A Marketer’s Guide to Catching and Keeping a Journalist

Thanks to the rise in brand storytelling (and the demise of many news media outlets), journalists and marketers are reconciling their philosophical differences and uniting under a shared goal: to tell compelling, credible stories that inform and influence an audience. Here’s how to start a beneficial brand relationship with a highly trained writing pro.

In the world of professional media, there’s long been an assumption that journalists’ desire to maintain church-and-state separation between editorial and publishing would forever keep them at odds with content marketing. But the rise of brand storytelling, combined with tectonic shifts to the media landscape, is bringing about an end to that cold war. And that’s great news for people on both sides of the fence.

Brands and journalists: A mutually beneficial relationship

From the writers’ POV, working with brands gives them a way to take on new challenges, practice their craft, and add both stability and growth potential to their careers – opportunities that can be hard to come by in traditional media jobs. In the past 15 years, more journalists have lost their jobs than coal miners.

A generation of bright and talented writers may still aspire to get their work picked up by The New Yorker, but they are also more willing than ever to lend their storytelling skills to brands.

A generation of talented journalists may still aspire to get picked up by The New Yorker, but they are also more willing to lend their storytelling skills to brands, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Brands also have much to gain by bringing writing pros aboard their content teams. For starters, many experienced journalists have earned advanced degrees in writing-centric disciplines, which gives them a keen editorial eye for detail and a strong background in fact-checking – useful skills when crafting compelling stories and thoughtful analytical discussions. And, as anyone familiar with the annealing processes of newswriting can appreciate, they are adept at quickly synthesizing multiple points of view into a single clear message on a crazy deadline.

With a host of mutual advantages up for grabs and a landscape where these partnerships can thrive, one question remains: How can marketers attract a journalist to their team and empower them to perform well in a brand environment? I’ve interviewed nearly 100 writers to get their thoughts, and here are a few things I’ve learned from our conversations:

1. Share your brand’s passions and values

Rule number one is never to pitch your brand as boring. Not ever. If you can’t find the hook that will interest a journalist in what you have to offer, you can’t expect they’ll want to take on the challenge of communicating with an audience on your behalf.

“Great writers want to pursue great stories,” says Contently editor-in-chief Jordan Teicher. “As a whole, freelance writers are a marginalized group, so they tend to care a lot about business ethics, morals, community service, and legitimate corporate missions.”

Every business, no matter how seemingly plain, has a deeper story to tell – often around the change they’ve created in the lives of their customers. Sharing these kinds of stories in your conversation with candidates lets them know they’ll have more to work with than just simple feature comparisons. When interviewing a potential journalist hire, paint a similar picture of your brand’s own unique content mission to help them envision the storytelling possibilities.

2. Show them the money

Journalists are often thought of as chronically overeducated and underpaid. For those who’ve spent their careers working in professional media, this is often the case. Many have earned multiple advanced degrees; yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, they earn an average of one-third less than high school teachers.

And that’s if they’re able to find steady work. Not only have staff jobs continued to dry up, the highly competitive market for cheap freelance writing talent has forced even the most skilled journalists to reduce their asking rates for assignments.

The opportunity to advance their careers while earning a steady paycheck (either salaried or as a contracted contributor) without sacrificing the creative stimulation their work provides to them can hold a lot of appeal – which makes it well worth mentioning in your job description and candidate interviews.

3. Be transparent about your team structure and process

A content marketing team needs to do many things well, one of which just happens to be a particular strength of journalists: working story ideas through an editorial process.

Compared to traditional marketers who transition to content marketing roles, journalists likely have experience working in a newsroom-like setting and understand all the steps involved in turning ideas into publication-ready content – including how to gather input from multiple sources, manage review and approval processes, and edit, proof, and fact-check their copy.

However, for them to perform well in this capacity, journalists want to know that your brand is committed to producing high-quality content and will provide the managerial support and process infrastructure they need to deliver it consistently.

One way to earn their trust in this respect is by organizing your team’s content creation process under a standardized editorial model, such as the double-diamond process my team follows.

This process is drawn from design thinking, but its principles should be familiar to any professional writer who has worked in a hierarchical, newsroom-like setting. It codifies the idea that there are many ways to create a piece of content. But to maintain high quality while working against deadlines, it’s best to appoint one person (most often the journalist) to serve as the “writing CEO.” This person is in charge of drawing insights from all the required inputs, shepherding story ideas through the workflow, and ensuring that all output speaks from a singular brand voice.

Applying this kind of technique not only reduces friction throughout the creative process, it also helps avoid those situations where too many editors in the kitchen work against each other and dilute the value of the message and its potential impact.

4. Clear their path to research data and expert insights

Even Pulitzer Prize-winning writers are only as good as the sources they can tap for accurate, insightful information. For content marketers, interesting story sources can often be found inside your organization – from the people who build your products to your sales and customer support staff who are the keepers of stories from satisfied customers. But if you can’t ensure that your writing team will have reliable, firsthand access to those subject-matter experts, their valuable stories will remain untold – and your staff writer positions will remain unfilled.

Writers want to know what resources will be available for them to use and how prospective managers will enable them to access it. Whether the intention is for them to gather insights through direct conversations, discover them through original research, or mine them from available content data, you need to show them you can get them what they need to create your brand’s stories.

Often, this starts by securing leadership-level buy-in on your content marketing initiatives, so it’s not just your content creators pressuring other team members to participate in content creation. The blackbelt-level approach is to demonstrate how your team’s content can help those other departments on their own goals. For instance, featuring your vice president of sales in an interview and sharing it on social media can raise their industry profile and strengthen their ability to connect with customers.

You can’t always ensure that potential writers will be able to execute on every great content idea they have. But you can promise that you have a smooth process in place to facilitate conversations and the stakeholder support they’ll need to do their jobs well. Tout how your executives, stakeholders, and partners have participated in past content efforts and initiatives and share examples of the great work that resulted.

5. Ease their concerns with a soft onboarding ramp

Crafting purposeful business stories may not come naturally to every skilled writer (journalists included) for a wide variety of reasons. For example, they may have to ramp up their knowledge of basic marketing principles, gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of your industry, or go through a few extra revision rounds before they learn to nail your brand voice and messaging perfectly.

For all these reasons and more, it’s helpful to onboard new writing talent by providing them with a “soft ramp” – a way to gradually expose them to the nature of your business, the needs of your customers, and the communication challenges and opportunities they’ll be addressing through their work. This can be as simple as sharing marked-up drafts they can compare to the published versions or as detailed as sharing a documented style guide that outlines all the characteristics required for their work to be approved as publication-ready.

Other starter tasks you can assign them to help ramp up their brand proficiency include:

  • Writing a roundup of relevant news for use in your company newsletters
  • Interviewing customers and other subject-matter experts to get a well-rounded view of the brand’s key talking points and their most pressing concerns
  • Repurposing long-form content pieces (like white papers) so the content can be shared in other formats or on additional channels (like social media or blog posts)
  • Doing first-line edits on content written by other team members.

In addition, if you are looking for people who have a particular writing strength or specialized experience within your industry, it’s always a good idea to make this clear in your job description and initial conversations with promising candidates.

“Brands that want to attract talent from the journalism world need to make it clear that they’re interested in reporters as candidates for marketing positions,” says Kendall Walters, a content marketing manager at the video marketing startup Vidyard who possesses a master’s degree in journalism.

“This can be as simple as including ‘journalism’ alongside the usual ‘English’ or ‘business’ degrees in the education section of a job posting or loosening requirements for direct experience in the industry. It can also be as proactive as going outbound to search for and reach out to writers with journalism experience on platforms like LinkedIn,” she says.

Turn a journalist’s skill into your brand’s most valuable asset

Journalists may not be natural-born marketers, but by providing them with a compelling opportunity to apply their storytelling skills and a supportive environment where their talents can flourish, your content team stands to gain some compelling competitive benefits from their talents. Their involvement may be just what your brand needs to spice up your program and turn every new asset into a memorable showcase of uniquely compelling insights, ideas, and audience value.

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at [email protected].


Author: Chris Gillespie

Chris co-founded Fenwick (formerly Find A Way Media)—an upscale content studio that specializes in clear and precise writing for B2B marketers. Amateur historian, aspiring outdoorsman, occasional stress baker. Join his newsletter for workplace writing wisdom. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgillespie317.


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