Corporate Storytelling and News Media Are Not Mutually Exclusive

FastCompany took my parting words to the media business to task last week and opened up a lively discussion around corporate storytelling.

Last month, I joined the Bateman Group’s content bureau after 15 years in the news business, stating the industry faces more turbulence ahead.

Journalists like an easy black-and-white story for drama. So it is that FastCompany portrayed my departing remarks as “jumping ship to the world of content marketing because editorial is dead.”

Editorial isn’t dead. Traditional media businesses — newspapers and magazines  — are an endangered species. They need a new business model. That’s especially so as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn swell in prominence as news distributors and suck up ad dollars.

But while old-media businesses scramble to find revenue streams, there’s no shortage of well-funded new players on the scene. Only the future knows whether these will pan out.

Meanwhile, the rise of social media as a powerhouse to deliver — and better target — stories to audiences means corporate storytelling has an enormous stage.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the news media business. The news media business exploits the same social media channels to connect with audiences and boost its traffic as do brand storytellers.

All business matters aside, the real issue is simple: Does corporate storytelling serve a purpose? Yes. Does it replace or is it “interchangeable” with work done by journalists at publications? Of course not. The job of investigative reporting, while on the decline in the chase for online eyeballs, will never be replaced by sponsored content to keep institutions in check.

Sponsored content serves a different purpose than free-wheeling journalism. It runs the gamut, so I won’t try to speak for all of it. But brands that turn to journalists (OK, former journalists) can expect well-crafted stories. Also, it doesn’t have to read like advertorial. For examples of well-written pieces, take a look at native advertising stories from The New York Times here and The Wall Street Journal’s here. These sponsored content forays deal in information — it’s useful, relevant and insightful — backed by Dell and Brocade, respectively. Many of these are written and edited by veteran journalists.

Media businesses are diving into sponsored content. The Atlantic, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Vice Media, Huffington Post, Mashable, Hacker News, Quartz and many others are taking the leap. Advertisers want more than banner ads and other forms that can be easily ignored. Plus, with so many digital publishers fighting  for advertising, this only makes sense for them. For some, it may be the difference between going under or staying afloat. For others, it may subsidize long-form content.

What’s important is that these pieces are clearly labeled as sponsored content. Both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times visibly mark these stories and note that the editorial departments of each have no involvement. Doing otherwise, of course, is a reader disservice and a breach of trust in publisher content. Likewise, native content from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn all abides by strict labeling guidelines so as not to dupe readers and lose their trust.

Sure, there have been some bad actors in sponsored content that have riled up critics. But how many times have big media players goofed it, getting spun or played? And having worked for the tech press for years, I can say much of the copy could serve well as advertising — hello, Apple blogs — for tech companies and offers little balance or skepticism.

Some giant news media companies have content marketing professionals from major PR firms writing freelance features and columns in their business section — without even so much as disclosures.

At least on this side, I know who butters my bread and am not trying to fool anyone.