While the traditional editorial job outlook is bleak, and you’re looking for steady work, seek out brand journalism. And if you think this a cop out by not exercising your true journalism muscles you’ve been trained to use, think again.
Josh Sternberg, director of branded content at NBC News and former senior editor of Digiday’s Content Studio, believes journalistic training plays a huge part in getting brand journalism right.
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“Too often sponsored content reads like marketing copy—full of industry jargon, doesn’t explain anything, etc. Instead, it should be written in a journalistic style—lede, nut, inverted pyramid, outside sources. Good content, no matter if it’s editorial or advertising, finds readers,” Sternberg tells me.
Need more convincing? Here are 7 compelling reasons to consider breaking into brand journalism:
1. It’s a Growing Industry
Yes, there are a number of new journalism upstarts surfacing, but in general, it would be hard to make the case that the journalism industry as a whole is growing. It’s simply in a time of transition. Since traditional newsrooms don’t have the resources to support obscure beats, many high-profile reports and columnists are starting their own outfits.
Minimal funds mean publishers need creative brands to come in and imagine smart marketing strategies, including producing quality content, in the form of blog posts, social media posts and visual stuff. Enter, you: The freelance journalist with the skills to help publishers help their advertisers promote themselves on a big platform.
According to James Del, director of digital content at TAO Group and former executive director of Gawker Media’s in-house creative department, Studio@Gawker:
“Even talented writers are having a hard time maintaining consistent work. At the same time, companies are now realizing that if they want to remain relevant, they need to produce stories that are of interest to their customers; it’s no longer enough to run a 30-second spot or a banner ad to convey a brand’s message. Those things are easily ignored and often provide little or no informational or entertainment value.”
2. The Pay Is Good
You’ve got rent and vehicle payments due. Ten-dollar article assignments from content farms will not do the job. Brand journalism endeavors generally pay pretty well. Do your research on what your work is worth, and start cold email pitching.
I once re-pitched a content-marketing agency a few months after my initial pitch, admitting that I hadn’t researched the company well the first time and would like a second round of consideration. They hired me the next week.
Now, this agency sends me a steady stream of work monthly, and we maintain a strong professional relationship. For the time I put in, the pay is very good. Generally, brand journalism ventures like ones at Wells Fargo, for instance, will pay more than sufficiently.
“It’s a well-paying job at a time when well-paying writing jobs are hard to come by,” says Del. “Everyone works for someone, and most audiences realize that even the most credible craftspeople need to lend their name or skill to a brand in order to make a buck (ask Bob Dylan why he did a Chevy commercial).”
Shane Snow, technology journalist and chief creative officer at Contently, agreed it’s OK for freelancers to be influenced by potential earnings.
“Since big brands have reputation on the line, they often pay as much or more than traditional publishers for real, interesting stories—a huge departure from those awful SEO content-farm days, where we saw a lot of journalists stoop to writing $15 articles,” says Snow.
3. It Can Lead to a Full-Time Gig
Who knows? If you do a good job with your brand journalism gig, you may be the first in line for consideration when full-time positions come available. Think about it: They already know your writing style and voice, and they’re well acquainted with your writing tempo.
If your resume is in the freelance bank, a PR firm or brand may pull it for the real deal. At least that’s what the Dallas Morning News-owned content-marketing agency Speakeasy does.
4. It Helps You Learn about New Industries
One thing I really enjoy about freelancing, in general, is that I get to stretch my brain in several ways. Each day presents a new challenge, and every story requires a unique voice and approach.
If you’re a lifelong learner and a person who enjoys strengthening your broad base of knowledge, brand journalism is for you. In one week, I may write about congestive heart failure or other complex medical issues; innovations in the energy industry; and local shopping spots.
This forces me to talk to people I wouldn’t ordinarily talk to, and whether I’m initially excited for it or not, I always walk away from the story having learned something new.
5. It’s Less Stressful than Deadline-Oriented Journalism
Typically, brand-journalism editors are operating on a much looser schedule than your typical newspaper or magazine editor.
I’ve found that with these folks, it’s not unusual to get a one-week or more lead time for a story, which I find refreshing. If you’ve spent any time in the newspaper business, you might agree a lax deadline is truly a gift.
6. You Can Editorialize
With straight news, you must always remain neutral in your language and reporting. With brand journalism, it’s a different story.
This isn’t to say that you write straight advertising copy—the point of brand editorial is that companies who have traditionally purchased banner and tower ads are now realizing that people enjoy genuine stories highlighting real people, so companies want to produce actual journalism.
But, of course, it will be connected to the brand and may include a subtle sell or brand mention at the end of the piece.
As Del tells me, “Branded content—when done properly—is not supposed to be a slimy advertorial that forces a writer to bend [his] own viewpoint to that of a corporation. The best branded content is like any other arrangement between a patron and an artist. The topic of coverage may be decided on in conjunction with the brand, but the writer should be left to editorialize on that topic as they deem necessary.”
And don’t worry too much about not being able to get regular editorial work after writing brand journalism, Del advises: “Unless you’re a total over-the-top shill you won’t kill your own credibility with a few sponsored posts—if anything, working with the right brand on the right stories could actually bolster a young writer’s exposure in a healthy way. Writers should view this as an opportunity to tell a story.”
But remember this, Del adds: “Just always be sure to disclose your relationship with the sponsor up front, not write anything that isn’t true (this includes puffery), and only work with brands or publications that you don’t have a problem being associated with in a promotional regard.”
7. You Get to Help Define a Company
As a freelancer for a brand, you have a lot of power. You’re essentially being trusted to help formulate a brand identity and carry it out. Embrace the responsibility and have fun with the reporting.
As Snow puts it, “Now is a fantastic time to be a freelancer. There is more work for trained journalists than ever—it’s just coming from unexpected sources like brands that are trying to become publishers. Brand publishers need the exact skills that we journalists have been trained with: reporting, ability to access interesting people, and the skill to find and craft good stories.”
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