Is that an ad or a news story – and does it matter which?

Brand journalism is storytelling meant to draw readers to a company’s field of expertise, without laying on the hard sell.

Familiar examples include the cocktails-and-recipes magazines you might pick up at the liquor store, or inflight magazines on airplanes that report from exotic destinations.

But the digital age has given brand journalism a new urgency. It’s becoming a force that could shape the way all of us receive our information.

Most purchasing decisions today begin with a search query (“What kinds of snow tires should I buy?”). The vast majority of clicks go to the top two or three results on the search page. And in recent years, Google has been tweaking its search algorithm to highlight sites that provide fresh, relevant content.

As a result, says Joe Pulizzi, the founder of the Content Marketing Institute, every company now must also be a media company. “If you want to connect with your customers,” he says from his office in Cleveland, “you’d better be where they are online, and you’d better have some interesting information to share with them.”

That story about snow tires at the top of the Google results page could come from the auto section of a newspaper, but it could just as easily come from a site published by a tire manufacturer whose engineers can share their expertise, without the pushy tactics that turn off both customers and search engines.

Independence is one of journalism’s most cherished values. Young journalists are taught that you can be a marketer, or a journalist, but you can’t be both. Most media outlets consider the separation between editorial and advertising (“church and state”) to be sacrosanct.

Kelly Toughill, the Director of the School of Journalism, at the University of King’s College in Halifax, says independence has been essential in establishing trust between journalists and their readers. “Journalism explicitly promises to serve the interests of its audiences and its community first. But in brand journalism, that is not the case.”

Still, she concedes: “You can have some very good journalism occur within an outlet that is not necessarily within a journalism outlet. And that’s part of the paradox of this new age that we live in, where we’re trying to sort out how good journalism arises.”

Is that an ad or a news story – and does it matter which? – The Globe and Mail