Remember when journalism felt beyond reproach? Edward R. Murrow signed off with “good night and good luck,” and it was granted. Walter Cronkite said “and that’s the way it is,” and so it was.
But that was when we had three channels beamed over rabbit ears to a 400-pound console TV in the rumpus room. Times have certainly changed. Today, media is ubiquitous, a fragmented patchwork of channels that have blended to become pervasive “experiences” delivered to suit our expressed preferences, observed behaviors and explicit relationships with people, institutions and brands.
The fragmentation of media has created fierce competition for mindshare in a world where audiences have an embarrassment of choice. While room remains for the measured tones of serious journalism, more often than not, fact has been displaced by opinion and point of view has become the currency of all media. We see this in the opinion-driven format of cable news and on the social web, where, on the spectrum of fact and opinion, the pendulum has swung decidedly toward the latter. Look no further than the blogosphere and the more formal practice of digital journalism; here, it’s less about authority earned through gumshoe reporting than it’s about authority earned through compelling point of view.
As the structure and expectations of media have changed, so have the barriers to entry. There was a time when you needed to buy ink by the 50-gallon drum or own a TV station to get your opinions heard. Today, these barriers have been virtually eliminated. We all have access to the same digital publishing tools and the same social communities, which allows brands to disintermediate traditional media networks to reach audiences directly with their own opinions and points of view.
Calling this a true media democracy would fail to acknowledge the fact that media companies still command vast audience networks and publicity machines. But, media has become far more of a meritocracy, as brands are empowered to give the old-guard a run for their money.
What do you call these would-be brand reporters hanging shingles on the web? Brand journalists, brand publishers, content marketers? All are accurate descriptions of this trend, which is becoming a top area of inquiry for Gartner. I’ve collaborated with my colleague Allen Weiner (himself an ex-journalist and digital media pioneer) on a new report entitled “Are You Ready to Think Like a Publisher?” (subscription required).
It’s the first in a series of research from Gartner on the rise of brand journalism and how brands can change their thinking to capitalize on this new form of audience engagement. In many ways, the transition will be challenging for brands, which will be expected to hold fire on the hard sell, putting aside the brand agenda in favor of issues-oriented dialogues.
Aristotle said that nature abhors a vacuum; when space is created, it’s quickly filled in. The same thing is happening here. The structural changes in media have created space for brands to play a direct role in shaping the dialogue that used to be owned and controlled by traditional media companies.
In doing so, brands can build deeper relationships with consumers. But it will require a shift in thinking. In the same sense that our trust in Cronkite and Murrow was informed by what we instinctively read as “integrity,” brands will have to convey the same to win the hearts and minds of their audiences.
Does this mean learning to deny your brand agenda? Absolutely not. After all, its ad revenue that allows the traditional newsroom to function. It means living by principles of transparency and knowing when, and when not, to make your brand the star of the show.