When it comes to media work and the teaching of it, I loath the phrase, “the dark side.” It goes something like this:
“You teach journalism and PR in the same department? I stay away from the dark side.”
“You went from a newsroom to the dark side?”
“You study branding and ethics? Didn’t know they had ethics on the dark side.”
Enough. Some journalists — and journalism educators — have an outsized ego about all things journalism and a palpable disdain for all things not. They made it a religion to ignore anything related to the business side in defense of the purity of news.
It was easy to be holier than thy marketer when some news organizations were turning year-over-year profits that would send drool down the chin of an oil and gas executive. Not today.
Duty and Value
Today, I believe every journalism program has a duty to students to give them knowledge and skills for news, yes, but also an understanding of advertising, public relations and integrated marketing. The reasons are simple.
Responsible content comes from more than news organizations. I spent my professional infancy in a newsroom and later migrated to a marketing department for a health care organization. I did things like design strategy for getting underserved women to free mammograms and promote information online for people with diabetes. Yes, all advertising and PR is ultimately about selling something. But the good stuff has social utility and delivers content to audiences that journalism does not.
Learning the economics of content is critical to news. I took my marketing job in the midst of my doctoral training while studying journalism exclusively. Why? Because it was 1997, I thought the Internet would change everything, and I saw advertising and PR recognizing this shift far ahead of news organizations. I learned how to analyze research for audience insights, craft messages differently to meet the platform and adapt to shifting revenue streams while building new ones. All darned useful in news.
Students can take their storytelling skills toward a newsroom or in other directions. The biggest trend in advertising and PR today is “content marketing,” known to some as “brand journalism.” Louis Dvorkin from Forbes says it may be “the full employment act for journalists.” Brands are learning quickly that engagement with consumers is a key component of growth and telling compelling stories leads to engagement. Before you diss that as agency hooey, check out this bit of brand content Netflix recently ran on the New York Times to engage users in the new season of “Orange is the New Black.”
The best of journalism and the best of marketing share common values. I won’t make excuses for unethical advertising or vomit-inducing PR spin. We all know it’s out there. But so are sweeps-minded garbage on local news and lazy he-said-she-said “reporting” on key issues. Take a look at the kind of content that wins Pulitzers and the kind that wins at Cannes. Both are produced to meet standards embracing the values of truthfulness, responsibility and social good. And both can have tremendous redeeming social value.
Teaching in a Warp-Speed Age
I spent some time last week at the 2014 Academic Summit organized by Edelman, the largest independent PR firm in the world. Titled, “Storytelling at the Speed of Now,” the summit gave me great new material to teach in the strategic communication segments of my classes. But it even further cemented my thinking that these ideas must go to journalism students, as well.
Storyful founder Mark Little, for instance, highlighted a shift in mindset media companies would be wise to attend to. Himself a former journalist, Little recognizes what he calls two contradictory realities: the need to free ourselves of tradition so we can adapt vs. the need to stay true to our values so we’re not chasing the latest shiny penny.
Hearing a call to action from Richard Edelman, I could easily envision places to cross over between journalism and marketing in your teaching — to the benefit of both.
1. Data. Nothing is more important for students in either field to learn right now than understanding, analyzing and visualizing data. But Excel doesn’t care if the kid is pulling apart a city budget or crunching the analytics on a client’s new campaign. Pivot Tables apply to both. (Look for EdShift’s special series on teaching data coming next week.)
2. Analytics and engagement. All students should learn how to track impressions and engagement. And again, you can be agnostic about the purpose. Time-on-page, mobile percentages and trend lines do not belong solely to brands. Read the New York Times’ Innovation report if you’d like more convincing that we must augment the production of journalism with skills to get it in front of audiences.
3. Design and visual communication. This has long been my favorite area to teach because the principles are so universal. Regardless of whether you’re snapping a photo for a brand’s Instagram or a newspaper’s front page, you still need to understand contrast, background and the rule of thirds.
4. Digital usability. If you still believe in the myth of the “digital native” — the kid who comes into your class able to do all this cool new stuff on these great innovative platforms — let me disabuse you of the notion. Yes, our students were born in a digital age. But I find them utterly unfamiliar with concepts like code, responsive design and optimizing for screen reading. Again, these ideas cut across any message. A story unreadable on an iPhone is just as bad as an ad that doesn’t scale to a tablet.
5. Writing. Sebastian Tomich of the New York Times said, “a journalism degree is the new marketing degree.” I cannot imagine a more important time for outstanding writing skills, from tweet to video script to long-form narrative. Factor in writing under blistering deadlines and unexpected conditions and you’ve got Andy Carvin tweeting #Egypt for NPR or Oreos winning the SuperBowl blackout.
Power out? No problem. pic.twitter.com/dnQ7pOgC
— Oreo Cookie (@Oreo) February 4, 2013
Let me quickly preempt anyone whose knickers are knotting, thinking that I’m arguing journalism and marketing are the same, and we should do away with curriculum to the contrary. Of course I’m not saying that. Democratic governance doesn’t work without journalism. It does without a Gap ad. Journalism schools should teach journalism. My point is that the two share common elements of benefit to students that can be taught effectively in J-Schools.
Welcome to the light side
I chatted briefly with a fellow Edelman summit attendee from a university whose journalism program kicked out advertising and PR a few years back. I won’t name them here because I called them stupid. (Prediction to self: you’re going to get hate-tweets on this piece.)
But I do think it’s a mistake to see journalism as a teaching silo. Yes, advertising and PR can at times devolve into marketing-speak, leaving us riddled with bullet holes of best-practices-24/7/365-realtime-all-in-value-added-game-changers. I recently had one doofus tell me “our process must be planful.”
Yet when you blast past the hacks, you find lessons in meaningful content produced with integrity delivered to audiences with ways to engage. What more could journalism — or journalism schools — possibly want? Those who laud the nobility of journalism while dismissing the business of content act as though the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, the former will not survive without the latter. And our students won’t make it without lessons in both.
Kathleen Bartzen Culver (@kbculver) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and researching at the intersection of ethics and digital media practices. Culver also serves as associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and education curator for PBS MediaShift.