So you want to be a journalist

Many people I know think I’m the luckiest guy around. I have an enjoyable job, get to play with cool gadgets, work from home a lot of the time and get to travel from time to time.

The respected journalist Jerry Pournelle (one of the writers who inspired me to write about tech) wrote a long piece on his blog (that started in the days before the word “blog” existed!) about how to get his job.

The essay starts with this caution

it’s easy to be an author, whether of fiction or nonfiction, and it’s a pleasant profession. Fiction authors go about making speeches and signing books. Computer authors go to computer shows and then come home to open boxes of new equipment and software, and play with the new stuff until they tire of it. It’s nice work if you can get it.

The problem is that no one pays you to be an author.

So, how do you become a journalist? It’s a hard road requiring skill, opportunity and courage but it is possible to make a living from words.

For me, it started with me writing for free for newsletters and user group communities. I also had the benefit of working in a job where I had to write a lot of documentation. That was great training as it forced me to write with clarity.

After a while, Jason Dunn was looking contributors to contribute product reviews to PocketPC Thoughts. At the time, it was a great way for me to work within an editorial team and to get some exposure. That brings me one of the few bits of advice I think I can offer to people trying to get into professional (my definition of professional means “paid”) writing.

Write a lot, make it public and learn from the comments and criticism.

Part or writing for that community involved getting to know lots of people and receiving their feedback. It also gave me confidence in my work and that, in turn, gave me confidence to approach editors and offer my services. Also, it turned out that one of the people who was Jenneth Orantia – a well known member of the mobile device community and a freelance contributor to a local magazine, APC.

When Jenneth needed someone to fill in for her when she was going overseas she asked me if I was free and put me in contact with the editor, David Flynn (the founder and editor of Australian Business Traveller). I wrote that first story – a product review of a couple of iPaq PDAs – and was fortunate that David was willing to take the time to teach me a few things. One of the pieces of advice he gave, and I think is worth passing on is:

The reader of your story may have spent their $10 buying the mag just for your article. Make sure they think it was worth the money.

Even though David wasn’t the editor for much longer, the relationship with the publication remained and I wrote for the magazine regularly for another three years or so. That ongoing role lead me to two other significant elements to my career as a writer. Firstly, it gave me the confidence to pitch my work to other editors as I now had a track record of delivering content that was on time and met the editor’s brief. Secondly, it opened the door to meeting other journalists and that has led me to an extensive professional network.

What’s interesting about the Australian tech media industry is that while we all compete for stories and to be first with a story we also share resources like contacts, we pass work to each other when we’re overloaded. So we’re cooperative and competitive.

My last piece of advice for the aspiring freelancer is that your primary job is to make your editor’s life easy. That means delivering your work on time and on the brief. Sometimes it will mean working to shorter than usual deadlines as you might choose to accept work that was planned for in-house writers but couldn’t be done for some reason. And, if an editor asks you to do a job and you can’t  – don’t just say no straight away. See if you can find someone else who can do it and refer the editor  to that other writer. That way you’re still solving the editor’s problem.

One last thing – self-employed writers often call themselves freelance journalists. I’ve come to the realisation over the last few months since I went 100% self-employed that the term freelance journalist is not an accurate description of what I do.

I’m actually a small business that sells the ability to take ideas and complex concepts and present them to an audience. Being a self employed freelancer means that you need to learn some basic business operations. You’ll need to get a business person’s understanding of maintaining your accounts, some basic marketing skills and great time management skills. Staff writers usually have all of this done for them. Freelancers need to do all of those things or make enough money to pay someone to do them.

Of course, a more cynical view is beautifully captured in this video.

Google Analytics on the iPad

Following on from my recent look at The iPad Blogging Toolkit, I’ve been getting my head around the whole SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, thing. Put simply, the application of good SEO techniques can help you get your blog further up the page ranking system of search engines. That means that when people search for something, your blog or website is more likely to come up near the top of the results.

One way to measure how your site is performing is to use the software that most web hosting companies provide. However, a more popular way of measuring how much traffic your site is attracting and, more importantly, how it’s finding you, is to use something like Google Analytics. In order for Analytics to work you need to run some specific code on all the pages you wish to measure. If, like me, you’re not interested into delving into your blog’s source code, there are WordPress plug-ins that do the legwork for you.

If you’re an iPad user, one of the hassles is that not all of the nice graphs show up on the screen. That realization meant that I needed to take a trip to the App Store. A quick search for “Google Analytics” revealed several different applications that would bring the data from Google Analytics.

Like many people I started with a free option – an app simply called Analytics. The App Store reviews seemed reasonable and the price was right.

What Analytics delivers is the same experience you’d have on a computer running a proper web browser. Graphs, tables and other visual elements appear with Analytics just as they would on a regular computer. Depending on the performance of your Internet connection, the app can feel a little slow but it wasn’t bad enough to make us want to spend money for another application.

The main stats I’m interested in are number of visitors, where they are coming from and what search terms are attracting them. Armed with those bits of data I can tweak the posts I create (using BlogPress) so that I can make sure I write content that my readers are most interested in and draws the most traffic through search engines.

This is the start of a journey for me. being able to find tools that work when I’m not at my desk is super important. Analytics is, for now, one of the tools that enables me to write relevant content that attracts visitors.