Marketers and journalists paddle in the same sea

When is journalism not journalism? The debate rages on as storytelling continues to evolve.

I was sorely disappointed to miss one of the most interesting media discussions of the year, and I hope the participants don’t mind me joining in late.

The National Business Review had tweeted a snippet of news about Greenpeace, who had recently announced their in-house investigative journalism team. Newsroom contributor Anna Connell, who in her regular time is a content marketer in the banking industry, picked the tweet up and set the moot for debate: “Why is this called journalism and not content marketing,” she asked in a tweet. “Because it’s an NGO?”

It might be considered content marketing. (I kind of have to hold my nose a bit here as I go on, owing to a personal distaste for this use of the word “content.”) The brand has writers applying their journalistic skills in a familiar format to advance the group’s message to its audience, to affect behaviour, and to drive advocacy.

The NBR tweet had a big picture of journalist Phil Vine, next to a breakout quote: “I want to put corporate New Zealand on notice that we’re watching them and everything they do.”

The work of Vine, a former Fair Go reporter, appears on the Greenpeace blog. It has also appeared on the Stuff website, which means exposure to one of the great environmental threats of our time: the comments section.

The article I read, about eco farming and Greenpeace’s relationship with beef and dairy farmers, attracted few comments but because it looked and smelled like content marketing with a side plate of free range scrambled eggs, it was guaranteed to be called out as propaganda.

Said a commenter whose name might be Steve: “It started to not make any sense … I got to the bottom and read about the author and who he worked for.”

That pretty much seals it then. The reader is not fooled. It might well be content marketing, frankensteined into native advertising, created by a journalist.

Native advertising? That’s when a piece of (sigh) content looks like a news story on your favourite website or sounds like a segment on a morning radio show, but it’s actually asking for your business. A bit like the New Zealand Herald’s partnerships with World Vision. They’re using journalists to tell stories on their websites and in their papers, but they’re ads because World Vision is facilitating the coverage, and they’re processing the donations they seek. Journalistic. Advertising. Both?

It might be advocacy media, which is the term Russell Brown introduced when he joined the debate a little further down the track. It’s a thoughtful way of describing the work without necessarily committing to it being journalism.

If anyone is an authority on what a journalist can do for an agency working outside the Government or mainstream media matrices, it’s the Public Address founder. Last year Brown produced an investigative piece called Poor Foundations, published by the NZ Drug Foundation and pursued in response to what appeared to be disproportionately strong punitive action against state housing tenants whose homes had been found to be contaminated with methamphetamine.

As an advocate, Brown told stories that had until then failed to penetrate the mainstream - and not just those of the tenants, either. Brown was fighting on two fronts: For the people, and for the facts. Inexplicably, the science community had been all but shut out of the conversation.

Actually, there’s nothing inexplicable about that. Science, I imagine, is not a school subject beloved of many journalists who make it into the big papers and websites. Consequently, where an expert on environmental science might have smelled a rat, the average overburdened desk editor would probably have picked up the press release and turned it around into something quite damaging to vulnerable individuals and whānau.

Advocacy media: A thoughtful way of describing the work without committing to it being journalism.

Going back to Greenpeace, the good news is that corporate New Zealand is already well aware that it's being watched. Some businesses might welcome the added pressure of accountability, some might already be preparing their defences, and some simply won’t care. But they all know they’re under surveillance.

To manage the changing state of media, the corporates that do care - for the right reasons and the wrong reasons - have been hiring journalists away from traditional media organisations for years. This isn’t news – it might be to Greenpeace - but it’s what I’d have brought to the debate if I’d been in the Twitter room.

Is it content marketing? It’s a natural strategy for Greenpeace to adopt, whatever you call it. Content marketing and native advertising have been weapons in the corporate arsenal for a long time. Greenpeace is simply taking its old fight to a new battleground; what’s the difference between chaining yourself to an oil facility to protest deep sea drilling, or fighting their journalists with your journalists? How different is Greenpeace's blog to, say, ANZ's Blue Notes?

Same ocean, different waka.

I’m fortunate – I think – to have been in the position to participate in conversations like this from both sides of the fence. I had my own method of advocacy journalism, best applied in the middle of my six-year run on the Herald’s website when Cantabrians were being shaken awake and shaken to death for months on end across 2010 and 2011. John Campbell was up the road with his caravan and cameras, I was wandering about the place with my smartphone. I tweeted and blogged the whole time, taking my cues from public conversations and going straight to the sources.

It brought national attention to where it needed to be, and had impacts on the communities – particularly those east of the CBD - albeit in a less elegant way than Brown and Campbell accomplish almost as a matter of routine.

A live blog. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

My next employer wasn’t another media outlet. It was Telecom. Like everyone else, I hated Telecom. My whole family hated Telecom. We had our reasons. I agreed to interview with them, partly because I felt like I wasn’t making further headway at the Herald, and partly because I was intrigued. Why would a business like Telecom want someone like me?

The fellow at the top of my chain was Andrew Pirie, who had a bit of background in journalism. I felt this made it okay to ask him if he was aware that Telecom was, despite its sponsorship of the All Blacks, far from unleashing the potential of all New Zealanders.

Pirie didn’t tell me that the All Blacks partnership was already racing towards its expiration date, but he did admit that the company had a damaged relationship with New Zealand. That was enough for me - or it was after I said I wasn’t going to spin bollocks for him. I got the job.

At this point, the entire Spark rebrand project was probably still confined to three minds and a beer coaster, but the transformation was underway. And that’s why the business wanted someone like me. I accepted because I saw an opportunity to bring customers to the table.

If you’d had the impression that the average New Zealander wasn’t getting cut-through when the manure hit the fan, you’d have been right. To their credit, Spark knew this and was willing to deal with it. The winds of change were growing strong.

In fact change was blowing in from all around as the “dark side” and the “light” began to shift their seasons. An exodus of young journalistic talent followed. Siobhan Keogh-Dwyer left PC World for Datacom shortly after I left the former APN. Jess Etheridge, chief reporter for a handful of Fairfax’s suburban papers, left to join Auckland Council’s PR team.

The most obvious outlier of the time was the Herald’s Paul Harper, who would go to ASB for a short stint before returning to journalism at Stuff, where he has remained ever since.

We were all chasing the meaning in our work - I needed the pressure to come off my basic living costs a little too, I’ll admit - and that meant searching for reach and capability unavailable to media groups working under increasingly toxic models.

The difference now, as opposed to (slightly) earlier times when the likes of Paul Brislen traded meeting deadlines for making headlines, is that marketing and corporate communications are looking more like journalism, and journalism is looking more like marketing.

In 2015 I gave a mid-morning lecture to a first-year class at Ara’s NZ Broadcasting School in Christchurch, trying not to psych myself out because Radio NZ’s Wallace Chapman was lined-up for the afternoon. I don’t think I was off the mark when I said that a significant portion of the class might go on to tell stories for a living, yet never see the inside of a newsroom.

The pieces in the great game have been set: Journalists in the corporations, journalists in the NGOs, journalists in the offices of senior Government ministers and officials. Fewer journalists in the newsrooms as the industry goes through another mass restructure, sad to say, but the demand for storytellers across all sectors is higher than ever. Even the activists are hiring.

Marketing looks more like journalism, journalism looks more like marketing.

Journalism matters to almost every free-thinking adult in this democracy, and is discussed with passion from so many different viewpoints. Here’s the gremlin that makes this discussion such a sore point: The role of money in journalism.

Opinions are strong when it comes to how commercial factors push and pull at the perceptions of what trustworthy news looks like.

The other night at a media panel, the NBR’s Chris Keall asked me how Newsroom would react if one of our supporters found itself at the centre of a severe media issue. I’m not at liberty to explain in detail but Newsroom wouldn’t accept any arrangement that kept us from doing our jobs. Our supporters respect that too. After all, even very large corporations are made up of individuals who read the news and hold private opinions. Some of them want to see it done right, not safely.

My answer on the night was succinct: “We’re grown-ups.”

So what about Newsroom, since we’re under that microscope? In a manner of speaking, we probably do a bit of native advertising ourselves. How so? If a piece of our journalism is on our site, it’s definitely journalism. If it appears in syndicated form on Stuff, then it’s still journalism – but because we’re hoping that readers from the gigantic Fairfax audience will come through the funnel to our little boutique, then in a way we’re marketing in that space to draw their business. Native advertising, by the look of it.

We’re probably also doing the odd spot of content marketing, every time we explain on the site how our model works, how anyone can support us financially, and so on. Probably even in this column.

In that case, I would like to thank our generous foundation sponsors. Go drive their cars and enjoy their internet pipes and go get a degree, maybe even two.

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