Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Bleeding of Journalism and Corporate Marketing

Jacob Chung |
February 14, 2012 | 4:10 p.m. PST

Contributing Reporter

Corrections: A Neon Tommy articles titled, "The Bleeding of Journalism and Corporate Marketing" excluded the word "when" before a quote from John Earnhardt and mentioned that the annual budget of The Network was two million dollars excluding backend operating costs. The Network's annual budget, in fact, includes backend operating costs. 

John Earnhardt from Cisco discussed the growing trend of corporate journalism and its successes. (Photo Credit Wilson Pumpernickel)
John Earnhardt from Cisco discussed the growing trend of corporate journalism and its successes. (Photo Credit Wilson Pumpernickel)
The future of journalism may be corporate-sponsored stories, according to a discussion with journalists and public relations professionals at USC Annenberg Director's Forum Tuesday. 

Corporate newsletters have been a part of businesses for decades, highlighting everything from industry trends to quarterly financial statements. But the trend now is a shift from internal communiques to industry specific stories sponsored by a company. Such types of stories are known as "brand journalism" or "corporate journalism" in the PR industries. 

"When we're not getting what we need from journalists so we're doing it ourselves," said John Earnhardt, director of corporate communications at Cisco, in describing the need for brand journalism. "What we're trying to do is start a conversation."

Cisco's own news site, The Network, launched in 2000 and has evolved from a "ra-ra Cisco" site to one with good original stories Earnhardt said. The site has an impressive list of contributing journalists---several of whom are veteran reporters from major publications like Forbes, BusinessWeek, The New York Times, etc. 

One contributing journalist, Steve Wildstrom, offered his thoughts in a pre-recorded video of his experiences in writing for Cisco's publication. 

"The future of journalism is that every one is going to have to be more entrepreneurial," Wildstrom said. "There is no more working for one employer."

In that vein, Wildstrom continued by adding that chronicling events should no longer be the focus of journalism because social networks often allow for news to be directly shared to the public. 

"They need journalists to make sense of things," Wildstrom said in describing the value of journalists as interpreters of technical information. 

Both Wildstrom and Earnhardt touted the amount of freedom journalists are afforded in terms of editorial control, with the exception of two guidelines: 1. Don't hurt the company; 2. Don't highlight the competition. To this day, only one story was killed to his memory Earnhardt said, not due to a violation of the guidelines, but rather because of a conflict with a product launch date. 

It's easy to point fingers at such guidelines seemingly conflicting with unbiased reporting. However, good original reporting and corporate sponsorship are not mutually exclusive Earnhardt continued--a fair point considering the history of news publications which are, to this day, mainly funded by ad revenues. 

But if brand journalism is able to produce solid original reporting, how will this affect traditional news publications? After all, stories from The Network are classified by Google as news stories--something that took some convincing on the part of Cisco according to Earnhardt. 

"We're not ad-based," Earnhardt said in clarifying Cisco's intent. "We sell routers."

Cisco's aim is not to compete for viewership/readership, but to target specific audiences "that have influence with their audiences." 

Earnhardt did not offer answer to whether brand journalism would be the future during the director's forum because that wasn't his intent--nor is it an answer that can be conjured up over an half-an-hour discussion.

But what's obvious is that journalism is in a transformative stage and one option may lie with a more direct corporate sponsorship rather than ads. 

Cisco has shown that it's willing to hedge its bets on corporate journalism. The Network operates at an annual budget of approximately two million dollars (excluding nine backend operators) and that figure is likely to increase. And Stefan Pollack of The Pollack PR Marketing Group, says that two millions dollars is a sizable investment in marketing even for a large company like Cisco. 

With many print publications struggling to find a working ad revenue model as they transition online, corporate journalism seems to be a viable option.

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Anonymous (not verified) on February 15, 2012 6:20 PM

Truly a puzzling and sad state of affairs, imho that journalists are driven to this model. Having studied journalism, it's disappionting. I know that the reality of journalism these days is the almighty dollar - broadcast leading the way - but it doesn't mean I have to agree or like it. Thanks CSCO for nothing.

John Earnhardt (not verified) on February 16, 2012 12:03 AM

I'm a bit confused as to why Cisco is the bad guy for supporting journalists doing their trade. The business model for news is broken and some very talented journalists are available for work. Cisco is utilizing their skills to report on trends in the industry that we happen to care about - innovation, technology, etc. We are in the middle of a huge market transition in it or not. Cisco is very happy and proud to work with these journalists and continue to showcase their craft. If you haven't read any of their stories on our should. We think is is very good work and think you will too. Thank you for your interest.

John Earnhardt (not verified) on February 15, 2012 12:37 PM


Thanks for the write-up.

I'd like to make a few clarifications to your story:
1. "We're not getting what we need from journalists so we're doing it ourselves," said John Earnhardt, director of corporate communications at Cisco, in describing the need for brand journalism. "What we're trying to do is start a conversation." (I believe I said "WHEN" we don't get what we'd like from journalists (which is our first go-to audience for telling stories), we may tell the story ourselves.) An important clarification.
2. Our annual budget is close to that number, but includes all the back-end support for the site, our developers, wire service fees for press releases, server hosting and other costs. The budget for content is a part of the overall budget.
3. I agree with the learned Mr. Wildstrom that the future of journalism is strong, but a better business model is still being searched for.

Thanks very much for your interest.

Trace Cohen (not verified) on February 15, 2012 6:39 AM

Brand Journalism or PR Journalism will be the emerging trend of the year as we begin to create out own influence centered around content we create and control. I do want to clarify though that this isn't the fault of Journalists/Writers but the companies they work for on their broken business models. They need to produce endless amounts of content to garner eyeballs for ad dollars - that's their revenue model.

One concern I hear is that if companies do start producing their own content, then it will have a "spin" or some agenda to it (let's be honest, most major media outlets have an agenda as well). If that is the case, then no one will read it and you will ultimately fail. We live in a world of social proof where you can easily call BS on something, and trust me if someone does do that, you will never write like that again. At the end of the day, write the story that you want written about you and engagement with you community in meaningful and honest discussions.