“It’s not change. It’s a f*cking revolution,” said a media analyst in the brilliant New York Times documentary Page One.
He was referring of course to how the online world has ripped up the traditional business model of newspapers replacing highly profitable print advertising and classifieds ads (the so-called “rivers of gold”) with cheap, interactive and intuitive online offerings.
Fairfax journalist Pam Williams did a brilliant job telling this story in her book “Killing Fairfax” – reviewed here – but is by no means the whole story.
The wheels of change continue to spin and at an even faster rate.
Two of the hottest and most provocative concepts becoming entrenched in the new age of publishing are “native advertising” and “corporate journalism”.
‘Native advertising’ – where paid-for, sponsored or branded content is produced and published on news sites to have the look and feel of a genuine article – was the focus of a recent episode of the ABC’s Media Watch
“Corporate journalism” – content produced by an in-house editorial team focusing on issues that matter to the corporation and its stakeholders – was in the spotlight following the launch of ANZ Bank’s new website BlueNotes in April, billed as “the first corporate digital publication for news, opinion and insight of its type in the Asia-Pacific region”.
The launch of BlueNotes sparked healthy debate on Twitter kicked off by Australian Financial Review columnist Christopher Joye who wrote that the ANZ site was likely to be “part bank brand-building, marketing and spin, opening up a new channel through which to project ANZ’s voice; and part bona-fide research and insight that will be of value to ANZ’s constituencies”.
What BlueNotes was unlikely to be, Joye wrote, was independent journalism of the sort produced by Fairfax and other traditional independent media. Nor would it be an “intellectual free-for-all that interrogates issues and disseminates opinion on topics germane to ANZ’s customers, but which can also conflict with ANZ’s profit motive”.
I tweeted Joye’s article and said that I agreed with him that BlueNotes is “not really journalism” to which former AFR senior journalist Andrew Cornell, the managing editor of BlueNotes, responded that it then begged the question: “What really is journalism?” and…was it restricted to “no-for-profits?” (A cheeky remark surely alluding to the fact that once-powerful media empires can’t seem to make a buck out of journalism anymore).
Cornell is a firm believer that corporate journalism – of the kind produced by his team – is the future of business journalism. It was a remark he repeated often in his last few weeks at the AFR.
Amanda Gome, a former colleague of mine at Private Media and Fairfax, and now head of strategic content & digital media at ANZ, tweeted that BlueNotes was “new journalism” or “corporate publishing” – (and in another tweet, that it was definitely not native advertising).
Paul Edwards head of corporate communications at ANZ said if the site “started doing ads” then it would “fail”. Rather, he said, it aims to “engage thought leaders not sell stuff”.
On reflection, I agree with Christopher Joye that there is merit in what ANZ is doing with BlueNotes.
The views of its experienced executives, economists and commentators while slanted towards the bank’s view of the world, are insightful and important (though I would argue they are better served as part of a balanced article in the mainstream media drawing on the views of others as well).
Only time will tell how many people find value in its offering, but it should find a niche among the myriad of online news and commentary sites finding an audience in Australia ranging from academic sites like The Conversation to mummy blogger uber-site Mamamia.
In its defence, corporate journalism like BlueNotes does not attempt to hide the fact that is an ANZ-produced publication, focusing on issues that are of important to the bank, its shareholders and clients.
But native advertising is less honest, muddying the waters between news and commercial interests and breaking down the traditional editorial division between church (editorial) and state (advertising).
Farhad Manjoo, a journalist with the Washington Post wrote of the deceptive quality of native ads that while they “usually carry a tag identifying them as ‘sponsored,’ they appear alongside and share the look and feel of the search results, tweets, status updates, blog posts and other content that you don’t immediately suspect of containing paid messages”.
He makes the point that there is a place for native advertising provided that it is clearly branded as sponsored content (he mentioned a story paid for by Toyota about 20 coolest hybrid animals to promote its hybrid cars that ran on BuzzFeed as a good example) but is sceptical of how this will play out over time.
Native ads he says, “create incentives for misbehavior by advertisers, publishers and services like Facebook—and, over the long run, the incentive structure is sure to translate into looser disclosure standards and generally trickier content”.
The agenda of BlueNotes on the other hand is all in the name – unless of course you’re looking for a Miles Davis record.