still in place today.

The Mobil guides were so effective because consumers felt the guides could be trusted. The booklets were impartial and expert-driven. They were a form of journalism — the kind of thing Conde Nast Traveler might do about “best restaurants of California.” While there’s no telling how much Mobil gasoline the guides sold, certainly they made consumers feel good about Mobil.

(The guides were licensed to Forbes Media by ExxonMobile in 2009. So now the guides are owned by a journalism company, which gives credence to the idea that these were journalism all along. Lately, the operation has been turned into a web site called Startle, which seems like a really bad name for a site devoted to planning a trip.)

Even older than the Mobil Travel Guide is The Merck Manual, first published by the pharmaceutical giant in 1899. It is an example of business-to-business branded journalism — the manuals were at first a physicians desk reference, available only to doctors. The first edition set out to detail the effect on the human body of every substance used in medicine.

Again, The Merck Manual did not hawk Merck products. It was written by experts and reviewed by esteemed scientists and doctors. Instead of feeling like biased marketing material, it felt to physicians like a valuable, impartial resource. So doctors accepted the Merck Manual and put it on their bookshelves — a constant reminder that Merck was a trustworthy company.

Years later, Merck realized that individuals were getting their hands on Merck Manuals to keep at home as a medical reference. So Merck created a less-technical consumer version. By 2000, the 16th edition of the Merck Manual sold 2 million copies and was translated into 16 languages.

The Mobil Travel Guide and Merck Manual were so successful and enduring because of one key reason: trust. Both valued trust over salesmanship, and trust won the day.

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The New Branded Journalist: A Personal POV

It is with deep sadness that I say this: Traditional media is increasingly a bad place for a good journalist to work.

And it’s a scary place for a journalist who also happens to have a mortgage and a couple of kids in college and needs to ensure that money actually keeps coming in. Which would describe me.

But maybe there’s another way for journalists to get paid decently to do credible, fair work that contributes something to society. With that in mind, I’ve been working on establishing a new kind of “branded journalism” — putting together good journalism with corporate branding in a way that helps both thrive. without compromising either.

Journalism needs this. My story is like a lot of long-time journalists’ stories. I wrote for USA Today for 22 years and built a solid following as its tech columnist. Since I left in 2007, USA Today has gone through one round of layoffs and furloughs after another. Next stop, in 2007, was Conde Nast Portfolio – the most high-profile magazine launch in a decade. I joined as a contributing editor. In April 2009, the magazine was killed.

The economy sucked. The economics of print media sucked. Most every publication was also going through hell. So it’s not like there was anywhere to run to safety.

I’ve written a number of books, and that certainly helps. But in the book business these days, unless you score a mega-hit, an author is never going to make a living writing books through traditional channels.

As Portfolio died, I accidentally tripped into branded journalism — a concept that is still being explored and defined. I got pulled into two book projects, and both turned out to be a form of branded journalism.

One book was for IBM’s 100th anniversary.I had previously written a biography of Thomas Watson Sr., who built IBM. It made sense for IBM to ask me to work on its massive historical project, which led to a book that I co-authored. Making the World Work Better was, from the start, intended to be a serious, credible book — more “commissioned” by IBM than guided or sponsored by it.

Two other long-time journalists — Steve Hamm and Jeff O’Brien — wrote the book with me. We got paid decently, and never felt that IBM interfered with our work. And we created a book that was a serious look at where technology has been, and where it’s going. The book got some nice coverage in The New York Times and great reviews on Amazon. It was, no doubt, the most widely distributed business book of 2011 — some 600,000 copies in seven languages wound up in readers’ hands around the world.

The other book was TheTwo-Second Advantage. I co-authored it with Vivek Ranadive, CEO of TIBCO Software. We sold it to Random House, and then TIBCO subsidized my research and the back-end marketing. I couldn’t have afforded to do this book any other way. The book made The New York Times’ bestseller list.

These books led me to join VSA Partners, which had also worked with IBM on its centennial. I’m at VSA because we’re seeing demand for collaborations like the IBM book or Two-Second Advantage, and I want to help figure out this new marriage of journalism and branding.

Coming blog posts will continue to explore the emergence of branded journalism — as it happens before our eyes.

This post also appears on the VSA Partners site.

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