Have you ever noticed how often Time and Newsweek have the same cover stories? It's almost like they get together to compare notes, although we all know they're bitter rivals. And it's not limited to the big boys. The same thing also happens with niche publications and nightly newscasts (which I helped produce for years). But it's actually pretty easy to explain. It's the unintended product of the time-tested ways that journalists identify what makes a story newsworthy — a set of standards that I now use to make my life as a content marketer a lot easier.
No matter how it looks, journalists aren't being lazy, and they certainly don't lack creativity. But the reporters and decision-makers all went to journalism schools that taught the same set of standards, so we shouldn't be surprised that when they look at the same information, and target the same audience, they often end up with the same evaluations.
How "Newsies" Identify Newsworthy Stories
Here's how it works. Every newsroom starts its newsgathering process with an editorial meeting — a brainstorming session where stories are pitched, discussed, vetted, and ultimately either covered or killed. Everybody is expected to contribute story ideas, and there are often free-flowing discussions, but they're all shaped by some basic filters that determine what's newsworthy. Beyond that, journalists keep using the same questions throughout the process to decide which stories to elevate and which stories to promote.
For news consumers, that creates a frustrating lack of variety, but for content marketers, there's a huge opportunity. No, I'm not talking about the void created by all of the competitors covering the same story in the same way — although it's certainly there. I'm talking about the ability to use those time-honored questions to determine what kind of content marketing stories are worth "covering." After all, journalists are really in the "business" of providing information that their audience will find interesting. Since content marketers are using the same channels to do the same thing, why not take advantage of the same strategies?
6 Questions to Determine What's Newsworthy
Here's one thing to remember about content creation: it all starts with story selection. If you pick the wrong thing, you'll spend the rest of your time trying to make it better. But if you apply these filters on the front-end, you'll make better selections and avoid some frustration.
1. Is it useful, unique or interesting?
Whether it's a feature story for the late night newscast, a tabloid headline in New York City, or the cover story for Time, this becomes the most important question.
There's the classic example of "dog bites man" (common) vs. "man bites dog" (unique, surprising, and newsworthy), but it's actually easy to apply the standards to content marketing. Before you start trying to treat a press release or product announcement like a relevant story, ask yourself why anyone would care.
After all, if your information isn't useful, unique or interesting, it's hard to picture anybody clicking on the headline — so why write it in the first place?
2. Is it timely?
Did it just happen? Does the audience already know about it? Is it tied to a holiday, an event, or something that happens around the same time every year? There's a reason you see stories about helping the kids adjust their bedtimes right before school starts, checking your furnace at the first sign of a cold snap, and heartwarming reunions any time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Because a "timely" news peg can make a mundane story more interesting, and a good one even better.
Timeliness is one of the easiest elements of newsworthiness to understand, yet it's the one most content marketers miss. Sure, there are seasonal aspects to your business, but you can go beyond that. If you have a heartwarming story about a mother and daughter, remember that it will seem even more interesting if you release it around Mother's Day.
3. Is it aligned with the target audience?
This is the way to align the story with your goals. In TV news, the target audience is usually women, age 25-54. If a story wouldn't resonate with them, it faces an uphill battle.
You can use the same filtering for any business. Picture your target audience — your buyer personas. If the story wouldn't interest them, you have two choices: skip it or fix it. Period.
4. Do we have enough information to write about?
In other words, what do we really know? It's easy to come up with a story idea based on a few facts and start filling in the rest of the blanks with hopeful guesses. That's also a recipe for disaster.
Editorial meetings are full of "what if" questions, but that's just the start of the newsgathering process. If the answers to those questions aren't interesting (applying the same standards every step of the way), the story should stop there.
In other words, don't just put a "great sounding" title on your content calendar. Don't just hope your writer will find "X interesting way to do _____." If you don't know those answers, keep asking questions until you do. And don't actually put it on the calendar until you have interesting answers.
5. Is the information unbiased, authentic, legitimate?
What's your source? In news, credibility is everything. You should see the reaction in an editorial meeting when reporters learn that a seemingly newsworthy study about a medical condition was actually funded by a drug company. They might still run the story, but not without putting in some extra work to counter their fears of the apparent bias.
When journalists get sloppy with that kind of stuff, they almost always end up with egg on their faces. And the good ones are driven to keep that from happening.
Why does that matter to content marketers? Because you're playing to the same audience, and most people have really good BS meters. Play with them at your own risk.
6. Is this a story or just a statement?
I credit one of my mentors with this one. It was his simply worded way to find out whether a story had the right elements to keep the audience interested from start to finish. Is there conflict or natural tension in the story? Is there a compelling character? What were their obstacles? If you couldn't go beyond describing the story with a simple statement — telling him why people would actually care about the full story — you were doomed.
You can use the same test for just about any story. What's the beginning, the middle, and the end? What's it about?
If it's a simple product announcement, it probably doesn't cut it. Announcements about events, sales, and special offerings are also just statements. Maybe a series of statements, but they aren't real stories.
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