Another paper folds. Another round of layoffs. Another year without a raise. No matter how much journalists love their jobs, the state of the industry can be trying. It’s why so many freelancers have ended up behind closed doors, battling moral conundrums as they scout better-paying gigs over in the marketing world.
Content marketing is a step removed from traditional marketing. Rather than simply putting out a display ad and hoping customers bite, companies are creating and publishing content that has real value for the consumer. Whether it’s a weight loss company that puts out a magazine or a car company that runs a blog about the industry, the content is meant to attract new customers and keep them coming back for more.
“Our customers are in complete control of the buying process today,” explained Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute. “They can ignore all our product and service messages,” with the ability to stream commercial-free TV or avoid online ads. “Content marketing helps us build relationships over time because we give them extreme value through information.”
Content marketing was a $44 billion industry in 2012, in the latest research available from The Content Council. The majority of this money was spent on printed content and most of it was targeted at consumer audiences in everything from AAA Living magazine to Bloomingdale’s The Pink Book.
Spend a couple minutes browsing freelance websites and you’ll see businesses looking for all types of content. They range from advertorials, or fluff pieces aimed at disguising ads, to what’s often called brand journalism, or otherwise traditional articles where a business happens to be footing the bill. Companies are targeting journalists for much of this work, Pulizzi said, thanks to their knack for being both good researchers and good storytellers.
But the question remains: Can journalists write hard news stories one day and features for an airline magazine the next? Can an individual retain a journalistic identity if he occasionally writes finance pieces for Bank of America’s website or white papers for a supermarket chain?
“I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil about someone who is a journalist doing different kinds of work, some that are clear, pure journalism and some that are not,” said Loren Ghiglione, professor of media ethics at Northwestern University. While there may have once been an idealized wall between those two worlds, Ghiglione said, “The wall is crumbling, if it even exists anymore.”
Much of that is due to the state of the industry, he said, where journalists are less often able to be dedicated employees of one media outlet and more often find themselves entrepreneurs cobbling together a variety of jobs.
Editors who once drew such hard lines in the sand are also now looking to the marketing world for tips on how to drive more traffic to their stories, said Dennis McCafferty, who oversees content creation for the Washington, D.C.-based tech PR firm W2 Communications.
“The dynamics have changed,” McCafferty said. “It’s all kind of blurring at this point.”
McCafferty started out as a journalist covering plane crashes and corrupt politicians when he worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. By the time he landed at USA Weekend magazine, the line had already started to blur, he said, with the magazine aggressively pursiung partnerships with brands like CMT and NASCAR. So it didn’t feel like any sort of leap for him to start doing freelance work for the businesses themselves.
“All the sudden, I’m doing what I consider to be pretty close to traditional journalism,” McCafferty said. “It’s just that my paycheck is coming from Ritz Carlton.”
Never once was McCafferty told to make sure he snuck a plug about Ritz Carlton into his story, for example, on Serena Williams’ interior design venture—something many traditional journalists might fear would be commonplace in that world. But it was also clear that he wouldn’t include a plug for Holiday Inn—a decision traditional journalists would weigh based on the value that detail added to the story.
The key to straddling both worlds, McCafferty says, is full disclosure. You can’t, say, do content marketing for Lowe’s and then report objectively on something that’s going on with Home Depot.
“I would certainly want the boundaries of the two worlds to be clear,” Ghiglione said. “I would be nervous, for example, if somebody was doing both kinds of work for the same company.”
Some marketers have even developed codes of ethics for that intersection of journalism and content marketing. The general ideas are that the content must stay true to the journalistic principles of responsible and accurate reporting and the entity behind the creation of the content must be made clear to the reader.
That’s key for Ghiglione. Publications, especially mainstream news outlets, need to ensure that sponsored content is clearly labeled as such. And while journalists may not be able to control that decision, they can check the company’s track record and ask how the sponsored content will be presented. If the goal is to use that material to dupe readers into consuming an ad, that may not be the job for a journalist.
Beyond ethical landmines, which Ghiglione is confident savvy journalists can avoid, he said the decision about whether to work in both worlds is more about the reputation and brand that person wants to build. Journalists who want to be known as tough, watchdog reporters might want to think twice about working outside that field—especially since not every editor or audience will be comfortable with that dual role.
“It’s about being smart in what you do,” Justin Braun said.
Braun, 26, has danced back and forth between the two worlds since he was in college. As he was earning his MBA concentrated in marketing, he was writing articles and editing his school newspaper. Today, he’s a fulltime freelancer in Orlando, Fla. alternating between arts pieces for local magazines and marketing work for a variety of companies.
“It has never been an issue of concern for any of my clients,” Braun said, “and I never let any of the two cross over.”
Each assignment needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, he said. But generally, it’s about keeping your standards high, never letting inside company information seep into your journalism and not taking on traditional journalism work about companies that have hired you to produce content.
If journalists want content marketing work, it will likely be there.
“The majority of journalists in the future will be hired by brands,” Pulizzi predicted, with more resources there than struggling media companies can provide. “Large enterprises need to tell a lot of compelling stories in a lot of niche areas, and they need experts to help them.”
The world always need traditional journalists, and McCafferty has nothing but respect for his old journalism buddies who’ve been able to forge lasting careers while staying true to that world. But for those ready and willing to reinvent themselves, he said, “It’s a brave new era.”