By Dennis McCafferty published February 20, 2013

6 Questions Content Marketers Should Ask Before Hiring a Journalist

hiring a journalist for content marketingIn a blog posted in January, Content Marketing Institute Founder Joe Pulizzi spoke of the rise of once-traditional journalists working on the brand side as one of three critical content marketing trends that signal big industry changes ahead.

I can certainly vouch for that trend, because I was one of those journalists. 

I started out in the pre-digital days in newspapers, ending with a five-year run on the metro desk at the “Atlanta Journal-Constitution.” I then joined “USA Weekend” magazine as a senior writer and eventually “USA Today,” while also contributing to consumer titles such as “Men’s Health,” “Maxim,” “Parenting,” and even “Ladies Home Journal.” Realizing there was little “real” money to be made in the latter, I quickly segued to B2B titles, and then to custom content (er, sorry Joe, that’s “native advertising” now, right?) before my current position at Welz & Weisel Communications.

Due to massive layoffs in the USA Today building, my one-time ‘side’ business served as my full-time job before joining the agency. I’m far from alone. There were more than 8,960 layoffs and buyouts at U.S. newspapers in the last three years, according to Paper Cuts, a site that tracks this. Fortunately, because of my B2B/content-marketing business, I was never actually out of work (it only meant I had more time to do more work for more clients, who kept coming in droves as demand for digital and traditional content kept surging).

Many reporters see that traditional journalism is on life support at best, and they’re ready to reinvent themselves as content marketers. At the popular freelance jobs site, Freelance Success, there’s a special forum strictly for writers looking for marketing communications/corporate gigs. So far, more than 2,200 topics have launched there.

Hiring former traditional journos (either full-time or contractually) presents many benefits for a marketing division of a company. These professionals tend to write well (most of ‘em, anyway). They’re adept at gathering large amounts of complex material and translating it into clear, focused content. Many are wired to weave metrics and analysis within a piece of content to lend valuable context to a message. And since many of them are required to Tweet, blog, produce online audio/video/image-driven content, etc., you won’t spend too much time bringing them up to speed on the digital multimedia stuff either.

Given the advantages here and the sheer, vast numbers of available talent, it simply makes sense for a brand to recruit journos to help generate white papers, blogs, podcasts, webinars, native advertising pieces, and other content marketing materials.

But not every ex-reporter is going to transition smoothly into your content marketing department, so consider these six qualifiers before you commit:

Are they over the whole “church/state” thing? 

Many reporters view themselves as staunch defenders of a sainted entity known as the Fourth Estate. They perceive themselves as watchdogs, and believe that advertising, PR, marketing, and editorial must operate in completely separate silos. (Oh, and they hate the “silo” word too. As well as the other industry buzzwords we toss around all the time.)

The writer who recognizes that the ballgame has totally changed — that content marketing is all about blending the promotion of brand value/visibility with reportage — will make an agile switch here, while those who still think they’re gunning for a Pulitzer may have difficulties.

Fortunately, once strictly enforced “codes” are becoming passé, to the point where the “hybrid” writer who plays “both sides of the street” is thriving.

In the old days, you could either practice journalism or write marketing copy, but you sure as heck didn’t do both. This is no longer the case. Many publications once considered diehard “news” outlets are identifying themselves as content sites, with collaboration increasing between editorial and marketing. As one “true journalist” turned content-marketing pro confided to me:

“Back when I started, editors strongly felt that they’d lose all credibility if they used writers who also did advertorials and other corporate marketing. These stigmas have broken down. I will always be sure to disclose this sort of work to my bosses on the editorial side. But, frankly, they just don’t even blink anymore. The line is so blurred today when it comes to editorial, advertorial, custom content, and other marketing content.”

Can they write for story and strategy, not just information? 

Yes, most journalists are natural storytellers. After all, that’s what they’re paid to do. Numerous blogs in this space — as well as other marketing content “how to” guides — constantly stress the need to incorporate narrative and humanity within a marketing message that resonates with living, breathing customers. Many reporters are skilled at this — but not all.

Jackie Dishner is one journalist now making this transition, producing content for a beverage marketing firm. She’s discovered that incorporating these qualities takes more effort than she originally envisioned. But the payoff can be significant:

“When they hand me something to edit,” she says, “I spend a large part of my time consulting and brainstorming about what makes the product or promotion unique or different or worthy, including within the context of a human/storytelling level. The client seems happy for me to help her dig for content that will sell. It’s not classic journalism, of course. But the skills I honed as a writer/reporter help tremendously when I show up for a brainstorming session. I come with a long list of ideas.”

As Joe Pulizzi put it in another, recent blog:

“Most journalism jobs are going to the ‘dark side.’ It’s the new reality of the discipline and will continue to be the case; and let’s face it: Most brands could use some help from skilled, experienced storytellers.”

Can they recognize the core formula for your business? 

Any former journo-turned-content-marketing pro worth his or her salt understands this one tried-and-true organizational formula applies to pretty much all projects: “Start with a problem. End with a solution.” It’s that simple. Customers face a challenge, and a client/brand finds a unique way to address it. While the problem and solution is specific to the customer’s situation, a writer candidate should be able to demonstrate a history of being able to connect the “unique” to a universal user/reader base (i.e., the target audience).

Much of the success (or lack thereof) here will depend upon research/interviewing skills. When speaking to a client or customer, do they “read from a script” in a stilted manner? Or do they engage the interviewee on a personal level — through humor, empathy, shared experiences, charm, and/or whatever else it takes to loosen ‘em up — to encourage information sharing?

A good way to flesh this out before hiring them is to review their published work, for a few critical signs, such as: 

  • Do they address those vital “who cares?” questions, so that the message speaks to a broader audience?
  • Do the published samples convey a sense of place, industry, special marketing/customer challenges, etc.?
  • Can they compellingly distinguish the value of a client’s products and services?

Writing skills are obviously essential here. But, again, the foundation of any strong writing is research.

“In this respect, it’s similar to journalism,” says Melanie Votaw, a journalist and author who now also produces content marketing for clients within the health care, legal, and IT industry verticals. “If you don’t know what questions to ask, you won’t have the raw material you need.” 

Have they developed a good ear (and eye) for referencing sources? 

Meaning an ear for good pullout quotes, along with heads and subheads and graphics that grab you. These engage users/readers while giving them multiple entry points. Quotes within the main body of content are important too. Even within the context of conducting branding content research, does the writer still have a knack for coming up with lively, punchy quotes? Do they sound like “real people” said them, or are they flat and/or verbose and/or sound like “corporate speak”? A good content marketing pro realizes what to quote and when it’s better to paraphrase, simplify, and/or condense.

Can they deliver on clarity, not just buzzwords? 

None of the above works at all if, after reading a content-marketing piece, you’re utterly clueless about what on earth the brand actually does. Jargon and acronyms should be held in check. (If you have to use arcane terms, for example, at least invest in a few words that clearly explain what they mean).

It’s even more critical to clearly and concisely address the following inquiries about any brand:

  • What exactly does it do?
  • What does it provide for customers that they’d otherwise never be able to take advantage of?
  • Why does this unique offering matter?

Marketing leaders and other internal execs pretty much live, eat, and breathe within one “universe,” as defined by the company’s products, services, and even culture. But this can lead to a sense of disconnect with readers with respect to clarity. A great advantage in hiring journalists is that they are well-versed in bringing an outsider’s perspective to content marketing, so their writing is more likely to establish a connection with the broader audience — one that may not live within that business universe: “As a trained journalist, this is a huge help,” Dishner says. “I can help the client see a bigger picture.”

Do they have what it takes to quantify success? 

It’s been said that figures lie and liars figure. But metrics inevitably lend “credibility juice” to any marketing content that professes a brand’s greatness. How good is the writer at finding those telling numbers that support the distinguished value of your company’s products and services? Can they find relevant and revealing patterns in the numbers, or are they simply recording an abstract collection of numbers? Do their metrics convey context of history/future projections, client/customer impact, increased efficiencies, and/or improved ROI, or are they simply a mishmash of calculations designed to confuse the intended user/reader?

Journalists are essentially professionals at vetting. Pretty much every one of them heard the phrase, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” in college. Before hiring them, however, marketing professionals must turn the tables and do some vetting of their own. For a great deal of the ex-reporters and reporters-in-transition, the heart and mind of a content marketer are already well ingrained in their skill sets. But this isn’t the case with all journalists, and for those novice content marketers, it may take months (or even years) to fully fine-tune their skills so they can deliver for your brand.

So make sure to conduct your own appropriate due diligence before hiring a journalist. By doing this, you’ll likely find an employee or partner who you can turn to for content that always delivers.

Looking for more advice on finding the best content creators and partners? Read “Managing Content Marketing,” by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi. 

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Dennis McCafferty

Dennis McCafferty has served as the Director of Content for W2 Communications since December 2010, responsible for a wide range of strategic content marketing-messaging efforts for tech-industry clients. Previously, he launched his own content business, DM Enterprises, and worked with clients such as IBM, Advanced Micro Devices, USAA, Nationwide, Ritz-Carlton, MasterCard, GM and many others. He also served as Senior Writer at USA WEEKEND, for which he interviewed Presidents Bush and Clinton, Caroline Kennedy, Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Peyton Manning and Shaquille O'Neal, among others. During his time with WEEKEND, he appeared on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ESPN and numerous other outlets.

Other posts by Dennis McCafferty

  • http://twitter.com/CTCopywriter Cape Town Copywriter

    Some great advice here…I agree with all the points above.

  • Tenisha Mercer

    Good points, here. I made the transition from a full-time journo to content marketing after a Gannett buyout in 2006. Back then, had a hard time with folks giving me a chance (I moved to a new city and was told to find another journalism job) so I had no choice but to focus on web content and SEO content. I knew the industry I loved for nearly 20 years was on its last legs. “Content marketing” wasn’t even a buzzword back then, and I got into blogging because it was so much easier to write than a 20-inch story. Sure, there are days I miss the adrenaline I got from working on deadline, but I’m in a much better space. No fun to compete with tons of out-of-work journos for one job. And reporters have so much social media stuff to do in addiiton to producing stories on deadline and they aren’t getting paid more for it. Smart clients/companies recognize the benefits that can come with hiring former journalists, even as freelancers. Sure, some journos will never make good content marketers; they simply aren’t wired for it. But the ones who are? You can’t beat them. You can quickly teach marketing concepts; you can’t teach someone how to write and those tranferrable skills like asking questions, brainstorming, critical thinking, story telling and follow-through that are ingrained in successful reporters. The key is making sure they aren’t just freelancing until they find another reporting gig.

  • http://twitter.com/RepCapital Mary Ellen Slayter

    Good piece. One additional thought: It’s not actually enough to look at people’s published work to see if they can write. Have them do a (paid) writing sample before you commit to anything long term. Traditional publishing companies generally have several layers of editing that a writer’s work has to pass through before reaching the light of day. Your “star writer” might actually have been the beneficiary of good, patient editors over the years.

  • Guest

    There’s one question you left out: Are you ready to call “bull****” on our messages? The real value a journalist brings to the marketing table is a sense of reality. They are the memebers of the team that will be able to tell you if what the company is selling is what the market wants.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dmccafferty Dennis Mccafferty

    Wow. Thanks everyone! As for “calling bull—-,” the answer is yes. But I do it in a much kinder, gentler manner than I did as a journalist, ha ha!

    Yes, Mary Ellen, I completely forgot about that assigning them a writing sample. Which is ironic, since I freelanced two pieces for Welz & Weisel Communications before joining the agency fulltime. Multiple benefits here: The big bosses got an immediate sense of my work habits, approach, quality of content, respect for deadlines, etc, and I got a clear sense of their management style (which has been a perfect fit for what I seek). And the agency, of course, got two content pieces that were of value to clients. But these “auditions” should be paid, as you noted. I’d have an immediate iffy feeling about a prospective employer who’d ask me to put in that kind of work pro bono, especially if they ended up using the content.

    Tenisha, great to hear that you’re making the transition too! Yes, you’re so right about the fact that many journalists have readily transferable skills that simply can’t be taught on the fly. And professionals like you are living proof.

    Again, thanks all for the feedback!

    best,

    Den

  • Producer2

    Lots of journalism (whatever that is) industry mythology here,
    The quality in journalism deteriorated many, many years ago. Objective reporting became agenda-based reporting, and with online resources like Drudge (which “traditional journos” hate with a passion) the biases and poor reporting became all the more obvious.
    There is a huge difference between journalism wordsmithing and marketing content – the biggest difference being the ability to do market research and also to understand the sales process and buyer intent (which journalists are clueless about.)
    Collecting information without a knowledgeable background in the topic (the role of the typical reporter) results in many of the BS puff pieces that appear in the media, and the reason they continue to lose credibility (hence massive layoffs.) It’s not just the change in distribution or the web – it’s poor quality journalism. The lack of critical thinking is, at times, stunning.

    So hiring an ex-journo without understanding the need for marketing and sales knowledge and insights is a recipe for mediocre marketing content.
    Easier to hire a skilled marketer and make sure they can write than trying to teach a journalist marketing and sales. If the journalist had a knack for marketing – they would have taken that career path to begin with.
    The ability to wordsmith is only one skill in developing marketing content, and by far, not the most important one.

  • http://www.writespark.com Janice King

    Although I’ve always been on the corporate side, I have learned a lot from journalism practices. However, clients who are evaluating any potential freelance writer would benefit from asking about the writer’s experience in and commitment to running a freelance business. Many writers are freelancing as a stopgap until they find full-time job and so may not be around for the client to get the benefit of a long-term relationship. Also, the dynamics of a freelance/client relationship are different than those of an employer/employee relationship, and experienced freelancers understand that difference. I wrote about these questions in my blog: http://tinyurl.com/experiencedwriter