Vinyl and the art of storytelling

A vinyl collection, according to Nick Hornby in his brilliant novel High Fidelity, is a metaphor for relationships. Filled with precious moments and a fair few forgettable ones too, to be obsessed over and treasured for their authenticity.

And now I’m convinced that, in this age of branded content, it is just as strong a metaphor for media – and in particular journalism. Storytelling is the vinyl of the 21st century, a skill so valuable that we took it for granted, a process so complicated that it needed finely honed skills to produce perfectly, a mood so subtle that it cannot be easily replicated by computers, algorithms and futuristic digital tools.

This week’s news that vinyl sales in the UK, at two million a year, have reached a 20-year high is a convenient way of adding that the skills of a journalist are resources so valuable that, after some too-hasty dismissiveness, they should be at the core of B2B and B2C media strategies.

I have been a monthly visitor to Rough Trade’s East End record shop – London’s best – for almost a decade and over those years the most striking change has been the size and prominence of the vinyl section. At first it was hidden in a tiny corner, perused only by some scraggy-looking enthusiasts. Now the collection dominates the shop, its presence immediately conveys authenticity, excellence, an arrogant ‘yes, we’re different’ pre-eminence. A mark of distinction for anyone who truly loves music to know that they have found a trustworthy home. Old school.

Those were the words that the visionary CEO of one of Europe’s most lauded advertising agencies uttered to me recently. He wasn’t talking about vinyl but journalism. ‘Old school techniques and attitudes are crucial to how we want to position our content offering,’ he said, ‘and we’re only now beginning to appreciate how difficult it can be to achieve the authenticity that is second nature to journalism. If branded content is to work, advertising agencies need to harvest those journalistic skills.’

As he went on, it was music to my ears: ‘For a couple of years we’ve been churning out content without considering if it’s even worth churning out, without working out who it’s for and what we want to achieve out of it. There’s so much of it that it has almost become too easy to create – media industries have cheapened storytelling by not understanding how complicated it can be to do well.’

Which is why his company, where appropriate, hires journalists – more than ever. For the same reason that a dotcom entrepreneur I met with last week is adamant that experienced journalists are the most important commodity he invests in. Because they get it. Their instinct is to first ask if content is interesting, not simply if it’s shareable.

I regularly ghost-write for a highly influential online think-tank, whose director told me that the articles and blogs written by journalists, though never under their bylines, are by far the pieces most likely to go viral because they are genuine – unadulterated by PR speak, marketing buzzwords and shameless self-promotion. They are, she said, the real deal. The vinyl in an ever-growing ocean of digital downloads.

When, after 20 years of helping to tell stories on national newspapers and websites, I leapt into the unknown to launch a content consultancy two years ago, I was genuinely astonished to find that the skills of a journalist were far more valuable outside the sometimes-moribund, ever-thinning world I once inhabited.

Not because journalistic organisations don’t care about journalists and their product (although that’s another story) but because brands do. They care about their image, their narrative, their ability to cut through the BS and use stories to increase their market share and profitability. And, with the help of the media agencies they already employ, they want to utilise the skills of the best storytellers around.

To pretend that this is something new, we’ve invented a variety of phrases – content marketing, native advertising, branded content, bla bla bla. It’s just storytelling, except that instead of spending money – which is something journalists are exceptionally good at – its prime purpose is to make money.

Stories that make money, a concept that Guardian Labs, for instance, implicitly understands. Using the skills of a journalist, and a credible journalistic machine, to make a brand better. No wonder that Guardian Media Group, the Financial Times and Telegraph Media Group see ‘content marketing’ offerings as a precious means of securing their financial futures.

That’s why journalism is the new vinyl. Because the people who really care about the quality of the end product know that old school is best.

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