Getting the news into "brand newsrooms"

By Kirk Cheyfitz , written on June 10, 2013

From The News Desk

Celebrating Oreo’s now-famous twi-jacking (Or is it “twit-jacking?”) of the Super Bowl for the brand’s own milk-and-cookies purposes, the ad business erupted early this year with ecstatic chatter about so-called “brand newsrooms.” While the chatter focused in minute detail on brands and to a lesser extent on rooms, there was virtually nothing about what constitutes news.

Apparently, the ad people peddling brand newsrooms know nothing about news. So the brand newsroom conversation has been ill informed at best and nonsensical the rest of the time.

The focus on news from brands is appropriate and necessary. Brands live in the same digital world as the rest of us. Our world is increasingly dominated by social sharing, driven by content. If a brand wants its stories shared on social platforms – and it does – those stories need to be newsworthy in the most straightforward sense of the term: new and worthy of an audience’s attention. So brands need to master a concept that’s as central to journalism as it is to swapping stories with your neighbor: news value.

News value is tangible and well understood by news people. Not so much for ad folk. The ever-escalating discussion about brand newsrooms has proven that the idea of “news” is a shape-shifter for ad folk and digital start-up people.

I grew up in newsrooms at dailies, weeklies and magazines. I haunted newsrooms as a freelancer for The Washington Star, now defunct; city hall bureau chief, among other things, for The Detroit Free Press; president of Chicago Magazine and so on. Seeing the world through the lens of news value, I founded agencies to create real stories for brands in the form of magazines, newsletters, web content, apps, games and so on. Now I head a shop built to replace the traditional ad agency with content-based advertising in all media channels. Out of our 170 professionals, about three dozen are journalists.

Given my history, I’m transfixed by the nonsense I’m seeing about brand newsrooms ever since Oreo’s Super Bowl tweet. Here’s a representative sample:

Digiday jumped on the phenomenon back in February, first covering Oreo’s Super Bowl coup in terms that made planning the Normandy invasion sound simpler than issuing a tweet. Next came a piece counseling brands that news operations could become “an expensive nightmare” or “yet another fancy buzzword at best.” Pepsi’s digital lead, Shiv Singh, weighed in, suggesting brand newsrooms are scary places bent on “culture-jacking every event.”

A few days later, Contently, a company offering marketers “tools and talent” for branded content, counterattacked by boldly pointing out, “A ‘newsroom’ no longer has to involve journalists packed together in a room.” Remember, kids, there’s an Internet out there, so you can just have freelancers sit at home on computers waiting for assignments.

More recently, Adobe’s branded news site pushed back, telling readers—presumably all CMOs except me—“Insourcing your newsroom is key.” The mildly incoherent post offered no evidence but concluded that agencies are too expensive and would employ freelancers who would miss the point of everything. Oreo’s tweet was heard ’round the world because its “strategy, newsroom, and legal teams were all in the same room,” CMO declared. In other words, forget the Internet and freelancers. But by linking back to Digiday’s first post on brand newsrooms, CMO at least brought us full circle without having gotten us anywhere.

Lest I create abject despair over the state of adland’s news knowledge, Advertising Age actually ran a smart guest post last September by Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, a digital shop that sells brand newsrooms, among other things. Schafer rightly identifies the critical need for brands to create content that gets shared. “What if instead of optimizing branded content to hit every marketing bullet point on a brief, we optimized it to maximize the amount it got shared?” he asks. He even gives a quick nod at “news” and how it’s evolving.

All the wrongheaded bullshit about brand newsrooms seems to believe the gospel that human history began at CERN in 1994. In fact, the history of all this – of news, brand journalism and brand newsrooms – is long and instructive. My agency set up the first newsroom for a global brand roughly a decade ago. Microsoft, then and now, needed to create massive amounts of content all over the world in real time. A newsroom structure saved them much duplicated effort and huge amounts of money, while insuring accuracy, timeliness and consistency. Not bad.

The sum total of all this is that brand news, despite what marketing bloggers would have us believe today, can’t be all about hi-jacking events or tracking events or any such quixotic, overly broad enterprise. What brand news needs to learn from real news can be broken down into three important parts:

1. A great newsroom is a unique point of view.

Whether real or virtual, staffed with full-time writers or freelancers, a newsroom, first and always, is a place with a carefully constructed filter that only lets in what the newsroom believes is relevant and important to its mission and its well defined audience.

The New York Times newsroom defines its mission as being the newspaper of record of the United States of America, not so much for New York. The San Francisco Examiner, on the other hand, views the world through the filter of what’s important for people in San Francisco. When Steve Jobs died, Billboard’s cover line was “STEVE JOBS’ MUSIC LEGACY.” People touted “His Private World. His Brave Battle.” The Economist, which exists to explain the world economy, featured “The magician: Steve Jobs and the world he created.” And so on.

2. A newsroom cares more about its audience than itself.

Importantly, no real newsroom in the world sees its mission as reporting on itself. The question of the month, week, day or moment is always: What does our audience need and want to know from us? What can we offer that’s valuable to them? Brands that only talk about themselves cannot make news.

3. A good newsroom predicts the future.

While most outsiders think newsrooms exist to react to events, their real purpose is to foresee and shape events for the audience. A great editor is almost continually focused on the future, not the present. What forces will be uppermost in the audience’s mind tomorrow, next week, next month? When does tornado season start in the plains states? What happens if the drought continues for another week? What events will galvanize our audience a year from now? While newsrooms must be organized to react quickly to the unexpected, they are really built to know what to expect.

The fourth and final rule of newsroom building, of course, is that this isn’t one-newsroom-fits-all. If you want to build a newsroom, first you have to figure out your mission.

In the prevailing media environment, brands do not have the luxury of deciding whether or not to play in the always-on arena of digital, where social channels dominate. In this new media landscape, brand newsrooms and brand news are going to be increasingly critical to marketers. But the threshold question is not, “How many staff do I need and do I have to put them in one room?”

The starting questions are: “What’s my brand’s unique point of view? What kinds of stories should I be telling? What sorts can I tell credibly? Who am I telling these stories to? What will my audience care about tomorrow? Where does my brand’s ability to publish and my audiences’ deepest interests intersect?” And, finally, “How do I use my content to program my social channels to spread my brand’s news by maximizing sharing?”

Brands will find that building a newsroom is a walk in the park once those basic news-creating questions are answered.