Journalism vs. Content Marketing:  Challenges and Differences

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles about challenges and decisions that writers face in their everyday lives. Future topics will include: Work for Hire vs. Royalties,

Freelance vs. Staff, Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing and Working at Home vs. “Shared” Workspace. If you would like to participate in any of these articles please email me at Suggestions for additional column topics are also greatly welcome. The more people sharing their experiences, the better!  

When I first entered the writing world some 30 years ago, the lines were clearly drawn. There was newspaper and magazine journalism, the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the newsroom where if an interview subject so much as bought you a cup of coffee, it was considered compromising your objectivity. Advertising and PR was a totally different animal in which the clients or agency owned and dictated every word, sentence and paragraph, although it paid well. “Literary” fiction and nonfiction, was another rarified option, whereby who you knew helped gain entrée in to the hallowed halls of publishing, preferably in New York City.

Of course all this has changed. Today many journalists, especially freelancers who make their living writing, do content writing as well as more traditional magazine and newspaper journalism. And while most of us have a pretty good grasp of what the rules of engagement for each are, there are conflicts and frustrations when trying to do both. “Sometimes I find myself self-censoring with content marketing,” observes ASJA member Mark Ray, who writes for several Boy Scouts of America publications as well as Costco Connection, AARP the Magazine and Aetna International insurance. When working with content clients, he measures whether the subject will be at odds with what the client is trying to communicate with their audience:  “Am I pushing the boundaries too much?”

The opposite can be true with traditional journalism. Recently I wrote an article on a rather controversial topic, quoting widely disparate opinions from sources with different political views. It felt almost like jumping off a cliff:  These people were very outspoken – would there be trouble ahead?  Yet the editors were pleased with the result and the article was published and shared extensively online. It left me wondering – was content marketing turning me into a writing weenie afraid to tackle the tough stuff?  Like Ray, I don’t consider myself a hard-core investigative reporter and prefer what he describes as “a collaborative rather than adversarial relationship” with my sources. Yet at times I also feel compelled to tackle topics and speak truths that others might shy away from. And content marketing is generally not that.

In researching the differences between the two, I came across this somewhat disturbing definition by content strategist Megan Dobransky: “There might be very, very specific audiences that have very, very niche interests. [Content marketing] doesn’t even really have to based in truth… Because the purpose… is creating really great content that makes people convert in some way, the audience is far more important.”

Not so, according to ASJA member Linsey Knerl, who creates digital content for startups, major corporations, and educational institutions and is co-presenting on “The Ethical Branded Journalist” at  #ASJA2019 on May 5-6. “The most important rule I have when doing any content, whether that’s journalism or branded content is that I won’t state untruths, I won’t misrepresent interviews/quotes, and I only work with publications and brands that I respect.”

Ray struggled with a potential conflict of interest while preparing a white paper for his client. Due to the client’s ongoing lawsuit, he was asked not to mention a party that was an essential part of the story. “It was hard to tell the story without discussing this major player so I focused on another aspect that helped provide a solution.” Also, the situation in question “had been covered in the general press so people were aware of it anyway.”

Staying “in character” is a challenge for Debbie Abrams Kaplan, who focuses on the supply chain and healthcare area and is also co-presenting on “Boosting Your Income Writing For Trade, Business, And Association Publications” at #ASJA2019. “You just constantly have to remind yourself who you’re writing for and that drives the interview questions, the sourcing and the writing. Whether it’s content marketing or journalism, each client has their own quirks. In content marketing, you also have to let go of the final version more easily than you do with journalism, as the client’s opinion matters more than yours.”

“I like journalism more, but I don’t like the pitching process,” Kaplan says. “I really enjoy seeing how the sausage is made from the content marketing side, sitting in on client meetings and hearing what happens behind the closed doors. It informs my view, so that when I get a press release as a journalist, I have a better sense of what’s happening behind the scenes. I’m fascinated by the whole business process.”

Quotes are another sticking point with content writing. They “can and will be changed, if it’s the company representative speaking, and often, the sources will be able to see and comment on the draft,” continues Kaplan. “It can be difficult to find on-the-record sources to interview that aren’t related to the company. I’ve found that professors are the best sources for these pieces, especially if I tell them they won’t need to comment on the company’s products or services, just on the topic I’m covering.”

Yet, says Ray, “I see nothing wrong with cleaning up sources’ quotes or sending drafts to them to review” in content marketing stories. Especially if it’s highly technical or medical information, even the use of a single incorrect word or term can misinform thousands of readers. The clients’ ability to review material also provides a level of comfort that can help push things forward: “If a client is treading lightly about, say, espousing LGBT rights, they may be more comfortable to go ahead with a story if a source is a thought leader who just happens to be gay as opposed to someone selected primarily because he’s gay.”

Knerl feels that “writing for brands comes with an end in mind before you start. Journalism takes you wherever the story takes you.”

And, in many ways, they are alike. “The biggest challenges I face when doing both journalism and content marketing is that both can take a lot of digging to find out what the client really wants,” Knerl goes on. “They involve many of the same tasks: interviews, research, learning new topics and plenty of edits. Both have an ‘angle’ that the editor wants you to take, and both can feel overwhelming when you don’t come to the same conclusion as the pitch you originally sent… or the editor assigned. Establishing boundaries or what you will and won’t do with any work is key, and you must know this before you start taking clients.”

But one thing you can take to the bank. Content marketing frequently pays more than journalism. So it will remain on many of our menus.

There’s still time to register for #ASJA2019, on May 5-6 at the New York Marriott Downtown, two action-packed days of programming; exciting, dynamic keynoters; a plethora of networking opportunities and much more. New this year i
s an app, “ASJA Annual Writers Conference 2019,” available for iPhone and Android. Download it to maximize your conference experience.