Do you remember the moment you knew what you wanted to do in life? Mine happened my sophomore year in college when my first article was published in the college newspaper and I saw my name in the by-line:
By Hilary Palmer
A few years earlier I didn’t even know what a by-line was and now I was staring at my name in black and white and running to my advisor’s office to change my major from broadcast to print journalism. Okay, maybe I didn’t run that day, but it wasn’t long after that moment. I was hooked.
Want to know a little secret? After college, I never worked for a newspaper. I regularly wrote a column for a community weekly as part of my first job so many people thought I worked there, but my journalism career began and ended with the college newspaper.
As Momentum Consulting launched and then transitioned into an inbound marketing agency, I realized my journalism skills were needed more than ever. For those who say newspaper is dead, don’t throw the journalists out with the newsprint. Online and inbound marketing is finding a new use for these treasured skills.
Different projects call for different writing skills (as I painfully found out the semester I took news writing, creative writing, and business writing in one semester). Journalism writing fits the bill for inbound marketing to a tee.
“If it bleeds it leads”
Wild Bill Sorrells bled ink. He was a newspaper man, through and through. At the end of his career, he taught a bunch of college students how to put together a newspaper. He always said “if it bleeds, it leads” as a reminder to lead with the most important information. If you can’t interest them in the first few sentences, they will move on to the next article. Sound familiar? Online readers won’t hang on to read an entire blog article if the opening paragraph doesn’t grab their attention. Journalists already know how to write tight. (Wild Bill was also known for saying “If I ever get back to [insert your hometown], I’m gonna nail my shoes to the sidewalk.” But I really couldn’t find an application for that one here.)
The art of the interview
Journalists are taught how to ask open ended questions and probe just enough to get the speaker to say what needs to be said. Your company’s stories are about people, those people need to be interviewed in order to tell their stories. Most people can’t just write it out, they freeze as they stare at the blank paper. A conversational interviewer puts your customer at ease, asks the right questions and turns your customer’s story into the THE story.
The dollar bill rule
In the days where computer generated layouts and hand drawn layouts battled for first place, we were taught to measure our text with a dollar bill. If the bill did not touch a picture, graphic, pull quote or other design element, you had too much text. The eye and brain need some interruption in all the black and white. The same design rule applies to blog posts now (coincidence? I think not.). Reading this rule on HubSpot’s recent article about the best blog posts reminded me of how much journalism and inbound marketing have in common.
Write tight and keep paragraphs short
We’ve passed the mark of most content being read on a mobile device. Does it strike anyone else as odd that most mobile phone screens are just about as wide a newspaper column? The rule in journalism is short paragraphs again because the eye needs a little break. Successful blog posts also use shorter paragraphs to keep the reader moving along. Give it a try. The next time you are reading a blog post, notice how long the paragraphs are. If they are more than 3-4 sentences, try looking at the article on your smartphone. Harder to read? Probably.
Newspaper Layout and Design (AKA Graphic Design)
How I often wish I had access to a graphic design class in college. We used Pagemaker on PCs in our college newspaper “lab”. Why they didn’t have Mac’s, I’ll never know. But alas, we didn’t know we needed Macs, so the PCs carried us through. We were taught about creating headlines that caught attention, yet stayed within space guidelines. We even counted the space specific letters took to determine if our headline would fit before typing it in (can you imagine?). Today we have 140 characters on Twitter and less than that for a good headline on Google adwords. A challenge like that is just another day at the office for a journalist.
Thick skin and a tough upper lip
So I’ll admit Wild Bill sent many a student away from his office in tears. As a kind upperclassman once told me, his bark is worse than his bite. His job was to edit and critique the work of students. Sometimes it’s hard to have your work marked up with a red pen. Journalists are typically used to it. So please don’t worry about hurting my feelings by critiquing the work we do for you. We’ll never know you’d prefer this word over that one or that you had another direction for the piece if you don’t tell us.
A few months ago during a phone call with a prospect, she said she didn’t understand how we could write about her industry because we aren’t in that industry. She does work in a niche industry, but the basics about what they do and what they want to tell others can already be found online. So why should they write about it on their website too? For the same reason multiple news outlets cover the same stories. They will add their twist and their interviews to make the facts more relevant. By providing the information on their website they show their expertise. Those articles also add to the SEO quality of the site. Journalists don’t have to be an expert in the field of which they write if they are good at research and interviewing (see #2) and don’t mind having their work corrected especially for industry terms (see #6).
Skip the Cheesy Pictures
Most newspapers have two spaces for large pictures the Page 1 and Page 3. Those pictures grab readers’ attention and often encourage people to buy the newspaper. Choose the right composition, right lighting and right subject can make or break that’s day’s paper. A picture of a squirrel eating a nut or an official sitting behind a desk are a sign everyone needs to try harder. The internet’s version of those tired photos is hands on a keyboard. I apologize now because we are guilty, but we’re working on better illustrations and so should you. After all, if pictures draw in readers to a newspaper, they will draw in readers to your blog as well. Your blogs deserve better than squirrels and nuts.
The internet may be threatening the prosperity of print, but as long as there’s a story to be told, journalists will find a place for their skills.