THE BLOG

2014 - The Year of the (New) Journalist

06/01/2014 11:37 GMT | Updated 07/03/2014 10:59 GMT

Recently, I helped out a teacher friend of mine at her school careers fair. I was asked to be the friendly journalist - or Media Consultant as my more seductive name-tag suggested. My desk was pitched in between Mr KPMG and Ms Goldman Sachs, both of whom freely distributed company pens and logo-emblazoned diaries to the massed queues of eager students and parents.

I, on the other hand, brought only my wisdom, such as it is. The trouble was there weren't an awful lot of people who wanted to benefit from it. It was like being on ITV's crudely entertaining Saturday night dating programme, Take Me Out (catchphrase: 'No Likey, No Lighty') in which one 'lucky' man gets to pick his date from 30 'beautiful' women as long as they don't turn off their light.

Inside that cavernous school gymnasium, an endless parade of bored-looking Year 11s and 12s eyed me up, tentatively took a few steps towards me, then glanced to a beaming Ms GS, smiled pityingly and joined her ever-lengthening queue. My lighty rarely flashed.

Occasionally - and this is no exaggeration - a naïve sixth-former walking around with her mum would spot me, instantly conjure up images of Woodward, Bernstein and Liz Jones, begin to gallop excitedly to my table only to be physically prevented from going any further by a parent unable to hide their disgust that their deluded offspring was about to be persuaded by a clearly poorly-paid, bribeable, alcoholic, serial-killing hacker-stalker to join them on a path to eternal damnation.

I can see their point. 2013 was, for many, the nadir of journalism. Editors on trial, celebrities incandescent with rage at journalistic excesses, politicians desperate to legislate and depressingly poor sales to boot. For me - like many hundreds of others - it was a personal nadir. Redundancy has perhaps become the biggest threat to good journalism in Britain. Many newsrooms are poorly staffed, freelance rates have plummeted and what was once a rollercoaster ride for life has turned into a house of horrors.

I guess accountancy and investment banking seem pretty safe alternatives to a new generation whose principle knowledge of the workings of newsrooms comes not from Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford but Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan.

However, they're wrong. It's taken me a few months to figure it out (and my standing in it) but journalism has never been more powerful, needed and important than it is today. 2014 will, I'm certain, witness its rebirth but in a different form, for a different audience and with different priorities. The skills of journalism will become more valuable than ever but instead of trying to change the world we'll be trying to make a profit. And that might be no bad thing.

My immediate instinct on losing my job (I was Associate Editor at the Daily Express) was to find a berth inside another newspaper or its website but I found a far more receptive audience among the City's CEOs and marketing gurus.

Stories, I discovered, or at least the ability to structure, tell, edit and disseminate stories, to formulate newspaper-like strategies, have become a potent currency outside of the dusty cubicle I sat in. It's called something else, of course, because that's what snake-oil salesmen do - they pretend they've discovered a panacea, bottle it up with a fancy label and make a fortune selling it on.

This time the Silicon Valley geeks and shiny-faced billionaires have fallen for it. Content Marketing. Data-driven messaging tools. Algorithm-friendly publishing. Social media and SEO analytics. At the heart of it all it's just stories. They're different kinds of stories but they still share the basics - something with a beginning, middle and an end, highly targeted, well-written, adjectives and adverbs in the right place, artfully tailored for a certain audience, visually interesting, educative, persuasive and of the moment.

In 2013, 37 percent of the total US business marketing budget went on content marketing (that's about $120 billion) which, according to the Content Marketing Institute who collated data from some of America's biggest companies, meant a total average of $1.8 million per brand. In 2012, 56 per cent of these companies outsourced this work - only 40 per cent did so this year.

It's no wonder so much money is being spent because almost two thirds of consumers, according to the Custom Content Council, feel more brand affinity and are more likely to spend if that company delivers bespoke content. Thus, in America at least, 91% of businesses are creating - or in the process of creating - their own content, spending a third of their budgets doing so, a figure likely to double in the next three years.

There are so many other traditional facets of journalism but this is what the 'new' journalism looks like, the journalism that an enormous new market craves. Stories that make money.

Thus, through a serendipitous turn of events I have reinvented myself from tabloid executive into digital strategist, web storyteller, refreshing brands by turning them into news-gatherers, ghosting CEO blogs (companies with active blogs, I'm fond of boasting, receive 97% more leads), distilling corporate gobbledygook into 400-word 'sells', writing headlines (only 1 out of 5 readers gets beyond the headline and traffic can vary as much as 500% based on that headline). I'm doing what I always did and see no need to dress it up as a new-fangled approach that will revolutionise business. It's just journalism.

And these are the tactics (ranked by importance) that businesses are using in their new guise as 'publishers': social media, e-newsletters, articles, blogs, in-person events (journalists call these case histories, the geeks have just discovered real people telling their own stories are the most effective way of getting a message across), webinars, research reports, infographics, white papers bla bla bla.

The trouble is there's a flaw behind this new we-can-be-publishers-too approach and it reminds me of Kevin Spacey's infamous line as Keyse Soze in The Usual Suspects: 'The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist'. In this case it should read: 'The greatest trick Silicon Valley ever pulled was convincing the world they didn't need to pay people to tell stories.'

These content marketing gurus travel the world (or, more likely, inhabit YouTube) telling businesses they're getting 'content' wrong and here are the seven magic rules to getting it right, or whatever the label on the back of the bottle says.

But the reason so much content marketing (we have to call it that, I'm afraid) is rubbish is because it takes a particular set of skills to make it work, to make the words sing, to ensure the story dovetails neatly with the overall strategy, to make the message coherent, to make the headline perfectly succinct, to make the sentences logically flow in to one another, to make the stories interesting, to make people care about what they're reading.

Close to 70 per cent of consumers spend time reading content from a brand they are interested in and, says the Content Marketing Association, almost as many of them feel more positive about a company after consuming that content - as long as it's well-written, interesting and not obvious self-promoting plugs and press releases.

It's quite telling, for instance, that 85% of businesses who have engaged in social media or blogging have five or less posts. They can't be bothered to make it work or just don't know how to. They have neither the skills nor inclination to make words work.

A recent report by a British communications outfit, Battenhall, revealed that 12 companies in the FTSE 100 refuse to join Twitter and, of the rest, seven have never tweeted, four haven't added anything to their accounts in 2013 and 61 do not have verified accounts.

It's astonishing when you consider that three quarters of consumers rely on social media for purchasing decisions.

I conducted some consultancy for one of Britain's biggest B2C companies earlier this year, a business that is spending many millions on sponsorship and advertising. Its marketing director was visibly astonished when I said that, after striving to build links with the consumer, he (the company) had 86 fans on Facebook and just over 300 on Twitter. But then nobody in the building - nor surprisingly in the unwieldy PR/marketing firm it employs - has yet displayed the skills to turn fairly dry messages into shareable content. Sorry, interesting stories. Again, the Content Marketing Institute has come up with an interesting statistic that my personal experience reflects - less than a third of B2C marketers consider themselves effective at content marketing (storytelling).

And thus the flaw in the approach of content marketing gurus is not how they identify the problem but how they set out the solutions. I watched a presentation the other day in which an unbelievably influential content marketer reveals the secrets of good content. His 'secrets' are so obvious it barely requires me to repeat them. But before he distributes this cure-all he talks about the 'excitement' that good content can engender in the reader/user. And to demonstrate this he talks about the thrill he feels every week when his favourite publication - printed, Jurassic-era, paid-for publication - is popped through his letterbox.

He can't even see the irony. The most exciting content moment of his week is when he indulges in the work of a team of writers, photographers and editors who have toiled away for endless hours and little pay to make a cohesive product that quite simply works. And then this 'guru' spoils it all by telling the assembled group of business owners, search engine obsessives and computer programmers how to 'do' content just like them.

What he should have said is this: You don't know how to 'do' content so hire someone who does, hire a journalist. They've spent their careers making someone else, an Editor, look good (or bad, but that's another story). And they can make you look good and your product look better.

The greatest era of journalism began exactly 100 years ago. War reporting changed the way messages were told and absorbed. The world became a smaller, more fascinating and horrific place thanks, in part, to journalists who strived to tell stories that needed to be told. The mass market opened up and everyone dived in, making fortunes and names for themselves in the process.

Some people will still make money and careers from such journalism, not as many though. The new journalistic careers will be forged on an entirely new battlefield, one in which they are the new recruits but, I'm convinced, will soon join the more sharply-suited decision-makers at the top table.

Stories can no longer just be that. In this new digital era, stories have to make money, they have to add value to a product. And storytellers have to incorporate the disciplines they once arrogantly put themselves above - marketing, advertising and public relations.

Stories - or content if you must - are the glue that brings all of those essential disciplines together to make a business more profitable. So thank heavens journalism possesses some of the best storymakers in the world.

At the beginning of this process of reinvention, I attended various content marketing seminars to educate myself. But the moments I found most fascinating were when SEO specialists took to the stage. Everyone, myself included, wanted to listen to search engine optimisation techniques, tricks, tools and trends. These were the segments that were most twitterised by the audience. But when these god-like gurus made way for 'content creators', rooms gradually emptied. Yet these were the most crucial speakers of all - time and again studies show that content creation is the single most effective SEO technique. The geeks are too self-satisfied with the 'tools' they invented - the words are what matter most.

So, mums and dads of wannabe writers, encourage your darlings to sharpen their pens, read newspapers, blog, tweet and watch late-night showings of All The President's Men, The Front Page and Five-Star Final (hunt it down, it's brilliantly nasty). They may not end up changing the world but I'm fairly confident that journalism will soon be more lucrative than it is now. And it'll save them from investment banking.