The last couple of decades have been tough for journalists—and it was bad way before COVID-19 ruined everything.
As journalism has contracted—or, to put a positive spin on it, as it’s evolved—I’ve run across a number of people who started in journalism and moved into content marketing.
I departed journalism long ago. I was trained as a journalist and I love the skill and craftsmanship of great journalism, but I was never compelled to be a journalist.
At this point, I’ve been in marketing far longer than I was ever in journalism. What’s interesting is that many of the skills I learned in journalism are touchstones in my content marketing work.
This piece covers the core journalism skills that have shaped my content marketing strategies and tactics. I put this together primarily for journalists thinking about a move to content marketing, but it’s also useful for established marketers who want to apply journalism skills in their marketing projects.
Journalism skill No. 1: Audience advocacy
Journalists are trained to find and tell stories that matter to specific audiences. That can run from a global audience for a huge story (climate change) to something that resonates with a local community (an election for the school board). A good journalist is the audience’s proxy, and they understand that it’s the journalist’s job to explore, investigate, and report back on what they’ve learned.
Audience advocacy is the most important part of content marketing, but it’s not a skill that all marketers inherently have. That’s not a criticism. Unless you’ve been trained to think about what you can do for them instead of what you can do for you, you’ll probably default to a you-centric approach. Journalists have this training—they’ve toggled from “you” to “them”—so a focus on the audience is already baked in when they move to content marketing.
Journalism skill No. 2: Harnessing data
Journalists are accustomed to gathering big piles of information and examining it to extract meaningful stories. Having an innate sense of “oh, that’s interesting” is a tremendous asset when you’re confronting torrents of data.
A journalist’s data-driven skillset applies in content marketing because marketing data is gushing out of systems and tools. The data is everywhere, and it can be difficult to spot the signal in the noise. Knowing how to efficiently gather, analyze, and prioritize data is an essential marketing capability—and it’s something journalists do all the time.
Journalism skill No. 3: Never afraid to ask questions
There are no dumb questions in journalism. The person being interviewed might interpret a question as dumb, but the question itself, and the act of asking the question, are fundamentally useful.
Journalists know that a question is an entry point, not a destination. An answer leads to a new question and then another and another. Those questions are stepping stones on the path toward insight. That’s why journalists don’t feel sheepish about asking questions—without them, you don’t get anywhere.
Content marketers also ask a lot of questions. Some are internal (why is this post doing well but this other one isn’t?) and some are external (why does our target persona struggle with this?). None of these questions are dumb because the accumulated wisdom is what allows a content marketer to craft useful strategies and apply effective tactics. Just like in journalism, content marketers don’t get anywhere without asking questions.
Journalism skill No. 4: Communication
Have you ever run across a professional journalist who can’t communicate well? Of course not. Bad communicators don’t last long in journalism. The entire profession is founded on the effective and clear transfer of information.
Communication is also a fundamental skill in content marketing. You need to communicate your needs and goals within your organization and you have to translate specific information to specific external audiences to achieve specific outcomes. A journalist transitioning to content marketing will have no problem snapping their communication skills into their new role.
Journalism skill No. 5: The details matter
Many journalists worry about getting something wrong—a quote, a fact, even a wayward comma. Some of this anxiety stems from run-of-the-mill concerns that mistakes will end in termination and shame. That’s natural and shared across professions. For journalists, however, the focus on getting things right is also tied to a deep-seated sense of purpose. The details matter in journalism.
Details matter in content marketing as well. The entire process involves the careful alignment of audience, need, value, and outcome. The process doesn’t work if those elements are out of position. A journalist who really cares about the details will find kindred spirits in content marketing.
Journalism skill No. 6: Needing to dig deeper
Journalists are trained to look beyond bold declarations and convenient statistics. Who funded this research? Who benefits from this conclusion or that set of numbers? Why am I hearing this information now? These are natural questions for a journalist.
This inquisitiveness comes in handy in content marketing. If newsletter opens spike or the bounce rate suddenly drops, a smart content marketer doesn’t celebrate. They stop and think. Why did this happen? How do these numbers compare to past figures? Did something break? Lasting success in journalism and content marketing requires a pursuit of the real stories, not just an acceptance of what’s been presented.
Journalism skill No. 7: Applying the inner cynic
Many journalists carry themselves like cynics (whether they truly are is something only each individual can know). Perhaps this is ingrained through training and experience. Perhaps people with a cynical bent gravitate toward journalism. Either way, journalists have honed their distrust.
How does this apply to content marketing? It’s tricky. Cynicism in content marketing is a bad thing. Cynical marketing messages don’t do anyone any favors. But being a cynic about content marketing can be a differentiator.
If you have a distrust of marketing—if you believe that most marketing is a reflection of the inherent self-interest of the company behind the marketing—that point of view can create an opening for a competitive advantage. You can break through the self-interested noise by actually caring about the people you’re trying to reach. This cynicism-driven rejection of the default model can lead to a host of marketing improvements: more effective personas, messaging that’s built on authentic empathy, and a commitment to usability.
Put another way: A journalist with a cynical shell and a committed core can do amazing work as a content marketer.
A conclusion with a few caveats
I want to be very clear about something: Former journalists looking to perform journalism in the content marketing world will be disappointed.
Content marketing is a different profession with different motivations. It is not journalism.
Here’s a few important examples of how journalism and content marketing are different:
- The line between editorial and sales is intentionally blurred in content marketing.
- When you publish content marketing material, you’re starting the process, not finishing it.
- In content marketing, you’re expected to engage in a constant cycle of experimentation, tracking, and iterative improvement.
- Content marketing needs to map to organizational goals and produce outcomes—and no, “publishing stuff” is not an acceptable outcome.
- If you’re all about speaking truth to power and strengthening the Fourth Estate, content marketing is not your calling—you should be a journalist (and be a damn good one because we need people like you!)
The connection between content marketing and journalism is in the “content” part.” If you like the mechanics of content development, content marketing will scratch that itch. And if you get a kick out of crafting content that helps audiences and contributes to an organization’s bottom line, you’ll be quite happy in a content marketing career.