How To Get Into Digital Journalism
I didn’t take the most traditional path into working in working for online magazines, or working for myself.
In my opinion, that’s the best way in. To keep putting yourself out there until you’ve got a fully cemented portfolio that you’re proud of share. I always knew I wanted to work in an editorial environment, to create content, to publish things, but as with most things in life, you have to work out the best way to get there, for you. Everyone’s path is totally different, so there’s no point asking for specific advice. Don’t take anyone’s advice is the main rule! It’s not as easy as just popping out of the womb and instantly becoming Carrie Bradshaw (mainly because the Carrie Bradshaw life is a myth, sorry, I know, we’ve all been lied to). You have to learn things the hard way. First-hand. Hands on. In the Internet era, we can do things in order to raise our own profile and amplify things we believe in.
Not everyone just knows what career they want to get into straight away. If you are reading this and you just know you want to work in online storytelling, writing or journalism, you’re actually quite lucky that you’ve narrowed it down. And you’ll probably have to try a few things out before you know for sure. I had to wait until the right role popped up that married up my social media experience and editorial skills so I could write and edit and hunt out the news in the hidden corners of the web and grow platforms and tie it all together. In this exciting digital era, there are jobs out there that they don’t necessary tell you about at university. My job didn’t exist five years ago. We can make our own paths. We can create our own roles.
To work in editorial now doesn’t necessarily mean working for a monthly print or newspaper or a household brand, there are so many ways to write and get involved with awesome digital websites. Some nicher titles have more budget to pay freelance writers. The bigger the name, the more likely they are to pay you badly because they know the “exposure” you will get is desirable to so many people.
Companies work in lots of different ways, but the pace of the digital and social media world cannot be ignored. So whether you’re want to get into writing, blogging, social media managing, editing – hopefully these handful of things I’ve learned along the may might help in some way.
So here are some things that worked for me, back when I was just starting out:
1. Join a blog network.
I joined Huffington Post bloggers over six years ago. Also HelloGiggles (Zoey Deschanel’s website) as a contributor. It didn’t pay loads and sometimes not at all, but right at the start it was worth doing in my opinion. My words got shared to a Facebook page with millions of followers. I got my work out there. I didn’t feel robbed because I needed the experience. It was beneficial for me.
2. Team up with your writer pals.
Write on each other’s blogs. Share links to each other. I wrote a dating blog in 2010 with a guy I met on Twitter from the Gay Times. It got us a bit of traffic, it was fun, it showed that we were enthusiastic, keen, had stuff to write about and could be arsed to create and share content. I could put it in my portfolio.
3. Get on Linkedin.
You don’t have to go on there everyday or write posts or look at people’s profiles if you don’t want to. BUT you should get on there, and have a good profile. Recruiters spend a lot of time lurking on there for freelance writers for both exciting start-ups or established companies.
4. Ask for advice.
You can’t have an ego about it. Ask people for a coffee. Ask for advice. Do not, however, ask to “pick someone’s brain”. But you can ask for help if you genuinely feel icky and stuck. People will respond (they might take ages, but they eventually will). I met up with the digital directors for The Times, Guardian, Telegraph. Nothing happened immediately afterwards. But that wasn’t the point – the point was I was talking to them one-on-one and going out there to get advice, which was invaluable.
5. Have your own online space.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you to start a blog or podcast. A blog isn’t for everyone, and not everyone wants to have the pressure of having to publicly share stuff all the time. Also having a blog that doesn’t get updated looks a bit naff. But, I would say you do need to have an online space/portfolio to store your writing. Even if it’s a static page with your name as the URL. Also, how else do you keep track of your work? Plus if you send an email to someone, they won’t read the attachment (too much effort) but they will click a link. So it’s best you have a link that’s all yours.
6. Have a USP.
What’s different about you? What’s your thing? Why are you doing this? What do you care about? What do you want your thing/brand to be? Make a list of things that mark you out amongst the rest, and a list of things you need to do to communicate who you are to the outside world.
7. Pitch pitch pitch.
Pitch ideas left right and centre. Editors emails are public knowledge. If you keep pitching you will soon learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Something will stick. Through all the rejections, “yes’s” and general feedback you will learn so much for the future.
8. Be realistic.
Lots of people just ‘want’ to be a writer. It won’t happen just by writing a blog. Or having a Twitter feed. No one is going to give you a column because you have a few witty opinions on something. You need to get under the skin of your favourite publication and learn to be edited. It’s competitive so roll up your sleeves and be prepared to accept feedback/criticism of your work. You might get edited heavily but you will learn along the way what sort of things people want.
9. READ lots.
There are so many amazing books out there that are genuinely helpful and tells it how it is in the industry. One of my favourites recently is Mistakes I Made At Work (25 amazing career women tell you how they fucked up, and later succeeded). There is SO MUCH free advice out there.
10. Go to events.
I cannot stress enough the important of IRL meet-ups or events. Meeting PRs IRL is important too. No one grows their career by just sitting behind a laptop – it might look that way, but you need to put faces to names. Real solid regulars commissions come from making great relationships. Sell yourself, ask to meet for a coffee, or more generally keep your eye on Twitter and Eventbrite and make a list of the events you think are most important for you to go to. I have a Google doc with all the email addresses of people I’ve met over the years. It’s so important to have a network of people you know and trust.
11. Be reliable.
If someone asks you to do something. Do it well, and do it ON TIME. You might be really good but if you’re always late, they’ll pick someone else over you.
Partner up with people and do things that are mutually beneficial. I had a few people guest blog on my website for a while and I linked to their social channels to grow their followers. I interviewed entrepreneurs for Huffington Post to raise their profile and in return I got to go to their events. Work out how you can pitch ideas to people that are mutually beneficial.
13. Join conversations.
Twitter is often compared to an online ‘cocktail party’ because it’s acceptable to just sort of enter a conversation if you feel like it. It’s sort of like sidling up to someone and say hello with your drink. Just do it. Get chatting and who knows what it’ll lead to one day.
15. Be disciplined.
Work out a schedule and stick to it. One pitch a week? 500 words every Sunday? Whatever you put in your diary, stick to it. Be reasonable, don’t put too much pressure on yourself otherwise you’ll never do it.
16. Own something.
What’s your thing? Spend time working out what really interests you. Is it writing TV reviews? Food? Women’s rights? Get people to remember you as that person who can write well about that thing.
17. Follow people you admire closely.
Not in real life obviously, that would be weird. But follow the people who’s job you want. See what they do, who they talk to, which events they go to, how often they blog etc. Learn from them and work your way up to achieving specific goals. There’s a difference between being jealous and being inspired. Choose to be inspired.
18. Tell people you like their work.
If you’ve just read a book that you love then tell the author. Tell the publisher. Same for magazine. It’s a great way to tell people you like what they do, and they’ll probably remember you. Support and champion things.
19. Tag your work.
Make sure you tag your blog posts with key words so that they are easily searchable. Same with YouTube etc. Makes your Google page look good, and full.
20. Social media.
Treat your social media channels like they are a brand: a) Don’t be a dick b) be consistent c) be honest d) BE YOU. Really important to have a voice. A real one. Brands and magazine editors are more likely to want to work with you if they can see what you already sound like in your writing. I’ve had people commission me to write articles off the back of a tweet that they wanted me to expand on. Drip feed small ideas on there, but keep your big ideas back.
21. AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: KEEP GOING.
It’s really important to be aware that things just don’t happen overnight. You have to to keep going, making progress each day, even if it’s really tiny steps forward. Even if it’s writing one small thing that hardly any one reads, you are improving and creating something. Pat yourself on the back. It really is a case of not giving up.
“In love with Emma Gannon’s Ctrl Alt Delete. So funny & smart, and reminding me of some of my own cringe teen Internet exploits!”– Anna James, former literary editor of ELLE
"Funny, honest, and nostalgic!"– The Debrief
“Emma Gannon is a bright spark of light in the world. I seriously dig everything she makes”– Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Big Magic