I have been with the editorial team at Pulse Ghana for almost four years and like every other editor with every other publication, I and my colleagues, have had to face the dilemma of church and state.
To explain, in the publishing world the “church vs. state” concept is simple. Advertisers want to inject themselves into a publication, and journalists want to keep their writing pure. So, if you are going to advertise on Pulse Ghana, you must do it in a way that does not encroach upon the content that would otherwise exist on that page.
That is a dogma — supposed to be incontrovertibly true (but like every thing that is seen as dogmatic, is almost idiotic). With declining revenues from ads (programmatic, display, print of whatever), the media industry has been looking to diversify (and boost) it’s source of income.
And just like every media house, Pulse Ghana has worked a lot with local (and international brands) — from CloseUp to General Electric, to create compelling content marketing projects and in my experience, the clients very rarely care about sticking to the ethics of journalism.
And who is to blame them, content marketing requires them to spend thousands of ad money — and like with regular display ads, they would expect a clear ROI.
For traditional journalists, (mostly those working in legacy media houses) who have not yet grasped the fast paced nature of the digital space, they fret when the idea of content marketing is brought up. Most of them believe that brand work (advertisement cloaked as journalism) involved the kind of sketchy ethical compromises their GIJ professors had railed against for years?
Therein comes the tradeoff between credibility and clickability.
For branded content, which is clearly marked with a brand byline, there may be a lot more legal i’s to dot and t’s to cross. This is mainly because marketing officers of most brands still have to answer to a legal team and are subject to a long bureaucratic line of approvals.
Very rarely, the ethical dilemmas I’ve experienced with content marketing clients over the past two years come from the client side. It usually arises from my colleague journalists, who are worried that this presentation of advertisement would be betrayal of the Pulse ethics — which are based on 10 pillars.
But occasionally, I’ve been asked by multiple marketers to make changes that weren’t true to a story (or true at all, in one case). The changes were intended to improve the clickability of my article, thus giving the brand an increased ROI. As a result, I’ve pulled an article before publication on more than one occasion.
When in doubt…ask others
Journalists interested in content marketing still have to know how to guard against potential pitfalls.
One way to try to make sure that you don’t face ethical issues is to steer clear of brands that you potentially cover in “true” journalistic reports. This is a tip by Matt Villano, a Medill School of Journalism graduate who has been a professional writer since 1995. He says, “ if the companies operate in the same industries I write about, I’m open with editors (and marketers) on both sides of the fence about what they can and cannot expect from me.”
So how does this work?
With the rise of new technology (ad-blockers, content scrapers etc), display ad is taking a large hit.
As you diversify, maintaining a bright line between branded content and journalism can help you avoid ethical snags.
You need to calibrate your own internal compass as a journalist to the new trends and maintain an open mind (and communication). That is the one true way to navigate the thin divide between journalism and content marketing.
This is what we have mastered at Pulse Africa ( Pulse.com.gh, Pulse.ng, PulseLive.co.ke, PulseLive.ug) and RADP Africa — a way to do content marketing without compromising on the core ethics of journalism.