How to start a career in Digital Journalism
Breaking into journalism is getting harder and harder - there are far more people looking to earn a living in the industry than there are roles and as the print industry continues to contract more people are moving into the digital space. Full time writing roles are the most rare and they're not always the most stable of career choices, the majority of online writers are freelance and work across a wide range of publications.
There is no one guaranteed way to break in to the industry - but there are lots of things you can do to improve your chances and getting the right role is about putting yourself out there and in front of those that have the money to commission your words. Some people will advise you never to work for free, but everyone needs a portfolio of work to show; even the most experienced writer needs to have a body of quality writing behind them they can point to in order to convince editors that they should agree to pay you money.
Writing for your own blog is a great way to build up a solid library of writing - and this can help you both in terms of refining your skills and also letting you write about the things you love. If you want the support of an editor and you can find a reputable site to build your experience who can actually help you to improve your writing this can be as valuable for fledgling journalists as monetary reward. Be wary of those offering 'exposure' - unless they are able to help you hone your skills and they have a proven track record of helping people onto the earning ladder their promises can be empty. There IS merit in never exchanging your writing without some return and never be afraid to ask for advice.
And, don't burn bridges - as the pool of writers grows, having good contacts and maintaining good relationships is always a priority. While journalism is a huge market each specialised subject is a surprisingly small community and you'll find yourself crossing paths with the same people over and over again. Word travels fast and a writer that is difficult to work with will find their opportunities dry up quickly when there are so many other people chomping at the bit for work.
We've asked a number of established writers to tell us about how they started their careers - no two people have the same story, but their advice and experience could be invaluable...
Holly Brockwell - Editor in Chief, Gadgette
I've always been a writer. From the thick, inkstained diaries of my childhood to the terribly typeset poems of my emo teenage years, laying down words has always been a fundamental part of who I am.
I've always been a geek, too. I take after my dad, who had a computer before it was cool in the 80s and taught me how to set fire to the newspaper with a glass prism at the age of 5. I could have burnt the house down, but instead he ignited a passion for nerdery that's never left.
Those two passions came together in the best job I could ever have imagined. After studying English Language & Linguistic Science at uni, I was told I couldn't go into journalism unless I'd been editor of my student paper. Well, I was too busy funding myself through my studies working all hours in the student union shop, so that was out. Instead I moved to London and spent 7 years in the creative departments of ad agencies, writing about everything from whisky to chocolate. Every time a tech brand came in, I was the first to put my hand up, and so I've had the privilege of being the voice of everything from Apple to BlackBerry.
Then, a women's tech site I'd been reading for years advertised that they needed someone to do phone reviews. Getting paid to play with phones seemed like a dream gig, so I took it on alongside my day job. I'd often be filming review videos at 2am, changing the time on the phone clock so people didn't realise how tired I was. Before long, I couldn't bear to write ads when I could be saying what I really thought about tech without marketing managers breathing down my neck -- and by beautiful coincidence, the site offered me the job of Editor. I bit their hand off.
Working there helped me realise that there's a huge gap in the market for a female-run, female-written site that talks about tech like real people do. That's why I founded Gadgette, a more inclusive tech site, and won Woman of the Year for it in 2015. These days, I divide my time between running the site and freelancing for as many publications as will have me. The careers advisers were wrong -- you can be a tech journalist regardless of your background. It's the job I never knew I always wanted.
Holly is a gadget addict, tech journalist and supergeek. When she's not unboxing shiny things, she's mostly trying to keep her pet birds and cats from annihilating each other. Follow her on Twitter: @holly.
Rebecca Stow, Freelance Video Games Journalist
During my teens I had no idea what career I wanted. I picked A-levels which seemed interesting and offered up multiple career paths, but there was no particular career avenue that called out to me. Then, for one of my assignments in my English Language class, I was told to create a blog about a hobby or pastime. With video games being a huge part of my life, I naturally chose them.
The assignment ended, but the blog stayed. Articles about my favourite games, miniature reviews on the new ones I’d picked up and rankings to add diversity to the content on the site were what I spent all my free time doing. Come January 2017, my little games blog had grown from a college project into a passion that I knew I wanted to chase. My passion for video games journalism was fuelled further when I was contacted by a small PlayStation site called Square XO. They gave me a platform to improve my writing, play and review games that I never would have considered playing, and, from that point on, I quickly took to podcasting which shaped my professional voice in the industry and allowed me to increase my gaming knowledge.
I started a degree in English and Media that autumn based on my desire to begin a career in digital journalism and the following spring I received offers to write for PushSquare and Daily Star Gaming as a freelance contributor. Now I freelance for as many sites as possible, taking on interviews and covering breaking news. It certainly wasn’t an easy path to get to where I am today but, with hard-work, dedication and willingness to cover every game that’s thrown at you, a career in games journalism is attainable and achievable.
Gaming takes up a huge proportion of Rebecca's time and when she's not writing about video games she is reading, listening to podcasts, or eagerly counting down the days till the next indie release. Follow her on Twitter: @Rebeccastow97
Ryan Lambie, Author of The Geek's Guide To SF Cinema and former Deputy Ed: Den Of Geek UK
You have to really love writing - love it almost to the point where you can’t imagine doing much else. That love’s important, because it’ll get you through all those days where you’re suffering from writer’s block, or where you get a rejection email from an outlet you really like. Most of all, you have to love writing because it’s such a hard job to get into; worse, it’s even harder to make any money out of.
So let’s assume you really love writing. What next? The most obvious next step is: keep writing. Write on your blog. Keep a journal. Look around to see whether there are any outlets that might want to publish the work you’re interested in creating. I consider myself incredibly lucky, in that I managed to find a website - Den of Geek - that provided a home for my writing while I was completely new and untested. I’d probably shudder until my spine fell out if I revisited that early stuff, but it was still an important early step. In fact, I’d urge most writers reading this, assuming they’re just starting out themselves, to get their work into a public forum as quickly as they can. Don’t wait until you think you’re ready. You’ll learn more, and learn more quickly, if you can find an outlet with an understanding editor and fellow writers who can give you support and feedback.
This, essentially, was how I got my start in writing. Den Of Geek gained popularity, and freelance work started springing up in other places as I grew in confidence and started pitching articles elsewhere. It took a long time, but somehow, I got to the point where I’ve been able to support myself through writing for the past eight years or so. I even have a book or two with my name on the cover, bizarrely.
Of course, there’s no easy path into a writing career, and what works for one person won’t work at all for another. But if I could offer just a few small bits of advice that could apply to just about anyone, it would be those two. Seek out those outlets that will provide a home for your work, and also useful feedback and friendship as you’re writing. On your travels, you may find a few outlets that will just want to use you in one way or another, or treat you like a machine for generating content. Avoid these at all costs. Run for the hills. Good editors, good websites and magazines, do exist. They’re smaller in number, but they’re out there, and they’re always looking for people who love writing.
And if you do love writing, then here’s the second piece of writing: never, ever stop. Even if commenters say dreadful things below the line; even if you grow dejected at how hard it all seems. Never stop - because you never know where your writing might take you next.
Jack Yarwood, Freelance Games Writer
One of the most common questions people tend to ask about how to get started in digital journalism is whether or not to do a journalism degree. While I personally did do a degree, I don’t think it is as necessary as people seem to make out. I’ve never told an employer that I went to university and I think the skills I received from my degree are all things that can be learned by writing for a smaller outlet with an attentive editor or through managing your own blog.
That’s how I started anyway. For a year I wrote for some smaller sites for free – which I appreciate not everyone can do – and managed my own blog. I used these opportunities to interview anyone who would give me the time of day and to learned how to report on different stories. The important thing with this was to get a portfolio in place, even if it was just three or four blog posts that I could attach to the end of an email when chasing work. After all, editors need to know you can write before they commission you.
Also, just as a side note, be careful if the site you are writing for isn’t your own. Especially in games, there are a lot of places that will try to woo you with the promise of free game codes and payment for the amount of clicks your article gets. Try to avoid these, if possible, and find a site instead that has a small but loyal community or an editor who will talk you through your work and will explain edits. This will be a lot more useful to you in getting your name out there and teaching you how to work, and you won’t annoy your family by spamming posts on Facebook or Twitter.
As for finding places to pitch to, I’d say social media is probably the most valuable resource for that. Twitter is great for following editors and finding out who is accepting pitches. My first few gigs in games journalism, writing for places like Paste Magazine, Playboy, and Vice Gaming, all came as a result of seeing editors soliciting pitches online and from following and befriending other freelance writers. And that’s really been a common thread throughout the last few years of doing this. Just make sure you know who you’re pitching to first before sending them an idea that is clearly not suitable for their site, and target the relevant person at the site. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time.
Then last but not least the most important piece of advice I’d give is to make yourself useful. This means covering things editors don’t have the time or ability to cover themselves, like guide work, reviews of smaller games, or specialized coverage of gaming communities. This might not seem as glamorous as reviewing the next big game, but it can lead to further opportunities and help you get your foot in the door.
When not glued to the latest release, Jack Yarwood spends his time writing and talking about video games online. He has bylines on PCGamesN, PC Gamer, Kotaku UK and more. You can follow what he’s up to over on his Twitter.