Nine years ago, I was looking for my first job in Indianapolis when I found myself interviewing for two different positions. One was a reporter/editor position at the now-defunct Indianapolis Star property INtake Weekly; the other, a copywriting gig at the Finish Line.
I ended up taking the reporting job, even though I had some experience as a copywriter and none as a journalist. It seemed like a great way to get to know the city, and I’d get my picture and byline in the paper every week. What young man can resist an appeal to his vanity?
Still, I was worried it meant shutting the door completely on a career in copywriting. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that journalists didn’t make good copywriters, and vice versa. But I took the leap anyway, and looking back, it was a savvy (read: lucky) move. Because in the years that followed, the wall separating journalism and advertising began to crumble. And increasingly, the skills required to do the former made one a strong candidate for the latter.
In early 2008, the journalism industry was in bad shape, and the Indianapolis Star was suffering as badly as any major metro newspaper. Ad sales were down, subscriptions were down, and morale was down. After INtake was shuttered and its staff was merged with the Indy Star features department, I could see the writing on the wall. So I started sending out resumes to ad agencies, and by June, I’d found a copywriting job.
The move back to advertising wasn’t easy. After three years as a journalist, I had improved significantly as a narrative storyteller, but my copywriting skills (conceptual thinking, big ideas, persuasion) had atrophied. I stuck with it, though, and over the next couple of years, I adapted.
Meanwhile, my former colleagues at the Indianapolis Star were on a similar journey. In an effort to deal with the reality that news had become a commodity, metro dailies had begun positioning their reporters as “personalities.” In this new world, reporters were expected to bring something unique and delightful to the news-consuming experience. The advertising slogan for the Indianapolis Star put it this way: “It’s how we tell the story.”
In essence, reporters and editors were asked to shift from straight journalism to journo-marketing. More recently, this is evident in newspapers’ adoption of the Buzzfeed approach to headline-writing (“10 Local Yogurt Shops You Absolutely Must Try!”). While online content farms are infamous for making this style ubiquitous, its origins go back to the old days of direct response marketing.
Certainly, journalists aren’t thrilled with the direction of the industry. Older reporters, especially, view their craft as a noble endeavor that’s been corrupted by newspapers’ misguided efforts to compete with non-journalistic media. While that may be true, today’s economic realities give newspapers little recourse. Without the metro monopolies and monster profit margins of the past—and with an entire Internet’s worth of competition—they’re fighting for their lives.
Still, it’s not all bad news for journalists who are willing to be flexible in how they view their profession. Because people haven’t stopped reading—they have just stopped reading newsprint. People are consuming an insane amount of digital content daily on their desktop and mobile devices. And with this evolutionary shift, the old lines between news, entertainment, and advertising have blurred. People are increasingly equal-opportunity content consumers. All they care about is whether it’s any good or not.
This is why everyone has been talking about branded content, content marketing, and native advertising for the past few years. Brands are turning into content channels, and marketing firms are turning into the new content providers.
What does this mean? It means, oddly enough, that tomorrow’s ad agencies will look more like newsrooms than like old-school ad agencies. And the most successful among them will have lots of great writers on their teams. And those writers will, most likely, not be copywriters or journalists, but a hybrid of the two.
The copywriter of the future is going to have to be able to research and report long-form stories. He’s going to have to be a skilled interviewer and note-taker. And, of course, he’ll have to think conceptually and write persuasively. He is going to have to be a copyjournalist.
So if you’re a student and you want to be a copywriter, you should consider studying journalism. Because moving forward, every successful marketing company will be looking for versatile writers who are conversant in the languages of both advertising and journalism—in my opinion, especially journalism.
As for the divide between journalism and advertising, forget about it. Anymore, only two types content really matter: “good” and “shitty.”