Journalism and Custom Content — Justin Catanoso at Content+

Pace is happy to have Justin Catanoso as a speaker at the 2013 Content+ conference. Justin is a senior lecturer and director of journalism at Wake Forest University with 30 years as a professional newspaper journalist. He is the founding executive editor of The Business Journal in the Triad in 1998, where he led a newsroom in its coverage of business and economic trends across the region. Justin’s writing has appeared in numerous national publications including in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Business Week, US Airways Magazine, Delta Sky, Catholic Digest, and he is a regular contributor on National Public Radio.

Who Are You Writing For?

1. You chose to present on the role of journalism in custom content. Can you describe your topic and why you selected it?
Given my 30 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, and at least 15 years contributing as a freelancer to a variety of Pace custom publications, I think I have a unique perspective on both worlds. While the basic skills of generating story ideas, reporting, writing and editing are mostly similar, the goals of journalism and custom content can be very different.

The most fundamental difference is who the writer works for. In journalism, he/she writes for the reader. In custom content, he or she writes for the client. That’s simplified, of course, but that difference in independence is where the credibility of the message lies. If you tip too far away from journalism, your custom content ends up sounding like so much advertising or marketing copy.

It’s been my experience in freelancing for Pace and working with a variety of its editors that they understand this difference and do a solid job of charting a path in the middle for their clients in print and digital formats.

The Rules of Credibility

2. As the director of journalism at Wake Forest University, what values are important for students entering the media industry?
The values I stress in my reporting and editing courses are curiosity, accuracy, thoroughness and above all, fairness. I stress this also: a journalist’s credibility is tied closely to his or her ability to remain independent from his or her sources. Most of my students are not heading into careers in traditional journalism. But I believe those values — when understood and practiced — will increase their professionalism and effectiveness in any communications field.

Eagerly Bending Over Backwards

3. How do reader’s choice and voice play into objective reporting?
So much regular reporting is and ought to be what reader’s want to know. They are interested in fashion, movies, television, celebrities, music, cooking, dating and sex, physical fitness. Countless traditional and new-media outlets, in all formats, are only too eager to deliver that content from a host of perspectives.

But in order to maintain a functioning democracy, readers must also have access to independent reporting that they can trust on issues that affect them gravely, but which might not be as entertaining — all levels of government, the courts, women’s issues, immigration, the economy, climate change, international affairs.

In a very real sense, a huge part of the media industry is bending over backwards to accommodate the perceived needs of readers. I think this is especially true for publications and web sites for travel, cooking, financial services, health care and physical fitness. Often the best way to engage readers is through anecdotes and narratives that take the lives and voices of all kinds of people and craft well-written or produced stories.

Risking Accuracy To Be First

4. How have you seen journalistic integrity be effected by modern day ratings and cravings to be first?
Of course, on a fairly regular basis. The unquenchable 24/7 news cycle and the demand for ratings and web hits too often makes a casualty of accuracy. The belief that erroneous web postings can be quickly corrected only works when the stakes are low. The damage, for example, to CNN’s credibility in its inaccurate early reporting on the Boston Marathon suspects has become something of a lasting burden. This is the news organization (along with AP) that didn’t bother to read the second page of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act so that it could report first, and erroneously, that the law had been found unconstitutional.

Ignoring Dollar Signs and Focusing on Independence

5. Which is more important to uphold: a clients’ message or the customers’ need for independent content?
It depends whose paying, right? If I am paying for a custom publication in print or online, it will invariably be the former. If I am buying a newspaper or magazine (or visiting their web sites), I am counting on it being the latter.

However, independence is critical from my perspective not as a journalist, but as a information consumer. For example, if I need a new pair of running shoes and decide I either want a new pair of Brooks or Nikes, I will read custom content on both web site in starting my search. But what is likely to sway my buying decision is the review of those running shoes (and others) in the fitness section of the New York Times, or another niche source or web site I perceive as neutral and independent of the seller.

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