By Brendan Cournoyer published April 10, 2012

3 Things to Look For when Hiring a Journalist for Content Marketing

Recently, my friend Rob Yoegel of Monetate wrote a fine post breaking down some of the lessons content marketers can learn from publishers. As he points out, “Think like a publisher” has become a common mantra in the content marketing community — but that alone isn’t enough for most organizations.

As a former journalist and reporter, this subject always tends to hit home with me. When I first heard the term “content marketing,” my initial impression was that the goal was for companies to start taking over the role of content publisher, effectively cutting out the middleman that they previously relied on to advertise with and gain new leads. It also struck me as a golden new career opportunity for folks with journalism and online writing backgrounds.

For the most part, this has turned out to be true. The focus amongst content marketers to become “a trusted source of information” has created a lot of competition for traditional sources like online magazines and newspapers. And more journalists have transitioned to marketing as economic lulls and cutbacks have made their typical career paths… well… let’s just say challenging.

Of course, that transition isn’t always easy, either.

Sure, hiring a bunch of converted journalists to generate quality content seems like a great idea for organizations that lack the skill sets to get their content strategies off the ground. But what I’ve found — and Rob alluded to as well — is that there’s a big difference between thinking like a publisher and actually being a publisher. As a result, journalists and writers seasoned in the latter are not always the best fit for a move to marketing. In the same vein, not all publishing concepts are amenable to a successful content marketing strategy.

In my opinion, there are three things that marketing organizations should consider when looking to add a former journalist or reporter to their team:

#1. Experience in online publishing

At this point, most journalists have at least some experience creating online content. That said, those who’ve specifically worked for online publications are often a much better fit for content marketing. One reason is that writing for online is a unique skill that not all writers possess. Common practices like keyword optimization and strategic link building require traits that need to be learned, and not all traditional journalists have embraced them.

It’s also important to have a strong understanding of the types of content your candidates are comfortable with. Obviously, you’ll want to review a collection of writing samples, but there’s a lot more to content marketing than articles and blog posts. Are you looking to hire someone with experience creating case studies or eBooks? What about multimedia content like webinars, podcasts, and videos? The more types of content a candidate is familiar with, the more expertise they’ll bring to your overall strategy.

#2. Editorial management experience

At many publications, most journalists and staff writers do just that — write. But there’s more to developing a sound content marketing strategy than writing. Editors that have worked in a management role are likely to possess a broader skill set that fits nicely into the content marketing model.

Not only are editorial managers excellent writers and content producers, they’re also more comfortable dealing with “big picture” stuff like editorial calendars, traffic reporting and, most importantly, working with the sales side of the business. On a personal level, this type of experience can lead to a much smoother transition to marketing when the time comes.

#3. Social media savvy

Obviously, social media marketing plays an important role these days. There’s brand awareness, customer engagement, content promotion, influencer marketing — the list goes on. While some companies have a single person designated as the social media point person (or “buzz marketer”), I believe that everyone on the marketing team — or at least the content team — should play a role here as well.

Ideally, the person you hire will be at least somewhat involved in social media. This doesn’t mean they need to have thousands of Twitter followers or belong to a host of LinkedIn groups. But they should at least have profiles that show an understanding of the platforms and the value they bring from a content perspective.

If one of the goals of your content strategy is to position your company as a thought leader in a particular space, then the person creating that content needs to be comfortable in that role. While some journalists and reporters are self-promotional machines on social channels, others avoid putting their faces out there in a way that could jeopardize their integrity. Some are seasoned traditionalists that prefer to let their content do the talking. Others are lower-level reporters that don’t have the confidence to become part of the online conversation.

Either way, the ones who “get it” are more ideal to help take your content strategy to the next level.

Journalists need to know what they’re getting into, and companies need to know who they are hiring.

As Rob points out in his article, there are a lot of publishing practices that align very well with content marketing. Editorial hierarchy, SEO, audience development, and a focus on unique, quality content are all skills that should be valued in the content marketing realm. But from a more personal standpoint, how journalists/ publishers go about their business is still very different — and it should be.

Understanding those key points can be critical when making your next content hire.

To all the other former journalists and reporters out there, what are your thoughts on moving from more traditional publishing to content marketing? Did you run into any particular challenges when making the transition? Sound off in the comments!

Author: Brendan Cournoyer

Brendan Cournoyer is a content manager at Brainshark, a sales enablement platform provider that helps companies more effectively prepare employees, engage with key audiences, and advance business opportunities. For more musings on the world of content marketing, SEO, and more, follow Brendan on Twitter @brencournoyer. You can also find more tips and ideas on using online video content to enhance your marketing strategies by visiting the Brainshark Ideas Blog.

Other posts by Brendan Cournoyer

  • Sarah

    Great article, and I very much agree that editorial management experience is really important. 

    • Brendan Cournoyer

      Thanks Sarah 🙂 Another point about editorial mgt. that I removed for length is that if you’re making a full-time hire, these people are much better suited to managing freelancers and dealing w/ budgets as well — something writers alone won’t necessarily have experience in.

      • Working journalist

         Just one comment re: the editorial hierarchy requirement–I think titles, alone, are misleading. In my experience, very few people still working in publishing are “just writers.” We all have management responsibilities. (I don’t think it’s just me.)

  • Bob Scheier

    Good article. As an old “just the facts” guy it’s been a learning curve to come up to speed on SEA, link building, etc. But still say those skills can be learned if one has good grounding in basic reporting and writing, as well as developing messages and drawing out the key themes from the internal subject matter experts. 

    • Brendan Cournoyer

      Totally agree Bob. I moved directly into online publishing and reporting, and over time I developed skills like SEO, online messaging etc. that some of my other journalism friends never developed working as more traditional reporters. It can definitely be learned, but it takes time, and that experience is paramount.

  • Mark O’Keefe

    Being comfortable with number-crunching to provide metrics that show ROI also important. 

    • Brendan Cournoyer

      Absolutely Mark — again skills that someone w/ editorial management experience is usually much more comfortable with when making a transition to marketing. There’s a lot more to that section that I cut out for length as well, such as the “non-inbound” content (i.e. sales enablement, more company-centric resources) that are also part of strong content strategies, where ROI is much easier to measure.

  • Esorrentino

    This is an excellent post. Thanks, Brendan. I can relate to this transition myself, as I used to be a sports copy editor for a newspaper and write a sports blog online. After five years, I transitioned to a position as a social media manager in a marketing department, where I’ve taken some of the same skills I acquired over the years and applied them to blogging and content marketing. What Brendan said is so true about writing for online and being savvy in social media. My background in newspapers was extremely helpful, but my experience in blogging and social media was even more helpful in landing this marketing position. I love working in a marketing department, and suggest fellow journos save this article to their favorites if they’re looking to make a similar change.


    • Brendan Cournoyer

      Thanks Eric and congrats on your transition! Content marketing has certainly opened up a lot of doors for us former reporters and editors, but as you mentioned, it takes more than just good writing skills to make those stars align. Best of luck going forward!

    • Bob Scheier

      for my blog on PR/marketing trends, I’ve been looking for a “corporate journalist” to interview about what it’s like. Can you tell me a bit more about the kind of company you work for? And enjoyed your comments…

      • Brendan Cournoyer

        Sure thing Bob, let’s take that convo offline tho. Feel free to shoot me an email or reach out via LinkedIn and I’ll be happy to fill you in.

  • Mary Ellen Slayter

    Great list!

    I like to tell people that if everybody is a publisher now, they need a managing editor. You can hire the best writer in the world, but if you don’t have a real audience development plan in place, you’re wasting your time. Editors also tend to have lots of connections with other strong writers.

    You know who else is awfully handy in producing premium content marketing: copy editors. A great one can add such a layer of polish to your work.

    • Brendan Cournoyer

      Thanks for the thoughts Mary, I agree on all points. I’m a pretty decent copy editor myself, tho I can’t deny blogging has turned it’s back on a great deal of the AP Style book 😉 Joe and Rob’s book, however, on “Managing Content Marketing” does a pretty inspired job of taking the roles of managing editor, copy editor, etc. and applying them to a content marketing model. Definitely worth checking out!

  • Susan

    You have a vast army of smart, skilled people who need work and are trained to gather information and become experts quickly. Most of us have had to become experts at different kinds of writing, topics, audiences, over our careers. Journalists have been adapting for decades. So looking for management or even a lot of online experience seems secondary to looking for someone who writes well for various audiences and is willing to learn.
    The principals are basic to us: Tell the story your audience will find compelling, with the most pertinent information, in a few words. Yes there’s SEO–but most of that happens off the page. And there are hyperlinks etc. But those are mechanics. Connecting with words isn’t.
    It’s daunting for us, having grown up with the idea that we’re the Fourth Estate, to become marketers. It just is. But hey, change happens. Frankly I think most of the people I’ve worked with over the years could read a couple books and pretty quickly become content marketing geniuses.

    • Brendan Cournoyer

      Thanks for sharing Susan. Funny, the first draft of this post was more about “How Journalist’s AREN’T Like Content Marketers”, focusing on the challenges of making that transition on a personal level, which can be very tricky for some (especially when the higher ups start demanding more leads!).

      I completely agree that the writing/reporting background of journalists sets a great foundation for a move to content marketing, particularly when it comes to telling a story for a target audience. I would quibble, however, with the idea of become a content marketing genius just from reading a few books. There’s a lot more to a content marketing strategy than inbound and blogging, of course. There’s a variety of different content formats (podcasts, video, infographics, case studies, etc.) and more promotional/vendor centric copy to consider, not to mention the many channels required to get your message heard (social, newsletters, SEO, influencer marketing, and so on). And building a content strategy for a company from the ground up is no easy task for sure — takes plenty of practice and experience!

      • Susan

         I was cocky…a journalistic fault I suppose.
        After about a year of reading and spending insane hours on new types of content projects for which I wound up getting paid about $1 an hour because so much was learning curve, and finding a mentor who is a brilliant content strategist I finally felt competent to call myself a content marketer. I’m still not a social media expert, but then there’s a lot of specialization out there so I’ve made peace with that.
        I guess my contention is that great writers often make dreadful managers (experience speaks). But if you wield the written word well and are willing to study unfamiliar formats until you understand their structure and purpose, you can write anything–except poetry but we wont’ go there.
        One advantage is that news people instinctively look for new angles which prevents all the frustrating regurgitation of the same old ideas which many content producers are guilty of.

    • Tony

      Generally I have have to agree with you. Journalists CAN make great content marketers, but only if they upgrade their skills, such as understanding marketing and how business works. 
      I made the switch some time ago, took up management consulting so I could learn the management and business side of things, and copywriting so I could better understand the different writing format. This way I bring a much more potent skill set to the table.

      However, I have found a different kind of problem out there. Perhaps because of my well-rounded skill set. Many companies don’t want to hire me! For the most part they are  small businesses (it’s the nature of our regional economy), and they presume the only people who can understand online writing are very young people, that I will be very expensive (I’m not) or that I am essentially a journalist who doesn’t understand their business. 

      This generally means I have to work with larger businesses where marketing is separate from the CEO function and therefore understands what a content writer is. 

      With the smaller ones, I position myself as freelance managing editor  or publisher who organizes and plans content as well as writing it. 

      I guess I’m saying that change is hard  — on both sides. 

  • Jim Schakenbach

    Great post, Brendan. Journalists (good ones, at least) also possess several other attributes worth mentioning: a keen appreciation for accuracy and deadlines, a more disciplined approach to writing, and (one would hope) a natural aversion to hyperbole. I started out as a broadcast journalist many years ago, then went to the dark side as a copywriter and eventually an ad agency partner, and recently embarked on a freelance career as both a copywriter and journalist writing for business and technology publications. What has helped smooth out the peaks and valleys is the ability to move easily between these difference disciplines because of this varied background.

    • Brendan Cournoyer

       Good stuff, Jim. No question, journalists and reporters are definitely more disciplined with their writing style. Another asset they bring is flexibility in what they write about. While most end up covering certain beats, most reporters have a lot of experience writing about topics they aren’t all that familiar with. I think this puts them in a good position to ramp up quickly when they transition to a new company and have to start cranking out marketing content.

  • Katie Wagner

    As a former journalist myself – and as someone who runs a social media agency made up of former journalists – I can tell you that I think the skill set translates very well. The two things I learned as a journalist were how to engage an audience, and how to build credibility – and those are the two things any business owner (or marketer) needs to do as well. These days, people crave stories… they want to connect deeply with the brands and businesses they care about. And so, I believe that all marketers have to be journalists in some ways. You have to know how to tell a business’ story in a way that connects with your audience. (It also helps that former journalists tend to have the news judgement to be able to discern what elements of the story are important – what audiences will care about – even when the business owner doesn’t know what’s important to tell!)
    Great article, thanks so much!

    • Brendan Cournoyer

      “I believe that all marketers have to be journalists in some ways.” — from a content perspective, absolutely, there’s a lot of overlap now. And as you allude to, what journalists and reporters are skilled at is putting the audience (in this case buyers) FIRST, which makes them a great fit for a content strategy, particularly one that’s blog/inbound-focused. Marketers, on the other hand, tend to put companies/products first, whereas journalists are trained on objectivity.

      It takes a good blend of these different skills/goals to make a strong content marketer, but journalists and others who know how to tell a good story are certainly ideal candidates to get there.

  • Sandra K

    Brendan, Great food for thought here. I am a journalist who recently left my newspaper management career to re-invent myself. As I evaluate my skills and likes, I keep coming back to online marketing. I believe my organizational skills, flexibility and ability to communicate clearly must be valuable. I am considering launching as a freelancer. Any thoughts?

    • Brendan Cournoyer

      That’s great Sandra — and yes those skills are VERY valuable to a content marketing strategy. From a freelance perspective, another skill I’ve found to be valuable, believe it or not, is interviewing skills. Some of the biggest challenges for companies involve 1) finding people that can generate the content they need, and 2) leveraging the knowledge of their internal experts within the company who don’t have time (or don’t want) to write.

      I’ve worked with freelancers in the past with strong journalism backgrounds who were able to fill both these gaps. If you can position yourself as someone who can not only research and create content independently, but also conduct interviews with both internal and external experts and turn that information into compelling stories, that’s a tremendous value. Best of luck!

  • Carl Friesen

    This post has sure struck a chord with a lot of former reporters who, like me, found more opportunities in generating content for others. One more thing to look for is the ability to do different types of content — ranging from a good tweet to a feature article — but also able to produce competent video, audio and slide shows. Journalism schools have always taught radio and TV journalism as well as print, and I’ve found myself dusting off those skills and applying them to video and audio. I think that anyone hiring a former reporter should look for skills that go beyond text – and as people have said in this comment stream, current on social media.

    • Brendan Cournoyer

       Absolutely Carl! I think that’s what I was trying to get across with the part on “online publishing experience.” Essentially, I’ve found the content demands for those types of publications help people develop a broader skill set in terms of content (video, podcast, eBooks, webinars, etc.). But certainly, even in college, journalists are turned on to different formats like multimedia as well (I’ve had to dust off some of those skills myself!)

  • David Drickhamer

    Thoughtful observations Brendan. Does a deep knowledge of a particular subject go without saying here? You cover work skills and experience, but some of the other traditional factors to look for when hiring outside help apply as well. Sure, if you’re hiring a former journalist, they’ll be able to do research and immerse themselves in the subject, and become an expert fairly quickly. But if you’re hiring a contractor, you don’t want to have to spend too much time educating him or her. I’ve found that most of my work has come from subject matter knowledge than experience with a particular form or format. Case studies, articles, etc. can vary quite a bit from organization to organization. 

    • Brendan Cournoyer

       I think the answer is “yes and no”. From a topical perspective, naturally someone with a strong understanding of the subject matter is ideal. For example, a journalist who has spent time covering a technology beat should be able to hit the ground running when creating content for a software company. They already know the lingo.

      That said, I also think many good journalists have the skill to be able to write about things they aren’t familiar with, still being able to take information and research things in a way to turn it into a compelling story. (Hell, I’ve written articles on everything from pension plans to zoning boards.) It really depends on the role and the individual you require.

      As for format, true, things do vary from organization. But those experience with that “type” of content can usually adapt to the companies style fairly quickly, in most cases.

  • Abby Gilmore

    Great post. This post applies to me directly as I studied journalism in college, though now work in the digital marketing industry. Employers told me my strong writing background was very important and attractive, and my ability to write for the web and distribute content via social media made me an attractive candidate. With my range of skills, I’ve found working in digital and content marketing very rewarding and exciting.

    • Brendan Cournoyer

       Great stuff Abby! Glad things are going well and you’re enjoying your ride on the content marketing train 🙂

  • Tom Musbach

    Great post, and very helpful for me to save. As a former journalist, the hardest part of the transition is the “marketing” part of my title (I’ve gone to “the dark side” former colleagues might say). Or feeling inferior to those with marketing MBAs. But I think the points about online writing experience and social media savvy are right on, and they have helped me the most. I have been able to learn much of the “marketing-ese” on the fly, but it’s the core content creation and management skills that help me most.

    • Brendan Cournoyer

       Thanks for the comment Tom. I’m right there with you. It took me a while to even be comfortable calling myself a “marketer” and shifting my focus that way. But it comes in time. No need to feel inferior — Marketing MBAs don’t necessarily know the first about managing a content strategy if they’ve never done it. Those core content creation skills are extremely valuable for everyone these days.

  • Joanne Costin

    I really liked your post. I agree not all journalists possess the skills to be good content marketers. I want someone to be excited about the work and the impact they have on a client’s business, not wishing they were working as a “real” journalist.

    • Brendan Cournoyer

      Agree 100% Joanna. I have quite a few journalist friends who I know would never have the stomach a switch to marketing, even CONTENT marketing. Not because there’s anything wrong with it, but just cuz the way you think about content can be hard to change. But content marketing can still be a great career path to those who are open to it and want to find new ways to leverage their skills.

  • Ashley Healy

    Great post Brendan and I can totally relate. I agree that the “marketing” aspect has been challenging for me as well, being a journalist turned marketer. It’s one thing to get the content created, it’s another thing to market it. Another part that has been difficult for me is keeping a close eye on analytics, but it is so key to creating quality content that resonates with your audience. I am so grateful to have worked with a very smart SEO team who have taught me so much. You hit the nail on the head with all of these points. Thank you for a great read!  

    • Brendan Cournoyer

       I hear you Ashley. I was fortunate to have quite a bit of editorial and website management experience before my transition, so I was already pretty comfortable with things like SEO and analytics. But there’s def more of a learning curve for folks from a pure writing background. It’s great you have a good team that helped you pick stuff up quickly (not everyone’s so lucky!).Best of luck!

  • Rob Postuma

    Some very good points. As “content manager”/marketer (amongst a million other duties) for  my site, I find that I pretty well have to train everyone who writes for me, or rewrite it to the point where it’s 90% me rather than them. Writing online content is a completely different skill set than regular writing and it can be hard even for professionals to not read “stilted” at times.

    • Brendan Cournoyer

       That’s not an uncommon issue, Rob — particularly with freelance writers. Naturally, YOU have a strong understanding of your audience, the topics you cover, and your company’s messaging. But not everyone will have that, which can affect their ability to put things in the proper context when writing — without that, your content can lack credibility. It can often require a lot of coaching, but good writers with flexibility tend to pick up on those things pretty quickly.

  • Mary Klest

    Bringing together abilities as a journalist, corporate public relations manager and content marketer is a progression for me. In each role I blend and honor the skills learned from the other. What is incredible now is the direct ability to measure content impact via analytics, comments and social sharing. Sure, the impact can be manipulated somewhat through SEO practices but I think audiences still appreciate good writing and viral videos.      

    • Brendan Cournoyer

       Indeed Mary. Fortunately, if you look at the changes Google has made over the past couple years, a lot more importance is being placed on things like social shares and backlinks in an effort to give more authority to the content that has the most quality, not the most keywords. I actually wrote about this in a past post for CMI, where I compared relying too much on SEO “tricks” to counting cards in Blackjack — eventually, the house always wins. Good news for folks who put an emphasis on quality, helpful content tho!

  • KatieMcCaskey

    Another advantage journalists bring is the ability to investigate an issues from all sides. This translates into a fresh perspective that might be overlooked by industry-only writers.

  • Ebyline

    Great post Brendan and solid comments from other readers. At Ebyline (a platform that connects over 1700 professional journalists with brands and publishers) we also see a distinction between news gathering skills and subject matter expertise. So, its important for Content Marketers to also consider that reporting and news gathering skills can often play an important role especially when sending writers on assignments to events or out on the field.  

  • Tiger_San

    nice post….informative

  • asad

    I really liked your post. I agree not all journalists possess the skills
    to be good content marketers. I want someone to be excited about the
    work and the impact they have on a client’s business, not wishing they
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