Fire Your Copywriter (and Hire a Journalist Instead)

Once upon a time typed on an old antique typewriter

Copywriters and journalists have a lot in common but only journalists know how to write stories that audiences want to hear, says Lauren Quaintance.

One of the things I am sometimes told by marketing managers is that they have a copywriter who writes the company’s content. In the past that person might just have been putting out press releases or doing direct mail, but now they also write blog posts or stories for their website as well. Fair enough. But here’s the thing about copywriters: they’re great at writing copy but they’re not great at writing stories.

Journalists and copywriters have a lot in common (I should know – I am a journalist married to a creative who is technically a copywriter) but they are actually an entirely different species.

Journalists ask annoying questions

When I was a journalist and editor one of the most effective insults you could deliver was to suggest that a colleague had “interviewed their typewriter”. Which is to say that they hadn’t interviewed anyone at all. Journalists use reporting to inform their writing – it’s what gives their stories the telling details that make them authentic – while copywriters rarely need to leave their desk.

Journalists are subject matter experts

One of the most important jobs a magazine or newspaper editor does is assigning the right writer to the right story. For my own agency Storyation I rarely use writers who don’t have a specialization. If you’re a writer, it’s not enough to say that you specialize in “travel”. I want to know if your deep and abiding passion is family travel, luxury travel, wine travel, solo travel or something else besides. Because if I need to commission a story on the best dumpling houses in Shanghai I need to find the person who has been to every back alley joint in search of the most perfect dumpling.

Journalists know how to sniff out a story

A magazine editor of my acquaintance used to say “There are no new ideas in the world”. Think about just about any topic and it’s been done by someone; somewhere. But journalists and editors know how to mine a topic for a new story or angle. An example: career women in their late 30s face a “ticking biological clock”. There’s a topic that’s been covered a lot. Yawn. But get a man in his late 30s to write about how he is clucky and struggling to persuade his partner to have children and you have an original angle on well-traversed topic.

Journalists are born skeptics

This might seem like the last thing you want when you have a product to sell, but putting the needs of your audience first is an inviolate principle of content marketing. If you want to reach an audience that is skipping TV ads, ignoring banner ads and binning direct mail then you need to create content that audiences will find compelling and credible and journalists have an innate sense of what that is (and won’t be afraid to tell you). A healthy dose of skepticism coupled with an ability to see story ideas through an audience lens can be invaluable. Copywriters, on the other hand, are hired guns schooled in the art of selling and their copy is more like shiny, polished marketing-speak.

Which is not to say that every marketing manager should rush out and hire a journalist. Left to their own devices journalists will not necessarily write content that is in keeping with brand values or business objectives. But guided by a good content strategist, a journalist is much more likely to find stories that audiences actually want to hear.

Lauren Quaintance is co-founder and head of content for Sydney content agency Storyation

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