Is brand journalism a bunch of bull?

Is brand journalism a bunch of bull?

Are brand journalists real journalists? Some say no.

Most folks would consider me a brand journalist. Since I oversee the blogs for my employer, SpareFoot, and am a former newspaper journalist, the expression would seem to fit. But because I work in the marketing department of SpareFoot and don’t work for a traditional media outlet, can I really be labeled a journalist?

These days, that’s open to interpretation.

You’ve got people who welcome the term — and the practice of — “brand journalism,” and you’ve got people who ridicule it. In case you’re not up to speed, brand journalism (also dubbed content marketing) refers to brands telling their own stories, but not packaging them as PR.

Byron McCauley spent 19 years as a newspaper journalist but left that industry seven years ago to pursue a career in PR. He believes in the power of brand journalism. McCauley told me that he foresaw a time when brand journalism would take hold, when companies that aren’t in traditional media “would see the value of producing their own really good content for public consumption.”

That time is here.

Back in 2011, Kirk Cheyfitz, CEO of digital agency Story Worldwide, told the Content Marketing Institute’s Joe Pulizzi this:

Whether or not someone is a journalist has to do with training, experience and intent, not with who does or doesn’t employ them.

And here’s what online marketing strategist David Meerman Scott told Pulizzi:

A storyteller is a storyteller no matter who he is telling the story to.

Not everyone is sold on the philosophy shared by Cheyfitz and Scott, though.

For SpareFoot’s main blog, I recently wrote a piece about brand journalism. Almost everybody who responded to my queries for that blog post embraced brand journalism; PR pro Ford Kanzler was the lone naysayer.

Kanzler said he took “serious issue with so-called brand journalism.”

“It’s a fad, pure and simple,” he told me. “The term is a half-baked, made-up, oxymoronic expression apparently invented by people who forgot or are somehow embarrassed they’re either marketing copywriters or perhaps even PR pros.”

Kanzler, a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, asserted that the words “brand” and “journalism” do not belong together.

“Because someone inside a company or agency writes stuff that’s — hopefully or allegedly — nonfiction doesn’t make them a journalist,” he said. “They’re writing to promote something for sale. They’re either one or the other, but not simultaneously and magically both.”

Kanzler said organizations that claim to be engaging in something “new” called brand journalism “are simply fooling themselves.”

In this “debate,” if you can call it that, I’ve got to side with Cheyfitz and Scott. Just because I now write and edit the blogs for a brand doesn’t mean I simultaneously tossed my journalism degree — and my ethics — out the window. And if that makes me a fool, then so be it.

In pretty much every blog post we publish at SpareFoot, I insist on adherence to stringent journalistic standards. Our staff reporter (yes, we have one) has a journalism background, as does almost every freelancer who writes for us. If those standards weren’t in place, readers would see right through the mirage and dismiss the content as crap.

Does SpareFoot’s brand of journalism carry considerably less weight because it’s not traditional journalism? Does brand journalism merit more scrutiny than its traditional counterpart? 

To the first question, I answer “no.” Good stories are good stories, and most readers are smart enough to realize when they’re coming from a brand and when they’re not. In the end, how much does that really matter?

Furthermore, not every piece of brand content seeks to persuade readers to buy a product or service. At its core, much of the content on SpareFoot’s blogs isn’t designed to push the agenda of the company (which operates an online marketplace for self-storage units); it’s designed to enlighten and entertain readers. If a reader happens to book a storage unit after checking out one of our blog posts, then that’s a bonus.

To the second question, I answer “maybe.” Probably not every type of brand journalism deserves a free pass. But neither does every variety of traditional journalism — particularly in this era of opinion-heavy blogs and TV programs.

Despite any shortcomings, brand journalism does not qualify as a fad. It’s here for the long haul. And I, for one, am not embarrassed to be putting my hard-earned skills to work in brand journalism. As a matter of fact, I’m looking forward to what the future holds for this brand of journalism.

What do you think about brand journalism? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Interested in more about brand journalism? Check out this post by Muck Rack contributor Alicia Lawrence for a primer.

John Egan is editor in chief at SpareFoot, an Austin, Texas-based startup that operates the country’s largest online marketplace for self-storage units.

Photo: Woman on tablet via Shutterstock

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