Blurred Lines Between Content Marketing and Journalism

Our friends at Contently don’t like the term “brand journalism” – they think it’s the marketing equivalent of a plastic glass – an oxymoron. They say brand journalism simply doesn’t exist. And I get their point, but I disagree.

First, here’s where I agree with those folks. I agree with the Capital J Journalists who say that journalism is a critical component of our democracy. I agree that Journalism’s job is often to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Without watchdogs keeping an eye on City Hall, we could all be in deep water.

But my experience also shows me that crusading journalists are only the tip of the spear.

Back when I was a communication major in college straddling the line between a career in public relations and a career in journalism, professors often picked me out of the group during class discussions and asked “What’s the difference between public relations and journalism?”

When I had made up my mind that I wanted to change the world with one newspaper byline at a time, my response was always “Journalism is the news people really need to know. Public relations tries to make things seem important, even if they really aren’t.”

I walked into my first newsroom with that optimistic opinion playing over and over in my mind – and then everything changed. I learned there were stories crucial to the communities the newspapers and news websites I worked for catered to. And I told those stories.

But then I learned that if those stories didn’t garner enough unique page views or increase the value of the ad on that page of the paper, it might not be worth telling – that was never my opinion, but the opinion of the person that was struggling to pay our newsroom’s electric bill.

That’s where the gray area of journalism comes into play. Obviously news outlets are still reporting the important stories, but you could argue that lifestyle journalism and sports journalism aren’t necessarily journalism – especially if you’re following my college definition of journalism. Don’t even get me started on “celebrity news.” But, readers are interested in those topics, they click on those articles and they regularly pick up the paper to read those sections. They help to fuel the business of journalism. And – importantly – those topics help to build a sense of community across segments of society.

That gray area of journalism (journalism professors are cringing here – I can feel it) isn’t all that different from content marketing, or as some like to say, brand journalism. Reporters are writing stories that will inform and entertain their audience, and perhaps gain some attention and clicks along the way and help business. Those stories are worthwhile and helpful to the audience, but there’s incentive behind them that isn’t necessarily to act as an objective gatekeeper.

Additionally, the idea that everyone in the news business is a relentless do-gooder there to help society is a fairy tale. Yes, people in newsrooms are mission-driven people, and very often their idealists. But walk through any newsroom across America and you’re likely to hear about circulation, ratings or web traffic.

Content marketing more often than not serves as an educational tool to position a brand as trustworthy. There are brands utilizing content marketing purely for their bottom line. But there are great many other companies out there that are truly interested in informing their customers through content marketing.

For instance, does your healthcare provider or hospital send you an email newsletter chock full of articles about when to get your flu shot, why you should have regular physicals and everything you need to know about Ebola and enterovirus D68, complete with quotes from a respected physician? Well, that right there is content marketing. While those hospitals and healthcare providers do want you to keep coming back for their services, they also want to play a continued role as a source to help you make informed decisions about your health.

Yes, it’s true, brand journalism is intended to boost a brand’s bottom line.

And, frankly, that makes it more honest and transparent than much of journalism.