In an attempt to further put some context around "branded content" or "brand storytelling," I thought I would reach out to a respected former colleague of mine to get his thoughts. Brad Wieners and I worked at Wired Magazine together in the 1990's and since then he has gone on to write compelling stories, do great work at Outside Magazine and National Geographic, as well doing a nickel for Jann Wenner as the editor of Men's Journal. Now, for just over four years, he has been the executive editor of Bloomberg Businessweek and has taken that brand to new heights and continues to push the limits on business reporting.
I reached out with some questions I thought would ground readers in who Brad is, and then, what he thinks about change and speed in journalism today.
At a startup magazine in San Francisco called, simply, The City. Was intended to be something like Clay Felker's New York from the 70's, but updated for the early 90's, which meant it looked a lot like every other magazine then being designed on a Mac II. Our offices were on the third floor of a building, now condemned, at 7th & Market Streets--not a fetching corner. Was a small group, everyone had to do a bit of everything, so we got to do way more than we normally would as a kid just starting out. We got a little cash each week, but most of our pay was "yellow bones"—what my colleague called the xeroxed vouchers from advertisers who paid for their ads in trade. I struggled to make rent, my car booted and towed because of unpaid tickets, etc, but I ate in some fine restaurants. You just had to make sure your dates were good for the cash tip.
2) Where and how do you think most journalists get their story ideas from now?
Varies so much from one journalist to the next. Does seem that a lot of material now is people in media responding to other media people online--trend stories, in particular, tend to originate in a series of URLs. But the longer form stuff that people share, swear by, still tends to be from police reports, court documents, eyewitness accounts. A lot of our daily and weekly brand coverage is just our staff writers following a hunch, same as it ever was. Why all the ugly Christmas sweaters this year? Oh, because it's become a cottage industry...Why is every third New Yorker got a patch of Antarctica on their shoulder? This company Canada Goose...
3) What’s the biggest change in newsgathering over the past decade?
Speed. What was once the "second day" story is now the after lunch analysis, and so on.
4) How can a brand best play in this space? Is it possible for a corporation to play journalist, by say, covering a specific “beat?”
Not sure I'm clear on which space this is. News? That seems difficult, risky. I'd think brands ought to associate with events that have a good chance of turning out well, of competitions, festivals, or campaigns that make people feel like the brand is doing its part.
Can a corporation play journalist? Sure, why not? Patagonia can be a bit sanctimonious a times about how you should buy less, etc., but what they've done investigating their own supply chain counts as journalism.
5) What is the best way to get my story in front of a reporter today?
Invite them to Burning Man. Sorry, I read ahead....Find a story worth telling. Reporters don't want to tell a story about your brand, but they'll tell a story that touches on your brand. It's almost like you want to do product placement - put your brand in the story, but don't pitch your brand as the story.
5.5) Burning Man 1997 or Burning Man 2015? Why?
Well, you are asking me to compare an event I actually attended to one that hasn't happened yet, and I have fond memories of '97, including a phenomenal windstorm and sunset, and the moment a colleague at Wired turned to me as we entered a hot spring, saying, "Whoa, don't think I've been naked with a coworker before..." But I'm guessing what you're asking is, Was it better then, before it got so big, and produced with so much more money? And there's no question it's different now. You can't go to those hot springs during the event now; the pools and such would be destroyed by today's crowds. So, some experiences that were highlights for me in the late 90's are no longer available. At the same time, so much else still is, and clever people keep pouring their heart and soul into these bizarre constructions, so I can only imagine much of what inspired me in '97 will again be available to those arriving on the playa in 2015. It'll just cost a lot more, and be produced on a larger scale—stadium tour instead of community college. In San Francisco terms, it's the Cow Palace now, no longer The Warfield.