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The Scary Thin Line Between Blogging and Journalism

Posted on Aug 8, 2010 in Featured, Rants |

The Scary Thin Line Between Blogging and Journalism

As a very young writer, I had the great honor of working for one of the finest editors in the publishing business. Twice, actually. My first real job outside of  selling pantyhouse at Nordstrom was as an intern for Los Angeles Magazine a zillion years ago. The editor,  Blue Lew, taught me more than he’ll ever know — but the number one lesson about journalism that I learned was that the line journalism and advertorial shall never, ever, be crossed. True journalists hold the honorable role of being paid to write without the bias of influence from advertisers nor perk-a-lators.

This precious lesson helped me write some terrific advertorial inserts which made me more money than journalism ever did. And that’s okay, because one is based on touting the products of the company that is paying you, the other is reporting on a product, event or thing. See? Not hard to decipher at all when the line is drawn.

There was a table at Los Angeles magazine that was endlessly piled with goodies. The old wood 6-ft banquet table had everything from cosmetics to fancy dog treats, hoards of the latest goods to hit the market. Sometimes it was junk; other time it was backstage passes to the opening of House of Blues. The goodies were free for the taking — just pick up whatever you want. Nobody was expected to write about them, talk about them or hell, even use them for more than white elephant gifts. But what the table wasn’t was a deal between the writers and the PR folks who send them the goods. See, journalists don’t take the crap you send them — at least unless then need to in order to write a story. But bloggers? Many bloggers do. And that’s where the scary line between journalism and blogging comes to play for me.

And it’s not just the bloggers’ issue, it’s the PR execs too. Send you a sample, you give me a write-up. I send you to a show, you give me a raving blog post. You send me a book, I write a review. You give me free downloads for my kids and I tweet it out to my followers. It’s a growing relationship between bloggers and journalists that needs to be addressed. In listening to people speak this week at BlogHer 10, I started to become more clear on the problem at-hand: Many bloggers are advertorialists, not journalists. Although not good or bad, it’s got to be addressed. And beyond that, it’s got to be determined that paid blogging — no matter how you cut it — isn’t journalism. And that’s okay. But it’s got to require transparency.

A seasoned PR exec with a stellar reputation was approached by a blogger who wanted to know why she hadn’t contacted her lately. She asked why she wasn’t commenting on her blog, why she wasn’t returning emails at the drop of a hat. Caught off-guard, she tried to make it clear how valuable the blogger was to her and important to her business. And that’s true. But what the blogger was missing in all of this is that her direct access to this PR exec wasn’t a friendship — it’s a business relationship. Do you think the PR chick is calling up Brad Stone every day for a chit-chat? She calls him, then it means she’s got news or information to share that might be useful for his writing. He takes her call knowing that she’s got business. How are bloggers missing this important piece of business relations? Dear blogger friends, PR executives do not want to be your friend, they are working for their client. It’s not personal. It’s not about you. And no, they’re not reading your every Tweet.  PR execs know how to engage a journalist, but why not a blogger?

A few weeks ago I received a direct message on Twitter from a company that had offered me free downloads of their new iPhone app. I never got around to it. Yesterday I get a DM saying, “Taking your word for an older promise to try our (parenting) app on your iPhone.” Excuse me? I gave you my word? My word of what? And what promise would that be? How do I explain that offering writers a product to try is very different than committing to write about it. I think bloggers are mistraining our clients to expect that if we receive products to try that it means they will receive a post in return. The lessons of that old table are so simple and yet so hard to teach.

Advertorial is not a bad thing — it’s a great thing! The lines are very clear: you pay me with product or money and I, in return write a glowing blog post for you hitting all the points of interest that you’d like me to focus on. You pitch me or I pitch you. Great. You offer me a Cannon PIXMA Photojet printer which is worth about $375. How much are my blog posts worth? Well, if I write for BlogHer, they’re worth $50, so that’s either a blog post and social media outreach for $375 worth of your services or you are being over paid. Maybe that doesn’t work for longterm relationships with PR folks. Okay, how about if you loan me the printer and I get to have a photo printing party with some friends. You get to use the printer, print out as many photos as you want with all the supplies paid for. That’s worth about $50-$100. More in range of what we’re talking about here. Now you’ve got a deal. And, you’ve got a story to tell, rather than a simple review. That’s a good advertorial deal for both sides. And, could get you both more traffic and more clients.

I used to be on every PR list known to man. Seriously. Anything that had anything to do with entertainment was in my inbox. Not so much anymore. And that’s fine, I’m not an entertainment writers. It’s not my business. And, shame on the PR person who pitches me because they must be unaware that I no longer do that kind of writing. Recently I got on a PR list for live events for children. Now, that’s interesting to me. Why? Because I blog about my kids and kids lives, because I am always up for an adventure and I rather like cultural stuff. You want to send me tickets? That’s great! I like that, but what’s in it for you, you PR maven, you. Not much unless you have made a deal with me to do so. As your guest and having been “invited” to attend your event, I feel no obligation to write about your show. But the line is funky here too, especially for mom bloggers who could really use activities for their kids and ones that are free? Whoah, that’s hard to turn down.  But before you say yes with three exclamation points, I’d suggest making the relationship official and transparent. Think: is this advertorial or is this journalism? And then, proceed accordingly. Neither is wrong, of course. It’s just business.

Transparency is the key here. Decide what it is you are doing and be transparent about it. The way I see it, you have three options (a) be a journalist and use your blog to report things/people/events/thoughts without influence or bias; (b) be an advertorialist and use your blog as paid writing, using your blog as a mechanism to advertise things/people/events. Neither is wrong or less influential. The only wrong turn you can make is to blur the lines. And in doing so, lose trust of your audience. Set expectations, understand your strengths and limitations and understand that being a writer — both advertorial and journalistic — are held to the highest level of integrity.