Is it Content or Journalism?

Jul 20, 2012


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Article ImageThe internet has blurred the line between medium and message but it hasn't changed the need for reliable, essential information. People are exposed to more content than ever before. On tablets, smart phones, television, radio and paper, consumers are presented with headlines, articles, infographics, videos, and commentary from friends and experts -- and most consider all of it to be news. 

How can there be so much news when the number of staff journalists is decreasing?  From 2007 to 2010, employment in traditional newspaper journalism jobs - staff editors, reporters, photographers, and the like -- dropped by 26%; employment by periodicals slid 16%, and by 11% at radio and television stations, according to Mike Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute.

What explains the simultaneous dwindling of journalism and growth of content? A proliferation of titles and news outlets that are driving what Mandel calls "journalistic occupations" that produce content not only for traditional news outlets but also for organizations, corporations, and new models of digital news channels. In fact, Mandel calculates that the rise in "journalistic jobs" more than offsets the erosion of traditional journalism occupations, resulting in a net growth of 5% for all types of journalism positions. Freelance journalists are producing more content for more news and content outlets than ever before. In short, content produced by journalists is growing.

It's not just the source of news that's shifting, but the definition itself. Of the six definitions that Merriam-Webster gives for journalism, two stand out: "writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation" and "writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest." If these two notions of what journalism is -- objective facts versus popular entertainment -- once stood in opposition they are now coming together in more than just a dictionary sense. Clearly, everyone is challenged with defining the difference between journalism and content.

Since the dawn of search, when a compelling idea or thought bubbles up in the public consciousness, those words, photos, videos, and graphics turn into traffic. Traffic turns into revenue and the search economy spins content into currency. As such, virtually every organization is forced into the publishing business. Suddenly, sourcing, editing, and publishing content is a core marketing competency. The Custom Content Council reports that 29% of overall marketing, advertising, and communications budgets are dedicated to content marketing and that 66% of the organizations it surveyed in 2011 expect that custom content will claim a larger proportion of marketing budgets in the next several years.

While news organizations realign business models to the digital economy, they also must compete with newly minted content publishers. From packaged goods corporations that want to attract customers to nonprofits that seek to build armies of advocates, all digital publishers rely on a steady stream of fresh, relevant content to draw and build their audiences. Without the right words, they will not be found. And if they are not found, awareness will drop and sales will decline. In most cases, journalists with experience working in a news organization are the best sources for such content. The skills they develop on a beat or in a fast-paced newsroom environment are quickly transferable up and down the content spectrum, while the same can't be said for other contributor types.

The best way to define the difference between content and journalism might be simply to consider the source. The content spectrum can be divided into four parts:

  • Big J journalism
  • High-quality information
  • Sponsored content
  • Marketing content

Big J journalism is a term often used around the media industry in association with a news piece completed by someone who understands the basic principles of reporting. It is less about the subjective quality of the story and more about the guiding principles used in producing it -- think media companies or news outlets on any platform.

High-quality information should also be defined by the source and, to a degree, the process used in collecting the data being reported on. The trained journalist is already armed with these skills and can produce high-quality information without changing how they operate -- think brands, associations, media companies, or any custom publisher.

Sponsored content starts to introduce a more flexible information-gathering style, one that does not need to follow all of the specific processes found at both the big J journalism and high-quality information levels. Again, the issue here is not the subjective nature of quality but rather the way the content is produced. As such, sponsored content can be produced by a broader set of contributors -- think brands, blogs, or any custom publisher.

Marketing content is the last part of the content spectrum because it is the most flexible with respect to who can produce it -- think advertisers, brands or any publisher who wishes to promote a good or service.

So how can publishers take advantage of the booming content economy? The first step is to understand where on the content spectrum you are and how to produce the most effective content within that segment and based on your goals. The best place to start is often with a journalist and pushing one's organization to move incrementally up the content spectrum often reaps huge returns on investment. Adopting journalistic processes for creating content is less of a challenge for a marketing organization or brand than a wholesale rethinking of your marketing strategy. Instead of relying on outside partners and hoping for a viral hit, the blending of content and journalism means that audiences are ready to consume quality content from whatever source as long they have confidence in the processes used to produce it. The differences between journalism and content are disappearing, mostly for the better. Now that everyone is a publisher, every publisher needs a professional, proven approach to making content and connecting with their audience.

("News and Computer Mouse" courtesy of Shutterstock.)