Gimme Shelter

Journalists take refuge in the world of branded content

Until December, Melissa Lafsky Wall was the editor of Newsweek’s iPad edition, a job she landed on the strength of bylines in The New York Times, Salon, Wired and The Christian Science Monitor, as well as editing stints at the Huffington Post and the Freakonomics blog.

But as Newsweek was laying off staffers leading up to the death of its print edition, Lafsky Wall decided to go in an altogether new direction: Since January, she has been the director of content at HowAboutWe, a startup dating site with a blog about courting, relationships and romance.

The articles Lafsky Wall produces are indistinguishable from those on brainier women’s blogs. Recent titles include “Millennial Women Rejoice: It’s Our Hookup Culture, Too,” “The Adventures of Dating in Davos” and “Beware the Rom Com Curse, Says Science.” They’re well-reported and well-written, helped by the fact that HowAboutWe pays at the high end of Web writing rates.

“Working in a place that’s growing is amazing. Growth and progress … it’s like, thank God!” Lafsky Wall said. “And having a budget to pay writers is amazing.”

Lafsky Wall is one of many journalists departing the desert of traditional media for the greener—but also grayer—pastures of branded content. A bad year for journalism, owing to layoffs at Condé Nast, Martha Stewart Living, Reuters and Hearst, and buyouts at The New York Times and Time Inc. has been a boon to this emerging field. While writing gigs at magazines and newspapers continue to dry up, there are abundant opportunities to write or consult for blogs owned directly by brands.

“We have editorial meetings every day; I run it just like a newsroom,” said Michelle Kessler, a former tech writer and editor at USA Today turned director of content for Qualcomm’s Spark blog. “I edit stories for Spark the same way I did at USA Today.”

The new content model represents a shift in the way publishing has usually worked. Rather than pay a media middleman for eyeballs, brands such as Coca-Cola are learning to attract them all on their own. “Instead of paying money to rent an audience, they can own their own audience,” said John Hazard, director of community for Contently, a company closely tethered to the branded content explosion.

When the startup launched in 2010, its founders envisioned a site where freelance writers could be connected with traditional outlets—a sort of LinkedIn just for journalists. But, as it turned out, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal don’t have a problem getting freelancers to pitch ideas. Brands, on the other hand, were deploying blogs as a cost-effective way to create buzz and needed creators who could lend those endeavors a note of authenticity, rather than simply churning out canned advertorial copy. Contently became a matchmaking vehicle for brands and writers—an unlikely marriage until recently.

“Thirteen years ago, I was very religious about journalism. Even five years ago, I wouldn’t have done it,” Hazard said. “But once people realize it’s still journalism, they become more OK with it.” Contently’s writer roster bears this out; the company now has more than 10,000 journalists in its network. Last June, there were 2,000 names on the list.

The fact that brand-sponsored blogs are modeled after traditional online media has been the key to their ability to attract writing talent. Urban Outfitters, for example, has a women’s lifestyle blog featuring life tips, smart-girl celebrity crushes, food, photography and animated GIFs, not unlike The Hairpin or The Gloss. The only difference is that a lot of the “must-have” items can conveniently be found on the Urban Outfitters website and there is a weekly post about Urban Outfitters’ employee style.

Then there’s Degree men’s deodorant, which wanted to align itself with active lifestyle coverage. Instead of buying ads on websites and in magazines already in that space, the brand decided to create its own. The Adrenalist, a Web magazine “powered by Degree Men,” features stories about extreme sports, gear, gadgets and outdoor adventure, many of which are pushed out on Facebook to the brand’s nearly 790,000 followers. The only giveaway that the site is paid for by Degree is a link on the upper right-hand corner with an image of a deodorant stick and a link to the product line.

“In-house, some people asked if they were going to compete with Gillette’s blog,” Hazard said. “The executives said, ‘No, we want to compete with National Geographic.'”
For a firm such as Unilever, Degree’s parent company, content is a relatively small investment, and it is more effective than banner ads, which are starting to cause (to use marketing speak) banner-blindness among consumers and haven’t turned out to be as effective as was once hoped.

Although it remains unclear whether someone who likes an Adrenalist skateboarding article will actually buy Degree at the drugstore, moving product is beside the point, explained Kyle Monson, a partner at the marketing firm Knock Twice. Success is usually measured by the number of shares, likes and retweets a post gets—the same metrics by which traditional-online media judge themselves. “The costs are so much lower than for an ad campaign, so the expectation is lower, too,” Monson said. And the goals are long-term rather than immediate. “If we can build an audience over the years, then we can change how people think about the brand.”

Unlike newsroom purists, consumers don’t necessarily see brand identification as rat poison. “It’s funny that at the same time that journalism is having a hard time holding on to an audience, advertisers are moving into that space,” said Justin Ellis, an assistant editor at Nieman Journalism Lab, a Harvard University project that explores the future of journalism. “But maybe people are more attached to Old Spice and Doritos than to The Wall Street Journal and The Denver Post.”

Of course, there’s a long history of paycheck-starved journalists switching to the more remunerative field of public relations, also known as the dark side. Doing so once meant hanging up the press pass, often forever. But with branded content, the lines are blurred. These brand-backed lifestyle verticals look and feel like the real thing—and many would argue, actually are—because there’s real interviewing and writing involved.

Branded content is still a brave, conflicted new world, but it also might end up being the future. For now, it’s a place to take shelter while traditional media outlets regroup, where some journalists discover more than just psychic and financial relief.

“There’s so much more freedom,” said Lafsky Wall, explaining that there is less pressure to generate traffic at HowAboutWe than at Newsweek, because her company’s revenue comes from membership fees, not banner clicks. And then there’s that sense of being a pioneer.

“I don’t have the weight of an older generation’s perspective,” she said.