News journalism and brand journalism will always have separate roles to play, but the quality of output expected on the two sides is converging. Target Internet’s contributing editor, Pete Wise, works with both newspapers and brands – and he believes brands can further improve their content marketing operations by adopting best practices which have been used in news journalism for generations. Here’s his advice on how to make your brand journalism department work more like a newsroom.

Start the day with a round-table news review

For newspaper editors, nothing takes the edge off an early rise like the prospect of seeing what other people have been writing about. Reviewing the daily papers is an essential fixture in most newsrooms – particularly at local/regional titles – as it provides an overview of the public conversations in which your content is a participant. Reading content from rival sources inspires story ideas, draws attention to important ongoing stories, and helps forms the context for your own output.

An ideal brand content news review will take into account a combination of news journalism publications and other media, like articles posted on your nearest rivals’ websites, relevant special interest magazines and social posts from leading influencers in your field.

That’s a lot of content to chew over, so we recommend dividing the task between several team members. Everyone involved can report their most interesting findings to the group at the end of the session. Here are a few of the things they should be looking for:

  • Public debates – e.g. The Mirror is saying X about Y; but Vogue has a totally different take. What’s our position?
  • Trends, hashtags, buzz-topics – all can be used to create topical content, and can also be passed on to your social media executive(s), to feed into their work
  • Content ideas/best practices – what are your competitors doing better than you? Highlight outstanding pieces of content, presentational techniques and other bright ideas

Remember: the objective of this exercise isn’t to pick out all the trends, topics and journalistic ideas within the source materials; it’s to highlight things with particular relevance to your brand and audience.

Use a style guide and an editorial policy

A style guide is a document that outlines the grammatical and stylistic conventions a publication has elected to use, usually with a particular focus on contentious grammar and spelling issues. In a newsroom, it’s the sub-editor’s responsibility to ensure a title’s output is true to its style guide.

Contents of a style guide will include such stipulations as when to capitalise letters, how to use italics, and whether we refer to a restaurant as ‘Michelin Star’ or ‘Michelin-starred’. Several well-respected and widely used journalistic style guides are publicly available online, including:

Rather than embarking on the odyssey of creating your own style guide from scratch, use an established guide like the above as your basis.

Implementing a style guide at a brand brings with it the added challenge of harmonising editorial policy with brand guidelines. We can’t just use the conventions we identify as the best; we need to choose the conventions which are best for the brand.

To this end, review your brand guidelines and chosen style guide side-by-side. Where contradictions arise, work out the solution that works best with your branding, then edit the style guide accordingly. For example, the style guide might specify a use of italics that doesn’t suit your type face – in which case you would replace this rule with a more suitable solution.

Your style guide should be ever-evolving. Be sure to keep a fully up-to-date version stored on your intranet, and inform all relevant parties of major changes.

In addition to a style guide, it is advisable for to supply all content contributors with an editorial policy, including notes on things like:

  • Brand philosophy
  • Tone-of-voice
  • Word count/video length
  • Dos and don’ts, e.g. “we don’t use listicles”, “we don’t create negative content”, “we aim to include product details frequently”
  • Legal notes/advice on handling contentious subject matter

Who’s in charge of the style guide?

In a newsroom, prime responsibility for sticking to the style guide lies with the sub-editors, who also proofread and fact-check the rough copy filed by reporters.

Not every brand journalism operation puts out enough material to justify employing a full-time sub-editor, which raises the question: who is responsible for enforcing the style guide? You might consider one of these options:

  • Appoint a particularly accurate writer from the team to spend a certain amount of time every week on sub-editing.
  • Bring in a freelance sub-editor. If you can find an experienced freelance sub-editor to use, you should be able to give them a flying start by telling them which foundational style guide you’ve chosen and providing a document outlining any amendments or additions you have made. Newspaper staff cutbacks over recent years have meant, perhaps sadly, that there are plenty of freelance sub-editors around.

Whichever solution you choose, you can reduce your sub-editor’s workload by encouraging all contributors to study and continually refer to your style guide.

Spend the start of each week/content cycle meeting with sources

At weekly newspapers and magazines, a journalist would typically spend all of Monday and often Tuesday taking key contacts out for lunch or a coffee. These people could be MPs, company directors, whistle-blowers, or whoever else has relevance to the publication’s areas of interest. The objective is to develop relationships that may lead to interesting inside information and stories.

For a brand journalist, meeting and building relationships with people across the breadth and depth of your organisation has a similarly crucial role to play. By starting each content cycle by meeting with with a wide spread of prospective sources, you can come up with content ideas in the short term, whilst building dialogues that could lead to further suggestions, opportunities and ideas in the future.

The ultimate objective is to build up a network of engaged sources who will regularly pitch you content ideas. Unlike their Fleet Street counterparts, brand journalists do not have the luxury of receiving a daily barrage of press releases to work with. Creating a network of sources within your own organisation can help plug that gap.

Which internal sources to meet with?

The larger and more diverse your organisation, the broader your options will be when it comes to choosing your sources. Aim to speak to people at all levels of your organisation to give yourself the richest possible palette of stories and perspectives to draw your content from.

An obvious and effective starting point is to talk to PR representatives who have ownership of different aspects of the brand – but don’t stop there. Here are just a few examples of the internal sources different types of organisation might use:

  • Tourist body – property-level PR rep; in-house historian; CEO
  • Restaurant chain – head chef, interior designer, supply chain manager
  • Supermarket – fashion buyer, long-serving sales assistant, MD
  • Digital agency – PPC expert, founder, CTO
  • Fashion brand – designer, model, maker

External sources can also play their part in a brand’s content, however, this may be subject to a commercial agreement.

Record everything

No matter how well you know your sources, it always pays to record every conversation. When a source feels that they have been misrepresented, disagreements or even legal issues may ensue. Having the ability to produce a recording of the conversation is the panacea for such problems.

When interviewing a source/subject, ask them whether they’re happy for the conversation to be recorded, and use a Dictaphone to capture the interview. There’s a good chance you’ll be doing this anyway, for ease of capturing content.

All interview audio should be archived in a password-protected shared space – on Google Drive cloud storage, for instance. Implement a file naming convention such as DATE-TITLE-AUTHOR’S INITIALS (040517-NewsroomBestPractices-PW) to make your recordings readily searchable.

Recording and archiving your interactions with sources and content subjects may also come in handy if you ever decide to create further content on the same subject. For example, if you write a Q&A that goes down particularly well with your audience, you can dig back into audio from the interview to source more content.

Make all your content easily accessible to writers

Whenever I arrive in a newsroom, I’m always interested to see how the publication stores its back issues, and how archived material is being used. The Yorkshire Post keeps a microfilm archive of cuttings dating back decades, which will undoubtedly come in handy whenever the title runs a nostalgic photo-story. The Sunday Times keep a library of recent papers – including competing titles as well as their own – right by the newsdesk.

As a brand content operation, you probably won’t have any archive content on microfilm or in-print; rather, your content will be online. Searching for certain content items online may seem simple enough, but if you regularly update your website(s) and other customer-facing channels, it’s highly likely that some of your content will be at risk of getting lost over the years.

To combat this problem, store copies of your content in a digital archive as you go, adding categories and keywords as you go.

At this point you might justifiably ask “why bother?” – to which we answer:

  • Re-using “retired” content – if you’ve taken a piece of content offline, it may well turn out to be usable again in the future, either in its entirety or as a model for similar content. This is especially applicable to seasonal content. It’s not good practice to keep churning out the same content year-on-year, but selectively using retired content can prove a smart strategy when the content team is under pressure and needs to get something online.
  • Using your brand’s history/playing on nostalgia – for example, writing features on the history of the brand, creating nostalgic memes or GIFs, showing how your products have developed over the years, etc.
  • Finding inspiration – if you’re struggling for content ideas, you could do far worse than searching through the archives for thematically similar content which struck a chord with your audience.


“Comment is free, but facts are sacred”

This oft-quoted pearl from Guardian editor C. P. Scott turns 100 in just a few years – and over the course of a century its pertinence only seems to have grown.

Make facts the backbone of your content…

C. P. Scott’s idea hits upon an essential truth: commentary has its place, but the most important thing to media consumers is new information.

Content producers should be aiming for a high ratio of facts-to-commentary within most content items and across the breadth of their output. All of the following fit the bill:

  • Stated facts and figures – e.g. historical details on a brand; sales figures; product specifications
  • Images and video – should be used to illustrate and corroborate facts within article copy; will inherently convey lots of information to the viewer
  • Biographical content/case studies – whether you’re talking about the brand as a whole, a founding team member, an employee or a customer
  • If you’re producing instructive content such as a guide or recipe, consider any actionable instructions included as equivalent to facts. The same goes for creative content.

There’s no need to calculate a perfect formula for weighting facts and comment in your brand’s content; just ensure delivering useful, relevant and interesting information or content is at the heart of what you do.

…and the backbone of your setup

To my mind, a newsroom is best understood as a machine that gathers and then communicates facts and useful content. Brand journalists, photographers, filmmakers, researchers and data analysts should all be focused on this same goal, and it’s the job of senior/managerial figures to provide them with tools and support they need. This is clearly a simplified philosophy of the newsroom and an obvious statement – but those who take it to heart will set themselves up to produce quality content.

Here are a few of the means whereby newspapers help their journalists dig up facts:

  • Sign your team up for access to a newspaper clippings archive. More comprehensive archives tend to charge users to download clippings, so you’ll need to commit some budget. For those of you who are based in the UK, we can recommend NLA Clipsearch.
  • A phone on every desk. In 2015, a survey of 505 knowledge workers in the US found that 65% of respondents still preferred using a deskphone to make or receive business calls, while only 30% preferred using a mobile. This goes some way towards explaining why you’ll still find office phones in-use at many leading newsrooms.
    One of the most telling signals of promise in a rookie journalist is a willingness to pick up the phone and start chasing stories. Installing a phone on every desk can help make everyone in the team feel happy to do just that, regardless of their whether they prefer mobiles or deskphones.
  • Create an official list of trusted sources. One of the biggest problems with researching online is knowing whether the information you find is accurate. To combat this issue, media companies like Facebook distribute lists of trusted sources to their editorial staff. Here’s Facebook’s list, as of 2016. Brands should compile similar lists, featuring both generic news outlets and relevant publications covering relevant subject areas.

Get some data journalism involved

Newspapers have always dealt with data, from stock market forecasts to unemployment figures. But in recent years, journalists have started gathering and interpreting more data internally, rather than simply getting it from sources, to such an extent that some in the industry would now refer to themselves as data journalists.

From a newsroom management perspective, facilitating data journalism is a matter of ensuring the right people and software are in-place. Good data journalists are able to infer interesting and headline-worthy facts from potentially complex datasets – something to bear in mind when interviewing candidates.

Brands can come up with all sorts of content based on data. You might refer to your own company’s figures (selectively and with appropriate clearance) to highlight your best attributes and products. Here are a few examples:

  • Fitness tracker brand – “Here are our users’ favourite running routes in UK’s biggest cities”
  • Digital marketing training brand – “Buzzing topics: here’s what our learners have been reading about this month”
  • Supermarket brand – “Which city loves Halloween the most? And where are pumpkins most in-demand?

I’m sure you can think of some far more creative ideas of your own too!

How much dedicated software you acquire should depend largely on how central data journalism is to your content strategy. Relatively simple tools like Microsoft Excel and Google Analytics may well suffice, but if you want to go all out, you could look into more advanced tools like the ones listed here.

A closing thought

Thanks for sticking with me through this epic of an article! I’d like to close with what I consider to be a really important point, namely: there is no reason why brand journalism shouldn’t be just as searching, entertaining, interesting and important as news journalism. Every bit of value you give the reader confers value onto the brand – so aim high.