Sayonara, journalists. Pretty soon brands won't need you

By Douglas Crets , written on September 26, 2013

From The News Desk

Journalists pay heed – your next career could be as managing editor of a brand’s community.

That’s right. Brands, which inspire everything from love to hate, inspire consumers to talk to them through the web’s multi-dimensional system, making the conversation – and not the advertising – the most important thing a brand must negotiate and nurture. Brands gather communities around them. And where there are communities, there is a need for truth. And truth makes the best stories.

The true storytellers need to live in brands, and they must practice the trade made special by journalism – telling the truth of your community, and helping them tell stories. And the people who perform that task best are truth seekers like journalists. Not message flackers.

Real journalism – not the tawdry Fox News type or the panic of a breaking news story involving a shooter, when CNN and its ilk, in a rush to be first, get more facts wrong than right  – doesn’t shock or manipulate. Real journalism, as it has been practiced by some of the world’s best writers for centuries, listens thoughtfully and tells a truth as a service to others. Not as a tool. Not as manipulative propaganda. As a revelation of the community’s thinking.

It’s hard to find that anymore, as journalism brands serve revenue channels out of necessity rather than moral abnegation.

Real journalism moves emotions, and it tugs at an ineffable urge to connect people with other people. Journalism is the transcription service of a civilization’s conscience, and on a mobile Web, which is spread across social platforms, there’s way too much information for people to pay attention to. In other words, the media environment in which today’s great stories are delivered is sick. It’s fragmented, torn by revenue-seek behavior, and frozen by paroxysms of schlock.

To truly serve the human need to know, brands need to step into this opportunity gap to hire writers and journalists. By eliminating marketing for the sake of marketing’s goals, they need to become the new epicenters of human conscience in a way that was not possible when the only media available were newspapers, radio, TV, or skywriting.

They need to develop communities where traditional print journalism and even modern Web journalism has not hit its mark.

Perhaps I am a heretic, but professionals don’t like hearing that brands can actually perform some of the functions of journalism mastheads. But there four reasons why I think that brands are new journalism platforms.

  1. Humans seek connection around values, and they think in terms of their own personal values.
  2. Social media, which brands use well, are more efficient value connectors and information channels for communities gathered around ideas.
  3. At least for the brand I manage, people are trying to get things done, so they need values and focal points that help them make sense of what other people are doing.
  4. Journalism and brand reporting is about memory, and journalists are the realtime collaborative transcribers of a community’s collective memory.
Whether you’re talking about Apple, Microsoft, ConAgra or Ford, all major corporations work to form values. It can’t be in product alone. It’s in the way people work, and it is expressed in the way consumers treat the company. Consumers are a mirror reflection of those values. A strong brand depends on strong communicators – in design and in language – that can articulate this well.

When advertisers in the early 21st Century made advertisements, they were spinning general truths about human emotions. They had to find the quickest and most efficient way to tell a story to the greatest number of people. So they formulated catchy phrases and leaned on the broadest of human emotions, and told a story about fear, missing out, guilt, envy, love, lust and more.

They grabbed their audience by making them feel they lacked something or needed something very badly. They did so in the broadest possible terms, because they had only a few formats available to them: A 15-second radio announcement; a single page newspaper ad; a magazine insert; the space of time between Walter Cronkite’s evening news and the weather report.

Now, consumers and brands melt into each other’s spaces, because consumers are spending time with brands in an emotional way. A brand’s messages compete with text messages from mom or SnapChat’s from a nude ex-boyfriend. And those only last for a few seconds.

If a brand is about the community, then they need an interlocutor to articulate what they want when they want it. You can’t do this through tweets alone. You need to interview the community to find out the deeper needs. Where are the tension points? Where is value conflicting with business aims? Where are the hidden people whose stories need to be heard? A reporter’s job is to go out and find that stuff. It doesn’t just arrive through a series of tubes at your inbox.

When anthropologists look back over the ruins of human civilization after the Martians land and give us back the Curiosity Rover, one thing they might marvel at is how brands stopped being brands and started being community journalists for pockets of civilizations that puddle around values.

Journalists will have gone extinct – many of them having tired of being paid advertisers for rich folks, or the brands they love. People will have stopped using newspapers. And started doing things for themselves.

But men and women who made it their job to figure out what the community needs will have etched out a space in memory. They will be able to have secured a narrative arc for the community they served and the brand that listened to it.

That leaves us with memory. Nobody knows story better than a novelist, a writer, or a journalist. The fundamental core of story is memory. It’s about what happened, and it’s also about creating a stamp on what happened so that what happened will be remembered long after it happened.

The act of creating a story and delivering it to the audience creates the indelible narrative.

Brand is not story, really. Brand is a type of stamp, but it doesn’t have legs, as they say in the newsroom. You can’t carry it forward. It doesn’t evolve as quickly or as humanly as a daily story.

This is the trick of the reporter on the beat. They write to continue the memory, but they also write to continue on into the next day’s events. They write in a way that delivers the next day’s news by pushing truth into power structures.

Why couldn’t a brand act this way? Why shouldn’t they?

Nothing delivers true emotional calibration and trust better than a really good story. As you are flipping through the sound bites tonight about Syria or other war panic, think to yourself about what the story for your civilization should be.

I bet it doesn’t look like fear, or loathing. It looks like the people you love and work with, articulated faces in the stream of human progress. And that will often come from the sources, and in many cases, that means it’ll be coming from brands.

[Image via Wikimedia]