New options for journalists are not necessarily a path to shame2013-10-16
Journalism is a dicey career these days. To read some of the journalism-focused blogs, options are limited as traditional news outlets continue to shed staff while seaching for revenue. You can try to make it as a blogger (a path down which Garry Trudeau has been led his Doonesbury reporter, Rick Redfern). You can freelance. You can join the PR ranks. For a lot of reporters, that last choice also entails, in the view of some reporters, shedding your journalistic ethics. Once you were a watchdog of the public’s interests; now you’re a shill for businesses with fat bank accounts.
Writing for PandoDaily, Hamish McKenzie took tech company news jobs off the table. “Tech companies likely aren’t going to save you from your low-paying, high-drudgery jobs at newspapers, magazines, TV channels, radio stations, or blogs,” he wrote. “If you’re looking for the easy way out—a fatter pay check, a move to the suburbs, normal working hours—then your best option is still PR.”
I made that move 36 years ago. I hadn’t been a journalist for long, but it had been my goal since I was about 14 years old. It wasn’t Woodward and Bernstein who inspired me to become a reporter. It was James Stewart as the hard-driving, obstinate P.J. McNeal in the 1947 movie, Call Northside 777. (I even envisioned Lee J. Cobb as my editor.)
So I got a degree in journalism and worked as an intern for a daily newspaper, then as an assistant editor for a weekly before I got my first corporate communications job as a staff writer for the weekly employee newspaper at ARCO. All the skills I acquired in school and working for papers applied, but the goals were different.
The fact that I found work that suited me outside of mainstream journalism doesn’t mean that today’s reporters have to face as start a choice as McKenzie suggests: PR or low-income jobs. New journalism models are evolving; journalists writing for ProPublica, for example, have already earned two Pulitzers and a Peabody, among an impressive list of other honors.
One of the most promising avenues, though, is still through the world of business. Unlike PR, though, this new option doesn’t involve relinquishing the journalist label in exchange for PR practitioner. While reporters taking this road won’t be unraveling corruption in sweeping investigative series, they still practice journalism as journalists.
In a report published yesterday, Everything PR listed some of the recent hires Edelman has made “to support the growth of its Creative Newsroom offering.”
Edelman’s Newsroom is configured to identify real-time opportunities to create assets and contribute to conversations in support of client content strategies. Recent additions to the Newsroom come from storied news organizations like The Washington Post, USA Today, AP and CNN. The Newsroom cranks out content in form of native advertising, material for content portals and other outlets.
Edelman U.S. CEO Mark Hass sees a need for real journalism—not more PR—in the execution of all this content, the need for which is exploding. “Including journalists as newsroom leaders enables the team to identify, shape and disseminate relevant, snackable stories, insights and visuals across both traditional and digital media,” he said. “The Newsroom is an effective way to attract people to Edelman who think in a different way, making the firm increasingly more valuable in a business environment where things are changing so quickly.”
Edelman is not alone. AdAge recently surveyed four operations that are staffing up in order to produce content for the surging native advertising space. Former Ragan staffer Michael Sebastian looked at BuzzFeed (which has established separate newsrooms to support production of content with partners like Virgin Mobil), Gawker Media, The Washington Post, and Hearst. Each has created separate units staffed with writers who are tasked with producing relevant, timely content audiences want to read, not press releases and position papers.
Gawker, for example, has created Studio@Gawker, which employs four full-time writers on its staff of 16. They also tap into the freelancer community to produce native sponsored posts for for companies that spend more than $50,000 on Gawker properties. WP BrandConnect is The Washington Post’s solution, also hiring writers among other content professionals “with modern journalism sensibilities,” as Kevin Gentzel, chief revenue officer for the Post, puts it.
A look at the roster of journalists contributing to Cisco Systems’ Network reveals a corps of writers with top-drawer experience. They come from The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, The Industry Standard, PBS, Forbes Fortune, FastCompany and others. Intel’s Free Press is staffed by full-time journalists who operate independently from the company’s marketers.
Nobody anywhere is suggesting that this type of “brand journalism” will (or should) replace public journalism practiced in the public interest. The critics are right when they say a journalist working for Acme will never conduct an investigation of alleged Acme misdeeds. A vibrant fourth estate is as vital today as it ever was, if not more.
But that doesn’t diminish the potential to produce quality journalism on behalf of companies as part of the current content gold rush. In fact, it’s leading to some brilliant reporting on interesting and important topics that never would have made it into the pages of traditional newspapers.
PandoDaily’s McKenzie may or may not be right when he says the move toward hiring news editors by tech companies like Twitter and Yahoo isn’t sustainable. It’s just too early to tell if companies that are increasingly becoming media outlets in their own right will see a need for more professional journalists.
There’s no denying, however, that new models for journalists are emerging. One key challenge is for journalism schools to begin teaching this stuff. Most of the educators I speak with are either in denial about the new face of journalism or frustrated in their attempts to get others to take it seriously. Today’s journalism students need to be taught entrepreneurship along with models like the newsrooms at Edelman, BuzzFeed, Gawker and other outlets. Among working journalists, an attitude of infusing native advertising and other content marketing efforts with high-quality journalistic standards will elevate both the journalism profession and public perception of the new channels in which their work is published.
The day will come with a native ad will win the same kinds of accolades listed on ProPublica’s site. If the work meets the standards required to be honored with those kinds of awards, there’s no reason someone in Edelman’s newsroom shouldn’t be recognized for producing such outstanding work regardless of who paid for it.