Writing for brands ‘feels shitty’ says Mashable Asia editor as panel debates credibility of content marketing

L-r: Mark Laudi, Victoria Ho, Andrew Pickup, Alan Soon and Lau Joon-Nie

L-r: Mark Laudi, Victoria Ho, Andrew Pickup, Alan Soon and Lau Joon-Nie

The credibility of branded content was at the centre of a debate on the future of journalism in Singapore last week, with the editor of Mashable Asia saying that it “feels shitty” as a journalist to write content for brands and a university journalism lecturer suggesting that writers will feel “schizophrenic” if assigned to write both editorial and commercial pieces.

The talk hosted by MyNewsDesk was chaired by former CNBC anchor Mark Laudi, who proposed that traditional publishers would not be able to survive unless they embraced native advertising and journalists wrote for brands.

Alan Soon, who runs media consultancy The Splice Newsroom, agreed, and said that during his time at Yahoo Southeast Asia he fought for a plan to place the content marketing team within editorial rather than sales.

“I don’t have a problem with content marketing if it’s done right. You have to make sure that it’s fully transparent and the user knows exactly what’s been paid for. As publishers we all need to be aware that, if I can give you a piece of knowledge that’s useful for you, why is that a bad thing?” Soon said.

Lau Joon-Nie, a lecturer for journalism and publishing at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said that she was “fascinated” by Yahoo’s approach to newsroom structure, but believed editorial and sales teams should be kept separate.

“To me it might make a journalist feel schizophrenic. One day she is an objective journalist, the next day she is asked to write a branded piece about watches or whatever,” she said.

'Would you produce sponsored content?' Source: MyNewsDesk Journalism Trends 2016

‘Would you produce sponsored content?’ Source: MyNewsDesk Journalism Trends 2016

Laudi pointed to MyNewsDesk’s global Journalism Trends 2016 report that found that 40% of journalists would not write for brands, while one third said they would, and a quarter would consider it.

Victoria Ho, editor for Mashable in Asia and a former Business Times journalist, was asked if she was interested in writing for brands. She said: “Nobody likes to write under assignment [for a brand]. It feels shitty. And the money doesn’t go to you. It goes to your publisher. If you’re a blogger and most of the money goes to you, most of the time you’re ok with it.”

On the topic of brands buying coverage by hiring journalists as opposed to earned media, Ho said: “I think it’s tough for brands, because unless if it’s extra salacious or groundbreaking nobody’s going to cover you. And as a journalist, you want to write something that’s bold. That’s my long answer to why [she wouldn’t write for brands] because I’ve done that when I had a gun put to my head while I was at Business Times.”

“It is just a reality,” she added. “When you write one of these pieces they take your name away, put a red border around it and say ‘brought to you by’ or ‘in partnership with’”.

Representing the brand side of the debate was Andrew Pickup, senior director, communications for Microsoft Asia, a company that uses a mix of paid, owned and earned media, and has hired an inhouse team of former journalists to produce content for the company’s blog and other owned platforms.

“The number of journalists who want to write a 3,000 word article about what Microsoft is doing in the community, or to save lives, or in new tech or big data is like searching for hen’s teeth. They [journalists] don’t have time anymore,” said Pickup, who referred to the part of the the Journalism Trends study that showed journalists struggling to produce more content with fewer resources.

“So what we’ve done is tell the story ourselves – we are paying journalists who are not associated with a publisher but want to become storytellers inside our own company,” he said, adding that Microsoft uses content distribution platform Outbrain to “get eyeballs”.

On how much latitude Microsoft gives its content team to be critical of the company, which might help the credibility of that content, Pickup said: “None.”

“Once you move and go inhouse and accept a cheque from Microsoft you’ve made that decision. You’re part of the company now. Your job is to communicate the company’s position. I call them writers not journalists,” he said.

Pickup clarified that while the company was not comfortable with a critical approach on owned media, he was more open to more balanced reporting in advertorial content.

“Top of my list of outcomes is earned media. In the middle is paid advertorial, and I would expect some form of critical approach, perhaps with a mention of competitors. But when people are on our site, on our owned platforms, they’re not looking for the independent angle.”

Pickup said that he faced an “uphill battle” with thought leadership pieces in trying to appease internal stakeholders who want Microsoft wares featured heavily in the content.

“A product manager comes to me and asks ‘where is Windows?’ or ‘where is Office?’ The sponsor of the project is already looking for logo, the pack shot.”

“The answer is: we’re about how, for example, cloud computing is saving lives by sequencing the DNA of cancer patients. That’s a real article, a real story. That’s an emotional story. It would take weeks to write, and journalists don’t have time to write it,” he said.

The panel’s comments come the week after an opinion piece from B2B communications specialist Allan Tan bemoaned the demands of clients when commissioning thought leadership articles.


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