It’s not that journalists and copywriters don’t have a lot in common; they can both turn amazing phrases and meet crazy deadlines, and they’re constantly explaining to strangers at parties that, no, they don’t write fiction. Perhaps these similarities are why some agencies tap into their pool of copywriters to fill the editorial needs of clients who want to become brand publishers. While it can be easy to chalk it up to saying, “Writers are writers!” making that switch might not be such a good idea.
“You would never have a typesetter write a novel,” says Duy Linh Tu, director of digital media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “You wouldn’t have a poet write a film, or a screenwriter write an encyclopedia entry. They’re just different jobs.”
So what happens when a brand publication hires a copywriter to do the top-notch editorial work usually assigned to a trained journalist?
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.
“The crux of emotion in journalism comes out of facts, whereas the emotion in copywriting comes out of a hook or a tagline or an association with a larger thought,” says Tu.
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.
“In journalism, the writing of a story is the last part. The most important part is the reporting,” says Tu. “In copywriting, the act of writing copy is the most important part of the process.”
In addition to their experience asking hard-hitting questions—a skill that many reporters spend years honing—journalists are motivated by a heavy dose of skepticism. This approach helps them pursue the (sometimes ugly) truth and weed out any factual inaccuracies or PR spin.
Journalists aren’t afraid to ask probing follow-up questions or seek answers for contradictory claims or data. This skill would likely be considered aggressive in other professional settings. Knight Chair in Journalism Steve Doig teaches at Arizona State University, and he’s found that students of his who are nervous about the idea of approaching important people and demanding answers typically end up in copywriting.
When describing the skepticism journalists have about almost anything they hear, he cites the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago’s motto: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
“If you aren’t skeptical, then people are going to spin you, and they’re constantly trying do that,” says Doig.
That sense of 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.
A traditional media company would never send a copywriter to do a journalist’s job. As a brand publisher, why would you?