Building a Content Brand? Think Twice Before Covering News

April 14, 2021

For any content outlet, covering news in your niche can be alluring.

Because of my background in journalism, my mind always sees the potential for news coverage when I think through a new content site, and I’ve experimented with it for multiple brands.

Covering news is exciting! It showcases your brand’s know-how, connections and authority in the space. And it can lead to lots of social shares if people within your industry care about the development.

But in my experience, if news isn’t your company’s bread and butter (like, say, a news publication), it’s usually smarter to avoid the temptation of covering what’s hot today if it will be old news by tomorrow. 

What’s news vs. evergreen content?

Before I dive into my reasoning, here’s a quick review of news vs. evergreen content for anyone who’s not familiar with those terms.

News stories cover what just happened or what’s unfolding. The headlines at the top of the New York Times tend to cover breaking news, like the headline that was featured as I wrote this post: M.L.B Pulls All-Star Game From Georgia in Response to Voting Law. This is a new development, something that just happened. It will quickly become out of date and the next news item will take its place.

News organizations also usually feature analysis and trend pieces. These articles are often related to a news event, but because they’re about an idea that’s bigger than the event itself, they have a longer shelf life than straight-up news.

Evergreen pieces are accurate and relevant for a long time. Outlets can publish them at any time, and readers can find and consume them at any time. They’ll provide value long after they’re published.

Sometimes people in the content industry assume all evergreen pieces are boring, because some publications fall into that trap. But evergreen pieces can absolutely be helpful and interesting and hold the reader’s attention. One simple example of this is how-to guides, like this post on The Write Life on how to use an ellipsis. That information will be just as helpful and relevant to a reader who wants to use an ellipsis correctly next week as it is today.

Evergreen content is far more effective than news for attracting traffic through search engines because when you publish a truly valuable piece of content, it will continue appealing to readers over time. And if you update that content periodically to keep it accurate and relevant, Google will reward you by continuing to send people to read it.

Why your content company probably shouldn’t cover news

Lots of news outlets make a name for themselves by being the first to report on a topic, what’s known in the industry as getting a “scoop.” For these publications, breaking news well and often is vital to attracting and retaining an audience.

But if you don’t rely on breaking news as your core competency, it can be smart to stay away from it altogether.

Here’s why:

1. Covering breaking news well can be expensive

If news isn’t your primary value proposition, your organization might not be set up to cover breaking news. You’ll have to create new processes and infrastructure to publish quickly, and you may even need new people.

Covering breaking news can be especially challenging if you have a small team and rely primarily on contractors rather than staffers, which is the case for many content shops. When news breaks, you need a writer who’s available to write it and an editor who’s available to edit and publish it. News doesn’t always break between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. — although if you’re working with contractors, that’s irrelevant anyhow, since labor laws prohibit you from determining their work hours.

Quick-turnaround work costs significantly more than work contractors can complete at their convenience. And if you want someone to be available at the drop of a hat, you might have to pay them to be on call, which is expensive and impractical for a small content operation.

Expensive isn’t necessarily bad if you’ll get a good return on that investment; sometimes you have to spend money to make money. But as I explain below, news content isn’t likely to bring high ROI for content brands that usually focus on evergreen stories.

2. Covering breaking news can be stressful

Quick turnarounds are normal when you work in a newsroom. But if your company’s infrastructure isn’t created with fast turnaround times in mind, this type of work can quickly become more stress than it’s worth.

If you work with contractors and don’t have someone on call at every moment of the day, you’ll have to scramble to find a writer who can cover news immediately when it breaks. As anyone who has worked in the news industry will tell you, both editors and reporters end up working late nights or on weekends. The schedule is unpredictable, and it often means neglecting commitments to family and friends. This is why journalists tend to have a reputation as unreliable, and why they mainly hang out with other journalists, because they all understand when a friend backs out from dinner at the last minute for a story.

Even the simple act of deciding whether to cover news that just broke can use precious resources and take you away from content that might offer higher ROI.

3. News doesn’t always bring a high ROI

Covering news might bring you a bump in traffic on the day of publication, depending on the strength of your distribution channels, so long as you choose to cover topics your readers truly care about. Because of this result, if you only review results within a week or so of publication, you might think covering news is beneficial.

However, if you compare news content to evergreen content over the course of a year, your evergreen content will likely outperform your news content by a big margin. That’s because readers care about the topic long after the few hours or days that a news story is actually news.

While it’s possible to update most evergreen content after publication to ensure it remains accurate, it’s more difficult to edit news content so it continues to be relevant. That short shelf life tends to minimize ROI.

4. Your competition probably does it better

If news isn’t your bread and butter, someone else probably does it better.

Lots of news organizations focus on covering news as it breaks, and they are set up to do it well.

Rather than replicating their work, use your limited resources to provide value that no one else provides or that’s somehow better than what your competitors offer.

Focus on what will truly set your brand apart, and put your resources there instead.

What if there are general news stories about a certain topic, but no one has written about how it will affect your audience specifically? While this is a good opportunity to offer unique value for your readers, a blog post dedicated to this topic alone still probably isn’t a good use of your time, for the reasons described above.

Instead, I’d recommend using your social channels or newsletter to share a short snippet of these ideas. Sharing a link from another publication plus a sentence or two of commentary is an effective way to start a conversation. It might not send direct traffic to your website, but a strong community can be just as meaningful.

An exception: The rare home run

Now, there are certainly exceptions to this rule. I’ll share one with you as a way to show the difference between evergreen and news posts for a content brand, and what kinds of results you might expect from each.

In 2017, we published this post on The Write Life: A Win for the Oxford Comma: This Lawsuit Shows Why It’s So Important.

Screenshot of The Write Life shows Oxford Comma story

The post was pegged on a news event, the outcome of a lawsuit. Yet it also covered a debate that’s often discussed in the writing community, whether to use the Oxford comma. When we published the post, it was shared heavily on social media by writers who had strong feelings about the issue.

Most posts with this heavy of a news angle would have fallen off people’s radar after that initial bump. But because of this post’s viral nature, several huge Facebook pages dedicated to writing re-shared it six months later, and six months after that, and six months after that. Each time, the post made the rounds through the writing community again, getting lots of shares and sending spikes of traffic to our website.

At the same time, we saw SEO traffic to this post grow. It ranks on the front page of Google for lots of high-volume keywords, including “Oxford comma.”

So last year I took it upon myself to figure out how to update the post so we could republish it with a new dateline. I wanted a more recent dateline at the top of the post so both readers and Google would see it as trustworthy. It was challenging to turn a newsy topic into an evergreen post, but in the end, doable. The shareability of this post has decreased over time, but the SEO value has increased.

The results from this post were phenomenal. But the chances of replicating it are tiny. You have to take a lot of swings to hit a home run, and each of those swings uses resources — money, people and time — that could be used on something else.

A tool for deciding whether to cover news

Instead of hoping for a home run, here’s what I recommend when you prepare to publish a story: Identify exactly how you aim to gain traction with that specific post. 

If it’s an evergreen post, perhaps you’d like to see it rise through the ranks of Google and send search traffic over time. If it’s a news post, perhaps you’re looking for a spike in social shares or traffic from your newsletter, and you’re OK with knowing it probably won’t bring in much traffic a week after publication.

Or, to really minimize the energy you spend on each post, create a guideline that will save you from having to evaluate each opportunity as it presents itself. Reduce what you publish so you can focus on what you do best.

At the very least, ask yourself: Is covering news really going to move the needle? It might feel counter-intuitive and require some self-control to say no, but you’ll probably be glad you did.

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