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Navigating the World of Branded Content as a Journalist

Ed Note: Lauren Cannon is our newest contributing author to the Parse.ly blog. As a freelancer, Lauren has been navigating the world of branded content for the past few years. We asked her to introduce herself by sharing some thoughts about her experience before she starts writing for the blog, as it is, technically, branded content. 

Maintaining journalistic integrity in the current media climate has been a challenging experience in recent years for myself and other writers. I was once a newly minted liberal arts graduate seeking her first gig in a bustling newsroom. That was in 2005 when fellow classmates were faithfully utilizing JournalismJobs.com and internships as surefire portals into post grad careers. Several years later, I became a full-time freelance writer out of necessity in the wake of the economic crash. Several of my friends in the industry, many of whom toiled for years at outlets with international name recognition, found themselves laid off and seeking work via private industry writing, even sourcing gigs via Craigslist.

During this time I witnessed the rise of the titles like “social media maven.” Though social media experts are, today, sought after specialists in a growing marketing field, they were then, in my circle, a fledgling group of underemployed writers using their skills to etch out a new career path in a nascent industry. It was in this era that I saw journalists who once coveted employment in evaporating newsrooms seeking financial stability by creating content for brands backed by million dollar budgets. The success experienced writers created through micro-content creation led to increased requests from companies to craft long-form copy for their blogs on a regular basis. Brands discovered they could foster community engagement with buyers and “humanize” their products through the skills journalists had to offer.

The impetus for the defection of many journalists into brand marketing was the downsizing of those same cash poor newsrooms. Now, we’ve truly come full circle as the news organizations have tapped a new stream of income by soliciting the creation of advertisements that come from copy, often by those writers that left the newsrooms earlier. Enter: The era of SPONSORED CONTENT.Ad-Age-Content-Studio

Branded content, sponsored content and native advertising are all hybrids of editorial and advertorial writing. The concept, in and of itself, is not a new phenomenon. In an interview with Contently, Copyblogger founder and CEO Brian Clark likened branded content to the sponsored television shows of the 1940s and product placement in films. This new era sees the next step in that evolution: media empires such as Mashable, The New York Times, and Buzzfeed creating entire studios for branded content.

Conde-Content-Studio

Some of this is part of an effort to redirect cash flow from what will hopefully become antiquated forms of online ads that rely on volume, encouraging “click-bate” tactics to return any meaningful revenue. Traditional magazines such as The Atlantic, in the wake of fledgling digital ad sales, beefed up their online extensions by creating content that is sold by in-house marketing teams to companies as “editorial packages” for sums as high as six-figures.

As a result of this trend, many journalists at major publications have had first hand experience with crafting copy with a client in mind. Tim Donnelly, a Features Reporter for New York Post and the managing editor of webzine Brokelyn.com, recognizes the need for non-editorial reporting.

“For news organizations to survive, we must be more creative in bringing in advertising dollars. Where I think it can compromise hard journalism is when reporters assigned to those topics are in any way influenced in their coverage, or denied resources, due to the needs/desires of whatever branded content the organization is working on overall,” says Donnelly.

Donnelly also recognizes the fringe benefits of advertorial writing. “Branded content is not always pure advertising either: I’ve seen really great essays, lists and even the occasional gif-sticle that is sponsored by a brand, but still interesting/entertaining to read (so long as the entire content is telling an interesting story, not just shilling for the brand the whole time).”

Still, some journalists with many years in the industry have been loathe to compromise their craft by engaging in copywriting for brands; those who are decidedly not on the branded content bandwagon. Lyneka Little, a freelance journalist who has written for publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to ABCNews.com, believes in a metaphorical separation of church and state.

“A decade ago, journalists and newspaper marketing teams did not have to share a “brain.” Excluding the rise of the Internet, there’s nothing that has changed drastically in the last decade that should require journalists and the marketing team (what branding content people are) to work together. The job of a journalist is not to figure out how to make money for a media outlet or how to sell a product,” she says.

Little is also against the idea that journalists should have to compromise their given job of reporting in order to appease this growing trend. “The only time I have created “content” is when I was working outside of traditional media. And, honestly, I would refuse to write “branding content” at an outlet where I ‘report and write.’”

Regardless of the opinions or personal objections of writers themselves, branded content is now a fixture of the news industry and will most likely grow to meet the increased financial needs of publishers. The questions is, will journalists be jumping on board or staying out of the conversation?

Lauren Cannon has written for national publications such as Inc. and Fast Company and is the voice and vision behind UpendED. She specializes in reporting on entrepreneurship in niche markets and the evolving landscape of tech startups. She is based in Brooklyn, NY.