The corporate newsroom

By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
Amanda Gome of ANZ BlueNotes: “It doesn’t feel that different from a normal newsroom.

Organisations that embrace the concept of content marketing become “brand publishers”, producing informative, entertaining and relevant content for direct distribution to their consumers and wider target audience through their own print, digital and video platforms. For most organisations this will mean working with content marketing agencies, but for those that fully embrace content marketing, the logical next step to consider is to start their own newsroom.

If content marketing lives up to its potential to become a primary marketing, brand-building and customer engagement tool, taking the function in-house becomes not only conceivable but highly desirable.

Setting up a “brand newsroom” – also called “corporate newsrooms” – is not an easy undertaking because it involves introducing a largely alien and “non-corporate” culture into the organisation.

The brand newsroom’s mission is to produce content that will appeal to readers, and in some cases, to external newspaper and magazine editors, as copy that might just as easily come out of the newsroom of a major metropolitan daily newspaper or magazine. While no doubt having a loyalty to the organisation, a newsroom staffed by journalists and “media types” will be equally mindful of their responsibility to their readers – which is, after all, what makes their content so valuable.

“The risk is that newsroom-style operations have the potential to hurt brands by isolating content production from other company teams.”

Ritika Puri

It is unlikely – and possibly unwise – that brand newsrooms would be located within marketing or PR departments, or considered interchangeable with those functions.

The relative independence of the newsroom is essential if the objectives of content marketing are to be realised, which would mean many of the characteristics that would be found in a traditional newsroom, although perhaps on a smaller scale. This in turn poses a challenge for the successful integration of this new business function into the organisation.

“The risk is that newsroom-style operations have the potential to hurt brands by isolating content production from other company teams,” writes career “brand journalist” Ritika Puri, and in some cases produce content that’s “out of touch with the company’s goals and strategies”.

There is no reason, of course, why the brand newsroom, once established, should be a rogue silo. But the concept of a brand newsroom will most likely be new territory for both the host organisation and the members of the newsroom, who in most cases will have come from careers with traditional media. Building a brand newsroom will inevitably raise cultural clashes. Blazing new trails will always have its inherent challenges.

But the lesson from the big corporates in the US, Europe and Australia which have gone down this path is that making the investment and the organisational commitment is that it’s a challenge that can be met, and the results are worth it.

ANZ Bank’s Group Head of Strategic Content and Digital Media, Amanda Gome, says setting up the ANZ BlueNotes newsroom from scratch in 2014 has exceeded expectations. In its first year of publication, ANZ BlueNotes – edited by former Australian Financial Review associate editor Andrew Cornell – was named Brand Site of the Year at the 2014 BEfest Awards.

ANZ BlueNotes employs three full-time editorial staff: a managing editor, a sub-editor and an editorial producer, as well as a team of regular contributors.

“We have a corporate newsroom that draws upon expertise from within the bank and outside,” says Gome, a former senior journalist and media executive. “We’ve got a fully resourced publishing hub, with access to leading journalists in Australia and internationally, a contributor budget, and we’ve got a dedicated video studio. It doesn’t feel that different from a normal newsroom.”

“The site is getting a lot of attention in the content publishing arena for its original reporting and bold initiatives, which include launching brand extensions such as the BlueNotes Debates.”

“The production and editorial values are equal to any traditional newsroom. There’s no point to content marketing unless those values are adhered to.”

Rod Wiedermann

Former managing editor of The Age and managing director of Melbourne content marketing agency Mediaxpress, Rod Wiedermann, says the reason content marketing has made such an immediate impact is because it so closely replicates the values of a traditional newsroom.

“When the goal becomes to provide your readers with the best possible stories and the most relevant information, the whole process is geared to achieving those quality outcomes,” he says. “Everyone involved in the process knows that they are going to be judged on the quality of the work they produce.

“Whether it’s the photography, artwork, design or the content itself that goes into a client’s publication, the production and editorial values are equal to any traditional newsroom. There’s no point to content marketing unless those values are adhered to.”

“The best journalists make it their mission to give their reader something that they can use and makes their life better.”

Steve Smith

Weidermann says big corporates are increasingly looking to establish their own newsrooms, but others are outsourcing to the newsrooms of agencies such as Mediaxpress. “On our floor at any given time we have writers and sub-editors, a photo director, a production editor and a Walkley Award-winning art director which our clients can tap into at any time.”

Steve Smith, blogger and partner at San Francisco marketing and advertising agency The Starr Conspiracy, says the best newsrooms tell the best stories.

“The best journalists make it their mission to give their reader something that they can use and makes their life better,” he says during a presentation on building a brand newsroom.

Some of his tips include:

  • Think like your audience. Empathy is the goal. As you create content don’t think about how to sell to them. Think about how to be their advocate.
  • Tell stories. People have a primordial need to hear stories. To tell a story worth hearing, adopt a unique point of view.
  • Be relevant. What you say had better be worth saying. Deliver the right message to the right person at the right time.
  • Trust. For journalists trust and credibility are everything. You earn it every day. Your work must communicate personal value and tangible value.

Shane Snow, founder of the New York-based hub for journalists working in content marketing, Contently, says the term “brand newsroom” has only been around for a few years.

“[B]rands have recognised that in a social media world, telling true stories is a better way to win hearts and minds than interrupting people with ads,” he writes in a blog for the prestigious journalism school, the Poynter Institute. But then a warning: “Becoming a publisher isn’t like an ad campaign or some other short-term initiative – it’s a cultural change within an organisation.

“Traditional media have known for a long time that good publishing requires not just talent but also smart organisation.”

As to what sets great brand newsrooms apart: talent.

“There’s no getting around it: great stories are told by talented people and even the most talented people tell better stories when they work together. That’s why the best newsrooms invest in talent.” (Snow believes it is not necessary for a newsroom to be a physical room, arguing that some of the most effective newsrooms today are virtual. On this point, however, it is hard to find ready consensus.)

One of the important roles of a newsroom’s talent is to create original material.

“If the goal of a brand newsroom is to gain the audience’s attention, trust and engagement with that brand, recycling pieces of other brands’ content or inanely riffing off obvious news isn’t going to work… in the world of branded content, original always wins.”

The corporate newsroom can take many forms: from the nominal – a single staff editor who farms out stories via freelancers and/or a content media agency; to a dedicated news team that might include an editor-in-chief (or editor or managing editor), production editor, video producer, graphic artist, researcher, digital specialist, and one or two staff journalists – supplemented by freelance journalists.

Freelancers will normally be accessed through an editor’s contacts, from content marketing agencies which generally have access to hundreds of freelance journalists, designers and photographers, or from specialist journalist agencies such as Newsmodo.

Newsrooms should also have access to in-house subject-matter specialists as well as external subject-matter experts who may be willing to contribute articles.

A good reason to have a well-resourced newsroom is the relentless demand for copy. Content marketing is based on attracting and retaining readers, and that requires a constant flow of stories, information and features. Depending on the expectations that have been set, online content must be regularly updated, pages refreshed and older stories archived. Readers do not appreciate coming back to static content – eventually they will stop coming back.

If the offer includes a daily or weekly e-newsletter, that frequency must be observed if reader loyalty is to be maintained.

An efficient newsroom must ensure that editorial resources match the output required. This will be the subject of daily or weekly news meetings. The editor will be responsible for commissioning stories, receiving, editing and approving final copy, and very often will also be writing columns, blogs and other content. The production editor (or possibly a deputy editor) will work with the editor to manage workflows, post copy online and liaise with contributors. What’s important is that responsibilities and reporting lines be established from the outset and adhered to.

As well organised as a newsroom might be, chaos is still the order of the day in any newsroom. The structure and sound management of a newsroom make it possible to better deal with whatever contingency may arise – copy that doesn’t arrive on time, copy that can’t be run because it doesn’t pass muster, missing graphics, in-house lawyers hanging on to copy longer than they really need to.

The perpetual chaos may come as a shock to other departments not used to such excitement: this is just one aspect of the cultural adjustment that organisations have to make.

Tourism Australia introduced a newsroom in late 2014. It appointed not a journalist as its Global Content Editor but content and engagement strategist Andres Lopez-Varela.

Tourism Australia’s “brand publishing” newsroom will also incorporate PR, events, advocacy, social media, brand marketing and other content “into the one cohesive editorial and publishing strategy”.

Although the PR and marketing functions will be incorporated within the newsroom model, Chief Marketing Officer Nick Baker says journalists will be commissioned to write travel stories for Tourism Australia’s new website.

“Rather than us write articles there are thousands of journalists who are writing really good pieces using the craft of journalism – not stuff from companies or PR releases but well thought out stories and articles from people who have learned their craft over many years,” he told media industry site Mumbrella.

Baker says the newsroom may eventually hire its own journalists. “I think the new publishers, the new media owners, will be brands. There is definitely a role for brands to become publishers but if you are going to do that you have got to have people who can write.”