Journalist – “a blogger wearing pants?” Contributed and branded #content.

“A Senate panel working on laws to protect the media has agreed on an official definition of a journalist. The new official definition of a journalist is a blogger wearing pants.” –Conan O’Brien

Newspapers everywhere are shrinking and dying. The story is best told in a simple chart of real ad revenues borrowed from Business Insider:


As you can see vividly in this graph, from a peak in 2000 inflation-adjusted ad revenues for newspapers have dropped to 1950s levels. The closings, job losses and service cuts are what you would expect in an industry that has seen revenue decline by 70% in less than 15 years.

Pressure from social media and internet offerings has forced existing news companies to explore hybrid content approaches that many journalists see as a threat to integrity. Two popular “blended” content approaches blur the lines between journalism vs. blogging and journalism vs. advertising:

  1. Contributed Content, and
  2. Native Advertising or Branded Content.

These blended approaches also neatly address the pending crisis in content marketing brought about by Content Shock, the overwhelming amount of content available and the Post-Like era of social media, where social platforms make it harder for organizations to reach customers without paying for access. Organizations who can afford it, can use these techniques to reach an audience saturated with content, who are no longer easy to reach out to on social media.

These blended approaches are controversial though as discussed below:

I.    Contributed content – Bloggers – largely unsupervised and usually unpaid – contribute content to a branded journalistic site. The media site gets content; the contributor builds a personal brand and often advances a business or point of view. The sale of the Huffington post for over $300 million in 2011 drove home the potential of contributed content and clearly illustrated the fears of those warning of the dangers of digital sharecropping. Virtually all of the Huffington content had been obtained at no cost – a few owners shared hundreds of millions of dollars.

Forbes has been a leader among established media in using contributed content. However if you go to the page of your favorite team on Sports Illustrated and many other media sites you will see the practice in use. Forbes purchased the social news site True/Slant and granted the former CEO of True/Slant, Lewis Dvorkin, the new title of Chief Product Officer for Forbes. Dvorkin and Forbes have been very open about their new approach to journalism and have created considerable controversy.

The Forbes online site has become the leading business site in part because of the incredible amount of content generated by (usually) unpaid and unedited bloggers called “contributors.” According to Dvorkin an army of knowledgeable contributor specialists, who ARE sometimes paid – based on return views, complement the efforts of the traditional staff. The result is more and richer content for the consumer.

On the Forbes site the only differentiation between articles written by traditional journalists and unedited contributors is whether the word “staff” or “contributor” is used in the title under their names. So unless the reader is fairly knowledgeable and diligent, she won’t know whether an article on the Forbes site is written by a professional journalist or a blogger. There are several concerns raised about use of contributed content:

  1. Will it endanger traditional journalism by leading  to reduced roles and reduced job prospects? Will unpaid volunteers take the jobs of professionals? It is fair to note though that a downward trend in job prospects is already underway due to the decline in advertising dollars noted earlier.
  2. Diluting the media brand/Falsely branding a blogger. An authoritative media brand/reputation that Forbes built up over the past 97 years may be gradually worn down by less professional unsupervised bloggers. At the same time the credibility of a blogger using the Forbes brand is enhanced immediately without the usual effort to establish a community over an extended testing period. To take a trivial example, a number of my social media colleagues have been upset by a couple “Forbes” lists of influential people in social media and Twitter. There is a long tradition of fanciful and fun lists generated within the social media community such as “Nifty 50”, “Badass women of Twitter” and “Rising Stars.” It is assumed that the authors of such lists take some care in putting them together, but it is also assumed that there is room for friends, family and fun in assembling them. But the lists put together by Forbes contributors become Forbes lists and seem more authoritative to the world at large.
  3. Conflicts of Interest. Blogging is not easy: it takes real effort to write an interesting article every week that will appeal to a targeted community. Why do people blog for free? Three of the big motivations are to develop a personal brand, advance a consulting business or to promote a point of view. All three motivations lead to obvious conflicts of interest. Someone promoting a point of view will have a tendency to downplay evidence supporting another view. A contributor building a personal brand or consulting business will want to be kind to influential people, companies or groups in the targeted community.

II.   Native Advertising or Branded Content – Corporations or special interest groups pay to present their opinions on a media site. The value to the organization providing the branded content is higher the more: (1) credible the platform the content appears on, (2) it is presented in context – grouped with unpaid content on the same or similar topics and (3) it blends in with “real” content.

The New York Times, Forbes, Wall Street Journal and other publications have been experimenting with expanded native advertising. Native Advertising typically means adding more context to traditional advocacy ads, by placing them in a section where such issues are normally discussed or even next to an article on the topic and reducing the separation from journalistic content. Despite assurances by leading publications that branded content will be clearly marked and edited the rise of native advertising is seen as a real threat to the integrity of news organizations. Major concerns include:

  1. Paid content will be confused with the trusted content of the publication. Despite all the assurances of clear separation today, the revenue from native ads will encourage publications to enhance the context for such content.
  2. Native ads will dominate over other responses to the publication’s content. Same day and prominent location may make paid content the only reaction that really registers.
  3. Revenue from native ads and branded content will impact editorial judgement and choices. A loyal editor could increase revenues of a publication by concentrating investigative resources in areas that have deep-pocketed organizations or interest groups who will be eager to respond. This is analogous to the shaking-the-money-tree practice in Congress of proposing a bill not likely to pass, such as federal regulation of insurance, every couple of years to collect money from lobbyists.

What do you think about these new “Blended” approaches to journalism?

Are contributed content and native advertising opportunities to make journalism viable? Or are they a very “slippery slope” likely to accelerate the decline of American journalism?

Are there dangers to content marketers also?

Other articles on Native Advertising:

Links to articles on Contributor Content and the Future of Journalism:

This illustration is provided by Kikki Schirr


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7 Responses to Journalist – “a blogger wearing pants?” Contributed and branded #content.

  1. Bob Stepno says:

    I’ll stick with the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics as a guide to what “journalism” ought to be:

    The “seek the truth,” “act independently” and “be accountable” sections suggest that contents that are neither independent nor accountable should never be presented as news.

    Publications should clearly mark the work of advertisers, public relations and marketing departments, politicians or others with their own agendas… and have designers interact with readers to be sure they know what’s going on.

    The SPJ code is a living document, and there’s a revision discussion in progress inspired in part by some of the issues you mention:

  2. Gary Schirr says:

    Thanks Bob. I was expecting – and am pleased – to receive enlightening feedback from you!

  3. elkement says:

    An excellent post, Gary, lots of things to be sorted out. I can’t comment in a coherent way – I can relate to that on too many levels. So here are just some random thoughts:

    The journalism / writing culture is not one I am familiar with so I try to relate this to discussions about working for free in the tech world. It seems like a contradiction: I enjoy spending time in old-school technical discussion forums and provide detailed advice for free. On the other hand I never did those extensive (and unpaid) replies to requests for proposals by large organizations, reveal half the solution in your “pitches” etc. It is difficult to nail down the difference – I believe the first is about community (even though the whole world can read it), the second is just about being the loser in a power game.

    I am not sure how writing blog posts on one of these major media outlets would fit in – I think I wouldn’t want to do this even if it was paid. I totally agree with “internet philosopher” Jaron Lanier who criticizes that middle men and platform and infrastructure providers getting richer and richer (he calls them siren servers), fueled by the content of people unpaid or hardly paid.
    One of the reasons I picked WordPress as a blogging platform is because Automattic’s culture and ethics really stood out. I don’t write carefully crafted stuff on Google or on LinkedIn and would never use those as my major blogging platform.

    On the distinction between journalists and bloggers in general:
    I am not sure if I this had been the major categories I’d apply to “online writers”. I rather think of dividing them – probably naively – into those with skin in the game (Nassim Taleb’s definition) and fence-sitting commentators. In case of politics, the latter makes sense to me. But in case of technical or scientific subjects I prefer articles by “practitioners” who are also able to write well. I think the constant pressure to churn out sharable chunks of news is not doing tech journalism good (unpaid or not) – how to keep some subject matter expertise as a blogger / journalist if you entered that rat race?

  4. Gary Schirr says:

    Wow. Very thoughtful comment, Elke!

    The Siren Servers concept sounds very similar to the “digital sharecropper” metaphor – working for nothing to make the Zuckerbergs and Huffingtons rich…

    I think Forbes is really on to something in drawing specialist contributors to their site. But it again raises the Siren or sharecropping issue.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. elkement says:

    Thanks a lot, Gary! I think the (for me) most obnoxious would is: Working for nothing AND have your content embedded into sites drowning in ads and spying scripts and whose layout, related content displayed, strategy etc. you cannot not at all influence.

  6. Great sumary of an absolutely critical issue of our time. I hope society doe not allow this blur to occur. We need journalists — real journalists — for a healthy democracy. I think an “NPR model” of journalism will eventually come to the fore but who knows. Very scary to think through the implications and issues.

  7. Gary Schirr says:

    Thanks Mark.

    The genesis of the post – as is true so often – was a discussion with you about some of these conflicts.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

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