News flash: it’s time to think like a journalist, not an advertiser

  • From conducting primary research and interviewing experts to finding sources and checking facts, journalists have a toolkit that today’s marketers need to emulate.
  • Conventional workflows, business models, and mindsets often prevent agencies from producing the truly best-in-class content that brands hire them for.
  • Today, journalism assumes many forms and is more relevant than ever, so invest in a marketing partner that can elevate you as a trusted source of insight.


On the surface, journalism and marketing don’t seem to have much in common.

A journalist’s mandate and mindset is to bring an impartial, nuanced, and fact-based lens to the stories they tell. They deliver value by delivering information, free from any vested interests. Marketers do no such thing, and we’re pretty frank about it, too. We tell audiences stories because we want them to believe in our brand—and yes, perhaps buy a thing or two.

But content marketing, when done well, has more in common with journalism than you may think, and content marketers can grow their skills by taking a few cues from its best practices and codes of honor.

Think of the best brand story you’ve read recently. Was it topical and relevant, and did it answer questions that were on your mind? Did it draw on original research, and feature interviews with knowledgeable stakeholders to provide a well-rounded perspective? Was it compelling, and did it speak with the familiar tone and style of the publication? If you’ve answered yes, yes, and yes, then the content you read was informed at least in part by journalistic principles.

These standards are by no means the status quo for content marketing, and most of us have probably crossed paths with agencies that are more than willing to churn out low-grade, attention-grabbing stories to drive clicks and generate traffic. Brands need to demand better, and agencies need to do better. Words matter, but our approach matters more.

Transferable skills? Sometimes, but not always

You may think the skills of a marketer and a journalist overlap. That’s an oversimplified way of looking at it. Yes, they both technically work in media. Yes, they both need to be comfortable staring down a blank page and a looming deadline. But beyond that, there are a lot of differences—and I believe a journalist would fare better in a marketing agency than a marketer would in a newsroom.

Journalism school (J-school) trains students to craft a catchy headline and hook, and write copy that cuts straight to the chase—all of which are assets for creating good content. It goes a lot further than that though. Journalists know how to follow a lead, check a fact, track down a source, and conduct an interview. They have an obligation to stay objective and to put the public interest first. And in an age where consumers often suffer from information overload and don’t know who or what to believe, there’s no better value a brand can offer than content that’s been vetted, verified, and that provides proven solutions to pressing problems.

That’s not to say journalists are always objective. They’re willing and able to voice opinions when the situation calls for it. Those that have columns or contribute op-eds routinely express perspectives that aren’t tied to their publication’s editorial board, and are thus pros when it comes to promoting conversation—and maybe provoking a little controversy.

This capacity to drive audience engagement, and to establish an original frame or angle for a story without deviating from the facts, is yet another competency they bring to the table.

Accuracy and accountability, not just authenticity

A lot of brands, and a lot of content marketing teams, talk about the need to be human and authentic. But audiences really just want a company they can trust, and that’s why journalists make some of the best content marketers out there. Building trust with readers is a result of creating value for them. Yet, many marketing teams are falling short in a few ways.

First of all, there’s the classic problem of quantity over quality

When the main focus is simply to push stories and campaigns out the door, it results in the same insights—or lack thereof—being repurposed over and over in a cycle that Dan Levy, writing for Moz, once likened to an ouroboros, the symbolic snake that consumes its own tail.

This sort of redundant echo chamber diminishes all content, and marketers should be taking a page from the J-school textbook and actively seeking new research or expert perspectives to tell stories that matter.

Second, they’re proceeding with a business-first mindset

A lot of content agencies simply want to have bigger marketing budgets to work with, which they channel into producing more ads or buying more media to fill with “creative.” Journalists, on the other hand, are inherently audience-first. It’s a fundamental part of their training to see their work as keeping the public informed. The best content strategies—and the best content agencies—have more in common with news media, focusing stories around what will benefit readers and viewers the most.

Third, you have the problem of conspicuously lacking objectivity and balance

Yes, it’s your job to sell your brand as the best option out there, but if you’re being overtly one-sided about it and not telling a well-rounded story, readers will know—and they’ll call BS. Let’s add some journalistic integrity to the content marketing mix.

If brands are seeking attention, then well-developed stories are an excellent way to earn it. Strong editorial content is sought and shared organically. And while ads can still be bought to promote your stories, that ad spend shouldn’t just be for getting a story in front of more eyeballs—it should be about providing value to a wider audience.

Tomorrow’s agency resembles today’s newsroom

The average content marketing team looks nothing like your average newsroom, nor does it operate like one. Most of the time, the business model revolves around scoping projects to align with budgets, not investing the time and resources necessary to deliver the right story in the right way.

But it is possible to introduce a journalistic mindset into your marketing methodology. Forward-looking agencies are embedding end-to-end editorial processes, from calendars that allow teams to aggregate which topics to feature, to well-written stories that incorporate primary and secondary research, to full newsroom workflows for proofing, fact checking, and aligning stories with the house style.

The objectives of these two disciplines will always be different, and marketers don’t necessarily need to be trained as journalists. But if brands are looking to win consumer trust in an age when truth can seem hard to come by, partnering with a marketing agency that champions journalistic integrity is always a smart move.

Image: Jon Tyson/Unsplash

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