Last night, the usual happened: I was skimming through Twitter, saw an interesting hashtag and then next thing I know a full hour passed as I was sucked into a single conversation. The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism hosted a panel last night on branded content featuring Lauren Drell, Mashable's head brand content editor; Jeremy Caplan, director of education for CUNY's Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism; Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, U.S. news editor of The Financial Times; Shane Snow, cofounder and chief creative officer of Contently; and Liz Spayd, editor-in-chief of Columbia Journalism Review.
Titled "Branded Content: The Death of Journalism or Its Savior?", the panel sparked a heated debate on Twitter. According to one tweeter, Edgecliffe-Johnson posed the interesting question, "Is it journalism, or advertising copywriting?" But the tweet that really sucked me in was from Daniel Roberts of Fortune:
new CJR ed @spaydl: even venerable NYT now has stories that are sponsored/corporate funded, and it's not always easy to tell. #deadlinepanelSo I started Googling. Indeed, THE New York Times ran a lengthy story in June on the unique needs of female inmates in the prison system. (Read it here.) But it was paid for by Netflix as a way to promote its hit series, "Orange Is the New Black." It's written by a j-school grad (yes, I LinkedIn stalked) for the publication's in-house branded content department, T Brand Studio. Looking at it online, it's very clearly a sponsored post -- from the paidpost.nytimes.com URL to header with Netflix / OITB logos -- but only mentions "Orange Is the New Black" once. PR pros are no stranger to pay-for-play content that really pushes a marketer's message, but this is different. It's a well-written piece that at first glance could easily be editorial. But it wasn't.
— Daniel Roberts (@readDanwrite) October 29, 2014
Which begs the question -- would this story have been told otherwise if it had not been sponsored by a brand looking to get a small mention in a reputable publication? And is it ethical to somewhat "trick" readers into thinking it's editorial? Does it matter?
As a former journalism student now working in the PR world, branded content intrigues me. It's an interesting hybrid of the two fields that is blurring the line between true editorial and paid placements with a different agenda. Such content is here to stay, it seems, so I'll be curious to see where it goes from here. Will journalists -- suffering from cutbacks at big publications -- make the move to branded content? Will PR pros with journalism backgrounds do the same?
To read more of the convo, check out #deadlinepanel on Twitter.