By Ken Jalleh Jr
Back in the salad days of ink-infused ideals, an astute editor used to define the line between the newsroom and advertising sales in a way so strategically simple, that it is worthy of recall.
“We grow the tree,” he would tell marketing colleagues, “you pluck the fruit.”
Ah, what simple times they were, when editorial uncertainty depended less on revenue concerns, and more on political currents.
By “growing the tree”, of course, he meant readership. Credibility – free from commercial influence – was at its core.
Fast forward and the uncertainties are less Istana, more instant, existential and, of course, primarily because of digital disruption.
Why this indulgent lapse into nostalgia? Because of a “Sweet” new SPH initiative that newspaper institutions and enlightened multi-national giants call the Brand Newsroom.
Our unique proposition: The opportunity for brand partners to capitalise on the reach, expertise and power of Singapore’s premier storytellers and platforms to optimise their profile, purpose and performance.
Major multi-national organisations – Marriott, Red Bull, Coca Cola, Colgate, Amex, Ikea among the many – are well ahead of the curve, having invested in creating their own newsrooms.
So, too, mainstream media. Britain’s Guardian newspaper is among global media giants who are big on branded content. Its director of sales and strategy, Adam Foley, describes it as “content more on a par with what people expect from Guardian editorial, in terms of style, tone, and stance.”
To that, I’d add that the need to be independent of overt influence from commercial interests.
The New York Times, for example, recently ran a long-read feature (with video and animation) on women in US prisons. It was a gripping read. And it provided the ambience for Netflix to promote its latest season of Orange is the New Black.
Brand Newsroom content creators need not be promiscuous to commercial imperatives.
In almost 40 years in the trade, I have been part of, or in charge of, five newsrooms: The Straits Times, The Singapore Monitor, The New Paper, TNP Sunday and Streats, along with stints at Los Angeles Times, Detroit News and the New York Daily News.
In that time, I’ve become convinced that there are two quintessential components of a great newsroom: The Fighters and The Writers.
In this digital age, add another: The Imagineers.
The Fighters are the lifeblood of the newsroom: Reporters who are thorough, relentless in seeking the truth from the most intolerant of newsmakers, fearless in an unforgiving environment, patient in the most impatient of 24/7 news cycles.
Because they are thorough, they are the torchbearers of trust – priceless in an age of fake news.
The best of fighters are motivated mostly by positive ego: They report to be read and be believed.
Amid the shout-fest, echo chambers and agendas of social media, theirs is a bias that favours the truth.
Says John Miller of the US-based Content Marketing Institute: “Newsrooms and news organisations influence opinion because they are the first to inform us of new events and, importantly, readers rely on them to interpret and explain those events.
“When a brand journalist does this reliably, audiences come to believe in them and place their trust in them. And that is precisely the goal of your content strategy to build trust with the audience.”
Adds Stefanie Neyland, a digital content strategist: “The best journalists (from the glory days of the traditional journalist) were those who took an audience-centric approach and whose main focus was building trust.
“The best modern day content marketing teams have much the same modus operandi and function a lot like the romanticized newsrooms of yesteryear.”
The Writers are the columnists and analysts defined by style and photo-byline familiarity.
From the purple prose of sportswriters to the insightful, sometimes cutting, often unique perspectives of columnists, they are influencers from a time before the label became fashionable – and superficial.
The digital revolution has made it imperative to have a third component: As much as writers and fighters, we need the Imagineers.
They take the conversation beyond words and into visceral wonder – to attract in a world of deleterious attention spans, with videos, animation and other forms of creative visual communication.
Imagineers add the pizazz of a YouTube Naz Daily to the newsroom’s dynamism.
Together, the Writers, Fighters and Imagineers of Sweet’s Brand Newsroom aims to seize attention in a noisy, distracted world.
The Sweet bonus: If purposeful, compelling content or conversation aligns with a brand’s ideals, community and commercial interests.
A former newsroom colleague once asked what it’s like on the “dark side”, now that I’m involved in Sweet’s Brand Newsroom.
The answer lies in another question: Is there a difference between a Brand Newsroom (with caps) and a lower-case, high-calibre newsroom?
The short answer: There shouldn’t be.
The deliverable ideal – credible, compelling and timely content – remains relevant.
But the reality of a ruthless market environment demands a more calibrated deal:
We want to grow the tree and pluck the fruit.
Ken Jalleh Jr
Ken is Editorial Director of Sweet Brand Newsroom and Head of
Govt/Policy Content. He has been a journalist for almost 40 years.