All the writers I know are experiencing an identity crisis.
From widespread layoffs to the rise of content marketing jobs—which are starting to eclipse the more-familiar reporter, editor, and blogger job titles—it’s a confusing period for anyone who writes for a living. In order to get a sense of the divide between mainstream journalism and content marketing, I spoke with eight professional writers.
After the interviews, the first thing that became obvious was that not all writers are familiar with content marketing. When I asked about brand publications, the follow-up question I heard from this group most often was, “Do you mean the magazines in airplanes?”
Secondly, those who had done work with brands were confident, adamant even, that content marketing could be rigorous, accurate, and intellectually stimulating. A few even pointed out advantages that brands had over media companies. Some of the uninitiated seemed concerned that a content marketing job meant writing product descriptions or advertising copy.
So where does that leave companies looking to hire full-time or freelance talent? Here’s what the writers had to say.
Describe your day job. Have you written more for brands or media companies?
Janine Kahn: I’m the editorial strategy lead at Airbnb. I’ve been at the company for almost a year and a half now. Up until Airbnb, I’d worked for news and lifestyle media publications exclusively, and always in the digital space.
Christopher Gillespie: I write exclusively for brands as my full-time job. I haven’t actually written for a media company, although every brand now wants to be one.
Jordan Zakarin: I have a full-time job writing for a media company’s news publication, but because it’s a niche publication, I’m allowed to freelance without worrying about many conflicts of interest. For the last few years, I’ve done freelance copywriting for a major e-commerce brand, on a project-by-project basis. I’m also doing some freelance copywriting and consulting for a startup that’s launching later this year.
Will Seaton: I’m a full-time content marketer—so, brands is the answer. But I have on occasion pitched to media companies on industry topics, and sometimes my work with brands lands in national media outlets.
Eric Francisco: I’m a pop culture writer at a media company. I have never written anything for brands (aside from the “brand” of my publication), nor have I written sponsored content. My work sometimes gets blurry if I’m reporting on a company that’s doing something new or exciting, but I try to include as much context as possible to ensure I’m still being objective.
James Dennin: I write for 98 percent media, probably 2 percent brand. I’m currently a technology editor at a media company. My second job was ghostwriting for a PR agency and that introduced me to a lot of prospective clients who I occasionally still ghost for to make money.
Janice Williams: I’m an arts and culture reporter at a magazine. It’s never really crossed my mind to write for a brand, mostly because my career trajectory has always leaned toward entertainment journalism.
Jesse Steinbach: I’m the special projects editor at Logo TV and a managing editor at Contently. That means I work about 15-20 hours per week at an editorial division of MTV and the rest for Contently.
In an ideal world, would you prefer to write for media companies or brands?
Kahn: Let’s be real, media companies are a turbulent place to work. Over the course of my career, publications I’ve worked for have been acquired and merged into new publisher portfolios, and budget cuts and layoffs are rampant. I’d long suspected that building an editorial program for a brand could produce better editorial in general, just by virtue of not being tied to the same advertising model publishers are beholden to. Brands are also keen to innovate, which can make for brilliant content. There’s the opportunity here to reach the audience size publishers can only dream of, and to localize an editorial program in a number of markets in a meaningful way.
Gillespie: I haven’t written for media companies, but I’m at a stage of life where I can’t really afford to send out pitches, hope to hear back, and not set my own rate. Writing for brands is a business and I don’t write unpaid test articles or work for a brand without the foreknowledge that if we’re both happy, it’ll be well-paid ongoing work. I look up to media companies in terms of style, storytelling, and writing quality.
Zakarin: I prefer writing for media companies because as a journalist, I’m pursuing stories I’m interested in (well, usually) and because I don’t have to conform as much to a safe voice. That being said, I have enjoyed the challenge of writing in a completely different voice about something I know next to nothing about. I’ve probably become a better writer for it, and I’ve definitely learned a lot more about shower shelving units and the many different kinds of baby wipes now available.
Let’s be real, media companies are a turbulent place to work.
Dennin: Answering first and only to quality is why I like media more, I don’t have to bend over backwards aligning client needs with editorial which can often lead to non-placements and frustration. On the other hand, there’s really no comparing how much pressure and anxiety writing something, and putting your name on it, creates relative to what goes into producing inoffensive brand copy which also tends to have more generous deadlines.
Steinbach: I prefer a mix of both, as they flex different muscles. I love the personal, investigative aspect of media writing—the creativity, lack of bureaucracy—but then I also have fun writing and editing for brands and trying to push them beyond rigid rules to create innovative content.
Do you think branded publications are considered to be as trustworthy as media companies?
Kahn: This depends entirely on execution. If you’re providing value with your branded publication and giving readers useful, engaging content, it’s entirely possible to be as trustworthy as an independent publisher. From what I’ve seen, branded publications need to do more to gain and maintain trust, and overcome any preconceptions about branded content.
Gillespie: I’ve never been put in an awkward position by a branded publication, where I’ve been asked to “push” any particular idea or agenda. Usually, they just want smart writing about cutting-edge and interesting things to help build a sense of the aesthetic they represent.
Seaton: The straight answer is less trustworthy. But it’s also not quite so straightforward. There’s obviously the perception that, in writing for media companies, writers will be less editorially ‘boxed in’ by brands’ drive for profit and, therefore, more free to tell the objective, non-commercial truth as they see it. However, it’s no secret that media companies are (or can be) starved for readers.
Brands do have one counterintuitive “advantage” here in that audiences usually have no reason at all to ever read their content, because they know that the end goal is (probably) transactional. So brands actually want (need) writers to pen stuff that resonates with an audience on its own terms. In other words, to churn out rigorously researched, genuinely informative—trustworthy—writing. That’s hard to do, and brands benefit from giving writers more leeway there, if they can stomach it. This all with a huge caveat that there will always be a kind of truth-telling that can happen only, exclusively through independent media.
Generally speaking, do you find that branded work is less desirable than writing for magazines or online media companies?
Kahn: I have an inbox full of writers really keen on writing for us, and that has everything to do with the hard work and the messaging our marketing team has put out into the world over the years.
Gillespie: Branded copy has to be less desirable. It comes with restrictions and a conflict of interest. Orwell said something along the lines of “journalism is writing something someone else doesn’t want you to print, everything else is public relations.” It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I realized that this type of work has a negative cachet, and that journalists think of it as ‘the dark side.” But it doesn’t bother me. I think of running my own little content marketing business as putting 10,000 hours into getting good at writing and getting paid for every piece along the way.
Zakarin: I think because freelance (and full-time) journalism is such a hard way to make a living, people are increasingly eager to write for brands. They’re not exactly transferable skills. Brand writing often takes way more discipline, at least on the page, because you’re filling a very specific need that is often not particularly literary-minded, so it takes a lot of practice. I’m still working hard to nail it.
Seaton: Writing branded copy, I sometimes find it hard to get people to understand what it is I actually do. Which, I don’t know, fair. But is it more desirable? It depends what you want to do.
Magazine writing may or may not be more interesting or fulfilling, depending on the person. I’ve found branded writing to be reliable, challenging, and fairly paid work. Price negotiation and timely payment are non-issues. Would I find it appealing to write for more media outlets? Yes, you bet, sign me up today. Do I value and enjoy the loyalty of my branded clients? Absolutely.
I firmly believe brand writing is a smart way to make a living as a writer. The challenge is then carving out the time for passion projects.
Francisco: I don’t think it’s less desirable work. I just don’t often see major, Earth-shattering stories coming out of branded pubs, and writers of all kind ultimately want to produce good work that shapes the world. At the same time, branded magazines seem to have a stability while digital media is in flux and subject to the whims of the Facebook/Google duopoly. Writers like stability, too. Plus, the branded print magazines are an enviable thing. Most writers don’t get to be physically published anymore.
Dennin: I think it depends a lot on how old you are and what your priorities are. When I was 22 and doing brand copy, all I cared about was the prestige of writing for a magazine or online media company. No one saw what I wrote, or if they did they wouldn’t know it was me because someone else’s name was on it. But I think that as time goes on, what’s good for your ego starts to lose out against what’s good for your personal sanity and finances more and more.
Williams: Branded content has been viewed as less desirable work over the years, but I do think that’s starting to change. One of the reasons why I never considered working for a brand is because it would limit me to writing about one specific thing, company, or product, whereas working for a broader publication would allow more room to write different things. But I do think some brands are branching out in ways I find more appealing, especially with the way some companies have tackled social media.
Steinbach: To be frank, brand writing is where the money is at. Unless you’re a Ronan Farrow of the world, I always adopted the tactic of “rely on brands to pay your bills, get your creative high writing for magazines.” I firmly believe brand writing is a smart way to make a living as a writer. The challenge is then carving out the time for passion projects.
The interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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