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.

You're Doing It Right: 4 Authentic Company Voices

Brand tone of voice: this is the way a company sounds as an entity. Businesses may not be people in the sense that they should be able to contribute huge amounts of money to political causes, but they do have a group voice, and they matter. Companies like MailChimp are renowned for having distinctive, engaging corporate voices, but who else is doing it right?

Planet Fitness: Judgment Free Zone

Known for being the economical option in gym memberships, Planet Fitness has taken a solid stance with their brand tone of voice. And what's more, they haven't backed down from a position that has some more serious health enthusiasts miffed (my more athletic friends among them).

Rather than trying to compete with more robust gym offerings, Planet Fitness targeted the large majority of us who would rather watch the Biggest Loser than re-enact it. Across all of their efforts, the Planet Fitness voice emphasizes a sense of belonging over anything else.

And it's a wise choice—the message "you are not alone" is much stronger than "you are not healthy enough yet." And urban-cowboy agency Red Tettemer O'Connell + Partners applied the verbal rough edges that resonate with those of us who are well into the double digits of body fat.

But did it work? According to the New York Times, absolutely: membership has increased 25% in a year and female members in particular are three times the industry average.


MakeLoveNotPorn.tv: Tagalicious

When it comes to finding content with verbal precision, Experience Goddess Oonie Chase nailed it. In an industry that's traditionally ignored the nuance of human sexuality, MakeLoveNotPorn.tv aspires to offer us more.

Previously, options for finding erotic content included: search based on sex act terms or stereotypical roles, recommendations from others, looking at a few tiny scene captures, and good old trial and error. In short, the majority of pornography (and ways of finding it), relied upon objectification rather than something deeper.

Since MLNP took an unconventional approach to providing erotic video, it makes perfect sense that they took a likewise unconventional approach to finding it. The team created language around this material not previously available, using tags like: tender, talkative, joyful, married, and sensual. When's the last time you saw that in the back room of your local sex shop? It's truly inspiring to see an industry building a sophisticated language around what was mostly grunting and pointing before.


Subaru: Experience Over Status

This car company may just be the only one whose ads I a) don't hate and b) remember. They've been putting out some great commercials that do something wonderful: they don't talk about features. Hell, a good portion of screen time doesn't even focus on the car itself, but rather the environment in which the car exists. What matters to Subaru owners is what experience they can have with their vehicle, not the car itself.

It's like they took the Volkswagon approach of contextualizing what makes their product great one step further. Sometimes, what you don't say speaks louder for your brand than what you do say.


American Cancer Society: Official Sponsor of Birthdays

I wish I could do a slow clap for that tagline. I mean really, it's an incredible challenge to take a topic that's deeply difficult and turn it into something hopeful that doesn't sound saccharin. I believe credit for that feat goes to The Martin Agency.

I love this example of brand voice because it isn't easy. MailChimp's playfulness isn't necessarily easy to create, mind you, but being funny and off-beat is a little more natural than being authentically inspiring as well as calm and approachable. To replicate the feeling of having someone who understands what a cancer patient is going through in copy tone is an achievement to tip your hat to a few times.


Voices like these make me feel happier when it comes to writing copy for the purpose of selling something, whether it's an idea or a product. I've enjoyed creating web content partially because most of the time, someone intentionally visits a site with purpose as opposed to having an ad thrust upon them. But when done well, advertising can be an art—and one that's worthwhile for everyone.

Now what I'm still trying to figure out is why cat supply companies haven't capitalized on the fact that they may be the only industry that could legitimately leverage cat videos to sell a product.

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!