Why I Left Journalism and Never Looked Back (Mostly)

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me about my transition from journalism to copywriting and content strategy, and whether she should consider a similar move. At the time, I simply told her to go for it, but such a significant shift probably warrants a bit more explanation.

I graduated with, among other things, a B.A. in English—something no one thought to tell me typically leads to either graduate school or teaching, neither of which I felt strongly about (both of which I considered). Fortunately, I'd worked for the university newspaper since arriving on campus and my experience in that tiny newsroom gave me sufficient résumé fodder to get paid slightly more in a slightly larger newsroom in almost-middle-of-nowhere Texas.

I lasted longer than most—about a year and a half—before I realized I needed a change. Here's why the transition made sense for me:

  1. I realized I hated forcing people to talk to me (and then questioning whether to trust their word). I worked the hard news beat, often covering crime and politics, and that meant people didn't always want to talk to me. On more than one occasion, people charged with crimes came into the office looking for me, and only now are the mugshots not the first image to come up when you Google image search my name.
    Moving into copywriting and content strategy for a digital agency meant working with people who were actually paying to talk to me and were passionate and excited about what we could create together. I was able to keep my reporter's curiosity in getting to know their business while helping them translate that into the most authentic voice for their online presence
  2. I decided I wanted to focus on quality more than quantity. When you work in a small newsroom, you eventually wear every hat: on-scene reporting, writing, copyediting, proofing, photography, layout. And while that does keep things interesting, it didn't take long for me to feel like there was more focus on getting a paper out every day on as few resources as possible as opposed to taking the time to create really quality work less often (the result of a die-hard daily).
    Copywriting appealed to me because it gave me the chance to think about a single headline for a few days or explore the proper tone for a site over a week or two. I wanted depth in my craft, and I still got the breadth I loved  by working with clients in many different industries.
  3. I fell in love with architecting information online.It started with hyperlinking to previously written stories when I posted the oft-maligned web edition of our paper (the stories I could tell you about our commenters...). When I realized the potential for connecting  just the right information at the  just right moment, I recognized the power of digital content.
    I adore the printed word and I'll be the first to defend journalism as an important craft in today's world regardless of medium, but I wanted to dig deeper into how people experience stories and information they're interested in online, and content strategy lets me do that every day.

I'm privileged to love the work I do and to feel really at home with my chosen career. While it's not right for everyone, it's absolutely where I want to be. It's a relatively young field (let's just say this job didn't exist in any recognizable format when I was doing career research back in middle school), and it's still defining itself.

But that's just one more thing I love—there's a chance to do something really special in a field so new. I hope more smart, capable, information-loving people join us, and I know journalism is one of the places we'll find those next content strategists.

What's in a Name? (And Why I Hate the Word "Content")

I'm feeling angsty lately, and it's not just because of my first ever Twitter debate. I am a woman of words, but I haven't found the right words for what I do with content. I've been reading Mike Monteiro's Design is a Job (one of very few books I've given five stars) and found myself feeling out of place but in the best kind of ways.

(Okay the best kind of ways really happen in Austin, where you see things like a dude walking his dog on a unicycle. Seriously, I can't make this shit up. Moving on though.)

I'm going to bring you back to your SAT days with this analogy, inspired by a man who likes Tastykakes more than your average California resident:

Designer : Artist :: BLANK : Writer

When I say "writer," I'm talking about creative writers—you know, the kind who sit around drinking absinthe and scribbling out poetry... and hanging out with painters. These are pure artists; they create art for its own sake, not deliberately intending for it to fulfill a practical purpose.

Design (once called "commercial art" long, long ago in a land far away) take elements of art and make it work for its money. Good design can delight and challenge in the same ways good art does—but it starts with an agenda. I'd argue that art with an agenda is walking the line of design.

Writing a novel with an agenda, on the other hand, is a fast way to get bitch slapped by an editor. Creative writing that trends toward intentional messaging may be a sin, but the upside is that "commercial writing" that trends toward the artistic (think storytelling rather than fact-spewing) is desirable.

That's good news for me because personally, I prefer to create things with a purpose and I prefer to do it in a way that people actually enjoy. I love art and literature, but what I want to spend my time making is something with a goal in mind. That's just the way I roll. Unfortunately, my Dad is still telling me I need to write the next Harry Potter novel to make it big with my word skillz.

So going back to my lovely analogy. I'm the BLANK and there's good reason why I'm struggling to fill it in. The problem with the label "content strategist" is that it implies strategy only, not execution. Something like "copywriter" implies the opposite (production without high-level architecture). I do both. I love both.

I'm more than a content cow, but less than a strategic saint.

In his book, Monteiro uses the phrase "information designer" (he rails against the label "information architect") which I like better than "content strategist" because anyone who understand what real design is understands that strategic thought drives what ultimately "looks pretty." I'm not a super big fan of "information," however, because it implies pure fact and structure without the seriously important nuance of tone and feelings in addition to downright useful information.

Then again, here's another confession: I don't like the word "content."

I was so relieved at BarCamp Philly this year when one of the speakers, David Dylan Thomas, said as much during a session. My beef with the word is that it's a catch-all and I almost always prefer to be specific with my word choices. (Related: I also hate the word "specialist" for the same reason.) But, as he pointed out, it seems to be a necessary evil for now.

So if I need to stick with "content" to avoid pigeonholing myself and the word "designer" accomplishes what I intend from the strategy-execution combo perspective, should I call myself a "content designer"? Somehow it doesn't feel quite right. It feels like I should know how to use Photoshop better.

I really want to know what other people think. If you're like me, what do you call yourself and are you satisfied with that label? If you're a designer, how do you feel about me calling myself a designer of words? I know what I can do matters more than what I'm called, but as a lover of words, I want to find the right ones to convey my meaning!