By Cameron Conaway published December 21, 2016

5 Lessons Content Marketing Can Learn from Journalism


Content marketing list articles abound, most singing some version of the same trite stanza:

Be a media company too,
and cut through the clutter.
Create content of value
and measure the numbers.

This kind of advice is then infinitely repurposed, repackaged, and redistributed. The result? Aisle after aisle of homogenous and frivolous content – like some kind of surreal supermarket where all canned goods have been replaced by a silkscreened replica from Andy Warhol.

I know you came here for nourishment … but here’s this.

All that monolithic advice feels artificial, even deceptive, and it leads many in the journalism industry to look down on those in content marketing. As they see it, journalism is an industry made of equal parts substance and flavor, while content marketing is one of fluff and blandness. “You’re either a journalist or a content marketer,” one journalist told me. “You can’t be both.”

My instinct was to vehemently disagree, to burst into a lecture about how journalism and content marketing need each other, but after a few deep breaths I came to see his perspective: Journalism is the noble god, content marketing is the ignoble fraud.

Journalist’s view: Journalism is the noble god; #contentmarketing is the ignoble fraud via @CameronConaway. Click To Tweet

To the journalist who told me that, one is a public service, sharing the important human stories people need to know to better understand their world, while the other is an industry of click-bait wannabe writers who are little more than company puppets.

Harsh, I know.

But it got me thinking: How can we build a bridge between content marketing and journalism? As I pursued journalism long before I moved into content marketing, here are five lessons (of many) that have carried over especially well:

1. Hustle

By this I mean hustle toward quality over quantity. It’s far easier to hustle when you believe you’re in a content factory – that place where speed trumps all else. But good journalists realize the importance of pursuing meaningful, authentic relationships. They work hard, beyond just creating content, to create strategic win-win relationships with sources and, more broadly, with readers and writers in their field. This takes work, and it’s made all the more challenging because it doesn’t always feel beneficial or like it will ever pay off. But it is and it does.

Takeaway: Many in content marketing feel caught in a sprint to churn out more mediocre content than anybody else. Content teams treat readers as leads, paving the way for superficial relationships based on taking rather than trusting.

2. Know it takes a village

On any byline I’ve ever had, countless people behind the scenes made it happen. Journalists know that a single piece of content takes a team to create. I see many brands that tout “thinking like a media company,” yet don’t take the steps to build or structure themselves like one.

Takeaway: Even if you are the lone content marketer in your company, be sure to build an editorial process. Never run an article without getting the eyes of at least one trusted editor on it. And know that your team is far larger than simply that editor; it’s anybody who, even if years ago, in some way inspired your article. Reach out to thank them. You might find that it fortifies your village by rekindling a valuable relationship for you both.

Even if you are the lone content marketer in your company, build an editorial process says @CameronConaway. Click To Tweet

3. Read and research more than you write and share

If you’ve not watched the movie Spotlight, the Academy Award-winning film about how The Boston Globe’s investigative journalism team uncovered the systemic child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Boston, please go check it out. It’s a perfect, though harrowing, example of how the real work of writing and sharing happens long before the writing and sharing.

Content marketers: Read & research more than you write & share says @CameronConaway. Click To Tweet

Takeaway: When developing your content marketing strategy or even an individual piece, factor in the work it will take to read and research. I’ve met content marketers who felt unproductive when they spent an entire day reading up on the topic of their forthcoming article. Know this is not merely work; it’s the backbone that will help your content stand above others. If necessary, be sure to convey this to your manager or boss.

4. Don’t fold without a fight

It’s no secret that the journalism industry has taken a hit over the years. According to data from the American Society of News Editors, the number of U.S. newspaper journalists declined from 55,000 in 2007 to 32,900 in 2015. And we all know the pay-per-click advertising model isn’t faring much better. But the industry keeps finding ways to survive – whether it’s The Washington Post  acquisition by Jeff Bezos, The Guardian’s move to create a branded content division or The Philadelphia Inquirer’s transition to nonprofit status – they don’t fold without a fight.

Takeaway: Most content marketing efforts don’t fail, they end. This happens for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that around the one-year mark and even in the face of steady growth, the company decides its marketing resources are better spent elsewhere. Consider this a plea to hang in, to realize that just as hiring an employee is a long-term strategic move so is initiating a content marketing strategy. Want a short-term fix? Bring in a volunteer and run some ads. Want a sustainable business model? Invest in talent and content marketing.

Most #contentmarketing efforts don’t fail, they end. Invest in talent & content marketing. @CameronConaway Click To Tweet

5. Truly believe your audience comes first

We all know of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, but it’s important to know a bit about the man it is named after. An immigrant from Hungary, Joseph Pulitzer revolutionized the American journalism industry in the late 1800s through a fearless form of journalism – one that advocated for the common man and believed the industry should be more about social responsibility than, as it had been, catering to the elites. He believed every story and indeed every newspaper should have immense societal value.

Takeaway: By now you’ve likely heard this content marketing mantra: Create valuable content by putting your audience first. But I believe the best, and perhaps only, way for content marketers to put audience first is to seriously believe their audience is first. Believe with the fervor that Pulitzer believed. He experienced the massive divide between the rich and the poor, and saw journalism as a way to address it. What are your audience’s needs and what tethers you to those needs enough to make you deeply care about trying to solve them? Answer that and you’ll be well on your way to creating valuable content.

This article originally appeared in the December issue of CCO magazine. Subscribe for your free print copy today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway was awarded the 2015 Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Fellowship. He curates Content Land, a weekly resource for journalists and content marketers who want to work smarter by learning how both fields intersect. Follow him on Twitter @CameronConaway.

Other posts by Cameron Conaway

  • Free Range Websites

    Very interesting post. I had never really thought about how much can be learned from journalists before reading your article. Very refreshing

    • Cameron Conaway

      Thanks! As Robert Frost put it, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I write to learn, and am thrilled to know this helped you learn as well.


  • Trading Expert London

    Really interesting topics about content marketing. I think you covert everything rightly in this article that what we need to learn from journalism. Every lesson you included is essentially needed to follow for a content marketer too. Otherwise, he or she can’t be a successful content marketer and will be failed to sell product or service. Thanks for this interesting and informative post.

  • Vinish Garg

    A good read, Cameron. A few parallels in content marketing and journalism are – know your beat, interviewing skills, compliance to style guide (journalists often write for the voice of specific media house), and content choreography. The only difference is in their ultimate goals.

    • Cameron Conaway

      Right on, @vinishgarg:disqus. Thank you for your continued support. “Content choreography.” I LOVE this. Have you read Trent Walton’s writing on that topic? If not, I’d recommend digging in. Would love to hear your thoughts.


      • Vinish Garg

        Yes Cameron, I had read Trent Walton’s posts in the past. He talks it primarily from the responsive design perspective for how content adapts itself for smaller devices. Brad Frost too talks about atomic design in same space, at:

        In the context of this post, content marketers are increasingly realizing the need of working with product teams – content strategists or even UX, to know how content is being planned Not code but metadata), and published for different distribution strategies and goals.

  • Brian Driggs

    Pew had a superlative list up at back in the day titled “Principles of Journalism Excellence.” It made so much sense, it was easy to roughly memorize. Which is convenience, as it appears they’ve killed it for some reason.

    There’s a line between journalism and content marketing, but if you can stick to these, I’d say you stand a pretty good chance of helping us blur–and maybe eventually erase–that line.

    From Pew (somewhat paraphrased at this point):

    1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
    2. It’s first loyalty is to the citizens.
    3. It’s essence is a discipline of verification.
    4. It’s practitioners must maintain independence from those they cover.
    5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
    6. It must provide a public forum for criticism and compromise.
    7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
    8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
    9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

    That’s a tall order for sure. I know I believe this to be an effective litmus for what is and is not true journalism, but it’s also easy to see the majority of media outlets today fall short of these. Maybe that’s why Pew yanked the page?

    I dunno. As someone straddling the fence (I publish a free online car magazine with nothing really for sale AND handle content for a marketing automation specialist), I see both sides. 1, 2, and 7 might be easier for content marketers than 4, 5, and 9, but it’s possible.

    (Anyone know why these went away?)

    • Cameron Conaway

      @DR1665:disqus – great stuff here. I’ve read Kovach and Rosenstiel’s classic, and knew the 9, but couldn’t find the original Pew post either. I did find this, however, which is probably worth archiving somehow considering how content disappears:

      Also, yes, #4. That’s one I’ll need to meditate on (and likely write about as an exercise in sense making). Thanks for bringing this to the conversation, and reminding me of these fundamental tenets!


      • Brian Driggs

        All good, Cameron. Like I said, these nine clicked immediately and I’ve kept them close to my heart for a few years, now. Content marketer or journalist, you can’t go wrong sticking to–or earnestly pursuing–them.

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  • chrliechaz

    I do think we can learn some things from journalists; however, I have worked with many journalists who regard content specialists as hacks, and it’s a two-way street. We have to be willing to learn from each other and not assume the other is ignorant of today’s web world or assume that we can’t learn something from the other.

  • Truly Life

    Good set of take home pointers for content marketing, that too through journalism.. Great Read!