Brand Journalism: Why the faulty arguments need to end

/Brand Journalism: Why the faulty arguments need to end

Brand Journalism: Why the faulty arguments need to end

A recent article in Contently stated in bold letters, “There’s no such thing as brand journalism.” It then supplied a handy data graphic designed to define the important terms of content marketing:

  • brand publishing
  • branded content, aka custom content
  • native advertising
  • sponsored content
  • brand journalism

I had to smile; they included brand journalism in their list to reiterate that it doesn’t exist. It’s like putting a word in a dictionary just to say it’s not a word.

If you already know what’s coming and you’re not interested in listening to a rant, why not head over to the latest episode of Brand Newsroom.

photo of an old typewriter

Let the brand journalism rant begin

Contently recommends brand reporting. It also encourages brands to build media empires and be proud of the effort.  They have lots of articles talking about brand journalists and journalists working for brands. But they continue to say, in bold letters, the waddling, quacking feathered fowl is NOT a duck. I say it is.

It’s not just Contently taking this stance. Many traditional journalists feel the same way.  The wonderful Jill Golden published an article on LinkedIn called, Please Stop Calling Content Marketing Brand Journalism. The former journalist turned content marketer admits her blood pressure rises whenever she hears the term ‘brand journalism’. She argues,

“Journalism should be agenda-less, agnostic and objective. Journalists should cover both sides of a story, giving the audience a clear, accurate and unbiased account.”

That would be wonderful, but I don’t think there’s a news outlet in existence that’s completely unbiased – at least not anymore. News organisations have agendas. They have political leanings. They have editorial guidelines that say what they will and won’t cover. They take positions. They choose sides. They endorse political candidates. They influence who the next music or movie star will be. They influence what the next fashion trend will be. They influence what kinds of food we’ll eat and who will be the next celebrity chef. And they do it all under the veil of objectivity – so let’s not fool ourselves here.

An elitist’s view of journalism

I believe what’s at the heart of this debate is a kind of elitist opinion that traditional media is better or more worthy than brand media. The arguments used against brand journalism tend to centre on the issue of transparency – as if there’s an inherent intent on the part of brand journalists to deceive or confuse the public. I think that’s a little bit precious, to be honest. The best content marketing and brand journalism puts the customer interests at the forefront of everything.

It’s interesting to note that less than two years ago, Contently was talking about how social media is stripping away the taboos of brand journalism. So they’ve done a flip themselves.

Saying brand journalism can’t be journalism because the consumer might get confused does two things:

1)   It makes the assumption that the reader or viewer isn’t smart enough to discern good content from bad.

2)   It ignores the fact that a lot of journalism is rotten, too. The tabloid news and plenty of mainstream media don’t have the lofty standards the brand journalism naysayers use to demonstrate their point.

Does sports reporting favour the hometown team? Does entertainment reporting court local celebrities? Do local news stations give equal coverage to rival cities? That doesn’t mean those reporters are not journalists or working in journalism. Like sports, entertainment or local interest stories, brand journalism is just another flavour of journalism.

To take this thread a bit further, can you say animated films are not cinema? Would you say a podcast is not part of radio? Are illustrations not art? I know debate rages around each of these topics but the popularity of all of them – albeit a burgeoning popularity for podcasts – shows the public doesn’t really care about high-brow views. They’re happy to consume content that informs or entertains.

photo of a brand journalists desk getting ready for a podcast

Where brand journalism differs

Here’s where journalism and brand journalism differ. Brand journalism has an intent to get you to participate in the brand, usually through purchasing a product or service. (Wait a minute, aren’t journalists focused on getting readers to purchase a newspaper or watch a newscast? The publishers certainly have that goal.) Brand journalism includes a call to action but it doesn’t negate the reporting any more than a paperboy yelling, “Extra, Extra, Read all about it,” and asking for money before handing over the news.  In most cases, brands provide their content free of charge. Newspapers don’t. TV and radio force you to sit through advertisements.

But I believe it’s another difference fuelling this debate. Journalists, by nature are sceptical. Many of them are downright cynical. You can’t bring a chip on your shoulder to brand journalism. But lacking cynicism in your work doesn’t make you a fraud and it doesn’t make you unethical. And, honestly, it doesn’t confuse the general public.

Content marketing is NOT native advertising

And while I’m ranting, let me set another thing straight. Contently is also confused about content marketing. Joe Pulizzi took the Wall Street Journal to task last week for making a similar mistake. Contently says content marketing is, “the overarching practice of using information and entertainment to promote a brand or a product.”  That’s a bit thin. I prefer Pulizzi’s definition,

“Content marketing is a strategic marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

Just because something is published, doesn’t make it content marketing. Advertising is not content marketing. Native advertising is not content marketing. PR is not content marketing. As Pulizzi states,

In content marketing, you own the media. It’s your asset. In native advertising, you are paying someone else to distribute and (ultimately) own your content.”

Daniel Hatch, the marketing and media editor at The West Australian newspaper covered The Sticky Problem with Native Advertising at the Global Copywriting blog. Make sure to have a read for more insight.

Why the debate needs to end

Journalists and brand journalists bickering and trying to discredit each other over semantics is a problem. We’re missing out on the opportunity to keep the public better informed and better entertained. Good brand journalism – like good traditional journalism – rises to the top. Brand journalism is full of traditional journalists and that’s only good for the consumer. It raises the bar on what brands are able to do. It makes marketing better.

Quite frankly, brand journalism is saving traditional journalism. Brands are buying media companies, and brands like Red Bull are creating media that’s selling in traditional channels.  (The Red Bulletin magazine is now for sale on better newsstands in the USA.) Traditional journalists working for brands are better compensated and have more job security than ever before. This is the beginning of a new age for journalism and there’s room for everyone.

What’s your view on the brand journalism debate? We’d love to hear your opinion.

by Sarah Mitchell

By | 2017-07-19T21:53:59+00:00 November 11th, 2014|Categories: Content Marketing|6 Comments

About the Author:

Sarah Mitchell is Director of Content Strategy at Lush. She develops content marketing and community engagement strategies for clients in a variety of industries. Sarah frequently speaks on topics related to Content Marketing, Brand Storytelling and Social Media. She's a co-host of the Brand Newsroom podcast and the Australian editor for Chief Content Officer magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahMitchellOz.


  1. Daniel Hatch Nov 11, 2014 at 7:14 am

    Sarah, a great blog post.
    Speaking as a journalist, I think journalists get protective of the word “journalist” itself. It’s a rare skill set with a special place in our democracy.

    The fact that many journalists these days are reworking press releases (churnalism) and that journalism generally is now so under resourced that it’s hard to find time and money to do the genuinely world-changing reporting doesn’t come into it for them.

    We work hard to get jobs in this industry. We claw and fight to keep jobs in a shrinking profession for less-and-less profitable media companies with broken business models and work for terrible pay believing we’re doing good.
    Many journalists would like to see “journalist” a protected word, as “architect” is a protected word, so that not just anyone could call themselves a journalist.

    But here’s my take: where do old journalists go to die? They go to PR. We call it “the dark side”. I don’t happen to agree with that characterization but PR IS a different discipline entirely. It’s not something that’s attractive to me as a career choice beyond my newspaper career.

    But brand journalism is precisely the same skill set.

    The only difference is you’re serving a different master. And by that, I don’t just mean the person paying your wages (after all, your boss is still just a commercial organisation with commercial imperatives). I’m also talking about whose cause you’re championing. Generally, we’re champions for our community, or victims, or the underprivileged, or a rare endangered species, or a local industry… you get the idea. Brand journalists are champions for their brand. That’s it. Yes, for some that’s a shift from what they see as altruistic causes to a commercial cause, but consider this – if you were leaving journalism for PR in any case, you were already making that leap.

    For me, brand journalism is an opportunity for journalists to do what they do best – to use those incredible, rare, and highly atuned skills – without having to adjust their skillset in the way the traditional shift to PR does.
    As a final observation, journalists whinge about PR their whole career until they run off to join it in search of more money. Brand journalism will probably be the same.

    • Sarah Mitchell Nov 11, 2014 at 9:27 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Dan. You make an interesting point about the habit of journalists moving into PR. You’re right, the sector is full of ex-journalists all claiming they have the inside story on how to influence the media. In many cases they do. But PR is dying because for far too long they’ve held brands to ransom. With content marketing – and specifically brand journalism – any brand producing great content can circumvent PR altogether.

      I do believe brands have a lot to contribute and the public is willing to hear about it. As you well know, telling good stories, writing well, having a strong editorial and publishing consistently is difficult but not impossible. And I also know not all traditional media is good, not all journalists are good at what they do and even the best of them spend a lot of time in Drudgeville. Like professional sports where only a few athletes become superstars, most journalists are not breaking news or doing hardcore investigative journalism every day.

      I’m all for the free press. But I’m also for an environment where all journalists can earn a good living doing something they love. Brand journalism allows them the opportunity and I don’t think they need to compromise their professional ethics to do it.

  2. Mark Ragan Nov 18, 2014 at 7:52 pm


    Wonderful post. I wish I had written it myself.

    This debate is pointless, really. Who cares what we call it — brand publishing, content marketing, etc — as long as it works.

    I use the term brand journalism because it gets across a subtle difference that I want my clients to understand — that we are most effective when we’re not selling to them, when we’re not pushing our products. Instead, we’re demonstrating our expertise in a particular field and letting that expertise sell for us.

    If you work as a communicator for the prostate cancer division at a hospital, your strategy is to cover prostrate cancer, to become a filter for your niche so you become a trusted source for survivors and newly diagnosed patients. This means you’ll cover not only the developments at your hospital but at other hospitals as well.

    The same is true if you work for a government agency that helps businesses export products abroad. Your researchers and economists have a wealth of information to share; it’s your job as the communicator to erect a bridge to the public that delivers this information to businesses you serve.

    Is that journalism? Yes, sort of. Is it content marketing? Hell no!

    To me the journalism part is how you write and report the story. Your eye is always on the audience, and your skill as a storyteller is paramount. It just happens that seasoned journalists are good at this — hence the boom in hiring them.

    My take.

    • Sarah Mitchell Nov 25, 2014 at 4:29 am

      Hi Mark,

      How did I miss your comment? I’m so sorry.

      I think you address a really important point; not all brand journalism is designed to thrust another widget into the hands of the consumer. Most of it probably isn’t designed to pitch that high volume, low price point consumer product. I do think the B2B space lends itself beautifully to brand journalism and you’ve given great examples.

      I disagree with you though. Brand Journalism is part of content marketing, especially the way I see content marketing. Research, white papers, case studies, blog posts, and print magazines all benefit when developed by a brand journalist and they’re all cornerstones of content marketing. Yes, there’s a lot of pulp out there but that’s true of all media.

      Thanks so much for your valuable comment. I appreciate it.

  3. Tom Sommers Nov 29, 2014 at 6:49 am

    I’m struggling with why the term, ‘brand journalism’ even exists.

    Can we simplify the issue and say that information that helps to educate the consumer without explicit sales, is content marketing.

    Generally unbiased reporting (with both sides of the story) is journalism.

    Blatant sales/selling of a brand’s benefits with a call to action, is advertising. End of story.

    Maybe I’m being naïve, but in an effort to simplify marketing for the brand and the consumer’s understanding, it almost seems we’re splitting hairs and over complicating.

  4. Sarah Mitchell Dec 03, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Hi Tom,

    You’re not alone in your struggle. I think it’s fair to say a lot of what we’re struggling with is semantics. Lee Odden took a crack at defining all these terms. You might be interested to read his take:

    Thanks for weighing in.

Comments are closed.