Harry Phillips' printing press, c1910; image by Blue Mountains Library via Flickr

Flashback to 2003. Had anyone told me – a rookie reporter covering the foreign affairs and international news beats at one of Sofia’s biggest newspapers – that brands of the future would become publishers in their own right and that I would be working for one of them, I would have dismissed the idea as sheer lunacy.

Journalists had the exclusive privilege of gathering, filtering and analysing information, and presenting it to a readership of passive media consumers in an easy-to-digest format. And I was revelling in the notion that I was working for the public good.

Flash forward to the present. Content marketing is the buzzword of the year and empowered businesses are pumping out editorial content in a race to spread their messages and reach an increasingly active community of online users.

For many traditional newsrooms, meanwhile, digitization appears to have spelled little more than doom and gloom – squeezed advertising margins, dwindling circulations, editorial layoffs.

As for me, I’ve joined the fast-growing ranks of “brand journalists,” media practitioners producing, curating, editing and disseminating content on behalf of a business. The “novice journalist” me of eight years ago would have screamed in horror.

Seeking to find out what it means, exactly, to be a journalist in this ever-changing digital ecosystem, I embarked on a postgraduate research journey last year. Below is a summary of my most prominent findings. As it turns out, the notion of brand journalism isn’t so horrifying after all.

The Guardian has adopted a "digital first" strategy

The rise of the dynamic brand

In my research I compared marketing software company HubSpot with British newspaper of record the Guardian. What I found out is that mainstream media organisations are increasingly acting like brands (creating new products and services), while brands perceive themselves as publishers by adopting traditional production practices (think editorial calendars) and even values.

HubSpot, for instance, subscribes to journalistic values such as transparency and the supremacy of hard data over opinion, as the company’s online values statement indicates.

The Brand Republic, a U.K. niche news information service, meanwhile, doubles as a recruitment and events network. Similarly, the Guardian, which in 2011 adopted a ‘digital first’ strategy, has a growing number of business tiers, while engaging in SEO, social media, events promotion and other traditional B2B marketing activities. In tune with this trend, Wired U.K. recently launched an in-house business consulting service.

Anyone can be a publisher! Really?

In his 2006 book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins writes that new content creation tools and distribution platforms “have lowered the barriers of entry into the marketplace of ideas,” blurring the distinctions between “producer and consumer, between consumers and citizens, between the commercial and the amateur, and between education, activism, and entertainment.”

The proliferation of content curation platforms like Percolate, Themeefy, Scoop.it and as of late, Pinterest, has levelled the playing field for just about anyone to create, own and publish their own personalised publications. Once pushed into the digital space, stories can be remixed, reused and recycled for as long as the internet shall live.

And when content production barriers are continuously pushed down, virtually anyone can be a journalist and achieve authority in the digital space as long as they gather, filter and distribute content in accordance with journalistic values.

There is, however, one vital ingredient that you need in order to be a credible publisher, and that is readers’ trust. You simply need it, and you need lots of it.

Despite all these new players, my research demonstrated that traditional publishers are still a trusted voice. So it’s incumbent on brands to build credibility and gain their audience’s trust by adhering to the same values and standards as non-branded publications.

Shared values

The bottom line is that to stand out in the glut of online voices, a branded newsroom needs to meet three conditions: It has to be open, transparent and rigorous; it has to adhere to journalistic values; and it has to embrace technological innovation (which, I might add, many branded newsrooms are doing better than traditional ones).

As someone who has crossed the divide between journalism and marketing, this conclusion makes me embrace my former journalistic self even more. In my experience, the tensions between being a journalist and being a marketer have disappeared and the boundaries between the two fields have long blurred.