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April 5, 2021, 9:07 a.m.
Business Models

Jeff Israely: Getting paid means some work for brands — and it’s O.K. to talk about that

It is only the latest, though perhaps most complicated, chapter of the marriage of convenience between advertising and news.

Editor’s note: Jeff Israely, a former Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is the cofounder of a news company called Worldcrunch in Paris. For the past 11 years, he’s been describing and commenting on the startup process here at Nieman Lab. Read all his past installments here.

It was January 2020, and Justin Trudeau had decided to grow a beard. This of course was not news in the Watergate or even the who-won-last-night’s-game sense of the word. But if you happen to be a Reuters correspondent in Ottawa, it’s a story with your name on it.

You might moan about celebrity-driven politics or social media or the prime minister’s handsome mug — but there are news pages to fill, eyeballs to count and your editor wants the damn copy. So … Anna Mehler Paperny, whatcha got?

For the second time in five months, Canadian social media users are obsessing over Justin Trudeau’s face.

In September, it was old pictures of the Canadian prime minister in blackface that got him in trouble during the election campaign. In January, it’s Trudeau’s facial hair that is trending online…

Even in pre-Covid times it was all hardly worth noticing, but I’d stumbled upon it on Twitter, where various news business folk were taking snide swipes at Mehler Paperny’s take. “What is this headline?” “Spurious nonsense.” “False equivalency.”

From where I sit, I say: chapeau. The huffing and puffing of “journalism Twitter” notwithstanding, the days when we’re doing something above and beyond the daily feeding of the news pages are the exception. Ideally that feeding should be done with joy and professionalism: spotting stories, gathering information, finding connections, turning phrases … and of course always trying hard to get it right so they have faith in the box scores and the next Watergate sticks too.

And so, with a bit of huff-and-puff of my own, I say that readers are not idiots. Mehler Paperny earned her bread that day and that would-be false equivalency wasn’t an equivalency at all. It was a hook.

This is the secret sauce of much of what we’ve always done: draw people in, weave a tale, impart important (and not-so-important) information with punch and clarity. What’s changed in our internet age is how this quest of earning and keeping attention is up against so much competition in the same time and space from, well … everything. Indeed, I had gotten hooked on that story from Canada as I was in the middle of editing an article here in France that was absolutely not news at all. It was an article for…a client.

As I’ve talked about in previous posts here, we’ve been developing a brand content arm alongside our international news website, which has helped to finally make our company financially sustainable. Story Lab applies the same basic formula that The New York Times stirs with T Brand Studio, and Reuters with Reuters Plus, and that the Economist Intelligence Unit has been doing since 1946. The internet has created major new demand (and low-enough cost structure) from companies and organizations that can become a kind of media of their own for the express purpose of (more subtly) pushing forward their message.

All of this of course requires people who know how to find those hooks and turn those phrases and, yes, get it right. It is only the latest, though perhaps most complicated, chapter of the marriage of convenience between advertising and news.

Perhaps the most relevant point for us, a much smaller operation, is that virtually every member of our team has our hands in everything. There are of course plenty of potential ethical issues worth addressing, yet on a day-in day-out basis they pale in comparison to the deeper economic and existential questions that are changing the very nature of our jobs and trajectory of our careers. With massive layoffs and plummeting pay rates for bona fide freelance journalism, having clients in the world of corporate communications and content marketing is the only means for many to stake some terrain in news and journalism where the only client is the proverbial “reader.”

Unfortunately, this reality is still considered taboo for many in the news industry. Talk about corporate work at your peril, or at least with a blush of shame. In the most extreme cases, how can a war photographer risking everything to bear witness put her name on a Toyota photo shoot? And there are countless other less dramatic examples, which freelancers and editors simply prefer to pretend don’t exist. It’s probably time we start talking about it, precisely because of the ethical and economic questions that are not going away. Here are two shining examples chez nous:

Rozena Crossman is a 30-year-old Boston native with a degree in religious studies who perfected her French by serving drinks in Paris. But the plan all along was to serve up stories. Able to tackle topics from haute cuisine to quantum computing with aplomb, she has clips to show for herself from The New York Times, The Guardian, and Ozy, as well as a host of smaller outlets. Still, half her income comes from paid-by-the-piece writing and translating for corporate clients rather than the press. We pay Rozena a day rate at Worldcrunch, and she does a bit of everything: translating a Le Monde reportage, gathering the headlines for our morning newsletter, writing keep-it-positive solution stories for clients, ghost-tweeting for corporate executives.

The same set-up, more or less, goes for Carl Karlsson, also 30, also with barroom experience, plus a stint in the Swedish Army and a still rather fresh Master’s Degree from Columbia Journalism School. He’s spent the past 18 months hopscotching around multiple African countries for an industry trade monthly, juggling heavy loads of reporting and writing and a fair share of business development for his publisher. He speaks five languages, writes muscular English prose, and is working on a book-length defense of social democracy that won’t make Greta happy.

If you overheard Rozena or Carl working with their editor in our Paris office, you might not be able to tell if the story was for a client or for our news site. “That paragraph needs to be sharpened. Double check those dates. We need a better hook…” You might also hear us all trading ideas about how to make the business of news function better. This somehow all makes sense for my work as editor of both activities, and for the company we’re building. I hope it works for Rozena and Carl too. What it means in the long term for the industry and profession as a whole is anyone’s guess.

Beyond our own team, I also am regularly solicited via email from anonymous armies of freelancers. The vast majority (several per day) are trying to place marketing copy on our site, offering up articles on X, Y or Z trend or product or factoid. I imagine they are getting paid not only for the article, but in managing to place it in a respectable (or otherwise) digital publication. Or they’re just all bots. For the moment, at least, that’s not our business, and I don’t respond.

But we also get cold pitches for real journalism that fortunately tend to be easy to tell apart — even from just the email’s subject line  — from all the marketing queries. One day last year, however,  I did a double take from an email we received from a freelancer with this subject line: “Sustainable Tourism Story: Mongolian Tourists initiate a cleaning campaign to cleanup Baguio City, Philippines”

The pitch began with the sender’s credentials, which included work with AFP, Reuters, and ProPublica, which I could easily verify. “I have a story that might be of interest to WorldCrunch,” the email continued, with fluid though not perfect English. “Over the Christmas holiday, five Mongolian tourists help organize a seven-day cleanup in Baguio city in the Philippines that motivated locals to chip in and also redefined to take in the scenery.”

The pitch went on along those lines with more details, until this sentence about the group of young travelers: “They reached out to Erdenebayar Khasag, founder of the company where they work, a Mongolian digital publishing company called World+.” Whatever passing interest I might have had in the story vanished.

All of this recalls the famous quote about the difference between “journalism” (something someone doesn’t want published) and “PR” (everything else). Yes, a chunk of what we wind up calling journalism began as someone’s pitch … or post-Christmas beard. What we do (or don’t do) with it is up to us. In this case, I responded to the email to find out more, to see if this story was really just about Monsieur Khasag. I never heard back.

Even if it wasn’t pure marketing spam, the story wasn’t going to be right for Worldcrunch. But the prospective email happens to have been just the perfect way to wrap up the piece you’re reading now: It began with someone serving Justin Trudeau’s face as bait, and arrives at the evidently kind and generous media boss Erdenebayar Khasag getting marquee billing at Nieman Lab. And so I say to the young freelancer who pitched it to me: chapeau… and make sure you get paid!

Photos of coins by J J used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 5, 2021, 9:07 a.m.
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