We’ve all heard the theory: It’s easy to hire good content writers because so many are being fired from traditional media, such as newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t seem to be the case.
I’ve run a corporate writing agency for 15 years, and hired many writers and editors. During this time, the media industry in Australia (where my firm is based) has been imploding. Australia’s largest newspaper publisher alone has cut hundreds of journalism jobs in recent years. Despite many of those people being among the finest writers in the country, few have become content marketing writers. And there’s good reason why.
How do you evaluate an effective content marketing writer/editor for content “newsroom” positions? How can you determine whether a journalist with a strong portfolio can generate material that’s engaging to customers, appropriate for your organization, and unlikely to create legal or other headaches? I use a methodology I call WRITE: Write, Rapport, Interest, Trust, and Edit.
First, be sure your candidates can write. That may sound trite, but you’d be amazed how many people present well and have appropriate resumes, but lack a real aptitude for writing. And be warned, journalists can be published for years and even rise high despite having mediocre writing skills. Their saviors are the bosses and copy editors who fix their spelling, grammar, and even facts.
To avoid getting caught out, ask candidates where they believe their strengths lie; give them short writing, editing and proofreading tests; and ask their references what the person’s first draft copy is like. And be sure to verify they can write quickly enough to meet your needs.
Hire people who will play nicely with others, in your newsroom, throughout your organization, and with external parties. To succeed in journalism, you need to be fast, independent, and good at dealing with people, passionate about delivering valuable information to readers, and at least a little bit ruthless (as the press baron William Hearst allegedly said, “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising“).
These attributes can be usefully redirected to writing successful content marketing for your organization. But many journalists simply can’t or won’t make the transition from the high “church” of journalism to the “state” of business copywriting.
Make sure candidates understand what’s expected of them and can explain whether they see themselves doing this type of work for the long haul. Also be sure they’re happy to go from having their name in lights to being a ghostwriter for others, if that’s your model.
The most effective content marketing writers are genuinely interested in the material about which they write. Check that your candidates are interested in more than a paycheck. They should have an infectious enthusiasm for your field to draw out the best from their sources, build resonance with readers, and go the extra mile for you.
It’s vital to hire writers you can trust to produce copy that is not only engaging but also on-brand and low-risk —and to do so as autonomously as possible. This means they must be alert to legal issues as well as myriad other considerations — from your organization’s sales objectives to political sensitivities. This is especially true today, given the fast pace of social media.
However, trust is a two-way street. Having found writers you can trust, it’s important your organization empowers them. You need a newsroom that has a strong say over what is ready to be published — and what isn’t.
Empowerment is also important if you want to retain writers. Many journalists in particular will happily transition to writing content marketing material, especially if they’re coming from commercial environments such as consumer or trade publications. But they’ll become frustrated if they can’t create strong content that’s consistent in style and messaging. (There are many ways writer frustration can take hold, including letting executives make arbitrary changes that ruin the tone or flow of copy, sanitizing content to suit corporate agendas or making content transparently self-serving, and being so slow to approve material that it gets published too late to interest readers.)
A strong writer should be just as capable at editing material written by others as writing their own. This is a key skill within a newsroom because so much content is first drafted by others (whether subject matter experts inside the organization or freelance writers).
You want writers who can grasp the overall shape and logic of written material, and help refine it by restructuring sentences, paragraphs, or whole documents. They should also have a strong knowledge of spelling and grammar such that they can leave copy in good shape after editing — but don’t expect them to be quite as eagle-eyed as dedicated copy editors.
Reaching critical mass
Once you’ve hired great individuals, the final piece of the puzzle is to focus on how they’ll work together as a team. News organizations offer useful models here. First, they tend to feature three layers:
- Editors (leaders) who come up with high-level ideas and ultimately control what is published
- Writers who produce the bulk of new material and may edit contributions from others
- Copy editors who ensure final material is high-quality and aligned to brand and style rules
The other tip is to focus on building a “writerly culture” within your newsroom. You’re bringing together a group of people who love words and enjoy things like writers’ festivals, Scrabble, and storytelling over red wine. So indulge them.