Aug 3, 2009

Strange bedfellows

To some extent, newspaper journalism is a corporate sponsored enterprise, in that corporations buy ads that pay for newsrooms. But what if corporations got more directly into the content business? Would that supplement what's missing as newsrooms downsize?

At least one corporation has bypassed the newsroom altogether and hired its own writer to produce feature stories that highlight real people as a way to draw an audience to its products. Carpenter Co., which makes mattress and pillow stuffing, recruited former News & Observer columnist Dan Gearino to write profiles of the people of Stephenville, Texas. The stories don't mention the company or its products.

From Fast Company:
The blog is the social media component of a marketing campaign, which also piggybacks on Jewel's latest album, Lullaby. Stephenville, located about 90 miles southwest of Dallas, wasn't a random pick. Jewel lives there. ...

On the one hand, Carpenter is paying Dan to live in town and write. But it doesn't tell him what to write or not write, doesn't edit him, doesn't pay him to shill its bedding products. This isn't the same thing as the sponsored mommy blogs that have generated recent controversy because of purely positive product reviews. Dan's free to chronicle small town life as he sees fit.
This sounds like a fine idea if you want to columnize about the quirks and characters of small town America. But does Dan really get to chronicle the town "as he sees fit?" What if he comes across small town corruption? Or someone dumping toxic waste into the local swimming hole? Or higher-than-normal incidents of teen pregnancy, drug addiction or domestic abuse? What if a local councliman turns out to be a screaming racist after a few drinks? What if the local police let him drive home drunk because they're negotiating a pay raise? All of these are purely hypotheticals, of course, but would Carpenter Co. let Dan run those pieces? Of course not. Dan's work is probably culturally valuable, but corporate-sponsored journalism isn't much of a supplement for the kind of journalism we're losing.

(via Romenesko)

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