As influencer marketing continues to reach and attract mass markets, journalists are eying the idea of creating a social media wave of their own. Though the debate is still out on the respectability of influencers in the age of media, their impact is proven by the numbers. In this series, we investigate the emergence of the influencer, the ethical challenges of writers who tap into this field and the misconceptions of the role.
In part three, we meet journalists who also moonlight as influencers.
I was a few months into my first “big girl” full-time gig as an editorial assistant, and well, I hated it. I loved the people, but since the content was geared toward small business owners, I found myself researching tax laws and marketing advice, instead of writing about the topics I actually cared about: travel, wellness and relationships. For the first few years of my career, my previous blog (which I’ve since discontinued) was my escape, providing an outlet for me to write about my passions and my interests.
That’s why I’ll never forget the day it made it to the home page of WordPress. Within a few hours, my traffic skyrocketed and the fan mail came pouring in. Fast-forward to several months down the line (and many blog posts later) and I had a book agent. I eventually was on a documentary. And at one point, was asked to name myself an expert and sell a self-help read.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the path for me, since what I actually valued and enjoyed the most was journalism. I wanted — more than anything — to become someone who told the stories of the world, and to do that, I couldn’t make myself a “dating pro.” So I walked away from it, and set out on a mission to change my career path. It took sweat, tears, plenty of money and a lot of flights, but a decade later, I consider myself a successful nomadic writer who pens for many of the top-tier travel publications. And with my humble following of 3.5K Instagram followers, I’m not exactly an influencer, but I definitely get asked for my opinion.
Other wordsmiths have taken the same route, and managed to grow their audiences to an impressive measure, all while continuing to be journalists. Here, they share their career stories and their best advice for those who want to follow suit:
“You have to really, really want it.”
If there’s anything Jamie Allison Sanders knows for sure, it’s that she was born to be a writer. In fact, it has been solidified in her DNA since she was 10 years old, when she decided she would one day become the editor-in-chief of Seventeen. After graduating with a journalism degree, she packed her bags and made the pilgrimage to the Big Apple, eventually landing a coveted editorial assistant job at Harper’s Bazaar. Two years later, she became the fashion editor at Cargo magazine, and then took a sidestep into copywriting, penning for brands like Ralph Lauren, Bergdorf Goodman and many others.
But five years into building an empire for other people, and freelancing for countless magazines, she decided to create a brand of her own and launched her now beloved blog, The Beauty of Life. Today, she has a large blog following with frequent posts, covering everything from beauty to fashion and beyond, but she still maintains her journalism integrity as she dabbles between both worlds. It’s a lesson she carries from school, and one she’ll never waiver.
“Even when I work on paid campaigns, I will only work with brands I care about and actually want to write about, regardless of payment or product received. To me, ethics really mean thinking about what is right or wrong, and choosing what is right,” she explains.
For those who want to launch blogs and consider forging a path of solo entrepreneurism, Sanders says to make sure you really, really want it. “Don’t become a blogger or influencer because you want free stuff. And know that it is hard. It isn’t easy, and it takes time to build a following and gain the respect of the community. I still work extremely hard to build and maintain relationships both with brands and with other members of the fashion and beauty blogger and influencer communities,” she explains.
“Write every day.”
If you ask Angie Orth, her career has been anything but linear. Today, she claims “journalist” and “influencer” as part of her job titles. But her degree? Well, that’s in public relations, even if she doesn’t currently work in the field. At the core of her is writing, and that’s the passion that’s guided her every pivot.
In her early career, she was a publicist at Golin, Ogilvy and Weber Shandwick, but found she wanted to be the one to be pitched instead. So at the urging of a professor in college, she started a blog when she moved to New York City. “He said, ‘If you want to be a writer, you need to write every day.’ And I took that to heart, even when I wasn’t writing professionally. After almost a decade in the PR world, I quit my job to travel and give life as a freelancer a try,” she shared.
It was through this leap of faith that she ultimately decided to create content on her own. “When I set out on my trip around the world, blogging was new. I saw it as a way to enhance my freelance opportunities, not so much as a career path on its own. I wanted to be a travel writer… and so did everyone else,” she explained. “As I was pursuing freelance writing, my blog and social audience grew to the point where freelancing became less of a draw. I wish I could take credit for having this grand vision of becoming a professional content creator, but it had much to do with being in the right place at the right time.”
Even if luck was on her side, her background and training keep her focused and level-headed, which is unique amongst influencers who have never also worked as professional writers. “The majority of influencers today don’t have a journalism background and perhaps haven’t taken ethics classes in J-school, but I have, and I abide by that code. I have no problem sharing if an experience isn’t up to snuff; frankly, it would be harder for me to lie about an experience to please a sponsor than it would be to just tell the truth of the story,” she explains. Her main goal is to help her readers to have the best experiences when they travel, so sharing anything other than the reality would be a disservice to them, she adds.
To arrive at similar success, Orth says it’s important to not only remain competitive and be prepared to invest some of your own money upfront to build an audience, but to keep the words of wisdom of her professor in the back of your mind, too. “You can tell the folks who just want to be influential to get free clothes verses the ones who take content creation seriously as a craft,” she says.
“You’re your own editor.”
When Eileen Cotter Wright graduated with a journalism degree in 2008 in the heat of the recession, she was forced to take unpaid internships and freelance writing jobs. But after a while, ends needed to meet and she found herself in the world of content marketing. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since the experience helped her to form her own blogs about travel and lifestyle, which have been monetized in the past few years.
But between then and now, she built her brand by doing the pitch, chase, follow-up, write, revise and invoice tango for various publications. Though she loved to write, she didn’t enjoy the process, so she took matters into her own hands. “There were lots of opportunities, especially for trips and traveling, but I needed to secure commission to go. I decided: Why not just be the editor of my own site, then coverage was always guaranteed? This snowballed into a decent social media presence, and I found it fun to curate my own adventures,” she explained.
She calls the influencer realm a more laid-back approach to content creation, and enjoys writing about what piques her interest. Even so, she is upfront about what hat she is wearing — and when she is wearing it to maintain her integrity.
“I treat journalism as reporting on facts, and the influence/blog side is marketing. While both involve writing and content, they’re two very different things. I follow by the rules of my editors when writing for them, and follow my own rules with my own blog,” she explains. “I make sure my audience knows that I blog for a living, so there will be support from brands there to continue bringing great content. My articles in publications are paid for by them, so that’s where my loyalties lie.”
She’s thankful for her experience in both, since being a strong writer had aided her success as an influencer. “Sometimes the journalism world can be tense, so influencing and working for yourself can be a lot more fun and friendly. But with that said, don’t lose your integrity. You won’t likely have an editor fact-checking or correcting errors in your captions and content, so be diligent and deliver the good stuff to your audience,” she recommends.