Why Freelance Journalists are Shifting Their Careers to Content Marketing

    by Simon Owens
    November 2, 2015
    Photo by Andrew_Writer and used here with Creative Commons license.
    Click on the image for a look at the full series. Original photo by Jeff Djevdet and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Click on the image for a look at the full series. Original photo by Jeff Djevdet on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    If you’re an editor at just about any news publication, chances are you’re increasingly inundated with emails from PR agents offering up “guest columns” from CEOs and other high-powered executives. You’ve also likely heard buzz phrases like “thought leadership” and “inbound marketing” and are vaguely aware that these phrases have something to do with those guest submissions you keep getting.

    "I’ve found it’s relatively easy to charge upwards of $100 an hour to corporate clients for content marketing services."

    Welcome to the world of content marketing, a world where brands are increasingly shifting their focus from paying to reach the audiences of news publications via advertisements to instead building out their own content operations to lure audiences directly to them. In this world you’ll see American Express marketing to small business owners — not by advertising in business publications, but by creating a business publication of its own, called Open Forum. Peruse the website and you’ll find plenty of articles that could have just as easily appeared in Inc. or Forbes, but are instead hosted on a platform American Express owns and operates.

    The American Express OPEN Forum features a five-part series for members to learn about content marketing by technology journalist Chris Dannen.

    The American Express OPEN Forum features a five-part series for members to learn about content marketing by technology journalist Chris Dannen.

    And how does a brand like American Express manage to create its own journalism? By hiring people like me: journalists who have been willing to cross over into marketing and leverage their content creation skills on behalf of brands (to be clear, American Express isn’t a client of mine). I started my career as a local newspaper reporter and went on to work and write for national publications, but in recent years I’ve found myself creating less of my own content and instead focusing on managing company blogs, ghost-writing thought leadership columns for high-powered executives, and applying my skills in social media management toward distributing this content to the targeted demographics these brands want to reach.

    MediaShift hasn’t escaped the deluge of “thought leadership” submissions, and so they kindly asked me to write an article explaining the rise of content marketing and, more important, why you see more and more journalists like me crossing the divide between traditional news companies and brands. Ready? Let’s go!


    The rise of content marketing

    One could argue that content marketing existed long before the birth of the modern Internet, but it was only available to companies large and deep pocketed enough to print and distribute their content. The Michelin Guide, launched in 1900, was one of the earliest examples, offering travel tips to motorists with the hope that those same motorists would buy its tires.

    The Internet, of course, allowed companies with much smaller resources to launch their own content efforts. In the mid 2000s you saw many companies roll out their own blogs, but most were seldom updated and offered little more than dry announcements about the company. It wasn’t until recent years that you’ve seen companies setting aside significant budgets to create their own content. Now there are multiple conferences devoted to content marketing (Amy Schumer recently keynoted one in Boston) and up to 77 percent of consumer-focused companies say they engage in some form of content marketing. eMarketer projects that brands will spend over $8 billion on content marketing by 2018.

    Why? Because a few studies — as well as plenty of anecdotal evidence — have shown that inbound marketing — drawing audiences to your own content — can be an effective business generator. A State of Inbound Marketing report from HubSpot found that “companies are 3x as likely to see higher ROI on inbound marketing campaigns than on outbound.” And with the rising adoption of ad blockers, many have pointed out that both native ads and branded content may soon be the only ways companies can reliably reach consumers.

    Enter journalists

    It just so happens that there are thousands of people in this country who are trained to create informational content: journalists. And you’re seeing more and more of them taking on roles that barely existed 10 years ago, back when many of them were graduating from J-School. So why are they suddenly so interested in churning out blog and article content for brands?

    Rising demand

    Content marketing is currently “in,” and brands are finding it’s surprisingly difficult to create compelling content that actually draws in readers. So they’re opening their pocketbooks and are willing to pay for content creation, and if you’re well-positioned with some decent writing credits, you’ll find that there’s plenty of work to go around. There are several freelancer job sites popping up where brands can advertise for these positions. In my case, I rely entirely on word-of-mouth and have been lucky to receive more work than I can currently handle.

    The decline of the news industry

    Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely noticed the news industry has struggled in recent years. Newspapers and magazines have endured thousands of layoffs and freelancers have found, in addition to facing shrinking budgets, news organizations are paying significantly less for digital stories compared to what they paid for print.

    Content marketing is more lucrative

    Photo by Megan on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Megan on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    The average journalist salary is somewhere between $40,000 and $46,000 a year, or $3,500 a month. I’ve found it’s relatively easy to charge upwards of $100 an hour to corporate clients for content marketing services, meaning if you can generate just 20 hours a week of client work you’re pulling in $8,000 a month and more than $100,000 per year.

    Ethical issues

    Some people have pointed out that a journalist who crosses back and forth between traditional news and content marketing faces a potential ethical minefield. Writing for Medium, Amy Westervelt explained why she stopped taking on marketing gigs; most of the points she made boil down to her feeling increasingly uncomfortable acting as a paid shill for corporate interests. It’s not hard to imagine a problematic scenario in which a journalist takes on a paid marketing opportunity with Google and then turns around and writes about the company for a tech publication.

    So far I’ve found it relatively easy to avoid writing about any of my clients in my traditional journalism. But even if I vowed to never mention a client in one of my articles, I still leave myself vulnerable to criticism if I write about a client’s competitor or its industry at large. If I ever took on another full-time job in journalism, I wouldn’t blame my employer for barring me from accepting paid content marketing gigs on the side.

    Whither journalism?

    I can imagine a veteran journalist who’s spent decades in the industry reading this article with increasing pessimism. Are we simply headed toward a dystopian future in which traditional news has gone extinct and the only journalism is produced by corporations pushing a product or service? I highly doubt it. And I think that the rise of native advertising and content marketing poses a potential improvement over the display advertising that currently dominates the Internet. I don’t always love the branded content I produce, but it’s not uncommon for me to finish ghost-writing an article for a CEO and feel I’ve contributed quality information that readers will actually find valuable.

    Or maybe that’s just the wishful thinking of someone trying to justify his career choices. Only time will tell.

    Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. Email him at [email protected]

    Tagged: advertising content marketing freelance writing hubspot inbound marketing journalism outbound marketing
    • This is very true. Brands align and partner up with bloggers to increase their visibility and reach. According to studies, people trust content coming from influencers and bloggers.

    • Renee Hobbs

      Educators need to teach about content marketing to students. It’s best understood as a form of propaganda that may be beneficial or harmful, depending on your point of view. Here’s a lesson plan from the Media Education Lab: http://propaganda.mediaeducationlab.com/img/Lesson_5_Sponsored_Content_as_Propaganda.pdf

    • As a content marketer, this is something that has always bothered me in a way. Although not a journalist, we are now required to produce pieces that look and read like editorials. Blogs just don’t cut it anymore. But here’s where the ethical question lies: are disclaimers and disclosures enough? It’s easy for me to say that I feel no guilt because my last journalism workshop was in 6th grade and I’m not a journalism graduate. But what about those who are? We’re treading on murky water, and as you said, only time will tell what becomes of this.

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