It’s been a tough decade for journalists.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, in 2020 alone, more than 50 newsrooms were shuttered for good, and countless others shrunk their reporting staff through mass layoffs and buyouts. And that’s on top of the seismic industry shifts and significant downsizing that have occurred over the past 10-15 years.
Thousands of journalists have been left scrambling for new jobs or building supplemental income through blogging, paid newsletters and other freelance work. But one lucrative market is often dismissed by current and former members of the news media: branded content.
“Thanks for reaching out,” goes a common refrain, “but brand content is not something I’m interested in or willing to do. I’m a real journalist.”
Why all the shade?
Many traditionalists believe that branded content doesn’t fit with the “ideal” of journalists as unbiased, independent truth-tellers. After all, branded content is bought and paid for by organizations to implicitly or explicitly promote their brand. That would seem to many J-school graduates to fall squarely into the field of “public relations” or marketing and advertising.
There are also longstanding ethical debates over the form of branded content, which increasingly sits alongside traditional journalism pieces on news websites and blogs — seemingly blurring the line between the two.
A $20 billion industry
According to industry surveys, global spending on branded content was $7 billion in 2018 and could top $402 billion by 2025. It has become an important source of income for media companies that can no longer rely on traditional advertising revenue. Nearly 90% of publishers say they get at least some of their revenue from sponsored and branded content.
In fact, many large media organizations have set up their own in-house branded content departments to increase their take by producing and publishing branded and sponsored material. (In those cases, content writers are usually a separate department from regular reporting staff.) However, brands from all industries are looking for journalists and professional writers with backgrounds that know how to produce journalism-quality content to help develop their marketing plans.
So, while brand can’t afford to ignore branded content – and journalists shouldn’t either. It’s a great opportunity to utilize your skills and increase your marketability while earning decent money in the process.
Respect, Good Pay, Soft Deadlines
What does branded content offer you as a writer?
- They want you: At a time when publishers seem to want to jettison journalists, brand marketers are actively seeking them out. Journalists are trained in storytelling, researching, and interviewing; they also know how to avoid plagiarism, libel, and other problems that keep corporate lawyers awake at night. You’re the whole package, and businesses value your skills and respect your approach. They know you can compose useful, informative and entertaining content that converts readers to potential customers.
- They’ll pay you: Respect is great, but money is good too. Brand marketing is usually supported by decently sized budgets, and that can result in a tidy fee for writers. It varies widely, but in general, you can expect to see payouts in the range of $100-$400 for a 500- to 1,000-word blog.
- The work is (usually) not onerous: Again, it certainly isn’t always the case, but branded content stories often have longer lead times. At least more forgiving than deadline news reporting. This can give you the opportunity to really dig into your research and hone your writing without the stress that accompanies tight turnarounds.
- There’s a lot of variety: Maybe your newspaper beat is the local government or law enforcement, but your branded content opportunities are in health and wellness or the tech sector. Or you’ve been doing business reporting for a while and want to take a crack at lighter lifestyle pieces. Brand marketing allows you to stretch your creative legs and explore new possibilities.
- You’ll develop your marketable skills: While many branded pieces are similar to traditional news or feature articles, working in the content marketing sector can help you build skills in social media, white papers, reports and other forms of content — which could put you on an entirely new career path in the future.
“But my ethics!”
“That’s all well and good,” you may say, “but will I still be able to look at myself in the mirror if I get into brand journalism?”
At the end of the day, only you can answer that question.
But many who have gone through the process of considering and learning about it do think working in branded content is compatible with traditional journalism — because the two don’t differ as much as you might think. Journalism, after all, is a craft; it’s simply an approach, a set of journalistic principles and best practices — emphasizing truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and accountability — that can apply to branded content and to businesses that care about those values as much as they apply to local news or any other reporting beat.
“News organizations have agendas,” writes a contributor for The Lush Content Agency. “They have political leanings. They have editorial guidelines that say what they will and won’t cover. They take positions. They choose sides. They endorse political candidates. They influence who the next music or movie star will be. They influence what the next fashion trend will be. They influence what kinds of food we’ll eat and who will be the next celebrity chef. And they do it all under the veil of objectivity — so let’s not fool ourselves here.
“Journalists and brand journalists bickering and trying to discredit each other over semantics is a problem. We’re missing out on the opportunity to keep the public better informed and better entertained. Good brand journalism — like good traditional journalism – rises to the top. Brand journalism is full of traditional journalists and that’s only good for the consumer. It raises the bar on what brands are able to do. It makes marketing better.”
Others argue that you can create a wall between your reporting and your brand work.
“I’m aware of the potential ethical problems and quandaries, but I do my best to steer clear of them,” journalist Matt Villano told Contently.net in 2018. “I only take content marketing and/or sponsored content gigs from companies I don’t generally cover. If the companies operate in the same industry I write about, I’m open with editors on both sides of the fence about what they can and cannot expect from me.
“Be honest, be scrupulous, and be open, and your integrity will be evident.”
Use your journalism chops to become a brand journalist
Bottom line: branded content is an opportunity to grow and evolve with the times, and it doesn’t have to be incompatible with your work or identity as a journalist to become a professional writer. In fact, branded content is moving closer to filling the role of business journalism for industries and companies that otherwise don’t receive media coverage — sometimes because the reporter positions that covered them have been eliminated by news outlets.
So, rather than roll your eyes at the notion of branded content or denigrate it as “not real journalism,” maybe it’s time to consider how you could contribute to, and feel fulfilled by, the ever-converging — and increasingly valued — world of brand journalism.
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