Writers vs Journalists

The Native Advertising Debate

It seems to me that when we are talking about native and sponsored content, writers and journalists tend to have different points of view.

I like to think of myself as a writer.

Now, as a writer, it’s my strong preference to write things that are interesting to me. To write the things that I want to write. Like many writers, I’m interested in a ton of different stuff. So much stuff. I look at the imaginary queue of topics and pieces in my head, and they run the gamut. Economics, politics, fantasy, the great American novel, business pieces of all types and in all industries. Writers may have “beats,” but generally their main concern is for the act of writing. They are, in many ways, omnivorous.

A writer generally has a thousand unwritten pieces rattling around in her head. Being a writer is, then, an exercise in looking at all the potential pieces you want to write, and prioritizing. We prioritize based on external and internal factors: which of these am I most excited about? Which one seems right for the times? Which ones have special circumstances surrounding them that makes now a better time to write it than later (or vice versa)? I understand that even as I’m finishing something up, I might not know exactly what I’m working on next. Circumstances change.

Being a writer is also, and has been for pretty much my entire life, a proposition in poverty. There were never very many paths to getting paid for writing. Most of us considered ourselves lucky to get paid to write at all, ever. It necessarily became one of the factors in our decision-making process for what to write next, but it was not the only one. We may write a thing to get paid. We may then write a thing that we really want to write, even though we know we’ll never make a dime off of it. Money was one of many factors. There weren’t many places that money came from, so when there was an opportunity (rare, so delicate and ephemeral) to make some money off of our craft, it tended to weigh pretty heavily in our queue ordering.

One of those places where writers could get paid, in the past, was journalism. Journalism has, historically, paid writers. And many, many writers have, thus, written pieces of journalism. It was pretty awesome that anyone paid at all, so if journalism was going to pay me as a writer to do the thing I must do constantly — to write — well, then, fuck yeah. I am going to write some journalism. But, as a writer, I’m only writing journalism because they are paying me to write (and thank you, thank you for that).

Sometimes we get so successful at our writing that we can afford to be picky. Curse you, Martin Amis, for never re-pressing your stellar work on the topic of the video game Space Invaders. Nonetheless, I found a signed copy. It’s one of my most cherished possessions.

Native advertising, then, for a writer, is like journalism on steroids. In the writer’s mind, we’re doing basically the same thing with native advertising as we’re doing with journalism. We’re writing an engaging piece about an assigned topic, finding an angle that is of interest to us and hopefully to others as well. And not only that, shit man, it pays way, way better. As a writer, I am excited about native journalism. A couple months ago I got paid $500 to write 1,000 words about a topic that is of interest to me. It took me 30 minutes. My editor changed three minor things. I made an effective hourly rate of $1,000 an hour. This is unprecedented for a writer unless you’re James Patterson with his circle of faux novels and production slaves, working simultaneously on six novels all with six figure advances.

For the rest of us? Well, damn, I’ve never made anything close to that in my life as a writer. Native advertising is awesome. More of that. Send me to the GE factory, put me on a new airplane to test your space WiFi, send me a box of crackers. I’ll write about ’em. I’m a writer. I can write about anything.

Then we have journalists.

Journalism is a different sort of craft. A journalist’s craft is the news. It’s informing the public. It’s shaping and improving society. Writing is the medium. Writing is a medium — it’s not even the only one. Serial is news. 60 Minutes is news. Most of the news has historically been in written form so naturally journalists are, often enough, pretty good writers. But they’re calling isn’t the craft of writing; their calling is the craft of journalism.

To a journalist, then, the structural changes that the internet — and, subsequently, native advertising — has wrought upon their trade has been alarming to say the least. One would not be hyperbolic to say that journalism as a career may well be ending. There’s still a lot of “news” out there, but journalists have several legitimate concerns in the modern situation. Is the “news” we’re receiving the news we really want to hear? Who in society will pay for the intelligent analysis and parsing of that “news?” Can I still make a living here? Is there still a place for me? Who’s behind this news? Can I trust it?

And to put it bluntly journalists used to have a pretty fair shot at getting paid to be journalists. Now they’re losing that chance. Instead, they are being transformed into writers, and writers of something masquerading as journalism. It’s a change not only of financial position, but of career.

Journalists are going from having a career in journalism to having to become writers.

Writers are going from having a career in journalism to having to become writers.

One of these is a lot worse than the other.

As a writer, I love native advertising.

As a journalist, I would hate it.

As a citizen, I’m more sympathetic to the journalists.


This essay was written while listening to Prince’s 12" remix of America on repeat. RIP.