Content Writing vs Copywriting vs Journalism: What’s the Difference?

Jan 20, 2021

You may have heard me (or someone else) say that “content writing” makes an excellent career for nurses. True fact.

But the first workshop I launched was not about content writing. It is called “Health Journalism Basics for Nurses.” That’s not content writing; it’s reporting. If content writing makes an excellent (and lucrative!) career choice for nurse-writers, then why did I launch a journalism workshop?

Well, for two reasons:

  1. Because learning basic reporting skills gives you an excellent foundation for all types of content writing
  2. Because, in my opinion, health journalism represents the quickest path to success as a new nurse-writer

But what is the difference between “content writing” and “journalism,” anyway? And where does “copywriting” come into play?

This week, I’m going to demystify these freelance writing concepts. Put your tree-climbing gear on.

The Communications Industry Contains Many Branches

If you bop over to the University of Colorado’s website, you’ll see their academic structure includes a College of Media, Communication and Information. This college houses several departments:

  • Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design
  • Communication
  • Critical Media Practices
  • Information Science
  • Intermedia Art, Writing and Performance
  • Journalism
  • Media Studies

Now, I may have no earthly idea what “Intermedia Art, Writing and Performance” is, but I do know what “Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design” and “Journalism” are – and these are the two branches relevant to our current discussion.

“Journalism” strikes me as pretty self-explanatory. But I will define it in my own terms here, for the sake of clarity:

Journalism involves reporting news and opinion that is subsequently published by a media outlet whose primary business activity is news publishing.

“Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design” requires a broader explanation because this branch has multiple offshoots that affect us, as nurse-writers. This discipline includes:

  • Content writing
  • Copywriting

…and other things. But let’s focus on what matters to us in figuring out the differences between journalism, content writing, and copywriting.

In general, I define “Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design” as:

Communications that involve creating messaging for a company or brand whose primary business is not news publishing. These communications are designed to influence the reader to view the brand favorably or to take a specific action (such as “call for an appointment”).

Can you see the difference at this point between journalism and “marketing writing,” in general? Journalism involves reporting the news, whereas marketing writing involves creating marketing messages. Journalism is published by media outlets, whereas marketing writing is published by non-media-industry brands.

Drilling Down: What’s the Difference Between Content Writing and Copywriting?

We can now set “journalism” to the side, because we understand it’s an entirely separate animal from marketing writing.

Marketing writing again has many branches and offshoots. Two that hold interest for nurse-writers are:

  • Content writing
  • Copywriting

I call content writing “soft selling,” as opposed to copywriting, which I call “hard selling.” Whenever you read a clever print advertisement, you’re viewing copywriting. Its aim is to get you to buy something – and to buy it right now.

You’ve also encountered copywriting whenever you’ve found yourself on a landing page, like this one by Bluehost. Copywriting is an art that requires the ability to foment a sense of urgency in the reader. They need to feel compelled to buy.

On the flip side, content writing usually doesn’t involve directly selling anything at all. In-flight magazines can be considered the original “content marketing” vehicles. Although the magazines contained information about the airline, these publications largely consisted of delightful stories about destinations and other interesting aspects of travel. In-flight magazines didn’t directly “sell” the airline, but the publications definitely fostered brand loyalty.

As another example of content writing, take these blog posts I author. Occasionally I mention my workshops in passing, but none of these posts take the form of “28 Reasons You Need to Become a Nurse-Writer TODAY! Limited time offer!!!”.

That’s because content writing is about offering valuable information to readers, not exhorting them to buy something. By offering valuable information to my readers, I accomplish several objectives:

  • Establish my authority as an expert nurse-writer
  • Foster trust in the RN2writer brand
  • Build my email list by creating content people want to share

As you can see, content writing is as self-serving as copywriting, in its way. However, content writing employs a gentler method for achieving its objectives.

Where Journalism and Content Writing Overlap

If journalism involves reporting stories for a media outlet, then how do you classify stories published on a site like Healthgrades? Take this piece I wrote for them, titled New Guidelines for Breast Cancer Screening: What Doctors Say.

This article looks exactly like a news story you might find on It was tied to a “news peg” (that is, it related to the issuance of new breast cancer screening guidelines at the time of publication). It includes quotes by experts the reporter interviewed for the article.

So…is this journalism?

No, no it is not.

Although this article I wrote for Healthgrades looks, walks, and quacks like a journalism duck, it is content marketing. Why? Because it was not “published by a media outlet whose primary business activity is news publishing,” as I specified in the definition of “journalism” above.

The primary business activity of Healthgrades is not news publishing. Instead Healthgrades’ principle business activity could be labeled “physician reviews” or “directory of healthcare providers.”

Articles like this one are sometimes called “brand journalism” because they bear all the hallmarks of straight news reporting – except the stories are published for marketing purposes by a non-media-industry outlet.

Putting It All Together

To recap, the tree of professional communications includes two major branches: journalism and marketing. The marketing branch contains many branchlets, two of which are content writing and copywriting.

As a nurse-writer, you can work in any of these communications trades – and more. I haven’t even delved into the world of public relations, but that industry provides yet another opportunity for nurses to earn a living as writers.

Did I manage to clarify the differences between content writing, copywriting, and journalism for you? Still unclear? Post your questions in the comments!

P.S.: Don’t forget to subscribe to the RN2writer weekly newsletter for even more great content!

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