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Why Journalism Matters to Your Content Marketing Program

Applying the tradecraft of journalism to content marketing starts with two pesky questions

By Miguel Helft
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Years ago, when I was a reporter at The New York Times, I pitched my editor a story: an important tech company on my beat was going through a management shakeup and reorg. He reacted with two questions: Why does it matter? Who cares? His point was not that we should ignore the corporate reshuffling but rather that a good story about musical chairs in the boardroom needed a “so what?” After some reporting — talking to sources inside and outside the company — I was ready to offer some answers. The reorg was likely to lift morale among employees. It would change what products the company would focus on and how it approached markets. That story mattered to customers, investors, partners and rivals. Better yet, the shakeup hinted at how a leading company past its prime might fight to stay relevant against nimbler competitors. That story was of interest to business leaders in every industry. 

Some version of my exchange with my editor plays out every day in newsrooms everywhere. And it’s a good starting point for explaining why journalism matters to content marketers.

Does it matter to anyone?

The world of content is an increasingly noisy place, a cacophony of stories of questionable value. Seventy million new blog posts are published to WordPress alone each month. Most suffer from one or more fatal flaws: lack of verifiable sources, outdated or out-of-context information, opinions presented as fact, a general lack of substance, poor writing, a credibility deficit, or any sense that the story is relevant to a target audience. 

Applying the tools and techniques of journalism to content marketing is critical to elevating your message above this din and will help you avoid mistakes that could doom your editorial efforts to failure. And it starts with answering those two pesky editor questions. 

Applying the tools and techniques of journalism to content marketing is critical to elevating your message.

As journalists, we are trained to think about our readers. What’s interesting and relevant to them? Why would they want to read a story? What would make it worth their time? What context or framing would help them get the most out of it? In that exchange, my editor was simply pushing me to answer those questions, and it made a world of difference. A just-the-facts story about the reorg would have been buried deep inside the paper. The story I wrote got prominent placement, generated buzz on Twitter and LinkedIn, and set the agenda for how other news sites would discuss the company going forward. 

But answering why a story matters and who should care about it is just the beginning. Journalism can do far more for your content marketing strategy beyond making it relevant.

Authenticity and credibility

The tradecraft of journalism is rooted in reporting. We research topics, identify multiple credible sources, and interview them. We seek people with different perspectives and backgrounds that can help shed light on a story. We push our sources to justify their assertions and back up their points of view. We attempt to look at issues from multiple angles. We look for data that can add context or support a conclusion. And before publication, we fact-check the story. 

The process may be imperfect. But when done right, it helps create compelling stories that are both credible and authoritative. 

Consider for example a story for business leaders about how to deal with a specific challenge. A common content marketing approach may be to frame the story, say, as “Six tips for overcoming X.” The tips may be good, but how can the reader know? Too often, content marketers fail to clarify who is delivering the advice or to back up their claims with evidence. Journalists wouldn’t make those mistakes. They are trained to assess the credibility of information and the expertise of sources, and to include only information they believe is reliable and relevant to their audiences. 

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Journalists might also suggest a different format, such as a deeply reported story, where known subject matter experts are offering advice and justifying it with real examples. And journalists might center their story around actual practitioners who overcame X, offering vivid examples of what those practitioners tried, what didn’t work, and what finally delivered the results they wanted. 

Hewing to the “show, don’t tell” maxim not only produces better writing but also helps create stories that are more engaging and credible. Indeed, we know from Message Lab’s own research that many audiences — especially business leaders — want stories that show their peers grappling with real issues. They don’t want to be lectured to. They much prefer to do the work of extracting the right lessons from narratives they find authentic and relatable. And at a time when readers are less discerning about where they consume content, authenticity and credibility matter more than ever.

Engage audiences. Don’t sell. 

A common mistake marketers make is to think in terms of topics — artificial intelligence, or hybrid work, or sustainability, or the future of payments. The result can be articles that are overly broad and miss opportunities to hook readers with detail. Some marketers make matters worse by insisting on slipping subtle nods to their company’s product or service into articles. That’s not only a huge turnoff for readers, but an instant credibility killer. If your product pitch surfaces in paragraph three, that’s when they’ll stop reading, assuming they even got that far.

Journalists, on the other hand, have been trained to think in terms of stories: how a specific company put artificial intelligence to use and what it learned from it, or why one CEO rejected the hybrid work model and what happened next. The result are narratives that are engaging and have a beginning, middle and end. They are interesting to a much wider swath of readers — anyone who is looking to be captivated, educated or better informed. 

Hewing to the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim not only produces better writing but also helps create stories that are more engaging and credible.

What’s more, journalists tend to be even more allergic to advertorials than the average reader. That’s why at Message Lab, we encourage our clients to write not about products but about ideas. We use the term broadly. An idea could be what your company stands for. Or the issues facing your customers and industry. Or interesting research you’ve conducted. Or anything that shows your potential customers that you “get” them, that you understand the challenges they face, that you have empathy for them. We firmly believe that if you succeed at engaging them at that level, they will eventually want to buy from you. As we like to say, the customers of your ideas are likely to become the customers of your products. 

Many formats

Journalists, of course, work across formats. We do reported narratives, trend stories, analyses, Q&As, roundtables, data-driven articles, long-form, magazine-style features and profiles, and more. We work with video, audio and data visualizations. Importantly, we know what format and medium is most effective for the message you want to get across. 

And when we tackle a thought leadership byline for an executive, we know how to ask the right questions to get that executive’s thoughts. Of course, it often starts by pushing them to answer two questions: Why does it matter? And who cares?


About the author
Miguel Helft
Miguel Helft

Miguel is an award-winning journalist who has covered the tech industry since the birth of the internet era at publications including The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, The Industry Standard, and the San Jose Mercury News. Before becoming a journalist, Miguel was a software engineer at Sun Microsystems and a professional mountain guide who led treks and mountaineering expeditions around the world. He is based in Oakland.

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