Is branded content the death of journalism or its salvation?

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Earlier this year I spoke at the OBE Branded Entertainment Summit in Milan. As part of my trip, I also caught up with Subvertising’s Editor in Chief at Pietro Pierangeli, and we spoke again recently about how there’s more to Italy than its beautiful landscape and tourist attractions. One characteristic that Pietro thinks makes Italy unique among other countries in Europe is the sheer number of magazines and newspapers that are available there:

From north to south the newspaper kiosks are packed with a huge number of titles: from national to local newspapers; from sport to economic dailies; and countless weekly and monthly health, gossip and other lifestyle magazines.

He accepts this might not be attractive as the Gulf of Naples, but thinks the sheer volume of media should be seen as the perfect environment for branded content opportunities. That’s why he was surprised to hear Ferruccio de Bortoli, the former editor in chief of Italy’s most read and influential Italian daily Corriere della Sera, argue that branded content needs to be kept outside the editing rooms of the Italian media because it represents the “death of the journalism”. But as Pietro explains, tough talk about the separation of “church and state” in publishing could be seen as grand standing, particularly when you consider the peculiar nature of the ownership of the Italian media:

If you look at RCS media group that owns Corriere della Sera among other titles, then the main shareholders include Pirelli, Fiat, Edison and Generali. Then there’s Repubblica that belongs to the Espresso Group, and CIR (Compagnie Industriali Riunite) that has the Industrialist Carlo de Benedetti as their major shareholder. Even the innovative La Stampa from Turino (that recently joined the Google Digital News Initiative and is headed up by the ultra smart editor Mario Calabresi), is owned by Fiat Chrysler. And that’s before we get to the Berlusconi family who own the Fininvest group that are the majority shareholders in Italian media giants Mediaset and Mondadori.

The reason he raises these brand ownership issues isn’t to make a point about possible corruption and coercion, but he does think it has an inevitable influence on editorial staff given the old idiom of not biting the hand that feeds you. This comes at a time when newspapers and magazine publishers are seeing circulations decline and revenues plummet as readers and advertising budgets continue to migrate to the web:

The crisis faced by all the media groups is still far from being solved, which puts pressure on the line that divides the commercial department and the editing staff. Funds coming from advertising are increasingly becoming the emergency oxygen supply for those on the brink of bankruptcy.

It’s easy to see how these commercial considerations can be leveraged on behalf of brands to gain favourable press coverage, as highlighted by Peter Oborne’s high profile resignation from The Telegraph newspaper in the UK. For Pietro, it’s these pressures that are more likely to fast forward us to a future that Ferruccio de Bortoli predicts above.

What’s on the horizon, however, could look very different. We highlighted the evolution of the agency model in Vol II of the BOBCM, mentioning how publishers are becoming agencies. These new branded content divisions actually represent the revisiting of older ways of soliciting ad revenues by publishers, and their launches are being regularly chronicled in releases published by the worldwide magazine media association FIPP. They also show the investment being made by publishers in digital, particularly with regard to the delivery of native formats through programmatic and predictive technologies. This only goes to prove the old adage that in a gold rush it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.

Interestingly, Pietro believes that the Italian media is well placed to exploit the opportunities afforded by the changing landscape given the brand-ownership issues mentioned above. As such, he thinks this should be seen as a blessing rather than a curse, and possibly the means of salvation for the Italian media. The idea being to develop branded content platforms that allow the brand owners to support their publications along with other advertisers, which actually allow more separation between “church and state” than actually happens now given the commercial pressures.

Pietro plans to share examples over the coming months along with other news and views. In the meantime, check out this write-up of my presentation at the Digital Media Expo 2015 hosted by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN – IFRA), which looks at What does traditional media bring to the branded content table?