I am always amazed at how ignorant people are of the media and the people who work in the news industry these days. Despite the importance of a great press for democracy, public safety, and our wellbeing, next to one seems to care about how journalists get paid (or how much!), what their time commitments are, and in short, whether they have the conditions necessary to do their job for the public.
This is particularly important these days with the on-going Theranos saga. Whatever the final resolution of that story is, the WSJ's report on the company forced a secretive health-care startup to engage more with the public and prove that its Edison testing technology works (or perhaps does not). That's a win for transparency and patient welfare.
So how should you think about journalists (especially tech journalists) in 2015? Here are some thoughts as a former freelance writer at TechCrunch:
Journalists have an insane level of noise from every single channel. They receive as few as 100 and as many as 500 emails a day, from total random strangers to their best friends. It's just nuts. When they don't hear back in several hours, some PR professionals resend emails with snarky lines. Don't do this. Journalists want to cover the best stories, but they are inundated. Plan accordingly. Engage multiple people across publications, and potentially at the same publication (although never ever send an email to the entire staff!). Many journalists have no idea what other writers are drafting, so always mention if you have sent a news story to more than one person, or if someone else engaged with you. Always be kind.
Tech journalists today write between 1 and 5 stories per day. Think about that for a moment. On top of dealing with a dizzying amount of email, many writers are expected to draft enough posts to keep the content machine from shutting down. 5 posts a day is certainly doable, and there are writers who do this consistently every single day. But don't expect perfection. If something is misspelled, be courteous when asking for a correction, and don't act as if the world just fell apart. The reality is that readers read pages for a mere few seconds on average, and so no one probably noticed the small details anyway. Also, never ask for SEO help on an article -- ever.
Every journalist is also expected to do the whole social media song-and-dance. That adds hours every day, although often is one of the most interesting and insightful parts of the day. Journalists like to be debated in a civil way that drives the conversation – it's a great way to connect with the community.
Pay is still quite low. Rates posted online show that the New York Times often only pays $100 for a post to the site. Many prominent publications don't pay anything at all. Writing a decent post can take 10 hours of work with the right levels of research, drafting, and finalizing to make a great piece if someone is already an expert on the subject. That's less than minimum wage. Plus, there is never that much job security, as we saw this summer with the sudden shutdown of GigaOm. Mixing low pay plus lack of security doesn't make anyone feel good.
The most annoying bit of journalism in 2015: people have insane standards regarding the quality of work they expect to be published, but nearly everyone refuses to actually pay for the damn content. It's really quite bizarre that we never expect things to be free in other sectors of the economy, but in media somehow advertising (which you are probably ad-blocking right now) is going to make up the difference. You get what you pay for, as always with capitalism. Want higher-quality and better writing? Pony up!
Another amazing aspect of tech journalism is how no one really seems to care about engaging with journalists. Make a personal phone call. Don't throw everything to VPs of Marketing. Build relationships. This is particularly directed at investors, who seem to so often perceive tech journalists as trash needed to be taken out rather than a critical ingredient to a healthy startup ecosystem.
This last bit is more for content marketing and people who want to raise their profile: no one piece of content will make you famous. Reputations are earned over many years, with engagement from readers over time. Don't fuss over every last word in a piece -- it't better to publish ten times than to perfect one piece, simply because your readers aren't expecting that level of quality on the internet. One of the more disappointing aspects of being a writer is that even when you have strokes of brilliance in the prose, readers almost never notice it in the seven seconds they are reading your piece.
Is tech journalism -- or journalism in general -- broken? I don't think so, but I think we need to calibrate our expectations and adjust our approach to it today. It's not perfect, and it can always get better, but there are a lot of hard working people out there who are trying to keep people honest and keep the public informed.
Image by Ritesh Nayak used under Creative Commons.
Posted on October 28, 2015