The slimy rise of the "brand journalist"

By David Holmes , written on September 9, 2014

From The News Desk

Today on Twitter, Fusion's Felix Salmon stumbled upon a curious job listing at Storyful, a site that vets and verifies newsworthy social media content for accuracy.

The job title is "Journalist (Brands)," which for anyone who cares about integrity in reporting and newsgathering should sound like a ridiculous oxymoron. The job description is even more head-scratching: "The candidate will specialize in Brands but should be open to working in Trends." Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of capitalizing "Brands" and "Trends," how can Storyful justify calling this a "journalism" job?

It's part of a larger trend of diluting what the term "journalist" means. Just as "journalism" has devolved into the much broader, more brand-friendly term "content," a journalist could now mean anything from Woodward and Bernstein to a kid who makes GIFs for BuzzFeed's social channels. But someone who specializes in "influence-spotting" and "trend discovery" in the service of brands cannot be called a journalist, just as a native advertisement for Scientology on the Atlantic's website cannot be called reporting.

But that hasn't stopped Storyful. Perhaps in the future there will be whole concentrations in journalism schools devoted to content marketing. We already know it's much more lucrative to write copy for brands than flying halfway around the world on your own dime hoping that some news outlets will throw you a few dollars for reports from warzones and disease epicenters. And according to the investigative non-profit ProPublica, the ratio of PR workers to journalists has risen from close to 1:1 in 1980, to over 3:1 in 2011.

It's an inconvenient truth, but advertisers and brands are the ones paying for most of these acts of journalism, both investigative and otherwise. And if native advertising or using journalistic techniques and instincts to identify trends and influences can help pay the bills, then so be it.

But please don't call it journalism, and please don't let "brand journalist" become a thing. It may be a matter of semantics, but it serves to expand the already precarious definition of a "journalist" even further into areas of PR and marketing where it simply doesn't belong.