What does the rise of brand journalism mean? For one thing, it means journalists have to up their game

The rise of native advertising, and what some are calling “brand journalism,” has triggered a wave of revulsion and horror in media circles. A feature-length piece in the Financial Times is just the latest in a series of such pieces bemoaning the fact that PR people outnumber journalists 4 to 1, and companies are publishing their own newspapers. There’s no question the web has allowed brands to become media entities — so what should traditional media do about it?

As painful as it may be to hear, the only real answer is: try harder. In other words, traditional journalists need to step up their game, and try to give readers something extra — something unique, whether it’s insight or joy or whatever they feel is their unique selling proposition. Rewriting press releases isn’t going to work when companies live-stream and live-blog their own product launches.

Although some seem to believe that native advertising or brand journalism can be outlawed or exterminated if we just complain loudly enough, there’s not much point in trying to stuff this particular genie back in the bottle. As Josh Benton pointed out in a recent piece at the Nieman Journalism Lab, native advertising is here to stay — and in many ways has always been here, except it was called “advertorial.” Now it, like every other form of content, has escaped its leash and is roaming around, looking more or less indistinguishable from journalism.

The reader determines what is valuable

Critics of the phenomenon, including Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish, argue that native advertising and sponsored content blur the ethical lines in journalism and risk further decreasing the trust that readers have in media outlets — because they see it as tricking or pulling a fast one on the reader.

Billboard - targeted advertising

For my part at least, I don’t think that has to be the case. It definitely could be for media outlets that blur their own lines, and get their editorial staff to write what amounts to advertising copy — as some newspapers like the Globe and Mail in Toronto are rumoured to be doing. Ironically, it is the new-media entities like BuzzFeed and VICE that are taking the most care to keep those lines distinct by having a completely separate operation that creates branded content.

In any case, something that a former journalist says in the Financial Times piece really struck me: Thomas Kellner, who worked at Forbes and now works for GE, says that “People these days don’t care as much about where the story comes from as long as it tells them something.” There are a couple of different ways to take that kind of comment, and one is to see it as a cynical expression of how stupid many readers are, that they won’t even notice that something is advertising.

But to me, that comment gets at a central truth about media now, which is that the only real indicator of whether it has value or not is whether the reader says it does. Is it useful to them? Is it interesting? Those are the questions that matter, not whether a journalist thinks it’s journalism. That might not make anyone feel better about the state of media, but that’s the way things are. It’s a demand-based market now, not a supply-based one — consumers rule, not producers.

Reading newspapers

In other words, the best native advertising works because it meets all the tests of good content, not because it’s somehow tricking or hoodwinking users. If it is worthwhile, or provides useful information, or meets a need of some kind, then it will work. If not, it won’t. And that goes for all content — advertising or editorial.

Be of service to your audience

So the question for media outlets is: How do make your content more useful or more interesting than what your readers can get from the brands and other sources involved in a particular story? If you’re just repeating facts that are available elsewhere, including in press releases, then a smart brand or company will generate its own content — as Apple has started doing — and siphon off your casual readers. Successful content has to give them something more.

My friend Om wrote about how local journalism is changing, and how people who might once have read a newspaper are generating their own news, and finding it themselves through social networks, etc. What if a media outlet became a trusted source by aggregating some of that information — not just the kind that comes from companies or official sources, but the kind that comes from users?

This is where alternative media outlets like Reddit excel: they provide a place and tools for communities of interest to generate their own content and discuss events with each other. In some cases, useful information comes from those relationships, as it does on Twitter during incidents like the recent violent attack on a gay couple in Philadelphia — where unrelated users living a continent apart from each other helped identify the suspects within a matter of hours.

Journalism professor and author Jeff Jarvis has also written about how media entities need to think less about being producers of information, and more about how they are serving their readers. Because whoever does that best will win, and if happens to be a brand, then that’s not the reader’s fault, it’s the fault of all the other media outlets that failed to meet their needs.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Jupiter Images, Corbis / Paul Hardy and Thinkstock / Darrin Klimek