Journalists’ big switch

More companies are hiring scribes to ramp up ‘content plays’

JD Lasica
JD Lasica
Dec 16, 2013 · 7 min read
From left, Michael Copeland, Ben Worthen, Dan Lyons, Harrison Weber & Brian Caulfield

A funny thing is happening to a lot of journalists I know: They’re bailing on Big-J journalism.

But while many are leaving the profession of journalism, they’re taking their craft with them. Faced with the Incredible Shrinking Business Models of the old media economy, journalists have begun taking their storytelling skills to the business world, particularly tech.

Companies are snapping up journalists left and right. Today every company is a media company — and who better to tell these companies’ stories than journalists trained in the art of storytelling?

Look at the roll call of A-list journalists who’ve traded newsrooms for businesses, venture capital firms and marketing startups:

• Michael Copeland, senior editor at Wired magazine and a former senior writer at Fortune and Business 2.0, joined Andreessen Horowitz in June to lead a new content strategy.

• Ben Worthen, a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was hired in March as Head of Content at Sequoia Capital in a content marketing play.

• Dan Lyons, who won a cult following as Fake Steve Jobs, was a senior editor at Forbes and a columnist at Newsweek before becoming editor-in-chief of ReadWrite — which he left in March for a content marketing job at HubSpot.

• Harrison Weber left The Next Web, where we was East Coast, Design & Features Editor, for WeWork, where he has launched FullStart, a new publication for entrepreneurs that combines storytelling and startup resources.

• Brian Caulfield, a journalist for Forbes, Red Herring and Business 2.0, joined Nvidia about a year ago as chief blogger.

• Tomas Kellner, a staff writer at Forbes for eight years, is now Managing Editor of GE’s daily blog, GE Reports, which takes a journalistic approach to covering innovation and technology breakthroughs.

• Rafe Needleman, the well-known tech journalist who was editor at large at CNET for eight years, joined Evernote in August 2012 to lead the team that runs its hackathons, workshops and outreach while writing an intermittent column.

• Erick Schonfeld, former editor in chief of TechCrunch, editor at Business 2.0 and writer at Fortune, joined DEMO as its executive producer in September 2012. He now gets to decide which startups make it on stage instead of just writing about them.

Notice a pattern?


Robert Scoble at the 2013 Startup Conference. Photo by JD Lasica.

It’s not completely new, of course. In earlier eras, many a journalist jumped over the Chinese wall to join a PR firm or ad agency. During the dotcom heyday, many took a leap into online entrepreneurialism before the Big Flameout of 2000-2001.

Of course, you don’t have to leave traditional just-the-facts-ma’am journalism behind if you join a tech company. Katie Couric and David Pogue recently made a splash by leaving CBS News and the New York Times to continue what they’ve been doing — only they’ll now be doing it for Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! (Prediction: Pogue is a keeper. Couric’s fish-out-of-water story will last a year or two.)

And a handful of journalists — Om Malik at GigaOm, Matt Marshall at Venturebeat, Sarah Lacy at Pando Daily, Jessica Lessin at The Information, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg with AllThingsD and their new unnamed venture — managed to make the leap to business CEO/publisher without leaving journalism.

But the new new thing is for journalists to bring their mad skills, if not their rigorous craft, to what’s known as content marketing, sometimes called “brand journalism.”

Why is it happening? In a word: Google.

Ever since Google rolled out its “freshness update,” companies have caught on to the idea that if they’re going to rank high in Google’s search results, they have to play the content game — by creating new content, delivered weekly, daily, even hourly, that generates lots of social sharing. That’s what Google demands today, so businesses need to feed the beast with interviews, Q&As, buzz-worthy infotainment and blog posts ranging from the erudite to the irreverent.

It all begins with generating interesting content — in other words, the kind of thing Robert Scoble has been doing forever. Scoble has been churning out blog posts and video interviews from his days at Microsoft to his current position as startup liaison officer for Rackspace and chief content creator at its Building 43.

And if anyone argues with you about whether someone is “really” a journalist — what? no news organization credentials? — all you need to do is heave a little sigh and say, “Who’s a journalist? Someone who does journalism. Look at Robert Scoble on any given day.” Though not necessarily at every single hour.

Scoble, who has a journalism degree, self-identifies as a journalist rather than a marketer. “It’s like being 97% a journalist,” he said by email. “The real difference between working for a journalistic organization and working for a company is I tend to only work on things that would help the company I work for. I doubt I’d go to Afghanistan and study their culture and how it’s rebounding since the war there, for instance.

“I’ve always seen myself as a hybrid: mostly journalist mixed with in with being a strategist, brand expert, general marketer and public face of a company.”


The line between journalist and marketer has gotten blurry in recent years. Journalists touting their posts on Twitter are committing random acts of marketing. Marketers conveying the story behind a new launch, product or service often create posts in a news-you-can-use format largely indistinguishable from Big-J Journalism.

Just don’t ask them to do an investigative report on their corporate bosses.

Dan Lyons said he draws on his journalism skills for his content marketing role at Hubspot. “I do virtually the same thing that I did as a journalist,” he said. “It involves storytelling, content creation, and trying to find and write great stories that get traffic. My ‘beat’ is media and marketing and tech, but it’s all through a lens of marketing. From my perspective the biggest change is how the company I work for goes about monetizing that traffic. In traditional media the money came from selling ads and putting them next to content. At HubSpot the traffic is about generating leads and converting leads to customers.”

Lyons, who spent 25 years covering tech, adds: “I still think of myself as a journalist, but I don’t know if I would call myself that officially. I think being a journalist — a real journalist — is a special thing, and requires real independence, which I don’t have.

“My job is to get people to be aware of HubSpot in hopes that some small percentage of them will actually buy HubSpot software. That’s not journalism. Yes, it involves storytelling, content creation, skills that you develop as a journalist. I interview interesting people, I write Q&As and book reviews. Some of the stuff I write I think I could be publishing in Newsweek or any other mainstream media outlet. But no, my job really is not journalism.”


Tomas Kellner with a MakerBot at GE

Tomas Kellner points out that some companies have been in the storytelling business for a long time. In 1947, GE hired Kurt Vonnegut to look around the company and find good stories. (Back then, they called it PR, not content marketing.)

Like Lyons, Kellner said he’s using his journalistic chops in running the GE Reports blog. “Every story needs to have some type of challenge, a protagonist, and something has to be at stake. You have to find it otherwise people will not read it. Many companies still tell their news through a press release, and you will certainly not find a flesh and blood protagonist there. But the press release is dead, or at least dying. The Internet made smart companies realize that they can tell their own stories online by hiring the best storytellers there are.

“The barrier between traditional media and the companies they used to cover has collapsed. Anyone can tell their own story in a compelling way and reach tens of thousands of readers now,” he said.

Having a “content play” these days starts on one end of the spectrum with initiatives like Sequoia’s Grove (“Founders helping founders”), its new portal for how-to content, videos and events; Adobe’s, a news and information site to attract C-suite customers, and Bob Evans, chief communications officer at Oracle (and, bingo!, former Editorial director of CMP and content director of TechWeb), writing a column for Forbes BrandVoice.

The further to the right you go across that spectrum, the less blurry the line becomes between marketing and journalism.

David Berlind, former executive editor of CNET and chief content officer for UBM Tech, entertained a few offers from businesses looking to create a content play before landing in July as editor in chief of ProgrammableWeb, owned by software company MuleSoft. “My paycheck comes from a vendor,” he said, “but what I like is that I get to run it as a fully independent, objective news engine that’s creating content. What we do every day is journalism.”

Still, he’s quick to add, “There are just not that many journalism jobs anymore. So who am I to judge when a journalist takes a job with a vendor? Their craft of writing and storytelling is in high demand in the business world, and a steady paycheck is a nice thing.”

Kellner agrees. “You’re definitely going to see a lot more companies hiring journalists.”

J.D. Lasica, who was an editor at the Sacramento Bee for 11 years, is co-founder of Cruiseable, a new startup for discovery, booking and community curation of cruise vacations. Sign up for the beta.

JD Lasica

Written by

JD Lasica

Author | CEO & Co-founder, Cruiseable | Entrepreneur | International speaker | Journalist | Photographer

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