What are the differences between content and journalism?

by Michelle Bowes
18 September 2020

If you’re one of the many out-of-work print journos looking at turning your hand to content, take heart – a good writer is a good writer no matter what they’re writing.

But things in the content world do work differently to print journalism. Here’s what I’ve learned about how writing for content marketing is different from the print media, and some things that are, reassuringly, the same.

Key differences between content writing and print journalism

If you’ve never heard of CTA before or you’re used to relying on subs to finish off your copy, content writing may be a bit of a learning curve.

In content, SEO keywords are king

Content articles typically live in the digital world, to be found by a Google search. Good SEO (or search engine optimisation) is crucial to achieving a first page Google ranking, and the easiest way to optimise your copy is to work in keywords that a reader might search Google for. The client may provide these, or you may need to research them – but the good news is you can probably charge extra for doing so. If you need to learn more about SEO, there are some good courses in this post.

A headline and sub-heads are expected

There’s no sub-editor or editor to add a headline for you in content land – you’ll be expected to provide one yourself. You’ll also need to write shorter paragraphs and break up your article with sub-headings, both of which make on-screen text easier to read. And while in print, a clever headline might draw the reader in, it’ll just confuse Google. So shelve the creativity – your headline and sub-headings need to be infused with SEO-friendly keywords.

You may need to write metadata as well

Often in content marketing writing, you’ll be supplied with a template that has spaces for all the bits that give Google information about the content you’ve written. Along with the actual copy, you may need to also write the title tag, meta title and meta description. You may also be asked to supply social media teasers at the correct word count. Yep, this takes time, so if it’s part of the brief, consider the fee and how long all these extra bits may take.

A ‘call to action’ is usually part of the brief

A call to action (or CTA in marketing-land) is the real reason behind the piece of content you’ve written. Unlike journalism, where the purpose is to inform, the purpose of content is to sell. So always ask the client what it is they want the reader to do next. It could be to call them, book an appointment or visit another page of their website, but whatever it is, be sure to include that CTA.

Forget about balance, it’s usually not the goal

Writing a balanced article isn’t required in content. While good content isn’t blatantly one-sided, it’s written with an intention in mind that isn’t simply to inform. In journalism, balance is usually achieved by interviewing a range of people with different perspectives but in content there will often only be one interviewee, typically supplied by the client.

Yes, content requires hyperlinks

If you mention research or stats in your content article, embed a hyperlink to the source. The client may not be keen on pointing the reader away from their website but this way, they can easily verify your references then remove the hyperlink if they want. But, I can pretty much guarantee they will want you to embed hyperlinks to other parts of their own website, so make sure you’re familiar with useful information you can point to on their website.

Research is a bit different for a content piece

In print, you probably did some background research then relied on information and quotes from your interviewees to give you the meat for your story. By contrast, there might only be one interviewee for a content article, (who can give you the client’s view but not always the background context or bigger picture), or sometimes, there’s no one to interview. Being skillful at digging around to find credible sources you can reference will save you a lot of time, and, remember, quoting research done by a competitor is a no-no.  

Doing it for the byline? You’ll be disappointed

Park your ego at the door; in the world of content, bylines are as rare as hens teeth – it’s the business or organisation that produced the content, not you.

Similarities between print journalism and content writing

Thankfully, there are some basic fundamentals that translate from print to content writing.

The five W’s and H still apply

That old journalism standard – that every article should look to answer who, what, when, where, why and how – still lives in effective content writing. It’s just that the answers to these key points will be different. 

Clear, succinct copy is always a must

Businesses and organisations love jargon and, given the option, would use it freely and unsparingly in all of their communications. You know better. Readers hate jargon so always aim to get beyond it and write clear and concise copy.

Grammar matters in content or journalism

Ensuring the grammar and spelling in your copy is correct is probably even more important in content as there’s no sub to fix things. Always getting these basics right builds your credibility with your client and, in turn, their credibility with their reader. Running your copy through either the Grammarly or Hemingway app before filing could be the extra set of eyes you need.

Keeping to the word length is always key

Whatever the commissioned word length that’s what you should deliver (within 10 percent either way is a common rule of thumb). Just because the constraints of space on the printed page don’t apply doesn’t mean you’ve got free rein – shorter is often better when reading on a device.

Deadlines are still deadlines

Clients are often pretty bad at meeting deadlines, but this doesn’t give you permission to follow suit. File your copy on time, every time. It makes you look professional and helps keep the project on track, which should lead to a more timely payment for your words!

If you’ve already made the transition from print journalism to writing digital content what other similarities and differences have you noticed? We’ve love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Michelle Bowes
Latest posts by Michelle Bowes (see all)

2 responses on "What are the differences between content and journalism?"

  1. Leeyong says:

    Thank you for this – I’m interested in getting into content writing after having been a lifestyle writer at various publications but have never really understood the crucial differences. This was helpful!

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      I’m so glad, Leeyong!

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