2014-05-08

Co.Labs

Is Corporate Storytelling Replacing The News Business?

One former USA Today editor says that he's jumping ship to the world of content marketing because editorial is dead. Is there any business model that can save the future of news?



Today's discussion: When journalism's business model falters, should we all jump ship to "corporate storytelling," also known as content marketing?

Is there room for a news business in the media landscape that doesn't include paid PR? This recently departed USA Today editor doesn't think so. Where (if anywhere) do we see evidence that news can still be a big business?


As a journalist I see the appeal of leaving a noble profession and becoming a corporate storytelling hack. Journalism is really hard work. It’s more than just sitting down and writing. It’s leveraging your contacts to find a good story, it’s following the latest events on a daily basis, it’s research, research, research, interviews, and then, finally, writing. And for all this work—one article could easily take 30-40 hours to complete—journalists don’t make a lot of money. And the money they make is going down.

That’s where corporate storytelling comes in. As more print and digital journalism outlets forgo meaningful content in favor of clicks, more journalists say the industry is going in the wrong direction. Many news outlets don’t respect journalists anymore—and it shows. So why shouldn’t the journalists jump to soul-crushing corporate storytelling, which, by the way, might as well be called "corporate spin"? If you’re on a sinking raft and have a mortgage to pay it’s better for you and your family to jump ship to the corporate cruise liner—just don’t call yourself a journalist anymore.

Of course the good news is that some news outlets have begun to see the error in their ways of treating journalists as mere content monkeys. Good magazine has just announced it is hiring its editorial staff back after laying them off in favor of becoming a community crowdsourced content platform last year. Their traffic dropped almost 20% since that disastrous decision, which shows just how valuable a good editorial staff truly is. Hopefully other news outlets will reverse course on how they treat journalists or we’ll see many more talented writers running to become corporate shills so they can pay the bills. Michael Grothaus


Despite the rise of content marketing, there is always room for publications that champion opinion. An extreme case, Valleywag particularly stands out from the crowd. The site is the antithesis of public relations fodder. When Valleywag wrote about Sean Parker’s opulent Big Sur wedding last year, they called it "Tackier Than We Ever Dreamt." It is hard to believe that a corporate PR person would try to push that sort of snarky message through Valleywag’s channels, so the article was definitely free of corporate meddling. Most importantly, the piece’s opinionated stance got eyes on the page. Snark and subversion are funny. PR is not.

But there is certainly room for paid content in the media, as well. Companies always need to tell their stories to frame their products to gain consumer interest. The journalism startup Contently has made its business by connecting big brands with freelance journalists. Meeting both parties’ objectives, companies have access to talented writers, while freelance journalists can make money on their stories through Contently’s business model. The companies and the writers win. Whether the reader wins is questionable.

In both scathing blogging-journalism and company-backed stories, someone’s agenda is going to reach the reader. Whether it is taking down a tech entrepreneur through personal attacks or selling airplane tickets through a paid travel feature, the reader will ultimately have to decide how the people producing the content affects their understanding of the situation. The issue is not how to save journalism but how to make us better readers. Tina Amirtha


Martin says content marketing is "a massive opportunity for journalists," but this final sentence of Martin's piece appears to be missing a key word: former. This veteran of USA Today, Red Herring, and CNet is doing something new, and it's in no way journalism. That distinction that is sometimes blurry in this internal industry debate over content marketing and the future of journalism. But I like to think that for readers, the line is not so fuzzy, and that corporate PR disguised as news will send bullshit detectors flashing.

The Atlantic/Scientology sponsored content debacle is the most encouraging evidence yet that readers are indeed paying attention. Yet for us practitioners of these two different professions, the distinction isn't always as clear as it could be. Often, it is clear, but we dabble in both because we are freelance writers trying to pay the bills (I've been there). And as it turns out, the website bankrolled by the major brand cuts bigger checks and deposits them more quickly than the overworked editorial assistant at the understaffed magazine.

But to pick on Martin a little bit, he rightly points out that "companies can now bypass trying to get news coverage, making traditional news media even less important… Corporations are racing to exploit this opportunity to better reach audiences with stories."

All of this is true. But the premise that journalism and content marketing are thus interchangeable rests on an assumption that would make any of my J-school professors squeamish: That journalism exists in part to help corporations tell stories. Imagine if Standard Oil had offered Ida Tarbell a healthy salary to edit their corporate newsletter instead of writing all those pesky exposes. Would she have taken it?

Of course, modern journalism often does have an effect that resembles "corporate storytelling." I've written plenty of stories profiling interesting startups or illustrating the successes of larger companies. But when I do that, I'm always reporting and writing as a service to our readers, not the companies I'm writing about. Often, these companies are thrilled with my stories. Sometimes they're pissed.

USA Today is a newspaper. And just because legacy outlets like it haven't returned to its 1990s peak of profitability (nor will they) doesn't mean the entire profession is going down in flames. The good news is that people are trying new things in publishing every day. Armed with new tools and platforms, smart people can experiment with new ways to deliver news, tell stories, explain just about everything, and yes, even do investigative, Pulitzer-winning journalism. New journalistic enterprises are launching. Venture capitalists are even opening their checkbooks for publishers. If you ask me, it's an exciting time to be in the industry. John Paul Titlow


News is what somebody does not want you to print, and the rest is advertising. "Corporate storytelling" is not journalism, but then neither is most of what you see in the technology press, either. In fact, there has actually been progress in this regard. The early online tech press didn't even tell stories. It described features or spouted opinions about gear. I see my own articles mostly as fascinating stories which happen to involve technology, but are actually about people.

Journalism is more than storytelling. At their best, journalists use skilled storytelling to tell uncomfortable truths, to bring to light significant facts which would otherwise remain in obscurity. That means identifying what's important, verifying the facts, separating the naked truth from the corporate spin. It's also the naked truth that this is not what most journalists do on every story. There simply isn't enough time or budget, and maybe there doesn't need to be. Yet another product launch frankly may not merit this kind of scrutiny, but there are stories in the tech world that do, and those are the ones for which we need journalists, not just storytellers.

A world where news is delivered by social media doesn't need less of these old-fashioned journalistic skills, it needs more, as startups like Storyful have demonstrated. When there's a constant deluge of unfiltered information, much of it supplied by corporations, what and who can you trust? Ciara Byrne

[Image: Flickr user Lee Thatcher]




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4 Comments

  • Great article. There absolutely needs to be grounded, thought-out pieces that can be stand as brand journalism. There is nothing wrong with the journalism industry shifting into corporate gigs - but I am agreeing that it is not an invitation to lose integrity and lose the humanistic side of reporting.

  • Nice article! I agree that difference between content marketing and journalism is sometimes really blurry since both are about creating and sharing relevant and valuable content that engage customers/readers. Also, you're right, journalism is more than storytelling, it has the responsability to inform and go further than providing a good story. Tech journalists seem sometimes to forget it.