“For as long as there’s been media, there has been a revolving door between newspapers, magazines and PR firms,” said Evan Hansen, senior editor at Medium. “As far as that goes, nothing is new.”
Hansen should know. He recently walked through that door himself, departing as Wired.com’s editor in chief to put down stakes in the land of content. While the path he took has been traveled by journalists before him, it’s undeniable that something has changed. Brands are luring away big names in journalism — Newsweek’s Dan Lyons and Melissa Lafsky Wall, PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie, Wired’s Michael Copeland, USA Today’s Michelle Kessler — and these writers aren’t churning out press releases; they’re still telling stories.
“Some things I do are things I would have written as my Newsweek column,” Lyons said of his work with HubSpot. “It would have been edited more and it went through more layers to get to print, but I try to write stories that I would have published there.”
Lyons calls the migration of big name journos from media to brands a symbiotic one, not driven any more by disillusioned journalists than by talent-poaching companies.
In an industry that is newly embracing the power of quality over quantity, it’s clear why brands want top-shelf journalists on their staffs. Set aside the added cost for seasoned journalists — Lyons himself noted his kind are “pretty cheap” on a corporate marketing scale — and the benefits are aplenty: better content, colleague mentorship, and visibility. It also doesn’t hurt to have a respected byline in the mix.
“It helps your brand,” said Mike Volpe, CMO for HubSpot. “I think it makes people from [the journalism] industry think about you differently. When you hire someone with their own brand like [Lyons], it rubs off your brand.”
There was a time when rubbing up against a corporate brand might be a liability for a well-respected journalist. The way Lyons sees it, a journalist can compromise his brand just as easily now by being associated with the wrong media company. That’s what he feels happened to him after Newsweek merged with The Daily Beast in 2010.
“It was essentially about trying to spin the wheel and get traffic by chasing whatever would catch on Google at the moment,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of value to it and it wasn’t fun to do. I could also see that the economics were pretty bad. We couldn’t afford anymore to do really interesting work.”
The interesting work, he found, still existed. He just had to look in a new place to find it.
“These companies want to do storytelling,” he said. “And there are these journalists saying, ‘I’m done with it. There are no more jobs that I want [in traditional journalism] today.'”
The lines between a Dan Lyons Newsweek column and a Dan Lyons HubSpot post are notably fainter than they would have been for a journalist-turned-PR-pro five years ago. That’s because the borders between the two industries are fading as well.
“At Wired we had 75 editorial people in the room and four technology people,” Hansen said. “At Medium it’s the complete reverse of those numbers. But you see lots of companies like Twitter hiring more editorial people … and the editorial side is reacting by becoming more technology savvy. It’s two sides of the same coin.”
As media companies are beginning to look more like tech companies, and tech companies are acting more like the media, the outcome points to great journalists crafting great stories for both sides, to the extent that it can be difficult to tell who’s who based on copy alone.
“A well written story is a well written story,” echoed Hansen.
With the opportunity to continue a serious writing career while soaking up the benefits of a corporate job, it’s no surprise such recognizable names in journalism are moving from the traditional newsroom to the brand newsroom. And the competition to get dibs on the top talent is heating up.
“We were not the only people offering Dan a job. I can tell you that for sure,” Volpe said. “When we get further along in the process of hiring more journalists, I do expect there to be competition.”
Volpe also noted that Lyons is already responsible for writing the top two viewed articles on HubSpot. With big names starting to prove their worth, the competition is sure to escalate, along with the tempting job offers.
Will the trend bleed journalism dry? Volpe, Lyons, and Hansen don’t seem too worried. In fact, all three expect the uptick in good writing gigs to give young talent a compelling reason to get into the journalism game and to produce better work when they do.
“Publishing is getting better, more timely and is creating more useful, validated information,” Hansen said. “Crowdsource fact-checking is awesome. It’s holding bloggers accountable, but it’s also holding professional news organizations’ feet to the fire.”
Volpe also believes that having more professional journalists working for marketers is bound to do the same thing for brand publishing, but for the first time, accountability will come from the inside.
“A guy like Dan doesn’t come to a company to be their lackey,” he said. “He’s got a lot of integrity and you’re not going to just shake it from someone like him.”
Integrity, skill, and passion: These are the ingredients seasoned journalists can bring to branded content. If the lines between excellent journalism and great content seem blurry now, just wait until the competition for talent hits full stride. Judging by the current growth in brand newsrooms, you won’t have to wait very long.
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