9 Things I Learned in Journalism School 15 Years Ago That I Use in My Content Marketing Career Today

journalism content marketing

Fifteen years ago, journalism school looked vastly different than what I imagine it is today. For starters, we were taught nada, zero, zilch about the internet and social media was years from existing. My entire journalism education revolved around print publications — the college newspaper and magazine. We were taught how to interview people on the phone or in-person with a tape recorder (!), to structure a story that was compelling, and to lay out the story in InDesign before it went to the printer. Both publications sat in newsstands across campus, and I kept every single edition I had put grueling hours into, I suppose in fear that I could lose a piece of myself if I failed to collect a pile of outdated college news on my bookshelf at home.  

Reflecting back makes me not only analyze how much my dreams, ambitions and day-to-day life has changed since then but how much the journalism and publishing industry has changed. The latter has been written and talked about 100x before, but wow. What a change to give all writers the ability to have their voice heard, despite background or education. Because of this, more than 2 million blog posts are published every day, and I can't consume content fast enough on the web. Every day, there's something written that makes me say, "YES! THIS." 

So, while the industry and tools have vastly changed from 2001, there are a few things that remain the same in content creation, even if you didn't go to journalism school. These are the nine invaluable lessons I learned in Western Washington University's Journalism Department:

1. It Will Always Start With a Story:

Throughout each journalism class, we were taught the art of the anecdote. If you could find a small, human-interest story to start each piece, then readers would be more personally connected because stories make for better reading than a bunch of facts and figures. I looked for that little thread of a story in every interview I conducted, and I built my interview questions around digging into details that could craft a story. I can still remember the personal satisfaction of frantically jotting down storyline details I had extracted from an interview in an , "Ah ha!" moment. 

It's the same thing today — stories matter, a ton. If you're publishing for yourself or a brand, you still need to figure out what your story is. It will help humanize the mission of your company and the right customers will connect with your mission and your brand, therefore feeling more connected to your business.

2. Grammar Is King:

Every time I hear Bob Dylan's Lay Lady Lay, I think about a day in class when my longhaired, mustachio professor played the song and said, "Bob Dylan was wrong. These lyrics should be Lie Lady Lie." Bob Dylan was wrong! What a declaration. That memory will never escape me.

I spent four years being drilled to remember grammar rules and follow the AP Styleguide (sorry, no Oxford comma in my world). Journalism school is the reason all of my friends declare me a Grammar Nazi, but good grammar should naturally be important to every publisher. @@Content is not king, grammar is.@@ Without good grammar, you'll lose the respect of your audience and come across as an amateur, not a thought leader.

By the way, even the worst Grammar Nazi's make grammar mistakes. I will never remember when and how to use effect vs. affect, and I still have Grammarly installed on my computer. But take the time to always be a student of good grammar, triple check your work, and for gosh sake —learn how to use your vs. you're. 

3. Interviews Make the Story:

If every great piece of journalism includes a great anecdote, the best way to get that anecdote is through personal interviews. Every one of my college journalism assignments had to include one interview, sometimes more. @@If you find someone who has a unique story to tell or who has been through an experience that relates to the story you want to tell, your content will write itself.@@ This is especially important in today's content world where there are a million articles written about the same thing. Interviews might be harder to find and conduct, but they are worth the investment because they'll keep your content unique, relatable and fresh. 

4. Structure Keeps Your Readers Engaged:

Start with a compelling hook or story, end with the boring stuff. This is called the Inverted Pyramid and every journalism article follows this formula. You should structure your blog posts for your readers with the Inverted Pyramid in mind.

Start with the hook and most important stuff — this is called the lead. I also suggest getting quickly to the point of the entire article in paragraph one by including the 5 Ws. Next, follow with details and facts that support your main point and include subheads and bullets to break up the post and make it easily digestible. Finally, put the nice to know stuff at the bottom. I also suggest summarizing your entire article at the bottom of the blog post and closing with a question and call to action to answer the question in the comments or on Twitter. 

inverted pyramid content marketing

5. Images Tell A Thousand Words:

How did the image at the top of this blog post make you feel? Did you know we'd be talking about writing or grammar at some point in the article? Did you get a sense of my workspace or personality because my desk has flowers on it & I have a zebra desk organizer? Perhaps the photo could have been in color and been more compelling — maybe a photo of myself with the mug would have been more interesting.

I had to take photojournalism in college, and we were taught our content should always include images to support our narrative. It makes your content more interesting, visually compelling, and shareable online since sites like Twitter & Facebook give a lot of real estate to the embedded image in content links.

If you have the ability to take your own photos, go for it. iPhone photography can compete with professional DSLR cameras these days, and it's easy to sign up for an online photography course to get some tips. If you don't feel comfortable taking photos of professional quality, you can find a ton of free Creative Commons or stock photography online. Two of my favorite sites for free blog images are Pixabay and Picjumbo

6. Deadlines Are Binding: 

If we missed a deadline in journalism, we didn't pass the assignment. Deadlines were binding — the most important date and never to be missed. I've lived my life abiding by deadlines ever since. If you tell me to call you by 4pm on Sunday, I will call you. If my boss requested an email or PowerPoint deck by a certain time or date, I made that date happen even if it meant staying up until 4 a.m. the night before. This kind of reliability and quality of work paved the way for success in my career.

@@Deadlines are a contract of respect. Show your colleagues, boss and clients that you respect them by adhering to their deadline.@@ It'll give you, and your professional career, credibility. 

7. Professional Relationships are Gold:

The professional relationships and friendships I started to build with my journalism colleagues still positively impact my life today. I've learned it's incredibly important to build relationships with people throughout your career because it positively benefits you for years to come. This goes for people who 'report to you' in leadership positions too.

Two classmates who I hired on the editorial staff of the school magazine while I was editor in chief are now some of my closest supporters and friends, 15 years later, and we affectionately refer to each other as 'journa nerds.' They've followed my career, given me advice, shared my writing and celebrated my wins. We've even hung out together at content marketing conferences across the country. Plus, they have pretty impressive careers themselves as Content Marketing Manager at REI and Content Marketing Manager at Limeade

You're not going to get along with everyone you come across during your career but do your best to build relationships with key people who can be your supporters when you do leave a job and move on to the next. I will forever value the relationships I built 15 years ago with my journa nerds.

8. Seeing Your Work Published Never Gets Old:

I remember the first time I was chosen to have my article published in the school magazine and saw it for the first time in glossy print — like the Grinch, I thought my heart was going to swell three times its size that day. Seeing your work published is EXCITING and this feeling never fades. Even if you're only getting published on small sites, writing for another brand, or publishing blogs no one is reading. Stick to consistently writing and publishing, and that good feeling will pay off when readers start to show up and stick around. 

9. Cliches Are 'Not the Best Tool in the Shed:'

In journalism and writing classes, you learn that cliches are bad. Cliches are short phrases that sum up an idea or thought, have been used for years and are poo-pooed by professional writers. For example, you shouldn't use a cliche to say you're a jack-of-all-trades but should instead use details in your writing to showcase that trait.

I'm going a bit 'against the grain' on this one, however. I enjoy cliches here and there in my writing and feel like it's part of my voice. I don't feel the need to be overly strict when writing in more of a conversational, blogging tone. Feel free to take your own opinion on cliches — use them, or abhor them. Always develop your own voice, however, and stick with it. If your voice includes a few cliches, that's okay. No one will notice and judge you except for your journalism professor. 

Without my journalism degree, I wouldn't be the content marketer I am today. I'm forever grateful for the years I spent with my journa nerds and the lessons it has given me throughout my career and writing. Did you go to journalism school and have a key takeaway I missed? Do you carry a lesson from college throughout your career today? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @jeannabarrett. 

Jeanna Barrett

San Francisco, CA