Back when print ruled the world, it was called custom publishing. Today, the terms custom content, content marketing, brand journalism and native advertising are in vogue. This proliferation of labels is not just a reflection of the explosion in media but also an illustration of a spectrum of new models in a publishing industry struggling to redefine itself.

Whatever you call it, in a world of dying traditional media with shrinking budgets, custom is a growing and high-paying market for freelancers.

Brock Meeks, Atlantic Media Strategies

Brock Meeks, Atlantic Media Strategies

That’s one thing all panelists agreed on at a Sept. 17 discussion of custom content sponsored by the National Press Club’s Freelance Committee. The panelists talked about what custom content is, what it is not and how writers can break into it. The three panelists represented the cream of the crop of custom content publishers:

Chris Blose, executive content editor at McMurry/TMG, the top independent custom content publisher in the United States.

Brock Meeks, executive editor of Atlantic Media Strategies (AMS), the custom content division of Atlantic Media, which publishes The Atlantic Magazine and National Journal.

Andrew Seibert, managing partner of Imprint, a custom content agency, and chairman of the Content Council, the industry’s trade group.

Two NPC Freelance Committee members – Scott Sowers and I – moderated the panel.

The most interesting part of the discussion was when panelists gave different answers to questions about definitions and conflicts of interest.

Meeks described what AMS does as branded journalism. “That’s when you have a client that acts as the publisher, and it hires you to do the journalism.” For example, when AMS produces content for IdeaLabs, which is published by GE, it adheres to traditional journalism practices. GE does not influence the content, said Meeks. “Ninety percent of the articles published there have nothing to do with GE whatsoever,” he noted. “We’ve even run stories that were not in sync with the company’s message.”

He went on to describe a slightly different approach, sponsored content. That’s when AMS produces content on specific topics chosen by the client. The client is involved in editing those stories, he said. Some would call that native advertising, although Meeks didn’t agree with that label.

Chris Blose, McMurry/TMG

Chris Blose, McMurry/TMG

Blose said native advertising had more to do with the form the content takes, particularly how it appears on a page or website. It is a “unit of content” that is labeled as being sponsored by a particular client. That is different from content marketing, which is an overall strategy developed to help the client establish thought leadership and engage with readers and customers, he said.

Seibert noted that the term custom publishing had become somewhat of a dirty word because it was associated with print. His trade group illustrates the evolution of the industry. In the last several years, it changed its name from the Custom Publishing Council to the Custom Content Council and then to just the Content Council.

“There is a spectrum of types of custom content,” said Seibert. “It goes from totally hands off to where the client approves every word. Some of it is journalism, some of it is product-heavy and a sales pitch.”

When asked whether freelancers could do both traditional journalism and custom content, the answers ranged from stark black and white to subtle shades of gray.

Surprisingly, the one representative of the business side – Seibert – said there should be a clear delineation.

Andrew Seibert, Content Council

Andrew Seibert, Content Council

“It should be totally separate,” he said. “If a journalist is doing custom, then they have been paid by a client – GE for example. That could influence them when they go to write a straight story about GE.”

Meeks said he didn’t think that would be a conflict, although he admitted that view was not widely held. It’s up to the journalist to maintain integrity, he said. “If you’re a person that doesn’t have enough integrity to write a piece for a pharmaceutical company and then the next week turn around and do an investigative piece on the pharma industry, then you don’t belong in journalism,” he said. “If a $500 check influences how you’d do your regular job, then you have some serious soul-searching to do.”

Blose took a middle ground. “You have to use common sense,” he said. “If you are an investigative journalist covering the drug industry, you probably shouldn’t do a piece sponsored by a pharma company.”

The panel discussion illustrated just how confusing the world of publishing has become. All the rules are changing, and it’s up to individual freelancers to find their own paths. But everyone seems to agree that, for those willing to explore, this new world offers some remarkable opportunities.

You can read more about the panel discussion in this article on the National Press Club website.

To learn more about custom content, I recommend two upcoming conferences by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA).

New Avenues in Journalism, Oct. 10-11 in San Francisco

Content Connections, Nov. 13-14 in Chicago