A growing number of brands are broadening their publishing ambitions beyond product-first content marketing, applying more rigorous journalistic principles to their publishing initiatives in attempt to build genuinely engaged audiences with owned publications.
But there’s one particularly sticky part of that ambition that’s proving to be difficult to pin down: Defining and maintaining editorial independence.
Many brand publishing executives say they’re still figuring out what editorial independence looks like within their respective organizations, and that they’re increasingly running into situations where its limits are being tested. Although leadership teams remain supportive of the concept in theory, when it’s put into practice their views on it can often become more nuanced. “It’s a work in progress,” one editorial executive said.
At Huge Inc., veteran Bloomberg and Forbes journalist Jennifer Parker is attempting to rethink the advertising and design firm’s approach to publishing. Her work centers around a new publication called Huge Moves which, from the first pages of its inaugural print issue, proclaims that it is doing real journalism rather than shilling for the agency. The goal is to showcase the quality of the firm’s thinking in order to attract and engage both new and existing clients.
There are distinct advantages to instilling a spirit of editorial independence within brand publishing teams. It often helps build credibility with audiences, results in better quality and more engaging content, and can even result in more efficient operations, less bogged down by onerous review processes involving multiple parts of businesses. Even for SEO purposes, there are some indications that Google rewards content that can be considered trustworthy and authentic.
Parker has to keep, by necessity, other ideas at arm’s length that don’t fit with her mission. This means educating wider company on what independence means and why that means certain stories get written, or don’t. “It’s hard, because yes, you have to be independent, but the fact is there is no such thing as independence,” she told Toolkits. “You need separation of church and state. But for there to be a state, you need the church.”
Biting the hand that feeds
A few months ago, Ian Leslie, who was editor in chief at a brand publication, ran into an issue when he reported on a company the business-side of his firm was also wooing. The company in question balked and threatened to walk back the relationship, costing the firm a potential new client.
“It was less about independence and more about transparency,” said Leslie, who is now chief marketing officer at Industry West and trying to build that company’s editorial arm. “Yes, I’m trying to do brand journalism, but not journalism. I’m working for a company and I do want what’s best for that company. If I had known that was happening, I would have found another example for my story.”
This sentiment is common among publishing executives, many of whom acknowledge that they ultimately work for non-traditional media entities and that they must approach the content they publish with added flexibility. At the same time, many are asking leadership and other parts of the organization to be more cognizant of how they operate and to work with them, rather than against them.
“There are a number of times where people I work with are overly sensitive, to a point where I feel like everything could be a potential pitfall,” said one editorial content manager at a large company. “Every newsletter I write is sent to anywhere between three and four people, who will make edits and strike out any information that mentions their clients – even if it’s simply factual. At this point, I’m not even asking for independence, just basic manners.”
For this editorial manager, they know they wouldn’t publish stories that actively work against their business’s interests. “I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me. Why would I?” they said. “But my sensibilities as an editorial person are just different from other people.”
There’s another, more nuanced element to the independence issue. Brand publishers are cognizant that everything they do could be received with suspicions of bias. Audiences are smart enough to know that when a brand publishes something, it’s doing so with its own interests in mind – even if it’s not outrightly shilling.
At Shopify, that “obstacle” was turned into an advantage by its editor-in-chief, Courtney Symons. When the Canadian e-commerce giant launched a sustainability fund to invest in technology battling climate change, it knew criticism was coming. So it doubled down, and Symons and her team wrote a series of articles questioning and criticizing the fund, asking its CEO and leadership for proof and data. Many in the company were confused or unhappy, and asked why a company website would publish these pieces. “But we approached it how a journalist would have, and honestly, even more than a journalist would have,” said Symons.
But Shopify has, like other companies, also instituted some practical changes to ensure editorial teams are largely left alone to do their work. A codified set of operating principles that outline what publishing teams do and what marketing does are available to anyone – particularly useful when out-of-bounds requests come their way.
At Huge, Parker is attempting to institute regular editorial meetings where most of leadership and much of the company is compelled to attend, so there’s transparency in operations, and trust is earned.
And at another firm, a newly installed editorial director is the only point of contact between the business and the editorial team – nobody gets through without them. Still, independence and what it means in the context of brand publishing remains mostly, as that person said, a “moving target.”