Not long ago, marketers began hiring journalists to elevate their brand storytelling. In theory, the partnership should be limitless. Journalists possess everything today’s content marketer could want: immersive audience knowledge, fierce research skills, a knack for intriguing headlines, compelling imagery usage, and angle-sniffing, case-building prowess. Meanwhile, with many publications struggling to make sales, undergoing relentless layoffs, and facing dwindling advertising revenue journalists can also benefit from banding together with seasoned marketers.
So as more journalists make the shift to the marketing industry, how should your marketing team approach the assimilation and onboarding experience? To learn exactly how marketers and journalists alike can navigate the reorientation together, I caught up with journalist-turned-marketer Iain Harrison, who knows firsthand why some journalists struggle when switching over—and what can be done to help them become an invaluable member of your marketing team.
Journalism has long been considered a noble professional endeavor. “You have to do lots of awful reporting jobs that may include knocking on doors of bereaved families, attending police press conferences involving murders and sex attacks, chasing down corrupt businessmen, and more,” says Harrison of the traditional reporting profession. A 16-year-long newspaper vet, Harrison recognizes that the gravity of the topics they tackle affords reporters respect. Most reporters do this worthy work not for glory, cash, or promotions, but for the craft—and for the good of the people.
These value pillars may make some journalists hesitant about joining the marketing business—if their understanding of marketing has only been confined to the product-driven, profit-focused mindsets of a by-gone era. Thankfully, today’s content marketers are more focused than ever on delivering authentic, meaningful stories, not simply closing a deal. Make sure you communicate your common commitment to quality to your new hires, so they come away feeling as if they are furthering their love of crafting purposeful insights rather than discounting every self-sacrificing story they’ve written before.
Bob Edwards, arguably the best broadcast journalist of all time, used a poignant real-life story to explain how he felt about public radio versus “commercial” media:
“Jed Duvall, then a junior reporter at CBS, said he knew all about NPR and envied the ability of our reporters to shape a story and not have it “lawyered” through so many filters that it no longer resembled what the reporter had written. I said I was sure he did not envy us when he was in line at the bank. True, he conceded, but he called commercial TV pay the “velvet trap,” by which he meant there were numerous concessions he had to make to earn all that dough. He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, but it was nice to be reminded once in a while.”
Duvall reminded Edwards of the journalistic compromises he had to make to serve two masters. Reporters at the listener and government supported NPR, on the other hand, were able to serve the audience alone. Not that profit, mind you, was the problem. Both men agreed the money is beneficial. The problem, if you listen closely, is the concessions. This is reason number one journalists struggle to transition into marketing: they’re desperate to serve—really serve—audiences.
The good news is that today’s best content marketers want the same thing. A great first step to bringing on your newly hired brand journalists is to demonstrate how your content strategy benefits your audience without constantly asking for something in return.
While Harrison admits not all marketing departments are the same, he does acknowledge most differ greatly from traditional newsrooms in terms of creative atmosphere. “There is a big difference between the culture in a newsroom and the culture in a marketing department,” he says. “Newsrooms tend to be high-stress and high-adrenaline environments.”
Worst of all may be the dog-eat-dog competitive nature of a newsroom. “There’s an element of competition between reporters in newsrooms which doesn’t always create the easiest of working environments,” says Harrison.
Contrast that with the creative, collaborative environment of an enterprise marketing wing. “My experience of working in a marketing department has been really positive,” says Harrison. “The culture here at Vets Now is respectful. It’s also entrepreneurial and the bosses don’t look for scapegoats when things don’t go to plan. It’s very much a ‘don’t be afraid to fail, be afraid not to try‘ culture, with innovation at its heart and the focus being on learning from any mistakes you make, always using in-depth analytics and learnings to guide you.”
Best of all? Harrison says he’s especially thankful for a documented marketing plan that tells him when he’s on course. “The goals of the marketing department I work in (and the overall company strategy) are crystal clear as are the audiences we are producing content for.”
Image attribution: Raw Pixel
When easing your new brand journalism experts into the workflow of your marketing strategy meetings, highlight how they will come to appreciate the experimentation, brainstorming, goal tracking, and even purposeful content creation that defines your corporate culture.
The best reporters—and the best marketers—are open to seeing things differently.
To reach new audiences, content creators need to embrace experimenting with new mediums from social media, to video, to podcasts, to find what format will best allow them to reach their goal: delivering exceptional storytelling. Whether you’re a broadcaster, a PR specialist, or a brand manager, crafting a remarkable story is at the heart of your operation.
Earlier on in his own story, Edwards recalls relaxing his grip on strict news reporting to join a compelling, long-form, enjoyable program called All Things Considered.
“By the time I got to NPR, All Things Considered was not meant to be a news program but rather a “magazine of the air.” It gave listeners a mixture of aural experiences—the chatting of women at quilting bees, interviews with dulcimer makers, and commentary by “storyteller” John Henry Faulk. Music and literature were important subjects to cover, and if the occasional piece of journalism crept into the mix, that was okay too. All Things Considered developed a loyal audience who loved the program’s quirks and surprises. Critical reviews were favorable, and ATC won a Peabody Award in its first year.
I wish I could say that I walked through the door and immediately embraced this marvelous radio experiment. The truth is that I was horrified by the whole outfit. I was still in my Murrow mode, a “serious journalist” too principled for my own good. Reporting the news was a religious calling and the radio airwaves a sort of church. I believed the news should be treated with the same reverence a priest gave to communion wafers. Prig might be the best word to describe me at that stage of my career. Now here I was, forced by necessity to be among people who were having fun with a radio program. How soon could I get out of here and return to broadcast journalism? Could I get away with leaving my NPR period off my resume?”
Edwards now looks back on his attitude at that time and laughs. The more he saw how much his audience loved this new storytelling format, the more of his talent, time, and effort he devoted to it.
Another respected journalist who understands the overlaps between journalism and the current world of content marketing is Geneva Overholser who led The Des Moines Register to a Pulitzer Prize and previously ran the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. As someone with an in-depth understanding of the needs of content to deliver quality and establish trust with readers, she views today’s content landscape as a constantly changing conversation, that adapts to best suit the needs of its audience.
In an interview with The Content Standard, Overholser voiced her enthusiasm about possibly entering into the sphere of content marketing saying, “Yes, I definitely could see myself working for a brand if I believed in what it was doing. In some ways, the greatest thing about the current media environment is that it’s a free-for-all. Everything is possible.”
There’s no end to the benefits of hiring journalists fresh off a news outlet’s copy desk. In fact, the opportunity is so great that you want to ensure the best transition possible for your new talent.
Image attribution: Antenna
Harrison agrees. “I do think marketing departments should seriously consider hiring journalists to do their content marketing,” he says. “Journalists are trained to interview people effectively, produce engaging, original stories and headlines in a variety of styles, write and sub-edit accurate and legally-sound copy to deadline, adhere to strict grammar and style rules, seek out authoritative sources, carry out exhaustive research, interrogate data, and use video, audio and images to bring stories to life.”
Another great tip for onboarding journalists is to encourage them to enjoy the experimentation and multidimensional aspects role while still showing respect for their roots. Some gestures you should consider are:
Perhaps most importantly, former reporters have a knack for nailing an angle. “They don’t need half-a-dozen attempts to get one piece of copy right. They do it right first time,” Harrison says. “These are all skills that are essential for content marketers but can take years to master.”
As you hand-pick and onboard the perfect brand journalist for your messaging strategy, do it with the dignity the craft deserves and build something that makes the most out of molding together two wildly innovative and mission-driven industries.
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Featured image attribution: Manuel Pena