How To Write Helpful Content Like a Journalist

As you create your next how-to content asset, follow these four steps that are hallmarks of quality service journalism.

Woman sitting and typing at her laptop

If you’ve ever Googled how to do something, such as cleaning a cast iron skillet or asking for a raise, then you’ve likely enjoyed the benefits of service journalism. Or was it content marketing?

Now that brands like Discover and publications like The New York Times are creating helpful content for readers, the distinction between content marketing and service journalism is fading. At the end of the day, the objective of both types of organizations is to serve readers, build trust and ultimately encourage more engagement with their content and products in the future. Here, we’ll explore ways in which your content marketing can be as effective as the best service journalism in four simple steps.

But first, let’s provide a proper definition of service journalism.

What is service journalism?

Service journalism provides readers the information, context and expert advice they need to make educated decisions and/or achieve a specific objective. You can find service journalism in a number of respected publications, from The Wall Street Journal to Lifehacker, the latter of which is almost entirely service journalism.

Content marketers who want to improve the visibility and authority of their brands while engaging on a deeper level with their customers must approach their most helpful content like service journalists.

It’s easy for marketers to go astray. Salesy writing, keyword stuffing and plenty of bias can find its way into branded content. There are always reasons for why these things happen, but ultimately they can result in a missed opportunity to make a connection and build trust with your target audience.

Create content like a service journalist in 4 steps

If you’re a marketer who’s ready to deliver the most helpful content you can to your audience, then it’s time to follow these four steps that are hallmarks of quality service journalism:

1. Take the time to research

Any good reporter knows that you’ve got to do your research. Before you start on any piece of new content, especially if you’re not an expert on the subject matter, it’s critical to get some background information on the topic or person you’re covering. This step in the journalistic process will give you a baseline knowledge on the subject you’re covering, it will offer helpful context for your blog, and it will help you to frame the interview questions you need to ask.

For instance, if you’re writing a blog post about Ethereum, the world’s second most popular cryptocurrency after Bitcoin. Your first step would be to find trustworthy sources that can reliably help you wrap your head around the digital asset before you start writing. Keep in mind that credibility is bedrock to journalism, as it should be for content marketing. That means you can’t just rely on a quick review of Wikipedia. You should find original sources whenever possible and ensure they are respected, transparent, recent and free from any agenda.

As you conduct your research, think about answering the 5 Ws and the H: who, what, where, when, why and how. In this case, you’d want to answer the questions that any curious reader would have:

  • Who created and uses it?
  • What is it?
  • Where can I find it?
  • When should I buy or use it?
  • Why does it exist?
  • How does it work?

Interviewing one or more subject matter experts—the tried-and-true tactic of a journalist—is often the best way to tease out answers to these questions.

2. Get the most out of your interviews

The next part of the journalistic process is the interview. While not every piece of content requires it, it’s a great way to help your content stand out from the competition. Plus, Google views expert references as a signal of high-quality content.

Before you start asking questions, you want to make sure you’ve identified the right source. Is this person a subject matter expert or an industry thought leader? Will they provide reliable information? Will they offer valuable insights? As a marketer, you also might want to complete a quick scan online to ensure your source fits with your brand.

After you’ve identified your source, you’ll want to prepare questions based off your research.  With that done, you’re ready to carry out the interview. If you plan on recording the interview, be sure to disclose that to your interviewee, whether in-person, via phone or on a Zoom call. You can do that with one simple question: “Is it OK if I record our discussion?”

As you’re asking the questions, be sure to jot down any follow-up questions that arise while the person is talking. You might also think about the quotes you want for the piece and ask questions that would fit nicely into your narrative. At the end of the interview, a good question to close with is: “What else would you like to add that we didn’t cover?” This straightforward, open-ended question can yield some of the most surprising, helpful and interesting information in your entire interview.

3. Balance creativity with clarity and credibility as you write

After you’ve compiled your research and reporting, you’re ready to write. Journalists want to hook readers in with an interesting “lede” (or introduction), and effective content marketers approach the first few sentences no differently. You’ve got options when it comes to a strong lede: It can be newsy, anecdotal or funny—as long as it’s interesting! Keep in mind the lede is often the hardest part to write, but it’s critical in grabbing the attention of your audience.

Next, journalists will often write a few clean, clear sentences that help the reader understand what the article is about. Journalists refer to this as the “nut graf” because it succinctly describes the story in a nutshell.

As you write the rest of your article or blog post, keep an eye on the structure of the article. Is it organized in a way that a reader can easily follow? Many service journalists like to write their headline and subheadings first as a way to lay out the structure of their articles before they start building out each section. As you go back and edit, be sure to tighten up and restructure your copy to ensure you’re using clear headings, bullets points, lists and punchy sentences to get your points across.

A quick note about attribution: If you’re making factual claims that could be verified, be sure to attribute them to the original source, whether it’s a credible study, article, video or other media type. You can link to sources within your article or use footnotes and list your sources at the end of the piece.

4. Protect your brand with fact-checking and copy-editing

Closing out the process is fact-checking and copy-editing, two crucial parts of the journalistic process. As emphasized before, accuracy is imperative for journalists to uphold their news outlet’s good name and maintain trust with their audience.

The same is true for you and your brand. Misspellings, poor grammar and untrue statements will undermine trust and can damage your brand reputation. If you don’t already, build fact-checking and copy-editing into your content creation process. It takes time, but verifying claims and quotes with your sources are worth it in the long run.

Help your brand’s audience with your own service journalism

Your audience has questions they need answered and problems to solve. Now that you understand how professional service journalists approach their craft, you can create content that is thoroughly helpful and competes at the highest level for visibility, engagement and authority.

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