Business journalists: Embrace content marketing or risk going the same way as typesetters

Former editor of Money Marketing editor and Centaur managing director Tim Potter explains why business journalists should embrace content marketing lest they go the way as coal miners and typesetters

First some family history. My grandfather, Cyril Potter, looked after pit ponies in Yorkshire, before heading south in the 1930s to work in the newly opened Kent coalfields.  He became a fully fledged miner, digging out coal from under the sea near Deal.  The pit where he spent most of his working life, would later be one of the casualties of the 1980s mine closures.

My father, Harold Potter, was a hot-metal typesetter, operating a linotype machine, for more than 40 years in the heyday of the print industry.  But after being made redundant for the second time in 1989, aged 58, he never worked again.  He never really got over the fact that a job which he spent seven years training for and which he regarded as an indispensable part of publishing had just ceased to exist.

I trained as a local newspaper journalist after leaving school and went from there into business to business publishing at Centaur, working my way up from a reporter on Money Marketing, to become managing director of all the business publications before leaving two years ago. 

So what has my family history taught me?  Probably the key lesson is that none of us can predict the future or resist change. 

When I started in journalism no one would have forecast the demise of print.  It was literally unthinkable. Equally, when they started out their careers as miner and typesetter, neither my grandfather or father would ever have imagined that not just they, as individual workers, but their whole industries would end up redundant, simply ceasing to exist on any meaningful scale.

That, I hope, is where the familial similarities end.  Whereas my father was never able to make the mental leap into a linotype-free world I see the rise of the web and the large scale collapse of print as an opportunity to be seized, rather than a transformation to be feared.

However I think many journalists are in danger of running into the same trap as miners and typesetters in not recognising quite how the world is changing.  The biggest threat to traditional publishing, certainly in the B2B market, is coming not from new digital players but from the very advertisers who have historically bankrolled these publications.

Everyone recognises that there are far fewer resources now available to produce high quality journalism – but what even experienced media watchers have failed to grasp is that this creates a huge opportunity for savvy marketers to fill the information gap left behind.   With many magazines struggling to be more than a press release distribution service there is an opening for the companies which would previously have advertised in those publications to provide their own analysis and in-depth technical coverage on their own websites and elsewhere. More and more of them are doing this, bypassing the press altogether.

For instance in the financial services media interviews with fund managers about stock selection or market performance have always been important, well read content.  But some of the best journalists in the B2B media are now finding that it is more satisfying to create content for a marketing department then an overstretched editorial team. 

They are given more resources and more time to get to the heart of an issue rather than just expected to knock out copy in a matter of minutes.  In investment firms they are likely to have much more contact with the fund managers than an outside journalist, so be better able to write informed commentary

Of course the downside is that this coverage will not be independent.  However it may turn out that the media industry values independence more than the audience it serves.  Continual cost cuts in the traditional media may mean that it loses its attraction leading the readers and digital visitors to seep away. In any event, with traditional sources of income in decline, even titles which pride themselves on having the highest journalistic standards, are in some areas increasingly blurring the lines between advertising and editorial, with sponsored supplements and accepting so called 'native advertising'.

Marketers need to learn how to produce engaging, relevant content that is easy to access, in other words how to think like an editor and write like a journalist.  And that is one area in an otherwise shrinking sector where the opportunities for journalists will come from in the future.

For content marketing will be much better funded than traditional media. In the US research by the Content Marketing Institute found that best in class content marketers already spend more than a third of their total marketing budget on content marketing. 

These companies will therefore be able to afford to hire the best journalists and support staff to establish a full scale publishing operation, rivalling and ultimately surpassing much of the existing media.  There may be a lot of trial and error but companies will have the resources to be able to make mistakes and become the dominant source of information in their own sectors. Maybe the danger of being pilloried on social media will keep marketers honest.

Journalists who want to avoid the fate of Cyril and Harold should not therefore reject content marketing as another form of PR. In the future it may be an important source of the kind of opportunities we have sought in independent media to pursue in-depth analysis and offer informed commentary.

Tim Potter now works as a B2B media consultant (uk.linkedin.com/in/tjpotter).   He has led development of content marketing businesses in the financial and legal markets.

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