News broke yesterday that Verizon was starting up its own tech-news site, a venture meant to compete (theoretically) with the likes of Wired and others that would also position Verizon as a thought-leader in the space. After all, that’s the end goal of all such brand content programs where the scope expands beyond that of company-specific news: To be an influential voice in the industry conversation.
But there was a hitch. As repotted by The Daily Dot, the online magazine, StringSearch.com, would be actively avoiding the topics of U.S. government surveillance of its citizens and net neutrality, two topics Verizon has an active interest in, or at least stories that Verizon is often the subject of.
As the story points out, Verizon is hardly the first to get into the brand journalism game and certainly won’t be the last. Companies are producing media (beyond just a corporate blog and social media program) right and left that rivals trade publications in some regards. And they’re not the first to turn an intentional blind eye to issues that paint them in less than a stellar light.
(later update: Verizon has tried to walk this back, but not very successfully)
As this story in the Columbia Journalism Review points out, “brand journalism” is the result of internal comms people and other consultants smelling an opportunity in the wake of so many *actual* media newsrooms experiencing severe cutbacks. But this isn’t just a void being filled, it’s a beachhead being secured by the brands who get to cut out that whole “objectivity” thing.
This sort of media production by brands is usually labeled as a bad thing that’s harmful to the common interest. Indeed you can even see my bias toward that point of view here, though I realize it’s not always a black and white issue. at least it doesn’t need to be, but that would require the brands doing the production of these outlets to be proactive in their approach.
The biggest hurdle to get over is that of transparency and the realization that they can’t just ignore the uncomfortable topics. The media world is rife with examples of an outlet having to report on itself. The example that comes to mind first is the protracted drama within the Chicago Tribune having to do with debt negotiations that resulted from the miserable era of Sam Zell’s ownership. The coverage exposed all the gritty details of how talks with shareholders were going and contained a disclosure that, of course, this was all very naval-gazing for the paper. ]
With corporate ownership of “legitimate” media now a common thing, the audience is more used to the disclaimers that “X is owned by/owns Y” than they were even 20 years ago, when this started to get seriously out of hand. So a story about, say, net neutrality can be accompanied if necessary by a statement on the company’s position on the issue and a link to read more. Ideally this should be inserted *after* the story has been reported, edited and approved free of corporate interference.
Is this all a little naive? Sure, I’ll admit that. But I think there can absolutely be a place for this sort of brand-owned media outlet to exist peacefully alongside the ones that aren’t, or which at least aren’t produced explicitly by the brand even if the chain or corporate ownership ties them together in some manner. After all, the influence of brand publishers (again, I’m referring here to those programs that go above and beyond an external-facing blog to something that’ more full like a industry zine) is just going to grow, likely at the continued expense of traditional outlets who are hampered by not just the need to cut expenses but by an arguably outdated model not just of editorial distance but also distribution and other logistics.
There’s lots brand journalism can offer to the audience. But as it gets more and more mainstream it will need to adjust in its own way, just as the more traditional media outlets will need to make their own adjustments in order to survive.