How to Distinguish the Journalist from the Content Marketing Writer

January 23, 2014 •

How to Distinguish the Journalist from the Content Marketing Writer

Not long ago, I wrote a post on what content marketing writers can learn from journalists. Good content marketing writers will always do well to take some lessons from journalists, because much of what we do now is true reporting and storytelling — skills that the journalist has honed during his or her career. And while we know that journalists are, unfortunately, hitting the job market in droves thanks to downsizing in the traditional media, that doesn’t mean that every journalist will be an instant and easy fit in the content marketing world.

I once interviewed a journalist trying to make the transition into content marketing freelancing, and the portion of his portfolio that wasn’t actually ink on paper was pretty thin. When I asked him if he had ever written a blog post, he said, “Well, no, but they’re pretty short and breezy, right? Like only 500 words? I’m sure it can’t be that hard.” And while for someone with experience, it’s not actually “that hard,” it does truly take some work and is not a throw-away item. There is often research involved, sometimes even an interview, and to make a blog post truly remarkable, there is writing, some rewriting, and editing.

So if the transition from journalist to content marketer isn’t like flipping a switch, what is actually required to call oneself a content marketing writer? We recently posted a position for a senior writer/content strategist at Right Source and received dozens of applications from seasoned journalists. But we were pretty clear that we weren’t looking for just a journalist. And that’s the tricky part. While having the groundwork and training of a journalist is perhaps the key to starting as a good writer, the truly successful content marketing writer has augmented his or her career with marketing knowledge and writing finesse to ultimately be successful in mastering the many formats of content required in our industry.

Here’s what to look for if you are trying to distinguish a journalist from a polished content marketing writer.

The ability to tackle multiple formats

While a journalist might be able to tackle a series, a long, researched article, or a punchy short cover story, the content marketer’s list has more variety in it. And the key is that the types of content required from the content marketing writer usually require very different styles of writing. For instance, emails and landing pages are stylistically nothing like white papers or eBooks, which are very different from blog posts. A content marketing writer might have to shift between all of these formats and styles in one day.

An understanding of the marketing funnel

Content marketing writers have to understand the marketing funnel and how the piece of content they are creating relates to that. Journalists never have to consider whether they are writing for suspects at the top of the funnel who might require more general education, leads mid-way through the cycle who need in-depth, targeted content designed to provide detailed information, or hot prospects who are ready to buy. Each type of content needs to be written differently.

A willingness to put the separation of church and state behind them

There used to be a very clear line in the sand between journalism and anything promotional. If you were a true journalist, you would never dream of writing anything that even smelled like marketing copy. You were one kind of writer or the other. But today, the doors are open for the best hybrid writers. While content marketing educates and doesn’t sell, it doesn’t always present both sides of every story. Its ultimate goal is to market a product, service, or company. A journalist who can’t shake the feeling that church and state must stay separate will have trouble in the content marketing world.

The knack for storytelling, even if it’s not front-page news

Journalists are taught to dig for news, and while sometimes in content marketing there is great news to jump on, mostly we are not in the news business. There are plenty of outlets for news. The successful journalist turned content marketing writer will have the ability to tell a story to move forward the marketing strategy and ultimately the overall business goals. Being able to make the associations to strategy and goals, and to tell an engaging story—even if it’s not news— is what a really good content marketing writer should be able to do. And ultimately that is what will grow a loyal audience.

Not every journalist can be a content marketing writer. But the ones who can make the transition to hybrid writer — incorporating the important journalistic skills they have honed and adding in some of the skills of the modern marketer— will become the exceptional content marketing writer many of us are looking for.

Do you have the writing skills that include a solid foundation in journalism and an astute understanding of content marketing? Can you use them together to create stellar content of all types for a broad variety of clients? Maybe you’re someone we’d like to talk to. Take a look at our positions, read Mike Sweeney’s post on how to outsmart all those other job seekers, and then get in touch.

About the Author

Yvonne Lyons is Right Source’s vice president of content marketing, overseeing content strategy and creation for all of our clients. She ensures that all content produced at Right Source is of the highest quality and is aligned with our clients’ business strategy and goals. Yvonne received a bachelor’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University in writing and literature and has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, branding and communications. You can find Yvonne on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or read her other posts.

  • I am a journalist turned content marketer and really enjoyed your post about what content marketers can learn from journalists. While I still take on some freelance journalism assignments, I’m very busy running my business and the team I’ve taken great efforts to put together. One of the things I learned while looking for appropriate people for our team is that (with the requisite exceptions) journalists transition to content marketer more readily than the other way around. I also discovered (the hard way) that just because someone has a PhD in a liberal arts field and fancies themselves a fantastic writer, it just ain’t always so. 😉

    All of your points about what makes a great content marketer are spot on. My favorite, of course, is the ability to tell a story even if it’s not first page news. When mentoring aspiring writers and content marketers, I ask them to tell oral stories to others about some of the topics we’re working on. They aren’t to look at notes, or read a draft they’ve written, they are to tell the story in an active, compelling way to other people. It’s even better if the people don’t care about (or aren’t aware of) the topic. If they can tell it in a way that keeps these folks interested, then they’re on their way to becoming stellar raconteurs. They can then edit their drafts accordingly to what worked in their oral telling and what did not. What do you think about this tactic for training? I just began using it a couple of months ago and while my junior writers still have some learning to do, I think it’s helped them immensely.

    Apologies for the long comment. It’s not typical of me, but your story resonated with me deeply today.

    • Yvonne Lyons

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Samantha. I totally agree with many of your points (especially with the fact that the advanced degree does not guarantee the ability to write!), and I really like your tactic of using oral storytelling in draft writing. I hadn’t thought of doing that, but I think it would force a different kind of thinking about a piece and would likely change what goes into a draft. A more senior writer might resist the idea, but I think it’s a great technique for training junior writers. I hope you don’t mind if I borrow it!

      • I’m glad you think the idea has promise. I’ve only used it with my junior staff because I think you’re right, senior level writers might balk at the idea. Further, they should already feel comfortable with most aspects of storytelling. I certainly don’t mind at all if you borrow it. That’s what it’s all about — engaging and collaboration with one another!

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