A 50-year-old newspaper offers a master lesson in content marketing best practices for today.
Not long ago my sister gave me something she’d found in a box of family mementos: a complete issue of The Ann Arbor News from Thursday, August 8, 1974.
The enormous headline on the front page blared, “Nixon Resigning.” A monumental historical event, no matter which side of the political aisle you were on; no wonder our parents saved it.
I brought the newspaper to the office with me the other day and showed it to the Spry Ideas staff. It was fascinating to flip through the paper and see the advertisements (Polyester! Bad hair! AMC Gremlins! $12 car tires!), not to mention things you just don’t see in a newspaper anymore—if you even see a newspaper. Like ads with illustrations instead of photos, a public list of recent divorces and death notices that listed the deceased’s home address.
After everyone else went back to work, I tried an experiment. I read through the newspaper the way my parents would have in 1974. Articles, ads, box scores, classifieds, comics—almost everything in the issue, front to back.
The articles were information-heavy, with more direct quotes than I’m used to seeing in today’s news stories. They were also uncolored by any type of opinion or editorializing. Just the facts, brought to us by editors, copywriters and the paper’s legmen—an old term for the reporters who fanned out across town to gather information at the scene of a story or from a source.
And I realized that for those of us in the content marketing industry, which is all about the newest, fastest, brightest, shiniest, shortest and most, this yellowing stack of newsprint can teach us a lot about how to handle our own content.
Lessons from the Legmen
Lately, I’ve noticed an increase in content that, ironically, asks if we’re at the point of content overload. Maybe; Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other providers keep our appetite for new media at peak level. Blizzards of blog articles blanket the internet each day. 24/7 weather and news stations constantly broadcast the latest natural and manmade disasters.
I wonder if my parents ever thought they were on information overload. Sadly, that’s something I never thought to ask them, but they seemed perfectly happy with the amount and type of content they received.
They watched their favorite TV shows every evening until bedtime or the late-night signoff, which most stations did then. They got news and weather daily from local TV and radio broadcasts and national newscasters like Walter Cronkite. When they wanted to read or needed to learn something, they had newspapers, magazines, libraries and bookstores.
All trusted sources they relied upon to get the famous 5 Ws—the Who, What, When, Where and Why of journalism. Researched, vetted and carefully edited stories with the facts they expected and needed to know.
Before you accuse me of being naïve, or of bemoaning the “good old days,” I know much of what happened back then never even made it into the news. Without the relentless cyber-spotlight we shine into every dark corner today, the bad in the world too often went unnoticed, uncared-about and ultimately, unseen.
As a firm believer in transparency, I’m glad we have the ability now to expose dark things to the light. But sometimes I wonder if we, as content producers, aren’t guilty of passing on too much flawed or weak information simply because we ourselves are on information overload. If we blindly trust that our sources are reliable just because they appear on our screens.
Desensitization by Information
Here’s an example of what I mean. More and more often, I see the frustration of the Spry Ideas content team as they try to vet original sources for quotes or statistics. When they click the link that supposedly credits the source, they find a site that borrowed the quote from another site, which took the quote from another site, and so on until they end up back at the first site without ever finding the original source.
When that happens, our content writer scrubs the stat or quote and tries to find something else—and often ends up in another never-ending circle, because so many articles out there don’t bother to cite their sources or update their links.
I’m sure it’s not done maliciously. In much the same way that The Ann Arbor News publishers used their content in 1974 to engage my parents’ trust (and keep them coming back), modern content marketers use today’s content to engage their audience’s trust and, of course, sell a product or service.
However, as marketing automation technology makes it easier and faster than ever to send out targeted, customized emails and measure the resulting engagement, content authors are under tremendous pressure to crank out more and more content that delivers warm leads to their sales counterparts.
As a result, it’s easy for an author to become overwhelmed and decide that if someone needs verification of the information included in their content, they can follow the chain of links to its origin. Not a best practice, but I can understand the dilemma.
Unfortunately, the site of origin may no longer exist. Site upgrades or refreshes often change URLs within a website. A website that existed in 2018 may not be around in 2020. And a statistic from 2013 may not ever be relevant again, since technology changes so quickly and drastically.
The 5 Ws of Content
Is there a solution? Maybe not a single one, but I think there’s a lesson in the 5 Ws that guided The Ann Arbor News’ legmen and editors in their efforts to put out their best stories.
When faced with information that could add to the clutter of flawed information already out there, here’s how the Spry Ideas team leverages best practices so the content we produce lives up to the standards that our clients demand:
Stuck in the Never-Ending Circle of Weak Citations and Broken Links? Just as the Ann Arbor News relied on direct quotes, try going straight to the real source—the quoted expert’s website, or the site of the company that produced the statistic. If you can’t find confirmation there, you have a decision to make: Keep passing along information that could be incorrect, or rework your content to include other information you know you can trust.
Like the old game of telephone, a piece of information can change a little or a lot as it’s passed along. If you have a statistic or quote you’re dying to use, take a few minutes to trace the information back to its origin to be sure you’ve got it right. Follow the trail of links, Google the basic information. Never automatically assume that the site owners where you found the information did their due diligence.
How old is the information? Is it contemporary enough to be used? A quote from a speech given in 2010 can be timeless…or embarrassingly out of date. If you’re not sure the information is still valid, do a bit more Googling. Or fire off a quick question to an expert in your company or among your contacts. But please, don’t get a reputation as someone who uses outdated information.
Where did you find the information? Did it come from a site or company you know and trust, or that’s a recognized industry expert? Did it come from a blog that borrowed it from a blog that borrowed it from another blog? Did you find it in a random clickbait article on the fifth page of your search results? Those of us who work with content learn to tell the difference, but there’s no shame in being unsure or new at the process. The best way to learn is to ask. Trust me, even the most experienced content creators occasionally need a second opinion.
As in, why should you worry about all this in a world where people are probably going to scan your content and move on within a few seconds anyway—especially when you’re on a deadline and have goals to meet? After all, it’s not like you’re putting something into your content that isn’t true, right? It’s just a little hard to track down the source…right? Well, yes. But as someone who’s seen an uncountable number of changes to the content industry since I first started working in my family’s book publishing business at 16, believe me when I say your readers (or viewers, or listeners) really do appreciate, share and return to content they trust.
Basically, I think it all comes down to this. What’s our responsibility to those who consume our content? Given the conversations I’ve had over the years with clients and others in our industry, I think our responsibility is a great and awesome one. It’s to always give our audiences content they can trust, in a world where trust and truth are often hard to come by.
So, it’s up to us to be our own legmen. It’s up to us to gather information about our audiences’ interests and places in the marketing and sales funnels, and then provide useful, accurate content that addresses those interests or pain points. And it’s up to us to be sure our sources are legitimately vetted and kept current, to keep our content viable and truthful, whether it’s read now or a year from now.
Not only will your audience and sales colleagues appreciate the extra effort, authors around the world who consider your content worthy of citation will go back to you again and again as an authoritative source—one of the highest compliments of all.