Just when we started to get a handle on native advertising, marketers are birthing a new beast: brand journalism.

If you’re new to the conversation, native advertising is a current hot topic among marketing folks. Basically, they want to write articles that make their companies look like innovators or thought leaders, and publish them on Web sites as if they are part of the content stream of that site. Editors have pushed back that they can be formatted as articles, but must be labelled as advertising and not duplicate the look and feel of editorial content. In the main, advertisers have relented when confronted by those requests from publishers who care about preserving their integrity.

Now comes a new attempt by marketers to wear the garb of independent content: brand journalism. Basically, instead of putting their stuff on our sites, they want to make their sites look like our sites. In a recent guest column on Advertising Age’s Web site, marketing consultant Larry Light waxes poetic about the virtues of the soft sell. Here’s Light’s pitch:

“Positioning, the message-pushing idea of imposing an overly-distilled, single word in the customer’s mind worldwide, is out of date. In this modern age of dialogue marketing, the old-fashioned idea of aiming to own the customer’s mind is marketing arrogance. Instead of message pushing, the message-engaging concept of brand journalism is increasing in importance in this new, increasingly fragmented, personalized, digital, always-on, mobile era.”

Light lists several characteristics of this new beast:

  • Information is presented in a coherent framework
  • Rather than all articles being about the same narrow “message,” there’s a diversity of topics
  • The articles tell a story, create a narrative: Brand journalism marries brand management and journalistic storytelling.”

Light goes on to talk about corporate Web sites that have “editorial” staffs as large as 75 editors.

Noticeably lacking from this picture are two things: reporting and skepticism. I bring this up because it highlights how important it will be in the next few years for independent, skeptical editorial sites to distinguish themselves from brand journalism. We’re are not in the “interesting stories” business, even if we use that vehicle. We are in the discovery business — what’s true, what’s actually important, what works, what doesn’t.

I’m not convinced that corporate America will adopt brand journalism. The history of corporate commitment to robust editorial efforts is extremely spotty. One VP of Marketing buys into it, they leave and the next one says “Why are we spending money imitating trade journals?” Nonetheless, we should all recognize that our own advertisers may want to compete with us for readers.

And how do we win that competition? By sticking to real journalism.