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Journalists vs. Copywriters: Who Wins the Brand Publishing Battle?

Who should you hire for brand publishing: a journalist or copywriter? Contributor Joel Klettke takes a deep dive into which writer type has the chops for brand publishing.

journalist vs. copywrtier

Last week, i accidentally stumbled into a war.

As I was reading one evening, I came across two articles—one laying claim to brand publishing for journalists, and the other pushing back and saying that copywriters ought to rule the roost.

It occurred to me then that brands themselves might be staring down this problem. Who is best suited to create the kind of marketing resources that a brand needs? You need to know you’re hiring the right person for the job. Too often, businesses treat writers like they’re all the same, but not all writers are created equal.

Like mechanical and chemical engineers, jobs with similar titles can have wildly different skill sets and abilities. This is about more than job titles or semantics: Hire the wrong person and your outcomes will suffer.

So I think it’s time we put these two talented groups head to head.

(Full disclosure: I’m a copywriter now, but before that, I did journalism work for local papers.)

In our first corner, Journalists!

  • Relentless bloodhounds: Won’t quit until they’ve found the truth.
  • Impenetrable thick skin: Will ask anyone the tough questions, no matter who it is.
  • Facts-obsessed: Experts at turning accurate information into a cohesive narrative.
  • Unshakable MCs: Voice used is (typically) their own, though may be tailored to fit a publication.
  • Masters of mass appeal: Know how to tell a story.

These are the folks who specialize in reporting the news on a lightning-fast turnaround.

They’re research specialists, trained to dig into a story like a bloodhound and fact-check relentlessly to get to the heart of what’s really going on. Journalists tend to build up a thick skin over time and aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions. And, because their field requires a lot of talking to everyone from esteemed experts to eyewitnesses, they tend to refine their interview and personal skills over time.

Traditionally employed by the media or operating as freelancers (who serve the media), journalists’ expertise lies in reporting a story to a broad audience; it’s their job to turn facts into a story with broad appeal. In news media, the voice journalists use in their copy is most often their own, not a brand’s, though it may be tapered or edited to suit the publication’s audience or viewpoint.

Given these skills, it’s easy to see how a hard-hitting journalist could be a huge asset for a brand. Their ability to weave factually accurate information into a compelling piece on a tight deadline bodes well for brands putting together editorials and news-style content.

In the second corner, Copywriters!

  • Psychological warriors: Trained to know what readers are thinking and manipulate them into taking action.
  • Content chameleons: Voice and tone can adapt to whoever is paying their bills.
  • Creative juggernauts: Clever, bright and memorable copy is par for the course.
  • Dangerously versatile: Known to work with multiple formats and styles, from website copy to sales letters.
  • Spin doctors: Experts at selling products/brands in a way that attracts and retains customers.

If the journalist’s job is to tell a story, the copywriter’s job is to sell it. The copywriter sells the brand to a customer and that means getting into customers’ heads and knowing what makes them tick. They’ve historically been focused on writing marketing materials, from advertisements and slogans to website copy and marketing emails.

There are actually many types of copywriters who handle various tasks and different kinds of business assets. Borrowing a page from Mary Rose Maquire, here are three types you’ll find working for businesses:

Ad Agency/Creative

These are your “Mad Men”—the guys (and gals) responsible for writing clever ads for TV, print and radio. Highly creative, these are the folks responsible for teaming up with design to come up with something that stands out when a brand wants to make an impression. You’ll usually find them in ad agencies, though there are some whip-smart independents running amok out there.

B2C/B2B

When you need a case study, white paper, monthly report or email marketing campaign, you’re probably going to deal with one of these folks. The B2C/B2B writer must blend a lot of talents, knowing how to dig into research and numbers, while understanding the psychology of the customer and craft copy that’s compelling to read. You’ll find these people in-house, outsourced or contracting on their own.

Direct Response 

These copywriters have one thing on their minds: selling. They’re simultaneously copywriting’s “dark horses” and purest talents. They’re masters of persuasion whose copy may read like a used car salesman’s manipulative sales pitch, but will make millions in revenue from a single piece. Their work is more scientific than creative, deeply rooted in pulling the psychological strings that part people with their cash.

When you need a sales letter, email marketing campaign or landing page and want response rates to shoot through the roof, direct response writers are the unquestionable heavyweights who get it done.

Shots fired!

in her piece, “Serious About Brand Publishing? Don’t Send a Copywriter to do a Journalist’s Job” freelance journalist Yael Grauer makes the case that brand publishing ought to be the domain of journalists:

“What happens when a brand publication hires a copywriter to do the top-notch editorial work usually assigned to a trained journalist?

The quality of reporting can suffer.

Sure, copywriters can write effective prose; their persuasive calls to action get results.

But there’s one thing they’re simply not trained to do, and that’s reporting.

Here’s the difference: When an assignment lands on a journalist’s desk, she rolls up her sleeves, makes a half-dozen phone calls, and gets her hands dirty tracking down specific details that are important to the story. 

(. . .) Instead of simply presenting information in a compelling way, journalists find and then distill the most relevant facts for their audience. In fact, a trained journalist won’t even begin writing until all of this work is well underway.”

She also argues that copywriters aren’t skeptical enough, insinuating that those who “wind up in copywriting” are usually too soft to do a journalist’s hard-hitting reporting work:

(Copywriters are) not skeptical enough—and that’s a problem. 

(. . .) Skepticism leads journalists to vet their sources more intensely by checking into their backgrounds and seeking independent confirmation of information.

Send someone without reporting skills and experience into the reporting field, and you may wind up with a beautifully written report riddled with inaccurate information—or one that doesn’t really tell much of a story at all.”

She ends off on this note:

“A traditional media company would never send a copywriter to do a journalist’s job. As a brand publisher, why would you?”

Oof.

That doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture of the copywriter, but is it a fair assessment to say that copywriters are not strong researchers, lack thick skin and aren’t skeptical enough to get brand publishing done?

Copywriters, obviously, disagree.

In a response to Grauer, copywriter Mary Rose Maquire wrote an equally scathing piece called “Serious About Brand Sales? Don’t Send a Journalist to do a Copywriter’s Job.

“I can’t blame a journalist for wanting to continue to write for a living. But I do believe there is a difference between investigative reporting and marketing. With the former, you’re trying to find the truth. With the latter, you’re adorning it.”

Macquire goes on to explain that brands have been “humming along for centuries without journalists cranking out their marketing content,” highlighting that even journalistic efforts dating as far back as The Furrow, a magazine by John Deere, were conceived of by businesses and executed by copywriters.

While telling stories was the medium, the goal was to sell tractors—something she asserts copywriters are better set up to do:

It is copywriters who have helped businesses grow. Not journalists.

But suddenly, journalists are arriving on the scene (perhaps reluctantly), to declare they’re the new darlings of the marketing world and as such, superior to “traditional” writers such as copywriters.

(. . .) Copywriters have been telling the story of businesses for ages. It’s not a new concept.

But more importantly, a copywriter knows how to SELL your story so your customer buys into it. Done right and you’ll have a happy customer who swears by your product (hello, Apple, IKEA and In-N-Out Burger).

Journalists may know how to weave a good tale. But business owners need more than a good story in order to persuade their prospects to buy.”

She also points out that while journalists are tuned to writing stories and reporting, their approach may be too one-dimensional when trying to join a conversation with a customer.

“As for demanding answers, that’s the province of journalists. I don’t see it offering any value for the marketing department, unless it’s the executive offices wondering why the copy isn’t bringing in sales.

(. . .) Telling a story” only takes into consideration one point of view—the writer’s.

But joining a conversation already going on in the head of your buyer is instead considering their  point of view. Because it’s the only way you’ll reach them.

Because let’s face it, if you have a product or service that you want to sell, you want to speak directly to your perfect customer. You want to follow up with solutions that will help them.”

Her parting shot, equally as cutting as Grauer’s:

“A business would never expect a journalist to do a copywriter’s job. As a brand who is interested in increasing your revenue, why would you?”

OK, Time out.

Both sides make compelling arguments, but I think what we’re really missing here is a sense of what brand publishing really is, how it interacts with the rest of your marketing efforts and the enormous fact that journalists and copywriters actually share a lot in common (something both Grauer and Maquire confess in their pieces).

Let’s start there.

Here are the things both journalists and copywriters share in common:

  • Professional prose: Both have a strong command of the English language and can put a sentence together.
  • Headline heavyweights: Both excel at nabbing attention with just a few words.
  • Pitch perfect: Both copywriters and journalists are used to pitching ideas to people and being met with rejection.
  • Relentless research: While journalists thrive on investigative research, copywriters are no slouches, either. They spend hours delving into the customer’s psyche, pain points and needs, also researching the competition and examples of past successful marketing efforts. It’s a different kind of research, but both require a head for details and a willingness to dive in and get messy.
  • Deadline-driven: Both copywriters and journalists operate on tight deadlines and can deliver in a pinch.
  • Storytelling savants: Both copywriters and journalists are able to spin a yarn. Journalists deal with storytelling every day of their lives, but copywriters have been telling the stories of brands and products ages, too.

There are also some important exceptions we need to make:

  • Many journalists can adjust tone/voice: Though journalists are usually used to writing for a broader audience, most  can tailor their work to style guides and adapt to different brand voices and audiences.
  • Many copywriters can also do reporting work: It’s simply not fair to say that just because someone is used to writing sales material they can’t also put together a compelling story line or piece of journalism.

we need to understand that “Brand Publishing” is a nuanced and expansive thing.

It’s not just blogging and articles, and it’s not just turning your brand’s website into Huffington Post 2.0. It’s about publishing marketing collateral—including stories, reports, guides, videos, etc.—that ultimately help in creating customers.

After all, brand publishing is when brands “treat themselves like content producers, not advertisers,” and “content” means many things to many people.

Ultimately, a brand publisher is going to need both, but be very careful about who Gets which tasks.

Having access to a talented journalist means having access to someone who can investigate and report on a topic or issue. That’s a huge asset to those who are trying to put together timely, informational reports.

The quality of work and investigative reporting that comes as their “default” is a massive score for brands, and I’d argue that having some in the fold will give you a competitive advantage. Writing these kinds of pieces is what comes naturally to them, and if you need a storyteller who is born and bred to report like a journalist and produce a news story—you can’t go wrong by getting a journalist.

But then, a B2B/B2C copywriter can also be counted on to produce this material, just like a journalist. Granted, you’ll need to evaluate their body of work before you let them go wild, but the fact remains that copywriters of this nature have been contributing to blogs, articles and more for quite some time, and doing a fantastic job of it.

For example, who wrote the following pieces, a copywriter, or a journalist?

It’s a  mix, but can you even tell? Probably not, and perhaps that’s what’s most telling.

it’s more than just telling stories.

Free-floating storytelling without any intent to create a captive customer or an overt call to action at some point in the cycle is ultimately worthless to brands unless it can ultimately be monetized by sales. While not every piece of content needs to be a lead-capture machine, it DOES all need to eventually connect back to a business objective (attracting and retaining customers).

But the copywriter is the only one of the two who should be called on to write the elements of a brand publishing campaign meant to capture customers and drive action—and there are a lot of them. Their ability to cross between different content formats makes them an indispensable monkey wrench in the marketer’s arsenal.

But just for fun, if you could only have one of the two, which one is more likely to be able to adapt?

While this will undoubtedly ruffle the feathers of journalists everywhere, I’m going to say that a copywriter will find it easier to take on the type of content a journalist is used to producing than a journalist taking on a copywriters’ job.

Both groups have incredibly intelligent people who could learn the others’ work if they really want to, and both have elements of difficulty, but I think the road from copywriter to journalist is less difficult than coming the opposite direction.

To do copywriting work, journalists need to learn how to sell. They need to learn the ins and outs of the customer buying cycle, understand motivations at the different points and learn how to use copy to do more than tell a great story. They’d also need to learn new formats and styles to do copywriting work. Landing page copy is not like reporting the news, and even eBooks are different than articles.

To do journalism work, copywriters need only take the skills they’ve already cultivated in addressing audiences and telling product/brand stories, dial down the salesmanship and start telling stories about something else.

As disagreeable an opinion as it will be for some, I think it’s likely easier to learn to research and be skeptical about what you find than it is to learn to manipulate human behavior.

OK, your turn to chime in. What do you think?

14 responses to “Journalists vs. Copywriters: Who Wins the Brand Publishing Battle?”

  1. Joe Griffin says:

    This is awesome. There is totally a hidden feud. I like the way you broke it down.

  2. Dan Reyes says:

    As a former journalist turned copywriter, I think it’s less about what their background is and more about who they are. Looking at the qualities you laid out for both journalists and copywriters, while I have all the skills a journalist would have, I also have many of the copywriter ones, too. I think if you like writing and you’ve had exposure to different types, you’ll be able to write great copy that can tell a good story while promoting some kind of call to action. Great post either way! Really hit the nail on the head.

    • Joel K says:

      That’s just it – I struggled to talk in absolutes here because this really does come down to the individual talents of the writer. That said, I do think copywriting work translates more easily (in most cases). Like I said in the piece, I think any writer can LEARN to do both, I just think it’s easier for copywriters to write like a journalist than the other way around. In any case, I know lots of both, respect all of them and think everyone’s got a seat at the table when it all comes down to it.

      • Dan Reyes says:

        Agreed. I wasn’t a straight up journalist out of college, I took some advertising/marketing classes that required me to do a lot of copywriting. While it isn’t exactly industry experience, it certainly didn’t hurt. At our agency, we actually prefer our interns to major in either marketing or journalism, since reporters are generally good writers. You can teach copywriting and marketing to anyone, but you can’t teach someone to be a good writer!

        • Joel K says:

          Reporters *are* good writers, that’s for sure – but then again, if someone is marketing themselves seriously as a copywriter, their work had better measure up to that standard, too. There’s got to be an innate level of base writing talent; after that, it’s what you do with it.

          • Joe Griffin says:

            One of the big things to note here though, is that brands aren’t necessarily looking for investigative reporters or journalists. Sometimes journalists are trained to be edgy, and push the boundaries. Brands have to balance those things – create cool, readable, and addressable content, but don’t put the brand in jeopardy or misrepresent a single thing. That goes for both journalists and copywriters, but sometimes journalists carry old habits and those have to be broken if you’re working for a brand. Brand-powered OpEds are a different kind of OpEd 🙂

  3. James Flacks says:

    I think it’s about respect. Copywriters respect journalists but it’s not mutual. The spam age of SEO damaged the reputation of copywriters. For years it became more about hitting X hundred words at Y% keyword density. Quality mattered less because article sites and later guest blogs accepted any old content. Copywriters were also competing with non-English language copywriters.

    Thankfully those days are gone and when it became about compelling copy and persuasion, the best adapted. But are journalists aware of this?

    Then there’s the difference in backgrounds. Journalists are often formally trained to degree level whereas copywriters tend to become copywriters and have to learn their techniques through sites like Copyblogger or ConversionXL.

    They refine their craft through a level of testing and refinement that journalists typically won’t experience. The collaboratiom and shared knowledge within the copywriting community makes it something special.

    I’m a digital marketer but I recognise the style you’re writing in and the way you use hooks to link sections. I wouldn’t know this without all the great sites that copywriters have set up. I’m definitely not saying that a journalism degree is useless but perhaps it sets the precedent that knowledge is something you are given rather than have to earn… and carry on learning.

    So it comes back to respect. When a copywriter attempts journalism they are more likely to understand they need to learn. When a journalist tries the reverse, this is less likely. They’re a journalist, they “write for a living, you know.”

    Interest is transactional – and with a newspaper is mostly given. A newspaper confers authority and trust. But with a webpage, both needs to be earned. I appreciate this.

    • Joel K says:

      Hey James – Interesting take, and thanks for sharing it.

      I do agree that the “dark ages” of SEO has done a huge amount of damage that the writing profession (on ALL levels) is still recovering from. I also think that even modern digital marketing continues to be poisoned with old-school SEO thinking (writing has gotta be cheap, scale-able, earn links, etc.)

      “Copywriter” became sort of a catch-all for anyone doing writing for the web – including those who perhaps should have only been known as “bloggers”.

      I also agree that journalists, at least in my experience, tend to have directly chosen their careers and done some formal schooling – whereas copywriting seems to be something others kind of “fall” into (started out as a marketing major, for example) and then run with like a science. But that’s only my experience, and I’m positive someone else would take me to task on it.

      I think what’s most important is the realization by those both inside and outside of writing itself that not all writers are the same; that journalism requires certain skill sets and that copywriting is not just stringing nice-sounding words together or dreaming up clever billboard taglines.

  4. Mary Rose Maguire says:

    Hi, Joel. This is an excellent, even-handed piece. I accidentally stumbled across it while responding to a question in a copywriting group and was surprised to see my name and article mentioned. Yes, I was annoyed with the original article. But as I’ve said in the group, I am not “anti-journalist.” I just don’t care for condescension and elitism, and yes, I returned fire-for-fire on this one.

    I belong to several content marketing groups and had similar discussions with those who believe that only someone with a journalism background can “tell their story.” Of course I disagree but understand trends. Right now, there are Big Brands who are developing their own internal media departments complete with former newspaper editors who are mapping out publishing schedules.

    Many journalists have transitioned to the B2B/B2C world with their writing skills. I think overall, that’s awesome. However, I do still believe they have a different approach and lack the business perspective needed to write effective marketing collateral. Can they learn it? Absolutely. But they also need to recognize that business writers have been doing this for a long time and they need to learn the ropes just like anyone else entering a new profession. A copywriter certainly would have to do the same if they wanted to become a journalist for a newspaper or magazine.

    Journalists can teach businesses how to identify the necessary parts of story, which is truly needed. They are brilliant at cutting away the fat so you have a lean narrative.

    But I agree with you about the psychological aspects of writing sales copy (which is what I do). Finding the right set of emotional triggers takes time. It’s research of a different kind. But again, it can definitely be learned.

    The only thing I didn’t understand about Grauer’s piece was the bit about skepticism. Skeptical about what? It definitely is needed when a journalist is digging into a story about a local corrupt politician. But how does skepticism relate to telling a brand’s story?

    As you’ve said, copywriters are very capable of digging for their own research. I do it and most of the other copywriters I know do it.

    If you have thoughts about that skepticism part, let me know know. Thanks again for article and your take on it. I’ve passed it on to some of my other copywriting friends. It is indeed, a hot topic.

    • Joel K says:

      Hey Mary Rose,

      Thanks for your reply! I loved your piece and it was a big part of what prompted me to write this in the first place.

      I didn’t at all take away that you were “anti-journalist”; I hope you don’t feel I portrayed you as one in this piece, either. I completely agree with your point on needing to learn the ropes – and hopefully I conveyed that in this article. A journalist is a great researcher and writer, but selling takes a different mindset and a different approach. You’ve got to enter into it thinking that way, or you’ll never cut it.

      I think Grauer was emphasizing skepticism in the sense of putting together a blog or article; I really don’t think she was considering marketing assets like website copy or email copy – in fact, I think those things more or less never crossed her mind. “Brand journalism” is, as I said, a nuanced thing – and to some, it simply means that sort of “media room” within a business, reporting on the news. They don’t see the tie into other collateral.

      Thanks for writing what you did and taking the time to respond!

      • Yael Grauer says:

        Thanks for this! For the record, I hardly think I’m condescending or elitist–and I don’t consider ad copy brand journalism. I do agree that journalists aren’t always the best at writing ad copy (I’ve managed journalists and copywriters alike for several brand blogs), but it is easier to train former journalists to focus on sales than it is to train copywriters to do journalism.

        • Joel K says:

          Cheers, Yael – I don’t think you are either, and to be fair, this is a charged issue. I tried to present it as evenhandedly as I could, and I hope you don’t feel I’ve been unfair to you or your piece!

          I absolutely disagree with you on that last point, though. I’m not saying it’s child’s play – journalism requires a certain dogged attitude and persistence – but there’s not much that’s technical or psychological at play. You’re fact-finding, interviewing, reporting.

          In sales, you’re trying to wrestle someone to take an action they may not even want to take. You’re trying to charm, persuade, influence as opposed to just inform and entertain.

          In the end, we’ll probably both just point to personal experience, so it’s not something I think we’ll agree on. Perhaps it really does come down to the individual.

          But I do appreciate another perspective. Thanks for reading.

          • Yael Grauer says:

            I did think your was nuanced, especially compared with the one you linked to, which was filled with so many inaccuracies I don’t know where to start… (maybe the part about how the internet is killing journalism? or the part about how “telling a story” focuses on the writer, even when real reporting isn’t first person? or equating brand journalism with writing marketing copy and pursing a strawman argument?). It was clear that presenting information accurately wasn’t the goal.

            I do think a lot of content marketing is often lacking in research, and sometimes it’s downright inaccurate. (I’ve found many inaccuracies in press releases, and though journalists or editors might just roll their eyes and not assign a story, the public doesn’t take too kindly about being lied to).

            I manage teams of writers for several Fortune 500 blogs, and we focus on brand publishing (which, again, isn’t synonymous with marketing copy). I’ve worked with both copywriters and journalists. The journalists need a little bit of help making sure they’re not, say, steering clients away from products the stores sell. The copywriters need help learning how to tell a story, making sure to double-check facts and information (something that may not have been a priority in the past), making the story flow, and even some of the basics of writing. (There are wildly successful copywriters who don’t know how to write. They only have one sentence in each paragraph, capitalize random words, and add ellipses for no reason. If they are focusing on short-term sales rather than building respect and credibility for a brand, I’m sure this can fly, but it doesn’t work for brand journalism. As an editor, it’s very hard to clean up. I can remove sentences that are too newsie; I can’t create a narrative where one doesn’t exist. If having editorial standards is elitist, I’ll take it.)

            You can train someone to research, but it’s very time-consuming, and *far* more difficult than just adding a few stipulations to a style guide (i.e. telling a journalist not to interview a competitor). It is *a lot harder* to give someone a crash course on journalism 101 than it is to tell a journalist to, say, make sure not to steer clients away from products they want to purchase.

            Were the post you linked to written by a trained journalist, perhaps the author would have realized that the terms “brand journalism” and “marketing content” aren’t synonymous… or maybe done some research on how content marketing (as opposed to pure sales copy) helps with brand awareness. This could have prevented the straw man argument. Doing market research or speaking with customers about their pain points (or running factual claims by a legal team) is absolutely not the same thing as researching a story. Modeling one’s copy on “swipe files” (which is often bordering on plagiarism) doesn’t count as research.

            Anyone who’s done real research on content marketing and what actually has long-term benefits would probably realize that it’s not a coincidence that top brands focus on brand journalism rather than pure ad copy, because it’s more effective in the long term. The purpose is to build trust for long-term sales, not sell sell sell.

            Or in the words of Altimeter Group industry analyst Rebecca Lieb, ““People who think content is interruptive advertising, click here buy now, shouldn’t be doing it. They shouldn’t be let anywhere near it.”

          • Yael Grauer says:

            Oh yeah, one more thing–I should also add that equating “journalism” solely with news reporters seems a bit narrow. The two are not synonymous, and most journalists I know have written web copy, magazine features, and sometimes books and ebooks as well.

  5. […] to do a Trained Journalist’s Job, which inspired all sorts of heated reaction, including a nuanced post by Joel Klettke and a more abrasive rant (which was a very defensive strawman argument written by someone who I […]