How to Train a Journalist in Content Marketing

I know because I spent 17 years as a newspaper and radio reporter before being wooed to content marketing. I know because, as a managing editor for a content agency, I’ve employed and then unemployed several members of my old profession.

You’ve decided to hire a journalist for your content marketing team – congratulations!

All the evidence says you’ve got yourself a hard-working individual used to delivering high-quality editorial on tight deadlines. Those are some darned useful qualities.

But not all journos will hit the ground running. Making the switch to content marketing can take a bit of adjustment. And reporters who can’t get their head around the differences are going to struggle.

What follows is my list of areas where reporters can struggle when they make the switch and my suggestions for helping them adjust. Or, as I like to call it: How to Train Your Journalist.

1. The ‘holier-than-thou’ problem

Journalism is a vocation. From the first day of university through to the last day of a newsroom career, it is relentlessly competitive. To succeed, a journalist must really want it. It’s also a profession that has a special place in democracy – holding governments, corporations, and individuals accountable.

Gosh, but that can give you an ego. For some reporters, that can be hard to let go. And what you, as the person employing them, end up with are writers who think they’re too good to be writing the content you’re commissioning.

The first sign they’re not effectively making the gear switch to content marketing is turning in what feels like lazy copy. When you read it, you can tell they’ve not really made an effort. This is a problem of attitude and I’ve reluctantly had to let writers go because they couldn’t get past it. (It’s one reason to try reporters on a freelance basis before you bring them on staff.)

Before they start writing, get them excited about your product and services, and what you’re trying to achieve (or what your client is trying to achieve). Get them out of the office. Send them into the factory, onto the shop floor, or out in the trucks. Get them talking to your most passionate employees. Put them through the more entertaining elements of your staff training. Let them soak up the enthusiasm you and your team have for what you do.

If, after all that, they won’t “get with the program,” consider letting them go.


2. Help them chill out about journalistic-first principles

There are certain things reporters freak out about. Not providing balance (getting two or more sides of a story) is one. Allowing people you’re writing about to see what you’re writing before you publish is another. And – heaven forbid – letting sources change their quotes so they sound better.

For obvious reasons, some of these first principles of journalism don’t really translate to content marketing. Hey, if you’re writing content for Burger King you don’t give Ronald McDonald the right of reply.

The key mental gear-shift is to help former journalists understand that their job isn’t to write news in the traditional sense but to write excellent, engaging, and – importantly – truthful and accurate copy. (After all, you don’t want to give your audience bad information.)

3. Teach the subtle sell and call to action

Writing copy that sells without bludgeoning the reader over the head with a hard-sell message is an art. It’s not generally one in journalists’ arsenal because they mostly have spent their careers deliberately avoiding and removing anything that looks like a plug.

Provide them with examples of articles that have achieved the subtle sell well. It’s easier to pick up good technique from example. And show them what a call to action is because if they’re anything like me when I first started they’ll have no idea.

4. Help them adjust to the power dynamic

Journalists are used to being the ones in the power seat. They call sources and demand answers to their questions – and then publish whether that person answers or not. Journalists say jump, and people ask, “how high?” I’m exaggerating, but you get my meaning. And this really is the single biggest adjustment that I had to make when I made the switch.

Think about it. The person journalists are writing about is now more than likely the person paying their wages (or paying a big retainer to the person paying their wages). It feels like the subjects of the article are now calling the shots; that they will be telling the reporter what to write. That’s not necessarily the case – not if the relationship is set up right. Ideally, journalists-turned-content marketers should feel like the client values their expertise and integrity, and wants them to get on with the job of writing high-quality copy.

However, tricky clients and requests will happen from time to time. When I think back to my days in the newsroom there were plenty of times when I didn’t agree with the angle an editor asked me to take or I thought the story didn’t warrant coverage. And I did what everyone does: I said “aye, aye” to the boss, had a little grumble to myself, and got on with it – because it was my job. If your journalists are struggling with a difficult client, encourage them to think about things through this prism.

5. Reiterate the approvals process

Further, clients often have to approve the former journalists’ work before it’s published. Sometimes they insist on changes. Sometimes you really won’t like those changes. Sometimes you want to bang your head against the desk while shouting, “These people are idiots.” Well, these people are in charge now.

After years of copy subs, layout subs, and editors slicing and dicing their work, no journalist should ever be precious about their copy. They will adjust, I promise. But they might find this uncomfortable to start with – after all, someone who likely isn’t a writer is telling them how to write.

6. Give them a style guide

Your journos come preloaded with writing skills. That’s what’s so great about them. But don’t forget to give them a style guide. If you’re an agency, this could be different for every client. But journalists are used to learning them and following them. Supply them at the outset and you’ll make life easier for all concerned.

7. Outline tone of voice and audience

Most journalists who have been around the traps are used to writing for different audiences and in different tones. Writing for the arts pages is different than for the news pages, a court report reads differently than a sports report, and so on.

Journalists are good at adapting style for audience and tone. But if you don’t tell them, they’re likely to pitch for whatever style they are most familiar with – which may not suit your purpose.

8. Don’t forget to challenge them

Journalists can suffer terribly with boredom. If they’ve come from a busy newsroom they can find the pace elsewhere (especially anywhere bureaucratic, like government departments and agencies) incredibly slow.

Do not let your journalists get bored. Challenge them. Keep them interested with a variety of assignments. Give them extra responsibilities. Train them in new skills. Above all, keep them busy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *