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I returned to independent journalism and strategic content writing consulting as my full-time business in 2014. I’ve been able to separate the two types of writing since I started offering digital communications services in the late 1990s. I make it very clear that to the public that I do both and am clear to distinguish in my marketing which is which.
That’s ethical and, today, with the limited opportunity to make journalism a full-time, sustainable career, “editorial content writing,” is the new normal for journalists. Editorial content is what journalists write brands, not news for news media. Corporations and content platforms hire news media editors to guide the process, and often th head “corporate newsrooms.”
But not all writing activities outside journalism are ethical for reporters. One of them has become increasingly common—media placement. That’s when a journalist uses their byline and media connections to get articles about organizations “placed” in trustworthy, high-readership publications or blogs.
Several prospective clients have wanted to pay me a fee to use my byline to get paid assignments from their target news outlets. I’d pitch stories as if they were objective but to write them in a way that’s entirely favorable to their organization.
They would pay me to write the story exactly the way they wanted it to read and ask me to guarantee it got published in that form. Throughout the writing process, they would review and revise the content until it was precisely what they wanted. I’d then present it to my editor as if it was “my story” about the brand. I was stunned the first time someone asked because I thought the individual asking should know better.
But, since the first time I got asked to do this, I’ve had discussions with other journalists who have been asked to do paid “media placement” and who wondered if they should. I told them I’d turned down offers for the work though I knew I could charge up to several thousand dollars per single article I got placed this way.
Why Saying “No” Was the Right Thing to Do
Just as I did the first time, when I’m asked to do this now, I decline instantly. I decided that while revenue generation is important, I don’t need badly enough to sell my integrity. I know I can achieve revenue goals honestly with hard work and focus but without compromising my hard-earned reputation as an honest journalist. My byline is not for sale, and I won’t use it this way.
Here are five other reasons I gave both that organization’s leader and other journalists about why I refuse to accept this kind of ‘project’ at any fee.
1) It’s unethical.
Frankly, I’d be lying to my readers and editors by telling them this was a legitimate story I was pitching and urging them to publish, as written, knowing it was not. I also would have to work “both sides of the table,” being paid to by both the client and the publication for my story. (A journalist of my caliber lacks credibility when we write for free or close to free so I would have to be paid something by the media outlet to write the piece.)
It is dishonest to take get paid by a media outlet or blog knowing I also got paid by the source to get their story placed there. Legitimate journalists don’t do the disreputable at any price.
2) It would be bad for my and the client’s reputations.
These days, readers and editors see through these veiled attempts to pass off what is, essentially, promotional content as a legitimate story. I might have to fabricate some aspects of the content to make certain it got published and read.
If I got caught doing this, my professional reputation would be permanently damaged and the client’s may be, too. No one would hire me to do any writing because they’d be concerned about dishonesty from me. Moreover, few would trust the client brand going forward. It’s just not the right way to get good publicity.
3) It’s not real news.
When I’m asked to act as a bylined journalist, I’m a reporter writing authentic news. As an editorial content writer, I’m producing useful, well-researched, sourced content with objective sources. I use a variety of voices that provide the piece with a balanced perspective, where that’s necessary.
An article written by and ‘placed’ for a client is not genuine news.
Such pieces, bylined or not, are more commonly called “advertorials” or native ads, sponsored or custom content. While there is nothing wrong with writing that kind of copy (it’s an un-bylined paid service I offer), it is dishonest to pass it off as ‘real’ story.
Again, if your audience finds out this is what you’re about, they won’t trust you, either. You’ll lose clients, donors or other stakeholders because faked stories from your organization make you look like a fraud in other areas, too.
I only do what’s in the best interest of my clients, my readers, my editors, and my journalism career. This strategy is not in the best interest of anyone involved.
4) I’m a strategic content writer and journalist, not a publicity consultant.
I write press content on behalf of publicity consultants or agencies that is more likely to be placed because I wrote it like the journalist I am. But, legitimate media placement is done by PR professionals who pitch those press releases to journalists who may use them to begin their research on a legitimate story. Like my digital content writing or luxury hospitality brand copywriting, my name will not be on most press content I’m paid to write.
Where my name is on a press release or other press content, it’s because I’ve volunteered to write the content for one of the nonprofit organizations I support. I decline to do it otherwise, even for nonprofits asking for the ‘service.’ Therefore, your organization should have an effective PR professional who can get you into the news legitimately.
It’s inappropriate to ask a bona fide professional journalist like me to write a fake story for a real news outlet or blog.
5) It diminishes the value and credibility of the news media.
From plagiarized stories to those that aren’t fact-checked properly before publication, news about poor journalism practices abound today. How do you feel when the media dupes you with such a news story? Exactly.
Then, ask yourself, “Do I want to read content that has been misrepresented as news when it’s advertising?”
Would you trust the organization that paid to have it placed, the news outlet that published it or the reporter who bylined it if you learned that it wasn’t real news? Probably not. Again, I care about my readers and editors too much to deceive them this way.
It’s important to me to uphold the integrity of the industry with my work. I fact-check my pieces and make certain not to plagiarize other writer’s work (which is an intentional act of theft). I don’t even plagiarize my own work.
I certainly am uncomfortable writing content or stories I know to be less than authentic. So, I can’t, in all good journalistic conscience, accept media placement projects.
Journalism and Marketing Remain Two Different Tactics
I understand how difficult it is to get attention in a noisy marketing environment. It’s flooded with new content every second of every day. I also know how challenging it can be for an organization, including my own, to generate revenue. But, as a journalist, at the end of the day, what I have is my reputation for integrity that I’ve built over many years.
So, while much has changed in mass communications, I don’t confuse actual journalism with marketing writing. They are not fungible. They are distinct, and I act with integrity when offering those services and executing projects on behalf of clients.
I know some people believe my journalist’s scruples won’t pay the bills, but there’s still plenty of work for honest and exceptional writers. That’s more true now that I’m consulting on digital communications strategy again.
Therefore, I won’t do paid media placement for any price because the cost is too high for me, the news industry and you, the client.
(c) 2015-2018. Dahna M. Chandler for Thrive Content, Inc. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without express written permission of the author.
I’m an award-winning business finance journalist with marketing expertise and business acumen who provides engagement-building, corporate communications strategy and writing services to thriving—high growth or established—corporate and financial brands targeting upscale and wealth-focused audiences. I best help those organizations rethinking, revising, and reinventing their cultural narratives to create an employee-centric workplace.
My passion and mission are to produce corporate communications strategies that lead to focused, shareable content that converts. I specialize in internal and change management communications with an emphasis on finance/IR, CSR, equitable D&I and employee experience messaging planning.
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