Unlock your inner journalist to make killer content

It’s been a rough few years for traditional publishers. Many of them are still struggling to work out what to do about the internet – or it’s an afterthought.

So it’s probably no surprise that more and more journalists have abandoned the good ship publishing and climbed aboard the content marketing lifeboat. Coming over here, taking our jobs… *shakes fist*

Full disclosure – I was one of the former hacks that jumped ship in recent years. The dilemma facing journalists in a changing world was memorably summed up by a former editor of mine: “We’re the last of the blacksmiths. Retrain, do something, but get out of journalism.”

With those encouraging words ringing in my ears, I eventually moved into the shiny new world of content marketing. It wasn’t as much of a stretch as you’d imagine. There’s the same focus on research, creative ideas and producing good writing that people want to read. And deadlines are never too far away.

Journalists aren’t just relics from a dying industry and there’s a reason brands are poaching them to do their content. And it’s not just because people saw Spotlight and suddenly fell in love with the industry. The Harvard Business Post points out that “trained journalists and writers are in the best position to synthesize information, capture a reader’s attention, and uphold a critical editorial standard.”

It’s no surprise that they’re succeeding in a maturing content marketing industry. With that in mind, what can content writers learn from these “blacksmiths”?

What makes a great story?

“A good story is about something the audience decides is interesting or important,” according to the American Press Institute. “A great story often does both by using storytelling to make important news interesting.” Both journalism and content marketing are based on storytelling with a purpose.

Story

When John Deere launched The Furrow journal in 1895, it was a ground-breaking moment in content marketing. A farming journal is not everyone’s idea of a good read but it worked because it gave certain people a resource that improved their lives. And it turned a sales pitch into something that people wanted to read.

Think about the problems that your product solves and who’ll benefit from it – that’s your audience. Now, what do they want to read? Write content that’ll engage them and answer their questions.

Finally, apply the old news story formula when writing – use a strong opening, an explanatory body and a snappy finish. Get the tone of voice right and that should be a recipe for success.

Focus on the details

My first introduction to journalism theory was from a working hack who claimed he could break it down for me in 30 seconds. He scribbled a rough version of this diagram on a beer mat and introduced me to the concept of “Who, what, where, when, why.”

Who what where when why

Those five questions form a template for every news story and you need to answer each one to tell the whole story. You can use a similar approach for your content to focus on what you want to achieve.

Who are you writing for? What do you want to say? Where will the content be published? When are you going to use it? And why are you writing it?

“The crux of emotion in journalism comes out of facts, whereas the emotion in copywriting comes out of a hook or a tagline or an association with a larger thought,” according to Duy Linh Tu, director of digital media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Being able to tap into both approaches can only make you a better content writer.

Writing research-based content can take a bit more effort but it can also make more of an impact. And move people further down the sales funnel. What’s more compelling – someone telling you their product is amazing or someone explaining the features that makes their product amazing?

Content’s growing up

Brands of all sizes are increasingly turning to content marketing, making it harder to be heard above the chatter. So how can you make a noise that everyone will hear?

Major brands are drafting in big-name journalists to provide informed, quality content that can be amplified by their existing audiences. It’s becoming a race to the top as brands compete for eyeballs and clicks.

Reading content

You know something’s changed when people are spending as much time reading advertiser-sponsored posts as they are on news stories. Companies like BuzzFeed and Vice are blurring the line between branded content and news articles while brands like American Express, GE, Equinox and Dell are redefining how brands do content marketing.

All journalists are obsessed with writing for their audience and chasing that big story. Content writers can learn from this by approaching each piece of content as a front page story. Don’t just whack it out – think about it, craft it and treat it as something that’s deserving of your byline.

Be original

So how do you dress your content up in big boy pants? The first step is to come up with original ideas.

Plagiarism was once a mortal sin in traditional journalism but it’s not doing your content any favours either. Sure, rewriting a story from the net may be easy and no one will really know. But what’s the point in repeating something that 20 other blogs have already said? It’s just going to get lost in the noise.

Adopt a journalistic mindset – always look for a fresh angle, try to break a new story or find an exclusive. Think outside the box and be inquisitive if you want to create something new.

Original content helps you to grow your audience but it could also help your SEO efforts. Google keeps telling us that it prioritises quality content and recent updates support this stance.

Moz recently recommended merging your old school keyword approach with the trendier idea of concept targeting. So write a great piece of content with smart concept and topic modelling but leverage it with specific keywords in a way that can get you traffic, links and traffic.

Journalism tips for content writers

Develop contacts

Many reporters live and die by their contacts. Outreach and industry contacts are also something that content creators need to think about. Making great content is one thing but developing contacts who can push it out there can be almost as important.

Write headlines, not just SEO titles

Old school editors know that a story can live or die by its headline. SEO is one thing but a headline fails if it doesn’t inspire people to click on your content. People who discover content via a search engine are important but you also need to tap into social traffic. Sell your story with your headline.

Recycle content

Journalists are old pros at recycling stories by doing a follow up story at a later date or by doing round-ups or listicles. Major content assets can always be reused if they’re still relevant. Journalists often keep evergreen content up their sleeve and having a stockpile of timeless content is useful if you’re too busy to write something new.

Hijack big stories

Another trick of the trade is to piggyback on a bigger story. Can you take a trending topic or major event and use it as inspiration for a blog or social media post? Just don’t make it too crass or tasteless. We’re looking at you, Homebase.

Homebase tweet

Learn to self-edit

Another trick you can learn from journalists is self-editing. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling your audience everything you know but focus on the important message in each piece of content. Write your first draft then edit it. Then edit it again. If you have time, edit it again.

Don’t bury the lead

This expression is simply a way of telling you to lead out with the best part of the story. Think back to the “who, what, where, when, why” intro. Don’t imagine that your reader wants to wade through four paragraphs of strangled metaphors or poetic scene-setting to get to the point. Having a strong intro is a good thing but get to get the point to avoid losing your audience.

Check your facts

Journalists check things – like facts, claims and spellings. This isn’t just misplaced pedantry. It’s also the best way to avoid getting sued, embarrassed or ridiculed on social media. Want to cultivate an air of authority and gain the respect of your readers? Checking your facts is a good start.

Don’t forget a kicker

Kicker

Kickers are used at the end of news story to give it some extra drama, emphasis or shock value. It’s a little something that bookends the piece. When it comes to content, your kicker should always be an appropriate call-to-action that inspires some action by the reader and moves them down the sales funnel. Something like this, for example!

Want to know more about making great content?

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About Dermot Keys

Dermot is a Content Creator with 256. He has worked as a journalist and editor for a number of print and online publications. He once won a fancy dress competition dressed as One Man and his Dog, although the dog did most of the work.