From 1989 to 2012, the full-time newsroom workforce in the USA declined from 56,900 to fewer than 40,000, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The decline in wages was worse, according to my personal experience.
In 1989, I was paid $75 to $150 for a 500-word story—and I determined my wages on my bill. By 2009, I was paid $50 for a 500-word story and editors were fighting over $5 bill items for three-paragraph briefs.
What’s a content writer? While researching this blog, I had trouble finding a satisfactory definition. John Halas, who has written dozens of columns on writing, wrote in a column entitled “Content Writer” that “a content writer is a freelancer hired to write online content for business” and their articles “are used to attract more traffic to the company’s websites.” My perspective is that journalists are more committed to finding the best information possible, while content writers get enough information to lure people into their stories and then move on to the next story.
I will always be a journalist, but I like a few things about content writing, including the greater number and greater variety of assignments, getting assignments via an online list rather than pitching editors, and the fact that I write stories via online research rather than interviewing people who are often hard to reach.
On the other hand, I hate that content writing rates are about one-quarter 20th century journalists’ writing rates and the quality standards are significantly lower.
My advice on making the transition to content writing includes:
- Less Research: Stop looking for the best research possible. This is advice I often don’t follow myself because I’m an “old dog” who has had trouble learning “new tricks.” Extensive research is time-consuming and not good for the pocketbook.
- Less Thinking: Keep writing instead of thinking about quality when you have writer’s block. I’m not saying you shouldn’t write quality articles; I am saying, for example, just write a lead when you’re stuck on a good lead for more than 15 minutes. As a journalist, I often spent more than an hour thinking about the perfect lead.
- More Clients: Journalism is precarious nowadays, but content writing clients are less stable. You need five or six clients because your primary source of income could have no available assignments tomorrow.
- Lower Grades: I was astonished in my early days of content writing that companies graded articles. I spent way too much time raising my grades. I soon had high grades, but earned less money than writers with lower grades, according to colleagues on writers’ forums.
- Higher Standards: You need to draw a line. Writing 500-word articles that pay $3 isn’t worth it. You should use that hour to seek better assignments.
- Use Info Better: As a journalist, I made a living updating news stories that required far less work than the original story. Content writers should also use their research for several stories—and look for stories that will enable them to use that research.
I haven’t completely made the transition to content writing so I will end this blog by sharing information I found while behaving like a journalist—an excellent column entitled “12 Tips for Writing Better Content.”
Martin Z is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.