Chicago in the bEan / Photo By Sally Duros

The byline that can’t be bought 

Not-a-schoolmarm’s manifesto on Trust and Truth for Brands

I’ve been struggling with what to do. I love creating “journalism” that carries my byline but I’ve not yet had my “breakthrough” that enables me to earn my living as an independent.That’s after a while at it. So during my career, I’ve learned to use the tools of marketing — digital, IRL and print— to “ghostwrite” for clients and causes.

In his post, Journalist: What’s in a name? Josh Sternberg writes:

We moonlight for brands (or cross the PR fence) because the economics of media have squeezed out reporters (though interestingly, not the execs on the business side of the house).

Ah! this “moonlighting for Brands” thing.

This “moonlighting” has to be “ghostwriting” because a cherished artifact of the journalism world view is that as journalists we create from a higher place, a place of trust, a place that comes from spirit of beat — whether it be place or subject matter — not from commerce. As journalists serving our higher calling under our bylines, we engage in serious reporting, serving as trusted advisor to our audience. That audience is those who enjoy and benefit from our creations. To be paid to market for Brands to our audience introduces a conflict similar to Dual Agency in real estate, where we are representing both “buyers”and “sellers” of information.

Now, of course, we know that in the past, some creations were disguised as “journalism” that were in fact products of dual agency — indeed commercial interests were at work behind the scenes.That, to my mind is how newspapers lost their audiences — bit by bit we betrayed them by representing the interests of our advertisers over the interests of the audience. (In my mind, other newsrooms that betray will continue to lose audience.) If you think I am being an old schoolmarm here, all you have to do is look back to the years of our recent real estate bubble to understand the kind of chaos and heartbreak created by dual agency in newspapers’ and other media’s real estate coverage.

What we face here at this moment are emerging remnants that define higher-calling journalism — commercial interests are being scrubbed away and we are presented with something more resembling Truth. It’s name is public service journalism, investigative journalism or accountability journalism, or in cases where community development and engagement is the fuel, local online journalism.In fact, higher-calling journalism is emerging as a prime channel for “information,” which Wikipedia defines as

Conceptually, information is the message (utterance or expression) being conveyed. Therefore, in a general sense, information is “Knowledge communicated or received concerning a particular fact or circumstance.”

Civic information is the primary concern of the evolving journalistic ecosystems I write about for Knight Digital Media Center, whch is the topic of most of my serious reporting these days.

So Journalists still carry the imprimatur of serious reporting but in more limited, niche realms often funded by foundations, sponsored by those who want our halo, or propelled by the impassioned nickels, dimes and dollars contributed by our fans and community.

All this has led to a discussion about the “purpose” of journalism, which can get pretty labyrinthian. What is clear is that higher-calling journalism is NOT “selling” a product or service to someone.

Enter “moonlighting” and “ghostwriting.” This work carries journalist creators into the larger realms of the Internet and allows us to earn some money but this work can never originate from our true identity, our higher calling — our byline as a journalist.

A byline is something Brands can’t buy from a journalist because as soon as that material exchange occurs — you pay me $200 to write a nice post about your new gizmo—a journalist’s bond of Trust with his or her audience is broken — to my thinking at least.

So here’s the Truth for Brands who think they need to buy Trust brokered from a journalist’s byline — you don’t need to play that old game. It’s a new day on the Internet and the audience dislikes being gamed.

Wise Brands know that Trust cannot be bought, it can only be engendered and the best tool for engendering Trust is sharing your Truth with your audience directly. You can create your own halo, run your own newsroom and deliver excellent information about the products and services you are offering to your audience of customers.

Your halo might be slightly askew, at a rakish tilt. Just call it what it is — marketing. And know there’s an army of talented creators willing to work for you as long as you respect their higher calling.

The creative talents of journalists are for hire. Their identities are not. Unless you want to take them captive with a salary and full bennies, and of course, full disclosure.

What about the bloggers who serve as your PR army of brand ambassadors? That’s a rich topic for another day.

Or at least that’s how this schoolmarm sees it today, Tuesday Aug. 6, 2013, at 2:31 p.m.