Journalists Take Refuge in the World of Branded Content

Of course, there’s a long history of paycheck-starved journalists switching to the more remunerative field of public relations, also known as the dark side. Doing so once meant hanging up the press pass, pretty much forever, because traditional media outlets weren’t interested in hiring shills. But with branded content, the lines are blurred. These brand-backed lifestyle verticals look and feel like the real thing—and many would argue, actually are—because there’s real interviewing and writing involved, even if it’s not exactly investigative reporting on human rights abuses or the like.

Because the content is sponsored by a brand but not directly about it (that type of thing is known as a “press release”), evangelists for branded content say it’s not a huge jump from writing for a magazine that has to be careful not to offend advertisers. Several also pointed to Travel + Leisure, which is owned by American Express, or in-flight magazines, neither of which carries a stigma for contributors.

Also, thus far branded content doesn’t appear to be a career killer for journalists who harbor hopes of returning to the traditional media fold. At least not according to Philip B. Corbett, the standards editor of The New York Times, which sets the course in media ethics. But he pointed out that the rules are still being written in this evolving realm.

“I don’t think previous work for a branded-content site would necessarily preclude someone from ever being considered for a job at the Times, though I imagine in most cases we would hope to see wider-ranging experience as well,” Mr. Corbett said in an email, noting that to his knowledge, the situation hasn’t yet come up. “A specific conflict might arise if a reporter was going to cover an industry or company for which the reporter previously worked,” Mr. Corbett added.

It’s hard to think about one’s career trajectory when the chance of getting laid off at least once is so high, and when what could have once been a lifetime appointment at a prestige magazine or newspaper has become so uncertain.

Branded content is still a brave, conflicted new world, but it also might end up being the future. For now, it’s a place to take shelter while traditional media outlets regroup, where some journalists discover more than just psychic and financial relief.

“There’s so much more freedom,” said Ms. Lafsky Wall, explaining that there is less pressure to generate traffic at HowAboutWe than at Newsweek, because her company’s revenue comes from membership fees, not banner clicks. And then there’s that sense of being a pioneer.

“I don’t have the weight of an older generation’s perspective,” she said.