So you want to be an online journalist
Some tips on how to prepare for a fast-changing field
This column appeared in the November 1997 issue of The American Journalism Review. This column also appeared as a chapter in the book “Writing.com: Creative Internet Strategies to Advance Your Writing Career,” by Moira Anderson Allen (Allworth Press, August 1999).
Agood portion of the e-mail I receive these days is from young people who ask: How do I break into online journalism?
I’m always gladdened by the question, because it suggests that new media have become permanent fixtures in our news and information galaxy. Increasingly, young people see the Internet as a taken-for-granted part of their daily routine — and more relevant to their lives than one-way big media like newspapers and TV.
Net journalism is here to stay. Following are some tips on how to break into the field — and how to last:
• Bring a passion for Web journalism. Talent isn’t enough. Desire, drive — a willingness to work long hours, often at modest wages, for the sheer love of it — can’t be underestimated. The best online journalism sites attract team players with an upbeat attitude and good people skills.
• Internalize the tenets of journalism. News judgment is not innate, it’s shaped by real-world experience. Work in a newsroom, absorb the daily lessons of interacting with ordinary people, learn the power of words to educate, to uplift — and to cause pain. Learn how to communicate as a writer and reporter.
“Reporting is reporting,” says Laurie Peterson, former editor-in-chief of Cowles New Media and now supervising producer for iVillage. “Online journalists must have all the skills of those in other media: good interviewing skills, solid research capabilities, tenacity, speed, accuracy, flexibility, a good b.s. detector and crisp and vivid writing.”
• Learn what works on the Web. Shoveling a 45-inch print story onto a Web site and adding links doesn’t make it online journalism. How can the story be enhanced through forums, polls, background materials, supporting documents, audio, video, interactive maps and charts, searchable databases, and so on? Develop a sense for how people use the Web for communication, information and entertainment.
Robin Palley, an online editor at Philadelphia Online, says, “Candidates need to know the difference between an online story and a print story. It’s not enough to capture a story in words. You’ll need all the skills of a traditional news desk, plus a talent for stepping back and figuring out what other media elements are needed to pull the package together.”
• Show your URLs. Build your own Web home page. Develop some content and show it to prospective employers. Get an e-mail account. Send your resume by snail mail and e-mail.
• Get published on the Web. Writing a compelling article and free-lance it to a Web publication. Some of them even pay.
• Learn the tools of the online trade. Play around with RealAudio, streaming video, QuickTime, Shockwave, Director, along with software applications like Photoshop and Quark XPress. You don’t need to learn programming code like Perl or C++ (though it couldn’t hurt). Want an inside tip? Bone up on the tools of tomorrow, like Virtual Reality Modeling Language, and apply that 3-D perspective to a real-world news story. That’ll blow their socks off.
• Develop a versatile skill set. Study HTML and Web design. Learn how to work sound clips. Take a camcorder to a news event and post a 20-second clip on your site. New-media candidates with cross-over skills have a decided advantage.
• Participate in online discussions. Dive into threads, like Media Rant on HotWired or the Media conference on the WELL. Post messages to Usenet newsgroups, mailing lists and Web publications’ feedback and letter sections.
• Schmooze. Network at Internet social gatherings, both online and in person. Develop mentors. Send flattering, but sincere, e-mail to people you admire. Wiggle your way into online newsrooms for an interview, even if there are no openings.
• Take a chance. Accept a job that’s not your dream job but that can serve as a steppingstone to your ideal. Work as an intern or as a data collector and show initiative by writing stories or reviews.
• Stay on top of developments. Read Internet magazines to keep pace with the fast-changing scene. Subscribe to online mailing lists and free newsletters.
• Check out job listings online. CareerPath.com, the Monster Board and America’s Job Bank are just a few of the dozens of online resources available to job-seekers.
• Take the long view. Start out at a small webzine, perhaps, and then move on to a better-known outfit like CNet, Wired News, Yahoo or America Online’s Digital Cities. Or start out at a small print publication before moving on to a paper with a new-media department. Remember, CNN Interactive or the nytimes.com aren’t going to hire you right out of the chute.
Just a couple of years ago, the road to success in journalism was a predictable, narrow, well-trod path. In today’s digital world, the landscape brims with a remarkable variety of career options for would-be journalists.