Monday, April 28, 2014

Content Marketing v. Arts Journalism

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………….."

A Chronicle of Philanthropy article details the plan of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to hire an embedded "reporter" fellow for a one year period to develop content for its website.

"In an unusual move for an arts organization, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has created a yearlong “embedded reporter” fellowship to help tell patrons and potential supporters about its work.
The group recently underwent a website redesign and was encouraged by new board member Amy Webb, head of Webbmedia Group, a Baltimore digital-strategy consultant, to develop more “self-generated content as a way to better engage our patrons,” says Eileen Andrews, the orchestra’s vice president for marketing and communications."

The article goes on to say:

"The embedded reporter, slated to begin working this summer, will develop feature stories and lighthearted content such as lists and quizzes. Ms. Andrews says she hopes that the fellow’s work will be picked up by news-media outlets—where, she says, “arts coverage has taken a hit.”

And the job description page describes the gig as follows:

"The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offers a one-year writing residency for early to mid-career journalists. In this unique program, a talented arts journalist will “embed” with the BSO to tell the underreported stories of orchestra musicians (both the BSO and those outside of Baltimore/Bethesda), Music Director Marin Alsop, guest conductors and guest artists, and a wide range of activities happening within the BSO. In addition, the Writer-in-Residence will cover broader topics that look at the intersection of music and other fields. We’re curious about the science of how we listen to and interpret different instruments, the role of music in cognitive development, the future of performance (high-tech performance attire, new wearable devices via a partnership with Parsons), innovations in the arts, connections between neuroscience and music, and pop/cultural trends. 
Multimedia stories will include breaking news, features, trends, profiles and enterprise. Stories will be posted to the BSO’s brand new website and throughout social media channels and other online media. The newest iteration of is content-rich, hosting a prominent Stories Newsfeed on its homepage, dedicated to the stories created by the Arts Writer-in-Residence. We aim to establish partnerships between the BSO and outside news organizations and hope that the Fellow’s content will be syndicated to news outlets that have an understaffed arts desk. 
This Residency is intended to cover orchestra-related news, features, trends, profiles and enterprise work; it will not include reviews, personal essay or opinion writing. The fellow will have access to rehearsals, performances and everything that happens off and on stage, including after-hours talks, meals and drinks with musicians, staff and the community. This is the first and only embedded arts journalism residency of its kind in the country."

Further the job description suggests that they are looking for someone with an arts journalism background, and describes the position as:  "This fellowship is similar to being a foreign correspondent working out of a one-person bureau. Tell us how you think you'd spend a typical day. We're looking for self-directed, motivated journalists."

At least one person thinks this is a very bad idea, and describes the position being offered thusly:

"That’s not a journalist; that’s a PR representative. Maybe embeds can be justified in time of war, as the U.S. tried in Iraq, but in a symphony?" 

When I first read the Chronicle article, I took this to be that what the BSO was really looking for was not a journalist, but rather a talented writer who could provide lighthearted, human interest, feature style  pieces that would be part of a content marketing strategy.  I thought that was a good idea.

But by implying the position would be a journalism residency fellowship, I think BSO has muddied the waters a bit.  My reading didn't leave me to conclude that their intention was to create content that was deceptively cloaked as independent, non-biased hard news reporting or paid-for reviews or critiques.  I think though that in their use of the moniker "journalism" and "journalist" they got themselves into some trouble.  What they are looking for isn't a journalist per se.  It's a talented writer; a marketer.  It is probably not at all like a one person foreign correspondent bureau.   The content being created is designed to be a marketing tool - factually accurate, interestingly written, competently researched and even with the stated purpose of being fair and balanced - notwithstanding.

Is it journalism?  One might argue either side of that coin.  The American Press Institute defines journalism thusly: "Journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It is also the product of these activities."  Their site goes on to say that what separates journalism from all the other forms of communication out there lies in its value: "That value flows from its purpose, to provide people with verified information they can use to make better decisions, and its practices, the most important of which is a systematic process – a discipline of verification – that journalists use to find not just the facts, but also the “truth about the facts.”  Can someone employed by an organization create "human interest" content that meets a standard of journalism?  Verifiably factually accurate?  If that writer is also "transparent" in that s/he doesn't attempt to deceive the audience, including by way of omission of facts, reports their sources, and admits their employer / employee status, then I think, probably yes.  Can opinion or editorial position be journalism?  Do "lists" and "quizzes" qualify (for they often appear in newspapers across the globe)?  Again, one might argue either side.  But I'm personally less interested in that debate than I am in whether or not telling our stories as a marketing strategy works or not.

BSO's effort to try to engage and possibly expand their base of support by humanizing the people involved in their enterprise is what hundreds of private sector companies are doing in earnest.  The public generally finds human interest content more engaging than hard news or data.  As long as such content doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is, it is a viable marketing tool.   It may or may not work, but the attempt to experiment is, I think, both legitimate and to be applauded.

It doubtless would be better for the BSO to simply label the effort as a content marketing position, make sure that any content created and then forwarded to legitimate news outlets includes the disclaimer that it is not unbiased, independent journalism, but rather content created by what amounts to a paid employee of the organization.  There are lots of 'puff' pieces - artist profiles, backstage insights, and other human interest angle content - that are created by journalists and non-journalists and picked up by newspapers and magazines and other 'news' outlets all the time.  You don't have to be a certified, experienced journalist to create this kind of content - you just need to have a way with words that the reader will find interesting.  And if the reader finds your content interesting and engaging, perhaps they will be motivated to be more involved, more supportive of what you do.  That's the goal we all have.

While blurring the line between journalism and marketing is an issue, I am personally more interested in whether or not 'content marketing' - defined as any "marketing format that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire customers…" is a viable strategy for arts organizations.

The beneficial effects of 'content' marketing remain debatable.  The approach has both widespread support and skeptics in the marketing and advertising world.  Some argue it works, others argue it does not - at least that it does not drive new traffic to your site.  It is but one way to try to engage people in your organization.  We are in a people business - our people are artists and the creative people who work behind the artists.  There is huge potential to create interesting, relevant and engaging content that helps to tell the stories of those people.  And in telling those stories, it may be that we can expand our audiences and their support.  I think that is a very good idea indeed.

I think the arts need to experiment with and try approaches to 'content' marketing to see if it can generate any positive results.  It is but another marketing strategy, and one I think may have potential.  Humanizing artists and arts performances by giving them a 'face' may help to personalize the arts to people and get them to be more interested, involved, and supportive.  Someone with a journalism background may be best qualified to be the person to create that kind of 'content' - or not.  I would advise that they and their employers need to be clear that this isn't journalism per se - it's marketing.  There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, there may be much that is right about the attempt as long as no one pretends it to be something it isn't.  It isn't really necessary to label it 'journalism' for it to succeed or for it to be a legitimate endeavor.  I think the BSO is on the right track.  And I wish them luck with the experiment.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.