Should content marketers be journalists?

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Okay, this post is inspired by John Bonini’s recent LinkedIn post.

He talks about evaluating writers, which I’m not as interested in. I’m mostly interested in this:

“The best writers are reporters, folks. Start screening for it.”

That’s a good jumping off point, because the conversation reminds me of the marketing-like-a-media-company thing. I don’t think it’s always what people think it is.

What does a reporter do, anyway?

I used to be a former journalist (hello, Greater Wilmington Business Journal!) and would’ve kept at it if…if…well, that’s a different story. 

Anyway, I like journalism! And reporters! I listen to a few media podcasts. I’m not an expert, but I like to think I am. 

If someone tells me that I need reporters as a content marketer, I will listen. 

Let’s start with what a good reporter does: 

  • Listens
  • Observes
  • Researches
  • Writes

At least, that’s what we like to think reporters do. A lot of other ones:

  • Regurgitate
  • Aggregate
  • Become too rigid in their thinking
  • Are rushed for time because of immediate deadlines
  • Write on stuff they don’t know as much about because all of their colleagues have been laid off and are looking for content marketing jobs.

My initial response to John’s post was to mention that the type of writer you need depends on the piece. Because it does.

Maggie Haberman, has become a star at the New York Times, because she writes on politics and especially Trump. She’s not doing book reviews. Or covering Apple’s earnings.

Why? She doesn’t have the network for that. The same way that Kevin Roose (a tech reporter at NY Times) is more invested in tech trends.

She’s also not aggregating for their newsletters and probably doesn’t man. their social media account. The social media probably doesn’t do as much research as Maggie Haberman, but has probably learned a thing or two about journalism and content marketing.

Maggie Haberman and Kevin Roose could do the brand social media or the newsletters, but that’s not their job. The type of writer you need depends on the writing that you need to get done.

Know what your writer is good at

In the same way a reporter has beats, you can use different writers for different types of posts. I’ve used writers in the past just to do software roundups and others had a passion for productivity. Another writer is interviewing product development leaders. Of course, many of the writers could do multiple things, but what do they like to do? And what are they good at.

Different posts, different purposes, different pay(?)

I don’t have a flat rate for blog posts. Because blog posts aren’t created equal. On some I need expert quotes, on others you don’t. I pay based on that. 

You may pay a social media writer at a different rate because the production and needs will be different. The all-in-one writer is a luxury, though many of us are called into action. If you can hire multiple writers, know the objective and what they’re doing. 

Do all writers need to be researchers and reporters? 

Your social media writer may be a better copywriter. They can take what’s been written and repackage or add to it. Not necessarily a lot of research there, but still an important function of content marketing.

A solid process can help empower others

You can also set up processes for research. For one of Databox’s articles (where John works), I filled out a Google form and then my response was included in a roundup. That’s a good strategy, I don’t mind it. But is it hardcore reporting? I’d argue no. Did it take effort? Yes. 

I think one of the reasons people lament the demise of journalism is because there was a certain mystique to it. Go to City Hall and pull the records. Or in my case, I was pulling a bunch of SEC filings to write about banks. And you know what? I never once documented my process.

Thankfully, in a lot of content marketing and business, we have SOPs and spreadsheets with contacts and documented processes and strategies. A lot of time in journalism, the production process gets documented, but not the writing process (I’m happy to be corrected on this). 

You can shorten the research and interview process, or make it an assembly line of interviews, primary source research, or reviewing podcast transcriptions. The sales team and customer support can offer customer research insights, alongside a more formal interview process. That information can then be given to a writer or creator to review. The same person doesn’t have to do it all. 

Research is important, but it’s not a solo pursuit. 

What do reporters/journalists need to change to make it in content marketing? 

This is hard question, because so much depends on the person. They may not be interested in promoting a business or really even educating a customer on the basics. Tying stuff to revenue may be ridiculous. 

And as Ben Smith (writer! Reporter! Now founder of Semafor mediasaid in this podcast, journalists don’t usually think of the customer. 

It’s a mindset switch that I had to make. To go from trying to get every side of an argument, to thinking about how a product can solve a problem. People do it, but it does take a few other skills. 

A good content marketer and a good reporter know how to connect the dots*

(* h/t to Jakub Rudnik of Scribe for talking this through with me.)

That means: 

  • Finding connections between topics
  • Have a comprehensive plan for how content fits together
  • Being empathetic to the customers & users (not knowing every answer)
  • Understanding what helps people buy and the psychology to do so

Guess what? I’m not great at everything above. People can learn and change. 

One more thing: What I do like about journalists as content marketers

  • Yes, research! I don’t mean to knock it above, but many journalists are good at this
  • Writing fast. (I had deadlines to meet and time stops for no one)
  • Publishing a lot. (I had to write fast because I had a lot of stories to write)
  • Clarity. They usually write with sharp insights and don’t make things too flowery

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