7 Things Marketers Should Know About Working With Journalists

By Ryan Galloway April 8th, 2015

The freelance journalist you hired to cover SXSW just filed her first story. Only problem: You don’t like the way she refers to your industry, and you’re a little irked that she mentioned one of your competitors.

So you ask her to revise it. She makes your changes and files again. You show the revision to your boss, who alerts you that it’s too long. You request another revision, this time asking her to cut 200 words. When she files the next version, you show it to another colleague who decides it might go over your audience’s head. You ask her to revise yet again. Now you’re past your publication date, your boss is upset, and your journalist is on the verge of quitting. Oh, and she still hasn’t been paid for the project.

I’ve seen this happen countless times, and it never ends well.

That’s largely because few marketers know how to work with journalists. The two industries rarely interacted in the past, but the content marketing boom is bringing these two formerly disparate professions together. Here’s what you need to know in order to attract—and keep—the kind of journalistic talent that drives great content marketing.

1. Journalists are not copywriters

Hoo boy. This is mistake #1, and it’s a doozy.

Here’s the thing: journalists and copywriters are two very different animals. Copywriters expect every paragraph of web copy, every product description, and every promo email to be endlessly workshopped and iterated. Journalists, on the other hand, turn in an article and move on to the next assignment, because that’s how journalism works. Their editor may request a revision here and there, but that’s relatively rare. That’s because they know what their editors expect in terms of length, voice, style, and POV.

This doesn’t mean you should be afraid to ask a journalist to rework a piece, but you do need to keep this sort of thing to a minimum and make clear what changes you want the first time you request a revision. So how do you avoid too much reworking? Well…

2. Be clear about what you want

Most revisions happen when marketers don’t express their expectations at the start of a project. You have a clear vision of what you want (if not, you’re not quite ready to commission content), so make sure you articulate that vision to your journalist in the form of a short but informative brief.

For example, how long should the piece be? Do you want them to cite a specific source? Should they interview someone? Are there words or concepts they should avoid? What about mentioning competitors? Does your brand have a specific stance on this particular topic?

This means you need to do a little work up front, but it’ll pay off in spades when you don’t have to work through multiple revisions to get it right. While we’re at it…

3. Build a style guide ahead of time

Your company almost certainly has a set of clearly defined brand guidelines: colors, fonts, preferred terminology, etc. Start with those guidelines and use them to craft a style guide for your content campaigns. Major publications like The Economist have sprawling, comprehensive style guides, but you can get away with a shareable doc that’s four or five pages long. Be sure it includes:

  • What your content goals are and how you’ll be measuring them
  • Who your audience is, why they’re reading your content, and what you want them to take away from it
  • What your overall voice and tone of your content should be (formal, conversational, authoritative, lighthearted, etc.)
  • The topics you want to cover and how you want to cover them
  • Terms and topics to avoid. Include any competitors you’d prefer not to mention
  • Examples of content they can use as a reference

This is your best bet for getting consistently on-brand content. It’s also going to save you time by keeping the number of edits down in a major way. Check out our second Ultimate Content Strategist Playbook for a step-by-step guide to creating a style guide.

4. Don’t cheap out

This one’s simple: You get what you pay for. If you want great content, be willing to pay your talent a respectable rate. If your budget is flexible, ask the journalist how much they normally charge for a project like yours. If it’s not so flexible, make it clear up front how much you can spend, and ask if that rate works for them. Even if they decline the project, they’ll appreciate your honesty and respect for their time and expertise.

So what’s a good rate? For most projects, start at a dollar per word and use that to come up with a flat rate for the project. Does the piece require extensive interviews or research? If so, pay more. Will web research suffice? If so, you can pay a little less.

If you absolutely must pay by the word, make sure you set boundaries with language like: “$1 per word up to a maximum of 800 words.” Otherwise, you’ll be in a bad spot when your writer turns in a 2,000-word epic that shreds your content budget.

5. Give them time to do good work

I recently worked with a marketer who was furious that a journalist couldn’t produce a 3,000-word white paper in two days. “He’s got two full days!” she said. “Surely that’s enough time.”

Guess what? It’s not enough time. And he doesn’t have two full days, either. The journalist in question is a highly in-demand professional with a lot on his plate. He had other deadlines in play during those two days, and he needed some leeway to fit this project into his schedule. Had the marketer planned more effectively and started the project sooner, none of this would’ve been an issue.

Build yourself an editorial calendar. Know what you want to publish and when. Commission pieces as far in advance as you possibly can. And keep a few stories in your pocket, just in case.

6. Give them a byline

For journalists, compensation isn’t just about the money. Bylines are a form of professional currency in the industry, and having your name attached to a great story or a respected publication (or both, ideally) is massively important to your career. Too many publishers shy away from this for reasons I don’t fully understand, but doing so is a mistake for three reasons:

  • It removes a powerful incentive for journalists to do their best work
  • It discourages top talent from writing for you
  • It makes your content seem less trustworthy

This last point is critical. As Jess Adamiak, one of Contently’s own brand editors, often says, “Good content is trusted content.” Your content appears far more trustworthy when it’s coming from a human with a name than when it comes from the Acme Blender Content Team.

7. Trust them

A good journalist takes his or her craft seriously. They want to find the smartest angle and the best sources. They want to turn in clean, concise copy. They know what they’re doing because their skills have been honed by years of practice.

So trust them.

Let them do what they do. Unless they really missed the message—or unless you’re an experienced editor—resist the urge to twiddle with their stories. I’ve seen too many marketers fail to resist this urge, and the results are invariably negative. Think about it like this: You don’t tell the plumber what wrench to use or the dentist which implement of torture to stick in your mouth. So why would you micromanage a journalist?

The takeaway

Working with a journalist probably means stepping outside of your comfort zone. Be prepared. Know what you want and communicate your vision effectively. Compensate them appropriately. Trust them to do great work, and try to stay out of their way. If can do all these things, you’ll get great content that exceeds your expectations.

Oh, and pay them on time, please. You don’t want to end up here.

Image by Peerayot
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