I worked in the North Orange, New Jersey school district for one day. It was a training day. I had accepted a job as a teacher in a fine High School (read: rich) teaching Journalism and Theater Arts. As a challenge, this was a step down from the English teaching I had been doing at inner city High Schools for the past five years, but it would have been a very cushy teaching job. I had been offered a salary of $75,000, which is more than I thought a teacher could make. On my first day of training, a couple weeks before the school year started, I got a call from a Web site to which I had also applied for a job. They wanted me to work for them as a product reviewer and news writer.
[Image credit: Redfire Motion Group]
The Web site was offering less than half of what I would have made as a teacher. I tried to negotiate, but things fell apart quickly. Instead of increasing their offer, they decided not to hire anyone for the position and just stick with the people they had. I got a message on my voicemail that pretty much said “thanks, but no thanks.” I called back immediately and asked if they would let me work for the initial salary offer. Of course, they accepted. As a negotiator, I really suck.
I recently left tech journalism to work with a major phone manufacturer. When I told people I was leaving, I heard two questions repeating themselves over and over. First, would I continue writing these columns for SlashGear. Second, could they have my job. I don’t understand the first question. I didn’t suspect people enjoyed reading reviews of bad movies and sentimental stories about Facebook quite as much as they did. I’m flattered, and I hope that I’ll be back on SlashGear to stay a while longer.
The second question I completely understood. I’ll tell you when I realized I was working a dream job. I started at the Web site on the Tuesday after labor day. That Friday, I did not realize it was the end of the week until around 4:30, when it was time to start winding down. When I realized I had two days off from work, I was sad to be leaving. I wanted a longer work week. That’s my definition of a great job: when you hate Fridays more than you hate Mondays. For the past 4+ years, I’ve never looked forward to a Friday.
So, here’s how to get my job. Let’s start with qualifications. I have an English degree and a Master’s degree, but I wouldn’t say those are necessary. Definitely not the Master’s. But you need to be a very good writer if you want to do well. You need to be completely comfortable expressing yourself in print in a way that people can understand, and in a way that will express subtext and a deeper meaning to your readers. And you need to be able to do it quickly. I wrote 200 word news stories in 5 minutes. I wrote 4,000 word reviews in a day.
However, it wasn’t the writing or the degree that landed me the job. It also wasn’t my prior experience. I’d been teaching High School for five years, but before that I worked at a few top notch Web sites riding the crest of the tech bubble in New York City. I’d written some reviews, done plenty of editing and learned just enough HTML code that I can ask where the bathroom is using only anchor tags.
What landed me that job, and my previous tech jobs, was a connection I made with my interviewer using gadgets. I talked about my first cell phone. My parents bought me a so-called Motorola bag phone in 1991, the year I started driving. I talked about that, and how I had been landline-free since 1997, the year I got my first portable cell phone (an early Sprint TouchPoint phone). My future editor was hooked. He asked all the silly interview questions, but it was talking about my early experiences, and showing wonder for the world that opened up when I started carrying a phone everywhere, that convinced him I would be a good fit. I don’t think I even submitted a writing sample.
In my time at my first site, I worked my way up to a management position and was responsible for hiring new writers. If you want to do this for a living, here’s what I would suggest. Don’t send your resume. Don’t wait for a job opening to be posted. Jump on any opening that comes up, but don’t wait for an opportunity to come knocking. I’m not going to offer general job seeking advice, but here are some tips for breaking into the technology journalism field.
Start following some of the smaller Web sites that cover products and topics that interest you. Don’t aim large at first. Sure, sites like SlashGear, or Engadget, or TechCrunch may hire someone with little experience, but it’s not likely. Instead, aim for a smaller, up-and-coming site and plan on working hard until you’ve made a name for yourself.
Web sites usually follow a specific tone. SlashGear is intelligent, slightly longer-form, and family friendly. This site is interested more in discussion than simply blip-by-blip press release repetition. Some sites are more irreverent, with reviews of toys and even paraphernalia of all sorts. Some sites are more strictly news-based. Be flexible in your hunt, and try to write a few samples in the site’s style and tone. Most sites will ask for 2-3 samples anyway, so it’s better to have this ready up front.
Most important, make sure you target your application to the site in which you’re interested. If I could tell from an email that the applicant was sending me the same form letter he or she sent to every other site, I lost interest very quickly. You will have much more success taking the time and tailoring your attack to sites individually. Sure, you won’t be able to hit 20 sites at one time, but would you rather spend 4 months sending 20 emails a day, or 1 month sending one thoughtful, sculpted email at a time.
Now that I’m looking from the corporate side, I realize just how difficult the journalism job can be. There are a lot of fun aspects of the job. In my first week of working for a gadget blog, I went to a fancy dinner with RIM, got a free BlackBerry Pearl (which we then donated to a charity called Phones4Life), reviewed some of the coolest smartphones available at the time and saw my name in lights, err, pixels at least.
I also worked 12 hours a day (though usually not in a row), plus a few hours on weekends. I grew despondent as some of my best reviews flopped with little interest in the product or my analysis. I was rejected by PR flacks and left out of the loop. At those amazing trade shows, I skipped the free booze and greasy fried food and worked until 3AM, only to get up at 7AM for breakfast meetings.
I made far less money than my wife, who has an MBA, and worked more hours. But every hour of work felt like play time. I felt like I was getting paid for a wonderful hobby, and not like I was toiling away at a thankless career. It’s certainly not for everyone, and it isn’t an easy job to find, but for the right person, it’s a job that will have you looking forward to every Monday morning.