THE mainstream news media sound annoyed and indignant that Narendra Modi, especially after he became Prime Minister, shuns them as he does. They should perhaps be worried instead. He is making it quite obvious that he does not need them. That, for a politician who is so media-made, is saying something: something along the lines that if he can tweet his views on whatever he would like to comment on directly into public circulation, address whatever needs elaboration beyond 140 characters in his regular radio broadcasts, he can really do without the intermediary troublesome journalistic variety, except when he chooses to include them in his scheme of media manufacture on his own terms, like when he is cosying up to Obama by repeatedly “Barak”ing him in the joint press conference (which went somewhat unrequited with the latter not coming up with a first-name-familiar “Narendra”, or an Americanised “Narry”, in return). The hacks, for their part, cannot, of course, afford to ignore anything the Prime Minister says or does which they can get their hands on; so he gets, in a manner of speaking, to have his cake and eat it too.
This Modi media paradox is another pointer to how the social media is not only impacting but reshaping the legacy and formal news media. The lead article in the November-December 2014 issue of Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) by Michael Meyer titled “The Wolf at the Door: Should journalism worry about content marketing?” looks at the ways in which content marketing, using the tools and technologies of the new media, is encroaching into the traditional journalistic domain. Meyer cites a number of instances of how traditional overt advertising in the formal media is being replaced by brand building through social media and “native advertising” through requirement-specific niche media, like Buzzfeed. The brands are eking out the equivalent of news coverage spaces for themselves, in some cases becoming separate universes of news unto themselves and the community at large.
The energy drink Red Bull positions itself as a purveyor of action sports, particularly of the adventure and extreme variety. American Express has a publications initiative to connect with small businesses. General Electric reports on the work of its own scientists and related areas of science and does not depend on the independent press to do so. Chevron runs a community news site in Richmond, Virginia, the United States, where it is the biggest corporate employer, which apparently passes off as the neighbourhood fourth estate (with a number of local newspapers in the U.S. becoming unviable and folding up, corporate online or offline publications find it easier to move into that space). Coca-Cola is relying, and spending, less and less on the television spot advertising model which targets consumers and more on generating and launching its own digital and video content online where consumers run into or seek out its advertisements. The food and drinks major Nestle, which had been put on the back foot in 2010 by a Greenpeace social media offensive for using palm oil cultivated in Indonesia by encroaching on the rainforests, thereby setting off a deleterious ecological chain reaction, has since worked on restoring its public image through the same social media, posting as many as 1,500 pieces of content each day and aggregating, across its several brands, a Facebook fan following of 250 million.
This form of content marketing in the media is akin to direct democracy in politics, with vital implications for journalism. As Meyer puts it, “The very premise of the profession (journalism) is that it’s dangerous to have words pass straight from the mouths of CEOs or politicians to the public’s ear. This intermediary function is at the core of journalism’s identity and, though it wasn’t always thought of this way, the core of its business model. But each successful piece of content marketing is, in effect, a statement that a journalist wasn’t wanted or needed. Each time a consumer clicks on a piece of content marketing, or shares it with a friend, it’s confirmation that they’re very comfortable being out there in the information landscape on their own”.
Content marketing campaigns often seek to strike a chord that finds a resonance in the mind of the public at a given time. Meyer draws on the example of the fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill, which relies on and propagates the values of organic farming, poultry and meat from livestock raised humanely on small and medium farms, and hormone- and antibiotic-free animal husbandry, in opposition to the assembly line mass production of the factory model. Its video animation short, Back to the Start (2011), against what it projects as the insensitive and inhuman practice of factory farming fetched 8.5 million views on YouTube.
Another animated video, The Scarecrow , which reiterates this message of Chipotle sourcing its poultry and meat from farms where they are bred in humane and natural surroundings, had 13.5 million viewers. The scarecrow visits a food factory run by the crow and sees chickens injected with some greenish liquid to boost their size, a tube from which a paste labelled “100% beefish” is extruded, cows penned in metal cages and milked mechanically.
But, as Elizabeth Weiss notes in her piece “What does The Scarecrow tell us about Chipotle” in The New Yorker (September 23, 2013), despite the huge reception of its content marketing and the company being widely seen as sticking to these self-set standards, “it would be nice, of course, if some entity other than Chipotle itself —an independent auditor, for example—could confirm all this. The United States doesn’t have comprehensive consistent regulations regarding the use of terms like ‘natural’ and ‘humane’. That makes it tough for people to evaluate any company’s claims about agricultural practices. It’s even more difficult with restaurant chains like Chipotle, which sources ingredients from thousands of farmers.” It takes a journalistic intervention to point this out.
Journalism, however, seems, on the margins, to be forced to throw in its lot with the content marketers. Meyer points out in his CJR essay that The New York Times has an “advertising shop” which designs stories custom-made for clients like Chevron, Netflix and Goldman Sachs, although it does not go as far as The Huffington Post , which allowed a Chipotle-sponsored section, “Food for Thought”, on its site, where stories on all aspects of food, including how it is grown, marketed, consumed and legislated, appeared with the message “In partnership with Chipotle”.
From our perspective here in India, where we have been grappling with the more acute manifestations of what has come to be called “paid news” (i.e. advertisement masquerading as news) in a section of our news media, these examples from the West may yet appear incremental steps towards the total marketisation, and direct monetisation, of news. But if or when journalism segues into content marketing, it seems set on the path of paid news and in a few years we may well be wondering what the brouhaha about it here was all about in the first place. As Meyer suggests, the role of the news ombudsman may morph to become or include that of the “consumer advocate”.
As if to tell us that this shift is not far-fetched and may, indeed, be well upon us, some of the recipients of the World Digital Media Awards for 2014 given by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), whose avowed mission includes “promotion of press freedom, quality journalism and editorial integrity”, seem to have taken an extra-journalistic, content marketing approach for their winning entries. The Norwegian tabloid Verdens Gang bagged the prize for Best Reader Engagement by its multipronged innovative coverage of the 2013 World Chess Championship games between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand. With the national broadcaster of Norway getting the exclusive broadcast rights to the match, Verdens Gang came up with an online counter on its site which combined live streaming of every move made on the chessboard in Chennai, expert computer-generated analyses, and the doubts and comments of viewers—all of this in an engaging mix of the serious and the funny, and supported by an advertisement blitz drawing attention to the event and the coverage at bus stops, metro stations, on mobile devices—so that it notched up six million visits through the two weeks and had half a million unique visitors on the final day of the match.
Verdens Gang , again, won the award for the Best New Product for its site Godt.no, launched in 2013, promoting organic food in two main categories, “eat in” with recipes on how to cook and “dine out” with reviews of restaurants. Even by the end of the year, the site had 230,000 weekly unique visitors and 3.5 million page views, and within 10 months, half the traffic on the site was coming from mobile devices. It went on to become quickly profitable.
The award for the Best Digital Advertising Campaign went to the Austrian publication Kleine Zeitung for its bid, through a candid camera video campaign, to conscientise the citizens to exercise their franchise. Hidden cameras installed in cafes captured the perplexed reaction of customers seated at the tables as faux waiters (planted there by the newspaper) served them food and drinks, none of which they had ordered. Even as they are seen wondering what was going on, they are presented the cheque folders for payment. When they open them they find, instead, a message asking them whether they would accept anything they are served, and asking them to go and vote.
The edited video comprising these actions and reactions from the cafes was then circulated on YouTube, but with a prejudiced and non-factual lead-in which clubbed Venezuela (where legitimate elections, sought to be vitiated by a U.S.-backed opposition, have brought representative popular governments, of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro after him, to power) along with Egypt, Ukraine and Afghanistan as places in the world where, “people are still fighting for free and independent voting”. “But what is happening in the long-established democracies?” the voice-over in this introductory bit continues, “People simply can’t be bothered. The average voter participation in Europe is now only 43 per cent”. The video was seen about 100,000 times within a week and, what is more, drove traffic to Kleine Zeitung ’s website which registered a surge of visits and page impressions: 232,847 visits and 1.6 million page impressions in just three days.
The foremost online news site in Hong Kong, Apple Daily (which also has a print edition), won the award for the Best Mobile Service for going out on a limb to promote the pro-democracy activists fomenting the “Umbrella Revolution” against Chinese control and regulation. The daily’s YouTube channel apparently survived a hack attack and was often the only source of news when print editions of newspapers were blocked from being distributed. It boasts of 7.6 million unique visitors, 1.2 million page views and 465 million video views each month, and a Facebook fan following of 1.2 million. In the most intense phase of the agitation, the daily mobile unique user figure of the paper touched the 4.6 million mark.
The recognition these awards bestow seem also a recognition of the emphasis shifting from hardcore journalism to the soft power that the new technology-enabled media exercise in the form of content marketing to find newer sources of revenue.