Ask any journalist, and they’ll tell you these are terrifying times. Ask any marketing person, and they’ll likely say these are exhilarating times … exhilarating but exhausting, because keeping up with all the changes is a fulltime job, one that comes on top of the other fulltime job of working on behalf of clients.

But at least business is promising. The same can’t be said at most media outlets. It seems they picked the wrong side of the equation. Of course, people can change their minds. And some media outlets are; they’re getting into the marketing game.

The buzz lately seems to have focused on agencies and marketers becoming more like media outlets – the brand newsroom concept. But it’s a two way street: some publishers, frantically searching for a new revenue stream to help them fight off the downward momentum of journalism, are behaving more like agencies. They’re offering marketing assistance and expertise to brands.

High profile examples include BuzzFeed, Gawker and The Atlantic, which are offering sponsored content or native advertising to brands. And Fortune magazine just announced a new program it calls Fortune TOC. TOC stands for Trusted Original Content. For the low, low price of $250-thousand, Fortune TOC will produce original content for brands to use on whichever platform they choose. (Brief, snarky commercial – I’m not sure what you get for $250K, but I am sure that Scribewise can do a better job for that kind of coin. Ping me.) Capital One has signed up.

Here’s what publishers have going for them: The traditional layering of the process of communicating with the audience goes brand à media à customer. You’ll notice the media is next to the consumer; therefore, their pitch is that they know the customer better because they’ve been interacting with her for eons. By bringing greater customer understanding to the brand, publishers are enabling those brands to create better engagement with the audience. And, because they’ve been in the content production business forever, they are expert at content creation.


For the media, there is the separation of church-state issue. Many will sound alarms over the problem of true journalists trashing their credibility by writing on behalf of brands.

For the brands who are hiring these media outlets to act as de facto content agencies, there are some issues. Specifically, does the media outlet have the brands’ best interest at heart? With the traditional agency relationship, the agency’s charter is clear – make the client happy. Publishers don’t necessarily have the same goal in mind, and in the early days of publishers-as-agencies, there are plenty of examples of the brand getting rather crappy treatment.

As Traction CEO Adam Kleinberg told Digiday, BuzzFeed seems like a cool place to have your sponsored content, but he thinks much of it has been “completely irrelevant” to clients. Said Kleinberg: “Agencies are there to make sure things are done well, and often it’s not. The experience Virgin Mobile is getting is hurting its brand more than helping it.”


Perhaps publishers will get better at being client-focused as they gain experience. But right now, it’s a culture shift that the traditionally journalistic operations are struggling with.

The other big question regarding publishers-as-agencies that brands need to ask is whether they’re getting the A Team, or second-rate writers who just happen to collect a paycheck from a place like Buzzfeed or Fortune. Are brands really willing to pay a premium for mediocre content, simply because the email address it comes from says “Fortune”?

Like a lot of mashups, this is kind of messy right now. But it will likely continue to progress, because brands are pushing forward for more content and publishers are pushing forward to find new revenue streams. For brands hiring content producers, it’s important that they find a provider that can deliver what they need today.

It’s great that publishers are innovating and searching for new ways to fund journalism. If this is done properly, everybody wins. But right now, it’s fair to question whether it’s being done properly.  It’s just as clear that the sharp line between marketer and media has blurred.