Like many content marketers, I am trained as a journalist. When I earned my degree at The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 1995, the supply list for Buck Ryan’s copyediting course included a pica ruler and a photo proportion wheel. My magazine editing professor, Charles Whitaker, recommended both The Joy of Cooking and The Joys of Yiddish as essential desk references for future jobs.
As you can see from the image below, I still own my photo proportion wheel even though I never use it. Even though I don’t use those tools or those books today, I do still use so much of what I learned in those undergrad years. Here are the three most essential lessons:
1. See it for Yourself
In April 1992 (spring of my freshman year–cast your eyes at the photo below to peer through the window of that magical time), the Chicago River flooded into skyscraper basements and maintenance tunnels in the heart of downtown Chicago.
Initially, the cause of the flood was unclear, and our journalism professors encouraged us to follow the story in the Chicago Tribune. The reporters, they told us, were standing on the bridges all night, gathering information directly from the city engineers and water workers. This was very different than taking notes in a courtroom or reworking a press release.
I’ve continued to remember that there’s really no substitute for incorporating simple, direct observation into my research. For an employee newsletter we launched, I visited the brand’s headquarters, ate in the lunchroom and attended a town hall Q&A with the CEO. The experience added immeasurably to my understanding of the audience and what mattered to them about their careers.
2. Look for the Imperfections, Too
We dined on a diet of heart-wrenching journalism at Medill. Crime, poverty and personal anguish led a lot of the example stories we analyzed and admired. It was—no surprise—a tremendous relief to work on something like a personality profile or a feature on trends in wedding planning.
But even if the story was positive, complimentary and uplifting, we learned the value of looking for the imperfections, too. No person, no business, no 5-star restaurant is flawless, and it’s impossible to trust content that portrays them that way.
French supermarket chain Intermarché started with examining imperfection in its innovative effort to reduce food waste. They bought “inglorious” fruits and vegetables from farms—produce that was being thrown away basically on their previous direction just because of looks, not taste or freshness. They then gave these apples, oranges and carrots a marketing boost and an attractive price. It worked well. Intermarché sold 1.2 tons per store of the homely goods in the first two weeks of the campaign and realized an overall 24% increase in store traffic.
3. Follow your Curiosity
My magazine writing professor, the late Robert McClory, was masterful at visual outlining. I remember very clearly the diagram he drew to show how he reported this story on the Illinois lottery. He didn’t know what the angle was initially, just that the lottery had gotten big and he wanted to know more.
The diagram was like that map of Middle Earth in the flyleaves of the Lord of the Rings books. He journeyed from his interviews with the lottery commission to a mine of data on gambling addiction. Then he connected to universities with psychologists and psychiatrists studying gambling. They directed him to Gamblers Anonymous, and he attended a meeting. Some members agreed to talk about their individual problems, including Julie, a single mother who became the lead in the story.
Think this only works for investigative journalists or nonfiction book authors? The StartUp podcast team sold air time to Ford, but they used it to partner on a series of stories on innovations in auto design at the motor giant. The piece about the old age suit was my favorite. Who would have guessed?
Oh, and one more thing I learned in journalism school that I use today? Some things never go out of style. Clearly.