By Robert McGuire published March 31, 2015

How Hiring a Journalist Can Improve Your Content Marketing

Hiring-Journalists-content-marketing-cover

The world is full of snappy writers who can garner traffic, clicks, and “likes” that give a short-term lift to your promotion. But it’s getting noisy out there. Successful content marketing has to make a lasting impression and provide something authentic to your customers to create a real return on your marketing investment.

Aaron Agius recently shared journalistic practices content marketers should adapt, but I want to make a case for going straight to the source – making experienced reporters a part of your content marketing team – and discuss how to find them.

I don’t mean any knock on my colleagues whose experience has been entirely in marketing. In fact, someone whose only experience is in journalism has some catching up to do in marketing. But I find that in addition to having the baseline writing skills, reporters are adept at several other skills helpful in a B2B content marketing effort. Reporters know how to:

  • Find the unexplored angle on a familiar subject
  • Develop good questions
  • Gather information from high-quality sources
  • Synthesize the information into a highly valuable, reader-focused piece

High-value content like thought leadership blogs, white papers, and reports often require original research and interviews with experts from outside the company. That’s where hiring a journalist will give you an advantage.

Find something new to say

Keyword research can reveal important information about what your target market is searching, but an article fattened with your target keywords doesn’t necessarily say anything helpful for your reader. To do that, you have to find something new and surprising, and that usually comes after a process of tough inquiry.

Experienced reporters have learned to go beyond their first instinct and push for an angle that has never been done or to do it in a unique way. Today’s content mills are filled with bloggers’ first instincts. And, unfortunately, a lot of thought leadership pieces also exist on that level. They belabor the obvious instead of offering new insight to gain customers’ trust.

Ask the helpfully obnoxious question

You work hard on your brand messaging and are naturally eager to communicate it. Journalists are trained to dig deeper, often to a point you might find annoying. They ask obnoxious questions like:

  • What does that really mean?
  • Can you give an example of when you’ve actually done that?
  • If your service makes so much sense, why don’t you already have more customers?
  • Could you give me another example?

The interrogations can feel a little adversarial. But once you start to answer seriously, probably with the phrase, “It’s complicated,” you are on the route to something more specific, interesting, surprising, helpful, and authentic. Your customers will value content that understands and acknowledges their objections, reservations, and pain points.

Think of your reporters as the advocates for your readers’ needs. Mixing that approach with traditional marketers who advocate your company’s needs can create a productive tension.

Seek authoritative sources

While it’s sometimes appropriate for writers to sound off on the basis of their own expertise, content marketing pieces often are more valuable when you get insight from outside experts. Reports and studies, in particular, lose their effectiveness when they appear to be sales pitches.

Reporters are trained to refrain from sounding self-authoritative. Instead, they go out and find people who are actual authorities – both internally and externally. Then they use their research and interviewing skills to get to the heart of the topic. Original reporting tactics like these elevate a piece of click bait into something that will actually benefit your readers.

Know how to bring it all together

Most journalists know how to bring together what they learned from multiple sources into a piece of content that is truly useful. Finding and interviewing great sources is one thing, but communicating the wealth of information in an insightful way is a different trick. They can synthesize a discussion with facts into content that offers a deeper understanding.

Check the ego at the door

Writing is romanticized as a solitary effort, but a newsroom operates more like an assembly line with each person responsible for his part. Reporters expect what they thought was an excellent article to be reviewed and edited by several other people before it is published.

They expect to be asked questions if an editor can’t understand a point they made. They expect the reviewers to edit – usually by making it more concise – without seeking their permission. While the system can be a shock for a new writer, it has it virtues – speed, accuracy, clarity, and reliability most of all.

Of course, this expectation can go too far. Writers who turn in weak or incomplete copy and cede responsibility for their work to the editorial process aren’t any good for you.

Find and hire

Your talent-search pipeline probably doesn’t have to change that much to find candidates with journalism experience. Consider these tweaks:

  • Revise your job postings to incorporate “journalism experience” as a preferred quality.
  • Post your openings to journalism-focused job boards like JournalismJobs.com.
  • Scan submitted resumes for reporting experience.
  • Ask for writing samples to identify whether candidates quote others (i.e., they know how to interview or use additional sources).

My own hiring process involves ads on Craigslist. I use this screening to test the applicants’ news sense – look at an existing article and propose follow-up articles on the subject. If they suggest an argument or opinion piece rather than a line of inquiry, they may not be thinking like a reporter. I prefer people who want to find something new to communicate rather than to share an existing opinion.

Once I’m interviewing promising candidates, I have a handful of test assignments ready. I describe a concept and ask the candidate how she would approach the subject. I’m listening for a practical plan that goes beyond generic research to incorporate expert-level insight.

I gut-check my impression by asking about the reporting process. If the writer acknowledges that the deliverable’s timing depends on the availability of sources for interviews, it’s a good sign that the writer has reporting know-how.

If the interview goes well, I pay the candidate for a freelance assignment (expecting a small percentage will be unusable). In my experience, unpaid test assignments are a big waste of time because they never arrive or are done with little effort.

Conclusion

Hiring a journalist is one way to make your content stand out in a sea of shallow “first-thought, best-thought” pieces. A journalist’s knack for identifying and interviewing the authorities, asking the tough questions, and crafting relevant, reader-focused pieces means your content will provide a longer-lasting benefit to your readers. That’s what will cultivate the trusting relationship that will generate leads, which give you a real return on your marketing investment.

Hiring content creators with journalism experience is an important step. Now, follow CMI’s simple, step-by-step plan to integrate unique, impactful, and strategic content marketing into your organization. Get our new workbook today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Robert McGuire

Robert McGuire provides white label content marketing planning and implementation services, specializing in B2B and thought leadership marketing. You can connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Other posts by Robert McGuire

Join Over 150,000 of your Peers!

Get daily articles and news delivered to your email inbox and get CMI’s exclusive e-book Launch Your Own Content Marketing Program FREE!

  • Guest

    Start making extra cash from home an­d get paid and the end of every
    week… By completing simple jobs you get online… I do this 3hours
    every day, five day­s every week an­­d I earn in this way thousand
    dollar ea­c­h we­ek…
    -> If this interest you, Learn more <-

  • Mia Sherwood Landau

    Journalism that’s really marketing is often called native advertising or authority marketing, depending on who is writing about it. Copy writing is intentionally biased and journalism is supposed to be unbiased, just presenting facts, hopefully from all sides. Straight-up journalism would not be good for content marketing, but use of the journalism skills you mention is a great idea.

    • http://www.imaginepub.com Alex Braun

      I see what you’re saying, but I guess my opinion differs a little bit.

      If you write an article for a traditional news outlet like the Washington Post and it’s authored by a brand to promote its interests, then that’s native advertising. But if you’re a snowboard manufacturer and you do a biographical feature for your website on Shaun White that doesn’t hawk your product, you’re doing exactly what ESPN Magazine would do.

      Yes, it benefits your brand because the goal is to attract a specific audience that you can then advertise to, but the same could be said of the magazine that wants to attract a specific audience so their advertisers will pay to reach them.

      Whether you’re writing for a brand’s website or you’re writing a native advertising column, reporting skills are still very important.

    • Robert McGuire

      With some of my accounts, we’ve tiptoed around how much the material we’re producing should resemble journalism. (My feeling is that there’s no harm in striving to be objective — in fact it’s something that can set content marketing apart from other marketing channels in the same organization.) But regardless of what the material is intended to do or look like, I still think producing it requires a range of talents that experienced journalists can bring to the table.

  • http://www.imaginepub.com Alex Braun

    Great points, Robert. I’m probably biased as a Mizzou guy, but our agency has always placed an emphasis on hiring good journalists first.

    In any case, a lot of universities that offered traditional journalism degrees now place such a heavy emphasis on writing for the web and “new media” studies that apply to content marketing. I think that makes it a lot easier to bring young people with little direct marketing experience up to speed.

    • Robert McGuire

      Thanks Alex. Personally, I count myself lucky to have learned in a small-town paper. That was getting up to speed every day.

  • madeleine weightman

    Good advice Robert. We were at an interesting event put on by PR moments ‘ what journalists want from PR. Tim Walker ex mandrake editor highlighted that in the current market, many journalists are struggling and turning to other avenues for work. With content marketing being so key, using a journalists experience, instinct and approach we agree is a good strategy and one that we at The Work Crowd agree is a good tactic. There are so many talented Freelancers out there which can provide a flexible and cost effective solution to companies to nail their content marketing strategy

    • Robert McGuire

      Right — pitching to journalists may sometimes work better if you include the perspective of someone who has had to wade through the pitches. They know they were always looking for a good new story rather than just a sales letter in press release form, so they should be in a good position to keep that in mind when they’re the ones pitching.

      • https://theworkcrowd.com madeleine weightman

        Robert, good advice indeed….. It has certainly given us food for thought. Business needs to think outside the box and be more flexible when they are looking to identify the right talent. There is a huge amount of untapped talent out their. Given the current market conditions so many journalists are struggling or jumping ship and moving into PR. We are keen as a company to champion talented individuals and open business’s minds to thinking outside the box when they consider their talent needs. If you don’t mind I might write an article for our blog on this subject and reference you/your article as the seed for it. thanks

        • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com Lisa Dougherty

          Hi Madeline, we would love it if you used Robert’s post as reference! The only things we ask are the following: please cite the Content Marketing Institute as the original source and link to the article on CMI. Also, all CMI posts that are to be used in content curation efforts must adhere to standards of Fair Use of Online Content for Content Curation (http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/2011/04/fair-use-of-online-content-with-content-curation/). Thanks so much for your comment!

        • Robert McGuire

          Always love the link love. Let me know when it’s done.

  • George Stenitzer

    Journalists bring many strengths to content marketing. Adele Revella argues in her new book “Buyer Personas” that journalists are better at doing buyer persona interviews too. Interviewing skills are crucial in content marketing.

    • Robert McGuire

      Yes, that’s another interesting use case. Thanks for the reminder.

  • simon penson

    I am a huge fan of journalistic talent and we have built our digital agency around just that. It is a skill that was much maligned for a period of time but as the requirement for quality content grows so will the demand for skilled journalists.

    • Robert McGuire

      Thanks for your input. This field is one of the rare bright spots in what has been a tough couple of decades for journalists looking for work.

  • HollyR

    As a former writer for an environmental news site, I totally agree with the sentiment of this piece — but for many companies, it just isn’t feasible. People don’t understand the time and research that goes into a good piece. They think it’s just “blogging,” and that anyone can do it, and they want it NOW. Proofreaders and fact-checkers are a thing of the past. If a company is actually willing to invest in journalists, more power to them (and hire me!). 😉

    • Robert McGuire

      Things definitely aren’t all peachy in this area, but the good news is that they seem to be trending in a better direction. Brands wanting to stand out may start out with a “it’s just blogging” attitude, but to get real results the usually figure out it takes an investment — in people to manage it and in supporting the amount of time it takes to develop really useful material. Not every company with a blog out there gets it yet, but more and more of them do.

  • http://www.onlineprofilewriter.com/ Kate Houston

    I’m a senior copywriter and a good one (that is, I don’t write hard sell “buy now” ads). Over the past few years I’ve been hired to write fewer ads and more content. It’s been an easy transition. After all, I spent years honing my skills in the unforgiving world of advertising. I had seconds to engage a consumer I’ve rudely interrupted and who had the power to surf past my TV spot or turn the page of my print ad. I
    even had to write billboards. This required asking question after critical question to uncover the single most compelling and competitive angle and then deliver it – in few words. Do to so successfully, I had to develop more than strategic writing skills, I also had to become a strong visual and conceptual thinker. In addition, I spent years writing theater of the mind through radio, a challenging medium. Digital content is a cakewalk for people like me. The most difficult part of the transition has been understanding why a brand would hire journalists – people trained to report facts without bias – versus copywriters – people trained to humanize brands and make them engaging enough to reach business objectives. Journalists report stories. Copywriters can create them. I have nothing against the value of journalists. I’m just baffled by their value to marketing.

    • Robert McGuire

      There aren’t bright lines between these categories, obviously. Journalists “can” do what copywriters and others in marketing do and vice versa. Most have worn a variety of hats. I’m referring to to the predominant experience and training. I think my point applies to all marketing but is clearest in content marketing, which is about providing something of value to the reader. As I say above, journalists are helpful there, because our default mode is: find the unexplored angle on a familiar subject; develop good questions; gather information from high-quality sources; synthesize the information into a highly valuable, reader-focused piece.

      • http://www.onlineprofilewriter.com/ Kate Houston

        Advertising doesn’t provide value? We pour through consumer and competitive research, synthesize it down to key benefits and then explore countless angles before creating campaigns compelling enough to interrupt – and have that interruption welcomed. Some skills between copywriter and journalists overlap. However, copy and content writers are trained to be persuasive. Journalists are trained to be unbiased. In marketing, that’s a critical difference.

        • Joel

          I think you have an odd view of overall journalism. I’ve been in both worlds over the course of my career. Yes, lots of reporting is facts, but that leaves out a whole industry of feature writing professionals, and both content and feature writers have to be persuasive and interesting to keep people reading to the next sentence.

          • http://www.onlineprofilewriter.com/ Kate Houston

            Hi Joel. You’re right. I completely forgot about feature journalists. I’m sorry. They make wonderful storytellers and do have to be interesting. As for persuasive, however, they aren’t trained to craft a story so that it reaches marketing objectives. I too have been in both worlds. I began my career as a journalist (reporting and interviews). I then moved into copy and content writing. For me, being immersed in an ad and marketing environment was what honed my ability to champion brands. Journalism didn’t teach me that.

  • Robert McGuire

    I was asked elsewhere to elaborate on the test assignments part of my process, so I’ll do that here . . .

    First there’s the “test” that’s part of the application. In a job ad, like many others, I include a special request to make sure the applicant is paying attention and not sending me boilerplate without thinking about this particular job. And I like for that test to be meaningful but without being a big extra burden. For freelance writers on content marketing, I name a magazine with the same subject matter as my client’s content — maybe Fast Company or IBD — and I say they should choose any article and suggest angles for a couple followup articles. What should the next story on this subject explore? That shouldn’t take more than a few minutes extra work for the applicant and adds a line or 2 to their cover letter or email, and it tells me a little about their news sense.

    Then if I’m leaning toward using someone, I give them a paid assignment as a test. These are real assignments that I will use for my clients; they’re only a test in that I’m not committing beyond the one, and I have other material in the pipeline from other writers in case this writer doesn’t come through. Before I start interviewing, I make sure that my “brainstorming” list of topics for the project has plenty of good ideas on it, I chose a few that I’d be glad to have but that I’m not counting on and that are reasonably challenging for a novice on the topic, and I put those on reserve so that I can assign them during the interview stage when I have a good candidate.

    Hope that helps.

  • Angie Lynn Jackson

    HOORAY for this article. My education and 20+ years’ experience are in journalism. That said, I think the more important point here is that content needs to have substance and value, whether it be practical, entertaining, or whatever. You’ll almost always get this with a good journalist, but it comes in other packages as well.

    As you said, Robert, there’s too much meaningless content hitting the web, and it gets worse every day. Readers are too smart and too busy to build loyalty to a source where content does little more than fill space. They will, however, keep coming back to sources that are engaging and truly helpful.

    By the way, you won’t get this level of content from the “services” that deliver 500-word blog posts for $50 (or $20, or less … horrors). Those who produce content for these services can — at best — copy, regurgitate, and crank out whatever message is easiest and fastest to get on a page. If you want content that doesn’t immediately dissolve into the miasma, please be prepared to pay for it. In the long run you’ll buy yourself more credibility with one $250 article than with ten $25 posts.

    • Robert McGuire

      Thanks for your comments, Angie. Pricing is a whole other can of worms. Without rehashing all the arguments about that in the past, the point I would add is that if you’re paying very low rates, you simply can’t get the time necessary for good work. Even if you get “good writing” in the sense of clarity and without errors, you’re not going to get something with substance to it. It takes time to gather reliable information — in research or in interviews — and if we don’t pay for that time, we’re not going to get the goods.

  • leo yelverton

    Journalists have a vast vocabulary and they know how to present a topic according to the taste of the audience. They know how to put in writing quality article and as per the guidelines of the Google today, hiring journalists to create contents is the better choice ever.

  • http://it-enquirer.com/ Erik Vlietinck

    I’m a journalist too, a freelance trade journalist that is, with 26 years of experience. Yet, I’ve been creating marketing content for well over 10 years now because the dozen publications I used to write for either have disappeared or been acquired by larger publishers who didn’t need freelances anymore (I’m in the EU, BTW).

    One of the problems with content writing for large and medium-sized companies is that they are usually not prepared to pay the price. From my own experience I’d say they don’t seem to mind that much about credibility, spelling, grammar, typos. They have the wrong expectations too. One of my clients wanted to have his Swedish-English site edited in standard English. After two weeks his comment was that it didn’t generate any new traffic.

    I have written product reports, legal analyses for lobbying associations (by education I’m a lawyer), entire websites — for Fortune 500 companies as well as small businesses. In the past few years, it’s become harder to find clients willing to invest in content. The number of MDs who think writing copy doesn’t require more research or skill than copy/paste content generated by their own employees and fit it in 140 characters, is stunningly high.

    Perhaps when even publications don’t care about fact-checking and editing for typos and spelling errors anymore, we shouldn’t expect companies to behave differently.

    • Robert McGuire

      Hi Erik. Yes, I agree that’s a big problem in the marketing and freelance writing world generally. I would argue that those companies are more focused on SEO than content marketing and probably behind the times even on that. The reason the kind of serious and authoritative and useful content marketing promoted on places like CMI is growing is that taking that kind of under-resourced and half-hearted approach isn’t working anymore.

      • http://it-enquirer.com/ Erik Vlietinck

        Thank you, Robert, for your feedback. As I was totally unaware of the reasons, it’s actually comforting to know they are behind the times. That at least leaves open some perspective on educating them!