New Trusted Original Content Initiative Tests Limits of Brand Journalism
Time Inc’s Fortune magazine announced a new program in March called Fortune TOC (Trusted Original Content), which will produce Fortune-branded editorial content exclusively for marketers to distribute on their own platforms. According to Adweek, Capital One has signed on as the first client and will pay somewhere between $250,000 and $1 million for Fortune to create content about small business strategies.
In the short-term, this could be a big opportunity for content marketers and a quick money-maker for Fortune. Brands are finding great success with content-creation strategies, and what better way to capitalize on the trend than by turning some of the best editors and writers into hired guns? Longer-term, this initiative has the potential to kill the Fortune brand and destroy public trust in the fourth estate.
Branded content is nothing new. News and magazine publishers have been producing custom publications on behalf of brands for decades. Hearst’s custom publishing arm has produced glossy magazines on behalf of Avon, Liz Claiborne and Discover, among dozens of others. The Miami Herald has a division that produces in-flight magazines for American Eagle, Cayman Airways and TACA Airlines. And, more recently, Red Bull has established itself as the king of branded content by producing all manner of extreme sports content across print, digital, video and live event platforms. Even the humble press release can trace its roots back to the idea of a brand creating “news” content.
But the Fortune initiative adds a new and dangerous dimension to this trend: their masthead. Until now, branded content has been just that, content created on behalf of a brand and visibly owned by the brand. If you wanted your story anointed by the press, you still had to convince them to cover it and take a risk that they wouldn’t cover it in a positive light. Now, with its TOC initiative, brands can take the risk out of the equation, paying Fortune editors and writers to create the content in a controlled environment and slap the Fortune logo on it.
That logo is really important. It’s what separates journalism from marketing and sends the implicit signal to readers that a neutral third-party has vetted this information and presented it as news. Until it doesn’t anymore.
Over time, if initiatives like this gain traction, readers will eventually start asking themselves: Is this a real article or one of those pay-to-play puff pieces? Ask that enough times and suddenly the news outlet behind the logo at the top of the article doesn’t have much credibility as a source.
In their defense, Fortune insists that TOC will keep strict church-and-state separation and, though clients will be able to guide the subject matter, they will not see the final until it is ready to run. So, in theory, the marketing department won’t have final edit on these articles. But it is a slippery slope.
Let’s be honest, as anyone who has ever been a profile subject for a major US business magazine can attest – whether it’s Fortune, Forbes, Businessweek or any others – these things are rarely puff pieces. These magazines made their names by asking tough questions, writing snarky characterizations of powerful peoples’ personality quirks and generally running their subjects through the mill to get the good story behind the anesthetized version that the PR team wants to tell. Can that editorial edge now be bought away for $250,000?
What happens when an auto manufacturer signs on to TOC? If Tesla Motors bought a TOC feature, would the article dare mention, as Fortune senior editor Ryan Bradley did in a February 2013 article in the magazine, that the new Model S ran out of juice on his test drive and needed to be recharged for an hour so he could make it the last 20 miles to his hotel?
Probably not. And that’s not a good thing for journalism, or marketers. Like it or not, we’re all in the trust business. Test the limits of that trust and you may not get a second chance to try again.