Journalism and copywriting: can I do both?

When I started freelancing fulltime — deciding whether I would pursue both copywriting and journalism wasn’t a question — it was a given. I already had a copywriting job that I loved. Plus, I couldn’t imagine bringing in a sustainable income as a freelance journalist. But that didn’t mean I wanted to give up on my journalism dreams altogether.

The journalism industry was already in a bad way before the pandemic — and well, let’s just say that things aren’t looking good for the future of journalism. It’s not only increasingly common for journalists to do copywriting work but I’d say it’s almost impossible to bring in a stable income as a freelance journalist alone (kudos to journalists who do, though!).

Spending time networking with other journalists made me realize that there are still journalists who look down on corporate work. And look, I get it. Isn’t working for businesses a conflict of interest as a journalist? If we’re working in both industries, where do our loyalties lie?

I’ve already gotten myself into a few sticky situations. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Know your boundaries.

If you’re going to work in both industries, I can’t emphasize this enough. Know your boundaries! Write them down. Think hard about them. People will try to exploit your boundaries and, if you don’t know what they are, they may succeed at doing so.

The most important boundary if you’re working as a copywriter and journalist is making sure these roles don’t crossover.

For instance, earlier this year, a client asked me if I could pitch her corporate content to publications since she knew I did media work. During the meeting, I didn’t know how to respond. I knew this wasn’t a good idea but I hadn’t actually thought about this before. And so, I awkwardly agreed to look into it. I spoke to a friend who does both journalism and content marketing work. They warned me that pitching a publication on behalf of a business could get me blacklisted. In my next meeting, I told my client this would cross ethical lines.

Moral of the story? I didn’t know my boundaries. If I’d written them out or said them out loud to myself, I would have been able to immediately tell my client why I couldn’t do journalism-related work for them.

Try to keep your niches separate.

This isn’t exactly essential and it’s also difficult to do. Especially since I’ve found that if I have journalism work in a specific niche, that makes it easier for me to sell my expertise to copywriting clients. But it can make things a little murky. The main reason is that if you’re being paid by a private company for copywriting, you don’t want your reporting work to cover the content you’re doing for them.

For example, an NGO called Church Land Programme contracted me to write a researched report about mass evictions of shack dwellers in Durban. After (and while) writing this report, I realized that this is something I’d really like to pitch and report on for publication. But I couldn’t. This would cross ethical boundaries since I’d already been paid by the NGO to write this report. This is a minor example and everything worked out fine. In fact, other publications picked up the story, and an excerpt from my report was published in New Frame. Plus, I never would have looked into the story in much depth if I hadn’t been contracted to do so.

But I imagine that as I (or you) become more immersed in particular niches, these crossovers between journalism and copywriting will occur more regularly. The easiest way to prevent this is by creating different focus areas for these roles.

Stick to your ethics.

My biggest peeve is when people view copywriting as unethical. It’s not unethical unless you let it be.

Personally, I love my clients. As a copywriter, I’ve been able to work for some great NGOs, receive invaluable mentorship, and help brand some dope businesses. If you’re worried about the ethics of copywriting, my advice is simple. Don’t work with people who you think are dicks. If they seem bigoted or their content gives you the chills (in a bad way), tell them you’re not a good fit. I promise there are nicer people out there.

Be open-minded.

Freelancing as a copywriter and journalist isn’t exactly a traditional job. It’s not even a career path I learned about in journalism school. That’s part of what makes it exciting, in my opinion. The opportunities are endless and there’s always more to learn. Being open-minded and connecting or learning from other freelancers has opened so many doors for me. And it can for you too!

Have any questions or just want to chat? Hit me up, I’d love to hear from you.

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