Brand journalism

Why brand journalism is like lifting weights

In Ideas by Brent Simoneaux

No pain, no gain – good homegrown content builds brand trust but it can be hard work, writes Brent Simoneaux.

The story of how marketing and journalism became such strange bedfellows is long and twisted. The simple (and somewhat reductive) version, though, goes something like this: News organisations need money and brands are more than willing to pay for excellent storytelling.

In 2016, Monika Bauerlein (CEO) and Clara Jeffery (editor-in-chief) at Mother Jones magazine published an article that, frankly, makes me fear the future of independent journalism. In the article, Bauerlein and Jeffery pull back the curtain on exactly how much it costs to produce ambitious investigative journalism — and how little revenue it brings in. Their primary example: Shane Bauer’s 2016 piece about the four months he spent as a private prison guard.

The first thing you need to know about Bauer’s article is that it was a big, big deal. If you didn’t catch it when it was first published, go read it now (the link is at the end of the story). Bauer not only presents a compelling narrative; he places the narrative within an important cultural and historical context. In doing so, he turns the topic into a national conversation. More than a million people read the article. News outlets from across the world picked it up. Lots of people were talking about this piece.

Here’s the problem, though: All that talking doesn’t translate into revenue.

As Bauerlein and Jeffery write, “The most important ingredient in investigative reporting is not brilliance, writing flair, or deep familiarity with the subject (though those all help). It’s something much simpler –  time.”

Deeply reported stories like Bauer’s require a lot of time to produce. From beginning to end, the piece took more than 18 months to complete. And all that time translates into a lot of money. To be more precise, the article cost US$350,000 ($480,000) to produce. That number includes everything from salaries and health insurance to the production costs of a five-part article series, six videos, and a radio documentary.

Take a minute and let that number sink in: $350,000. Now, guess how much revenue banner ads brought in. $5000. The banner ads displayed within the article brought in less than 2 per cent of production costs. The economics of long-form, narrative journalism simply don’t work.

Some news organisations believe that the best way to pay for these deeply reported pieces  –  the exact type of reporting that we need news organisations to be doing  –  is to ask readers to pay for them. Mother Jones simply asks their readers to donate money, trusting that readers will recognise the value of investigative reporting enough to directly support it. Other news organisations are putting their content behind paywalls.

Another tactic, though, is to lend your expertise to big brands that are more than willing to pay for excellent storytelling and production.

For better or worse, the same quality and depth of reporting that can bring down America’s private prison system can also be used to sell subscriptions to Netflix.

Enter brand journalism and entities such as T Brand Studio, a creative agency housed inside The New York Times. Here’s how T Brand Studio describes itself: “Using The New York Times’s proven recipe for storytelling, we work with global brands to develop industry-leading content strategy, creative and distribution.” It has produced work for GE, Ford, Accenture, Toyota, Dell  – the list is long.

The New York Times isn’t alone in its desire to attract big brands as customers. The Guardian is doing it. Vox Media is doing it. Lots and lots of news organisations are doing it, because they have to do something if they’re going to stay afloat.

“The hard truth is that readers can discern attribution much more easily when brands publish on their own platforms.”Brent Simoneaux

When working with brands, T Brand Studio gives them the whole package: research, writing, interaction design, and more. Take the piece it produced for Netflix back in 2014 titled Woman Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work. It’s an interesting article with good writing and compelling design, something you might actually expect to see in The New York Times.

Unfortunately, that’s where problems start to surface. The biggest downside to hiring the experts is that it’s really easy to confuse marketing for journalism, especially when it’s published on the news organisation’s platform. Despite the clear labelling of the paid advertisement, it’s really easy to believe you’re reading a New York Times feature. Even The Comedy Channel’s John Oliver has lambasted news organisations for this, using the Netflix piece as an example of the ills of native advertising.

We can argue all day long about the merits and dangers of T Brand Studio or The Guardian Labs. We can lament the downfall of Journalism with a capital J. But at the end of the day, they’re providing something that brands desperately want: quality, in-depth content that delights and intrigues readers. They’re going to keep doing it. Because they need to.

The hard truth is that readers can discern attribution much more easily when brands publish on their own platforms. At the end of the day, it’s deeply important that readers understand who’s behind the writing, no matter how delightful and intriguing an article may be.

Which is why I think doing brand journalism in house is ultimately more ethical,  and perhaps more effective at building trust as well. Readers know that you produced it, you published it and you stand behind it.

Make no mistake about it, doing brand journalism is incredibly challenging. Without The New York Times’s platform, you have to build your own audience. You have to find your own voice. You have to hire talent. You have to do everything.

But in the long run, the trust you gain from readers is worth it.

Links & references

Shane Bauer’s investigation in Mother Jones: My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard

Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work in The New York Times

Photo credit: Gregor Winter via / CC BY-NC-SA


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About the Author
Brent Simoneaux

Brent Simoneaux

Brent Simoneaux is a writer and editor at Red Hat, an open source tech company. He writes about content marketing and doing in-house brand journalism. This article, published with permission, first appeared at