Recently, journalist and novelist Dan Gearino moved to Texas to spend a month documenting life in Stephenville (population: 15,000). Finding humorous and charming stories and a cast of memorable characters is nothing new for him. Previously, he was a longtime local columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we were colleagues. What’s new this time is who’s footing the bill. Dan, now a freelancer, was hired by Carpenter Co., which makes cushioning used in pillows and mattress pads, and his Stephenville Dreams blog appears on SleepBetter.org, the company’s consumer-information site.
Given the corporate backing, the project doesn’t sound like journalism, at least not in the conventional sense. The blog is the social media component of a marketing campaign, which also piggybacks on Jewel’s latest album, Lullaby. Stephenville, located about 90 miles southwest of Dallas, wasn’t a random pick. Jewel lives there.
But what’s intriguing to me is how this walks the line between journalism and marketing. On the one hand, Carpenter is paying Dan to live in town and write. But it doesn’t tell him what to write or not write, doesn’t edit him, doesn’t pay him to shill its bedding products. This isn’t the same thing as the sponsored mommy blogs that have generated recent controversy because of purely positive product reviews. Dan’s free to chronicle small town life as he sees fit. So he roams Stephenville, capturing residents’ hopes and dreams and idiosyncrasies and taking literal and figurative snapshots. How a 30-year-old rodeo rider built a half-million-dollar-plus cowboy hat store. How Stephenville lost a raffle against a California town using the same slogan, “Cowboy Capital Of The World.” How a fellow named Boots, the high-school football radio broadcaster, had to leave town to find himself a bride.
Dan understands that Carpenter is funding his writing and reporting to drive traffic to its site. But the gig reminds him of the Federal Writer Project, when the government paid thousands of writers, including the likes of John Cheever, Saul Bellow and Studs Terkel to capture everyday life during the Depression. In his initial blog, Dan suggested that the Stephenville project is “revolutionizing the underpinnings of journalism.” Perhaps. Given the increase in laid-off journalists, it’s not hard to imagine a free-lancer seeking corporate underwriter as an artist pursues a patron.
These are crazily experimental times in journalism. Just look at all the sites coming onto the scene to fill the holes left by cost-cutting papers, sites with various business models and niches. You’ve got ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative site; Kaiser Health News, a non-profit site covering a specific industry; GlobalPost, a for-profit international news site funded by ads, syndication, and paid members who vote on which stories to cover; and Spot.Us, a San Francisco non-profit that relies entirely on crowd-funding, allowing donors to sponsor specific story pitches and beats (they’re $1,800 shy of funding a “city budget watchdog” to chronicle ongoing budget problems). Recently, Arianna Huffington announced the launch of Huffington Post Investigative Fund (the goal is $1.75 million) to cover in-depth and expensive projects.
So maybe there’s a role for corporate-sponsored journalism and a way to do it without turning writers into NASCAR drivers or shills–starting with the corporate sponsor keeping a safe distance from the journalism. Of course, if it doesn’t help sell more bedding, dream on.
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