Copywriters, Beware: Clark Kent and Lois Lane Journalists are Coming after Your Jobs

Copywriters, Beware:  Clark Kent and Lois Lane Journalists are Coming after Your Jobs

If you’re a copywriter worthy of the title, you disdain clichés, truisms and hackneyed phrases of all kinds.  Here are two you should really hate — and heed:

“Count your blessings” and “Watch your back”

Those two tired phrases could keep you awake at night – and unemployed during the day.

Even though content has been ruled king, copywriters won’t necessarily hold court in the palace.  Another breed of writers – journalists – are rushing toward the drawbridge, and these dragon-slayers may kill some of your jobs.

The war of wordsmiths is on. Copywriters who want to win need to prepare for the threat.  Yes, website owners need content, but they don’t necessarily need you to provide it.

As some 79 percent of organizations shift to branded content and the clamor for story-driven content grows, copywriter need to prepare to fight reporters for long-term, high-paying assignments.

From Death to Drivel

Google’s animal-themed algorithms – Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird – are making the term “quality content” meaningful and creating universal demand for words that matter.  The days of keyword-fueled drivel have been declared dead.  There are some 634 million websites in the world and if just 1 percent of their owners wanted to improve their content, there would be 6 million projects up for copywriters to grab.

Those are promising numbers, especially for copywriters who saw their talents diminish in value and their paychecks shrink in the past decade.

“The standards for what’s considered ‘copy’ and therefore, ‘copywriter’ dropped lower than Congress’s approval ratings,” said Mike Pascale, who entered the copywriter freelance fray when the economic downturn eliminated his job at a national ad agency.

Pascale is guardedly optimistic that demand for high-quality writing will improve the fortunes of seasoned copywriters.  In recent years, he claims that 20-year-industry veterans have endured cutthroat competition from “English-as-a-second (or third) language writers, college graduates (plus current students looking for tuition/beer money), stay-at-home spouses with a dream, occasional hobbyists and the ethically bereft article mills (firms paying literally $3 to $5 per hour to anyone or thing that can rub two words together.)”

The Rebirth of Serious Writing

Other copywriters see hope for their profession.

Google’s changing algorithms emphasize the need for fresh, rich content, and that means “copywriters are safe, needed now more than ever,” said Mihaela Lica Butler, a former military reporter who is now a public relations consultant at Pamil Visions.

And as James Chartrand states and proves at Men With Pens, the way to a better website is to write better copy.

So, if Google wants (and business owners need) better copy, and copywriters can provide it, why should copywriters worry about journalists taking their jobs?

Because they already are.

Nick Santangelo, a digital copywriter, says publishers in the games industry turn to veteran freelance journalists for product reviews and give permanent, lucrative jobs to game media journalists because they’re “in tune with the industry, its major players and its consumers.”

Recently, the editor of a trade magazine Santangelo regularly writes for reassigned Santangelo’s article work to a laid-off auto journalist.

“It was certainly a letdown for me, but it’s hard to be upset over it given the journalist’s deeper experience writing auto reviews.  With the ubiquity of ad blockers killing online media outlets’ advertising revenue, which leads to shrinking budgets for journalist salaries, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this sort of thing is also happening in other industries,” Santangelo said in an interview.

Storytelling vs. Storyselling

David Zweifler, head of marketing communications at Trading Screen, was a reporter for a financial newswire in the 1990s before turning to marketing in the new millennium.  He says most of his reporter friends have made similar transitions and more will seek marketing jobs as print journalism jobs disappear.

And, as the need for branded content grows – eMarketer estimates companies will spend $118.4 billion on content marketing, video and social media in 2013 – demand for people with journalism skills will increase.

“The skill set of the specialized copywriter with technical expertise or advertising training is still valued,” Zweifler said in an interview.  “However, most of the content marketing (and almost all of the most effective content marketing) is focused on reportage.  And I do think reporters have a big advantage producing that type of content.”

A Content Marketing Institute study found that 68 percent of consumers spend time reading content from a brand they are interested in.  But, as much as consumers crave objective information, companies demand that their content marketing efforts produce sales.

Some copywriters say that journalists have some advantages when it comes to telling a story, but copywriters are better at selling them and are therefore more crucial to a company’s bottom line.

“A journalist will tell a story very differently than a copywriter will,” said Joanna Wiebe, founder of Copy Hackers.  “As demand for great content grows online, there’s equal demand for the right person to create the appropriate content,” she added.  “For businesses that want to give audiences what they want but, at the same time, want to get a lead, a subscriber or a sale out of their content production and distribution efforts, copywriters will be critically involved in content creation.”

Thursday Bram, owner of Hyper Modern Writing, says she writes blogs, ebooks and other material compatible with her journalism background but assigns landing pages and product descriptions to a copywriter.

And she often recommends copywriters over journalists to clients on a budget. “Having a great sales page is often more important than having a great email newsletter or the other formats that fall into brand journalism,” Bram said in an interview.

The Price of Perception

The more than two dozen reporters and copywriters interviewed for this post focused almost exclusively on skill sets and mindsets:

Is a journalist better equipped than a copywriter to produce blogs?  Can anyone but a copywriter convert a lead into a sale?  Are journalists too egotistical to give up their bylines?  Does a copywriter have the integrity to stand up to a client’s dishonest demands?

These are all good questions, and some have been answered here.

But another, more salient factor is client perception.  Copywriters and journalists can argue among themselves about who are better matched to the changing demands in content.

The best jobs will go to writers who business owners and chief marketing officers think provide greater value in content marketing and brand journalism.

Based on client perception, journalists are more likely to reign supreme in the content kingdom.  As more companies become publishers and look for people to fill the traditional publishing slots of editors and reporters, it’s natural for them to look to journalists to fill the roles.

But do companies really want journalists taking control of their brands?  Wouldn’t they prefer copywriters who can appear objective but manage to deftly insert a sales element into their work?

These are the questions copywriters who aspire to the content throne should be addressing with potential clients.  And answering with all the persuasiveness they can muster.

Otherwise, they’ll find themselves on the wrong side of the moat, watching a not-so mild-mannered Clark Kent pull up the drawbridge and a gloating Lois Lane pocket the keys to the kingdom.

Post by Katherine Kotaw

Katherine Kotaw began her career in journalism, working for national newspapers and magazines before becoming a copywriter at a New York ad agency. Today, she tells -- and sells-- stories as the CEO of KOTAW Content Marketing Agency with her team members in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Milan. To stay informed about today’s digital marketing challenges, circle Katherine on Google+ or follow her on Twitter.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Great post, Katherine!

    I happen to be what you might call a hybrid writer in this regard — I’m both a freelance marketing copywriter and a freelance journalist. I started journalism in university, eventually becoming editor of our student newspaper. Then I began a career in marketing copywriting, but I always kept a toe in the “journalistic waters” by freelancing for the local paper and as a national stringer, with some magazine work in there for good measure.

    I think what it comes down to is this: any sort of freelance writer will benefit from developing different skills. As you intimated, some stories are better told by a journalist, and other stories by a marketing writer. (I’ll add that it’s not a black-or-white thing either — depending on the goals, audience, publication, and other factors, there are many shades of grey…) If you can do both, then all the better.

    Wouldn’t they prefer copywriters who can appear objective but manage to deftly insert a sales element into their work?

    That’s exactly right. The more seamlessly you can switch between the two disciplines — sometimes within the same sentence — the more successful you’ll be.

    I should mention too that personally I’ve seen the market for this type of writing really open up. The best place for a marketing copywriter to start is to look within your own client list. Do they operate within a specific industry? Does that industry have one or more trade magazines? These days, many of these outlets are dying for content — it’s usually fairly easy to pitch a story to the editor, setting your client up as an expert in the field. Then you can either ghostwrite it for the client, or write the article with your client speaking as the expert on the subject, quoting them liberally and taking the byline yourself.

    Either way, everyone wins: your client gets good press in front of a relevant audience, the magazine gets content, and the writer gets a stronger portfolio in a different area of writing — not to mention a paycheque to boot.

    ~Graham

    • Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Graham. I think those of us with dual backgrounds have an advantage in the current climate, but you make excellent points about ways in which copywriters can broaden their skills — and career possibilities — by writing stories about their clients.

      And, because the need for content is so great, many high-quality publications will accept a freelance piece on its merits, not on a writer’s portfolio.

      My “tip of the day”: Opportunities for copywriters to branch out into journalism are plentiful so grab them before other copywriters do.

  2. What about creative witers: not journalists or copywriters, but novelists, poets, and songwriters. It seems we have lost the art of good writing to technology and dollar signs.

    • Ahhh, Dan, the war between art and money will rage on. But peace exists. A journalist by day is often a novelist by night, and copywriters write poetry (indeed some of their copy is poetic).

      Money doesn’t taint good writing any more than poverty improves it. The spirit of a writer thrives in all circumstances.

      Here’s hoping your spirit soars — and gets richly compensated.

  3. Excellent article, Katherine!

    Just wondering what your thoughts are on the aspect of freelance writers marketing themselves…do you think copywriters have an advantage over journalists when it comes to marketing themselves for freelance work?

    Intuitively it seems the obvious answer would be yes. The journalists I know aren’t as comfortable with marketing their services as are copywriters like me, but maybe the journalists will learn the importance of selling themselves as time goes on?

    What do you think?

    • Thank you, Matthew, and please forgive the slow reply.

      Yes, copywriters hold the advantage in marketing their services. Run with this advantage while you can.

      But the most successful journalists have strong pitching skills — they don’t get the best assignments or get the best placements for their stories without them.

      So savvy journalists will learn to sell themselves as if they were a story. And they’ll be good at it.

      My advice: Push your advantage now.

      Thank you so much for writing, Matthew, and for asking a good question (are you sure you’re not a reporter masquerading as a copywriter?)

      • Great answer, Katherine. A seasoned journalist has experience pitching stories, as you said, and most of them are assertive by training, so expecting them to sit back and be scared of marketing themselves is quite ludicrous. I will take your advice and stake my claim now.

        Good to know you thought the question was a good one…no, I didn’t go to J-School and haven’t officially held the title, but as a teen starting at age 14 to 21 I was involved in student newspapers, and my Comm. Studies degree had a few journalism classes, but since then I’ve been more on the copywriting and creative writing side of things. (I’m also an English major.)

        But I will take your encouragement here and continue to apply great questions to my clients, content marketing projects, and influencers like yourself whenever I get a chance to engage.

        I can apply the attitude of a journalist to my work. Thanks for the reminder.

        • You’re very welcome, Matthew

          It sounds as if your training and attitude will give you the killer combination you need to soar in today’s market.

          And never stop asking questions! You’ll get some great answers — and some journalistic cred to boot!

          All my best,

          Katherine

  4. Wow, I’m really amazed with this post Katherine. Your writting style is so natural. I’m delighted with what I see.

    I’m going to include this article in the weekly link roundup of epic posts on this Friday on my blog!

    I will let you know via Twitter.

    Keep with good work!

  5. Hi Katherine! Thanks for participating on GooglePlus with Christine DeGraff and Mia Voss and Craig Fifield the other day. You’re a strong strong woman. I want to say I look at it like this: Copywriters are sugar cubes, journalists are closer to ice cubes and bloggers and hybrids are Rubik’s cubes because they need to be figured out! I’m a hybrid. I’m amazed to see there are tons of tools for writers out there like Muckrack, Haro, Cision. If they’re old, well, that’s news to me. (Muckrack and Haro seem very geared for journos, especially Muckrack IMO) I’m only now getting digital and as you said on GooglePlus Katherine, the digitally savvy writers are the ones who will present themselves in the best light.

    • Ha! You made me laugh, Alex! I think you make a terrific Rubik’s cube, and tools such as HARO and Muckrack are tremendous help for hybrids!

      Thanks so much for following me. If I can help you in any way, please let me know.

  6. Another great article, thanks.

    Yes, I agree, if you can combine both journalistic and copywriting skills, you’re on your way.

    And if you can add other skills on top like business insight, SEO, technical skills, then that’s even better.

    • Absolutely, Peter! As success in digital marketing now demands a holistic approach, the more you bring to the “whole,” the better. Companies need people who can both understand and implement the changes in inbound marketing. Thank you so much for your insightful comments.

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