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Should you really hire journalists for your company?

from sskennel on flickrJournalism jobs are under threat and being lost by the score every day. So with the rise in demand for sponsored content and brand newsrooms (See what Forbes and WaPo are doing), are the laid-off masses going to fill the seats in these new quasi-journalistic enterprises?

I’m not so sure about that.

If you’re hiring, you will find many people with the skills to do that kind of job in journalistic circles.  As Chris Hogg says in this Digiday piece:

Agency copywriters take days to write what a seasoned journalist would produce in a matter of hours, and they don’t process data and editorial insights in the same way a journalist would.

Decent journalists can knock good copy out in their sleep, and marketeers hoping to build a team would (should) be scrambling to get their hands on them. But it may not be that easy. I’d wager that one of the greatest challenges for any company hoping to create a brand newsroom is going to be finding the kind of journalist who blends creativity, intelligence with an ability to understand and willingly speak from the brand bible – and have a business brain between their ears. As it was put to me recently by one journo-turned-comms person (who’s doing pretty well, post-transition):

That’s the problem with journos turned social media hacks. We’re too embarrassed by bullshit to be really successful.

Say ‘brand newsroom’ to a seasoned journalist who hasn’t considered the concept and you’re likely to provoke a curling of the nose. It’s seen as a PR gig. For anyone who has worked a newsdesk, digging through an inbox polluted with PR stink to find news items, a step into communications is a step out of supposed objectivity, and credibility.

Many among the old-fashioned herd of journalism are intensely non-commercial. Editorial sovereignty and a Chinese wall between the journalism and the commercial were always taken as writ on editorial floors. I’ve been in newsrooms where a creeping merger between the two has led to ructions, and tanking morale.  Even where journalists are largely shills for a particular sector (I’m looking at you, music and fashion journos), many will still insist they are incorruptible pillars of objectivity. Working as part of the marketing machine for a brand is a philosophical anathema to them.

Whether they realise it or now, even those pillars of journalistic salt are already articulating a clearly defined brand, merely by doing their job. The editorial tone, house style, accepted ‘vibe’ of whatever outlet you work for? That’s your employer’s brand. Your byline/twitter persona/personal blog? That’s your personal brand.

Charlie Brooker is as perfect an example of the Guardian’s brand as CJ Chivers is of the New York Times.  The New York Times, lofty, sophisticated and international, is particularly interesting, because it is in the middle of one of the biggest media brand redefinitions in recent years. It is shedding the Boston Globe, which it currently owns (too regional an attachment for a global player like the NYT) and renaming the musty-sounding, shields-and-trumpets International Herald Tribune as the ‘International New York Times‘. News organisations are brands. And every journo knows what the brand they work for stands for. Journalists are naturally brand-conscious.

As journalism continues to fragment and search for new business models, the jobs in pure editorial will continue to drop away, most likely, and those in more commercial forms of journalism-slash-content-creation will multiply. That doesn’t naturally mean that those who lost their jobs will be able to make a straight swap. Any news organisation that’s cutting staff will try to retain the people who have the right blend of future-proofed skillsets – i.e. the very same people brands will want to scoop out. These are the people for whom snappy copywriting is second nature, who are immersed in social media, and who have an innate understanding of netiquette and how the web works.

If you’re building a brand newsroom from scratch, you’ll be looking to take some young, malleable minds and train them in journalistic workflows and thought processes. That includes all the skills in monitoring, parsing of information, contact hoarding, doubting and checking of facts and experimentation in storytelling that good journalists do naturally. So while there may not be a role for journalists in the newsrooms themselves, there’s an opportunity for them to market their knowledge in setting them up.



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