5 min read

Investigative reporting and content marketing

I have a thing about calendars. I tend to think in terms of anniversaries and cycles, and I'm often conscious of completely inane and useless pieces of time-based trivia about my past. It's not unusual for me to remark over dinner, for example, that "it was exactly two months ago today that we last ate this!" Or to comment while getting dressed in the morning "the last time I wore this jacket was on that trip to Boston exactly a year ago on Saturday!"
Needless to say, my family is less than enchanted by this habit.
So I can only hope that you, dear reader, will be less than annoyed when I mention that
a) it was exactly a year ago today that John Bethune published an interview with me about what's gone wrong in B2B content marketing.
b) and it was exactly a month ago today that I submitted my annual predictions to the Content Marketing Institute in which I argued that something is about to go right in content marketing.

You should go read all the predictions at CMI. There are tons of insightful remarks this year by tons of insightful people. Read those. Then come back and we'll talk about what I said.

The Sacred and the Profane

So let's review. My prediction looked like this:

Content marketers have mastered much of journalism: analysis, profiles, how-to articles, etc. But no brand has attempted the most sacred form of journalism: the investigative piece. That changes in 2013. Some brand will do solid, hardcore, investigative work -- not of its industry, but of a tangential subject of interest to its customers.
Imagine a baby-food company, for example, investigating the dangers to children of outgassing VOCs.

I chose that example deliberately, because it's similar to an example I gave in a comment on an article called "Content Marketing is Not Journalism." Check out the article. Read the comments. Consider the nature of the argument.
If you read that piece I think you'll come to the same conclusion I come to -- this is nuts. They're arguing that content marketing can't be journalism because content marketers wouldn't tell a story about "about killing babies with Bisphenol A."
But as I said in my comment, content marketers have told the story about killing babies with Bisphenol A.
The real issue, it seems to me, is that content marketers didn't break the story about killing babies. Content marketers aggregated it. They added value to it. They distributed it.
But content marketers didn't break the story.
(Note: a review of the coverage of Bisphenol A shows people behaving badly across the publishing spectrum. The best, early work on the dangers of BPA showed up in peer-reviewed journals. After that,  advocacy groups began to receive some coverage in the mainstream press. But that same mainstream press consistently published counter-science pushed by manufacturer's public-relations wings. You'd be hard pressed to find any serious investigative work by journalists on the subject for the first few years of the controversy. What you can find, easily, is the sort of he-said, she-said nonsense that dominates journalism when the subject matter is difficult to digest. The sole exception to this was the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal -- which did the tough, investigative work beginning way back in 2007 and never let up.)

Until some content marketer somewhere breaks a story of such significance -- until someone does solid, hardcore investigative work - then content marketing will remain a lesser form of journalism.

( I feel obliged to interrupt myself and make note of the obvious -- if only to prevent people from posting comments that make note of the obvious:
There's nothing wrong with lesser forms of journalism. Not everything that journalists do is magnificent and holy. There is a place for celebrity journalism, just as there is a place for weekly newspapers that focus on high-school sports, trade magazines that teach people how to sell more widgets, local TV broadcasts filled with gruesome crime stories, and newsletters aimed at spreading paranoid theories in order to promote investments in gold.
Furthermore, not every piece of content that a corporation creates is a piece of journalism. Nor should it be. Corporations, even those that produce "great" content marketing, also produce marcomm, press releases, advertisements, instruction manuals, etc.)

The thickness of skin: the depth of coverage

The problem, of course, isn't that solid, hardcore investigative work is hard (although it is.) The problem is that it generates hate.
If you've worked in journalism for awhile, you know all about hate. People hate journalists. They write nasty letters. They sneer at us. They accuse us of lying, of stupidity, of being in the pockets of corporations and political parties and secret cabals.
And if you've worked in journalism for awhile you've learned to sort of like hate.
Hate motivates us. As does love. For isn't that what we mean when we say that journalism's purpose is "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"?
Marketers, on the other hand, tend not to welcome hate.
As I said in that interview -- did I mention it was exactly a year ago today? -- with John Bethune "my experience has been that the overwhelming majority of these companies don’t have a culture that is open to journalism. These companies don’t have the stomach for news and the confrontations it can promote. They panic when someone complains. They’re afraid of controversy."
But that will change. I believe it's changing now as more and more talented and experienced journalists enter content marketing.
And there's a model we can use to guide us during this change.
Consider this:
Corporations and their marketing and public relations departments are responsible for an extraordinary amount of charitable work. Companies choose a "cause" and they champion it. They sponsor walk-a-thons and volunteer drives. They associate their brand image with some form of "good." In many of these cases they seek to solve a problem -- poverty, disease, lack of education, etc.
This is comforting the afflicted.
Investigative journalism is the flip side of this. Investigative journalism seeks to uncover the roots of a wrong. Why are people in this area poor? Why are children sick? Why can't Johnny read?
What I'm predicting, specifically, is that brands will begin to look at both sides of the coin as part of their content-marketing efforts.
Why can't a baby food maker investigate VOCs?
Why can't one of the companies that associates itself with pink ribbons and the search for a cure for breast cancer also fund and publish investigative work into what causes the disease?
Want an example from B2B? (This is, after all, a blog about B2B journalism.) Have you seen the wonderful work being done to get truck drivers involved in battling human trafficking? That movement comforts the afflicted and seeks to "cure" the problem. Bless them for that.
But why can't a truck manufacturer flip that coin, hire a few reporters and look for the people behind this obscenity?
Of course it will be hard. Of course you might get sued. Of course people will hate you.
But trust me, there is great joy to be found in afflicting the comfortable. There is great joy, too, in feeling the hate.
There are also great branding opportunities for companies that can take it.

This time next year

I was recently named one of 25 journalists to watch in content marketing. That's an honor, and not one I mean to belittle.
But the list that I long to see is something deeper, more meaningful.
I don't expect to be on that list. At present I deserve no such honor.
But the list is coming. I believe this.
Soon there will be list of "content marketers to watch in journalism." And some of those content marketers will be on that list because they have proven themselves to be investigative reporters.