One of the things a lot of people looking in from the outside of our company wonder is how a group of writers calling themselves creatives could stand to spend precious talent writing Fluff like blog posts and web content for clients instead of working exclusively on our own Next Great Book That Really Matters. Well, I’ve always believed talent in a craft grows exponentially, and the more you practice, the better you get. I often like practicing on other people’s ideas better than mine. It’s easier. This practice is possible because what we do at Metonymy Media isn’t that far from more traditionally-respected forms of published writing, and it feels like the lines are blurring more every day. Here’s a look at how journalism, creative nonfiction, and content marketing have been distinct throughout history, and how I think the Internet and age of acceleration is affecting these distinctions.
What is it? The role of journalism in culture today is (ideally) reporting to inform the general public of facts and current events. American journalists themselves maintain it is part of the role of journalism in the digital age to help readers or viewers analyze complex problems and make informed decisions about their government. Some reporters and news consumers alike also feel this role isn’t always fulfilled or taken seriously.
A Brief History: The first “gazettes” originated in Venice in the 1560’s, weekly handwritten accounts of financial news, war, and the politics of Europe. These were sent to cities as far away as London and quickly inspired local versions in other nations. By the 1600’s, businesses printed these accounts for mass consumption, earning money by selling ad space. These early newspapers were full of foreign news and events, with little to no reporting about the goings-on of the country where they were published. The American Revolution was the birth of the watchdog free press as we know it, which at its best tells clear, vital stories to citizens in the moment they need to be informed.
Today’s Journalism Audiences: In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and endless analysis over actual content, the values of journalism are under pressure. The need to attract and retain viewers or readers sometimes drives news sources to report too quickly for total accuracy. At worst it motivates them to sensationalize or otherwise misrepresent or omit facts. These are some of the reasons global audiences generally mistrust the media.
What is it? Creative nonfiction is a genre in which literary devices like tone, voice, or an imagined narrator drive factually accurate narratives. Depending on the type of prose, concerns of factual accuracy may be weighed against the use of literary devices. Due to the self-centered nature of memory, a personal account or memoir is “truthful” by most standards if the emotional tone of a conversation, event, or circumstance remains the same in the retelling, and no one is misrepresented, defamed, or libeled, even if others have different accounts of the same event(s).
A Brief History: Creative nonfiction’s early roots as a genre are in the American colonial era. That’s when accurate yet dramatized accounts of Puritan settlers under attack or captivity by native peoples were extremely popular. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, written around the same time, has been called “the book with which American literature begins.” American canonical giants from Mark Twain to Truman Capote to Zora Neale Hurston represent how this genre has grown since then. Today it includes interviews, profiles, essays, and creative reporting and research. The exact term “creative nonfiction” has murky roots in the late-sixties early-seventies as creative writing became a more academically institutionalized practice.
Today’s Creative Nonfiction Audiences: Creative nonfiction is a lot of the content everyone reads on the Internet, from a Reddit post that goes viral to the online archives of well-respected stewards of the genre like The New Yorker or the aptly-named Creative Nonfiction. Along with print magazines, many literary journals and academic journals circulate hard copies that are entirely or almost entirely creative nonfiction. What unites all these is that the audience is not the general public. Unlike journalism, which everyone needs, a reader mostly chooses creative nonfiction over fiction or poetry to learn more about areas of interest, curiosity, or passion, and to hear good, true stories.
What is it? Content marketing is a brand strategy of offering quality information to current and prospective customers. Ideally, they become loyal to the business as consumers thanks to this content, even when making a future buying decision. In the digital age, this practice has moved beyond print handbooks and trade magazines to include webinars, downloadable guides, email campaigns, and anything else a target audience will find valuable. Simply keeping a past or potential customer aware of a brand is itself a worthy goal. Lead generation, brand authority, and web search ranking are among other needs that drive businesses to invest in content marketing.
A Brief History: Content marketing, like creative nonfiction, is a new name for an old practice—influencing customer decisions organically and over time. Ben Franklin had his thumb in this early pie too. Poor Richard’s Almanac, his method of promoting his printing business, is arguably one of the first and longest-running viral campaigns. Brands like John Deere and DeBeers Diamonds have achieved their own legendary status thanks to content that educated consumers toward buying decisions in their favor. Even governments have sometimes gotten in on the game. Winston Churchill published the first ever “white paper” on June 3, 1922. Unlike a news story that might have been written on the same topic, The Churchill White Paper didn’t merely inform audiences of facts of the early Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine. It also contained a call to action for readers and gave a strong recommendation for what should happen next in international policy. That’s territory most reporters and even many essayists or researchers would probably still shy away from today.
Today’s Content Marketing Audiences: Newspapers and the news carry value with them, and creative nonfiction is sought out by the reader based on values; but marketing to the reader means leading with value. Content must also prove that developing a relationship with a brand or company will lead to greater value. That could mean anything from a literal purchase of a product, to staying subscribed on social media until the need for a business service comes up.
My experience of writing this blog post felt like drawing lines in the sand. One minute these three types of writing seem completely distinct, the next, indistinguishable. In my mind, the overt sales intention of marketing is only a half-step removed from a newspaper seeking daily subscribers, or an author hoping for repeat readers. The artist in each of us writes for ourselves, but we all also crave an audience, a response to our work, and ideally a reward for it, too. Sometimes, the audience’s appreciation and remembrance of the writing is enough. In other circumstances, writers in all three fields look for more than simple applause. But what do our audiences want in turn—why do they read? Inside all three shells, don’t we find the same nut? Information—to learn something new and necessary, or to see something old in a new way. Even those who seek out creative nonfiction for pleasure reading do so because they find pleasure in knowledge.
In an age of toxic individuality and chronic defensiveness, it’s my opinion that where lines don’t stay clear, we shouldn’t keep redrawing them because they’ve always been there, or it makes people feel special to stand on one side over another. In fact, dissolving these distinctions creates new permissions for all currently working inside these shells–to be more lyrical, to do more research, to prioritize the truth in content of all types, and overall, to tell better, more effective stories to audiences that matter to us.