The tech journalist starter kit

Filming IDG Tech Talk in September of 2019.

A friend of a friend just called me, asking for advice on how to become a technology journalist. I promised to send him some links and figured I’d post them here so that I have everything in one place for the next person who asks.

So, here’s my ten-step process for becoming a tech journalist.

Step 1: Pick a niche

It’s tempting, when you start out, to say “I can write anything.”

And it may be true, and you can write anything.

But when it comes to pitching articles, the more specialized you are, the easier it is to convince a new editor to give you an assignment, and the easier it is to get sources to talk to you.

Once you have a relationship with an editor, or a staff job at a publication, then you can start to spread out.

But, when you’re starting out, pick something and get up to speed on it as quickly as you can.

Keep in mind that “hard” topics take just as much time to report and write as “easy” topics, but you have a lot less competition and you get paid a lot more.

Things like regulatory compliance, enterprise cybersecurity, manufacturing automation — these are not necessarily the sexiest beats. But these articles will actually be useful to your readers. And the readers of those articles tend to have real corporate money to spend on those technologies, so the magazines you’d be writing for have decent advertising revenues, and will pay better for your stories.

Then there are the emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, 5G, and quantum computing. You’re not going to have to compete against journalists who’ve been covering the space for ten years because the technology is new. Everyone is learning it from scratch.

You don’t have to know anything about the subject when you start. You just have to be able to keep asking questions until the answers start to make sense to you.

Pro tip: When you’re writing about a completely new topic, talk to the sales and marketing folks first, and ask them to explain everything to you in plain English. Not only will you get a better understanding of what the vendors in this space have to offer, but the sales and marketing people tend to be very patient and nice. It’s their job to be. Once you’ve done enough interviews that you know what’s going on, then move on to talking to enterprise users and experts.

Step 2: Set up your processes

Having good processes in place makes a huge difference. I think that I can attribute about half of my income to the fact that I’m very well organized.

You’ll need to have a way to keep track of contacts, story ideas, editors and publications, pitches, research notes, story drafts, assignment schedules, and invoices. Whatever platform you pick needs to have a search function, so paper file cabinets are definitely out.

I recommend starting with the platform you’re most familiar with that offers what you need.

For example, if you’re a Windows user, you’ll probably already have Microsoft Word and Excel on your computer. You can collect your research notes, transcribe interviews, and write story drafts in Word and organize everything into folders, and use Excel to keep track of sources, editors, assignments, and invoices.

If you don’t have a preference, then I suggest Google Docs. It’s free, you get the same word processing and spreadsheets features, and you can access it from any mobile device to boot. Plus, Google allows you to work on your documents while off line, instantly saves all changes, and keeps all your revisions in case you make some changes and want to go back to a previous version.

There are also customer relationship management apps that will help you keep track of contacts – or you can use the features built into Outlook and Gmail. If you’re using Gmail, for example, I strongly recommend setting up contact lists that let you group people by area of expertise, or by job category, so you can quickly find the people you need. Make sure that whatever contact management platform you pick has a place to add notes about the person, links to their LinkedIn profiles, and links to stories where you’ve quoted them.

Step 3: Set up your marketing platforms

Whether you’re a freelancer or looking for a staff job, you’ll want a LinkedIn page. Organize it in a way to showcase your expertise, and keep it up to date. Follow the experts in your chosen area, and send invitations to all the sources you interview and the PR people you come in contact with. As a journalist, your value is in your Rolodex, and these days, your Rolodex is your LinkedIn contacts list.

You should also have a professional Twitter account. Use it to share links to your own articles, post links to other resources useful to people in your topic area, and to engage in discussions on relevant topics. The more you engage with people, the more people you follow, the more people will engage with you and follow you back. Editors want to work with journalists with a big social media profile because they’ll help bring in readers.

Finally, set up your portfolio website. You can use Blogger or WordPress.com to set up a free one, or pay for hosting to get a more professional-looking one. You already know what my site looks like, because you’re here. My rule of thumb is to look at the websites of publications you want to write for, and try to set up something that looks similar. The theme I’m using here is called BlackWhite Lite. But it’s getting a little old and the developers haven’t updated it in a couple of years, so I’ll probably be switching soon. If I do, the theme I’m currently most interested in is Hoot Du. It’s very customizable, very professional, and comes in both free and paid versions, in case you want some support. I’m using the free version on Hypergrid Business and I love it. I also helped set up a friend’s portfolio website, and used Hoot Du there, as well. Check it out: Bill Marcus. And my brother, tech journalist Alex Korolov, also uses Hoot Du on his portfolio site. As you can see, the three sites look very different.

If I were to redo my site today, I’d use either the free version of Hoot Du at WordPress.org, or the free version of Magazine Hoot from the same developers. I use Dreamhost for all my websites. The basic plan is $5 a month — $4 if you pay for a whole year at a time. I have a lot of websites, so I buy more services from them. There are also free alternatives, including Blogger and WordPress.com. If you plan to upgrade to your own website at some point, then go with WordPress.com, though it has very few design options and they charge you if you want to do almost anything.

Blogger is owned by Google, and you can upload your own templates.

If you know all you’re going to ever need is a simple, free site, and you’re already using Google for anything else at all, Blogger is a great option. I like the Gooyabi templates, which are free, and some of which look super professional and tech-magazine-y, such as Masy, Enfold, and Urban Mag.

Whether you use a paid hosting services or a free one, I do recommend getting your own domain, which will run you around $10 a year. If it’s not taken, I recommend just getting your name as the domain. I own both the korolov.com and mariakorolov.com domains, for example. I’m lucky, though, because I’ve got a pretty unusual name. You might have to play with it a little, such as registering johnsmithwriter.com if your name is John Smith.

I use my site to post excerpts from published articles, to share posts such as this one, and to announce books and speaking appearances. I’ve also got my bio and contact information.

I use the “Page” WordPress feature to create pages of static content, such as my bio and resume. I use the “Post” feature to create dated content, such as blog posts and excerpts of published articles.

I use Categories to organize my posts. I have a “Blog” category, a “Publications” category and — group under “Publications” a separate category for every magazine and newspaper I write for.

I use Tags to organize my topics. For example, I have a “cybersecurity” tag and an “AI” tag. So, say, I’m pitching a new editor, or looking to set up an interview with a source. I can tell them, “You can see all my articles about cybersecurity here.”

Today, I have more than 50 AI-related articles on this site, because I just started writing about the topic. When I first decided to specialize in AI, I only had a few AI-related posts here, mostly cybersecurity articles that also mentioned AI. You can see them on this page.

I recommend only having a few tags and categories. It makes life easier for you and easier for your visitors. Plus, how many tags are you ever going to really need? Unless you see yourself sending a pitch to editors that includes the line, “You can see all of my previous articles about SQL injections here,” you probably shouldn’t bother creating a separate page for that topic.

Step 4: Write sample articles

If you already have editors you work with, ask them for the opportunity to write some articles on your new chosen subject area. That may involve some creativity. So, for example, if you’re a sports writer, and want to write about AI, you might pitch an article about how sports teams are using AI to help their marketing, or help player performance. If you cover politics and want to move into cybersecurity, pitch some articles about new cybersecurity regulations.

If you’re interested in writing about virtual and augmented reality or artificial intelligence, you can pitch me at maria@hypergridbusiness.com.

And you can just write articles for your own website.

Here are some articles ideas for when you’re first starting out:

  • X ways to learn about topic area. For example, if you’re writing about AI, this could be places to learn the basics of AI online.
  • X blogs to follow about topic area.
  • X Twitter accounts to follow about topic area.
  • X new surveys or research reports about topic area.

These would all be based on Google searches. You have to learn about your topic area, anyway, might as well share your learning with the public.

But these kinds of articles aren’t likely to get you assignments. All they do is establish that you know something about the topic.

The next step is to write some articles where you interview and quote people.

Here are some article ideas:

  • X predictions about topic area for next year
  • Top X careers in topic area
  • Top X ways that topic area is affecting Y industry

But how do you get experts to talk to you if all you’re going to be publishing is a post on a website that nobody sees?

I’ve already mentioned that you can pitch stories to me, if you can figure out a way to connect your chosen topic area to either AR, VR, or AI. So, for example, if you want to write about automobile manufacturing, you can pitch stories about VR in auto manufacturing, about AR in auto manufacturing, and about AI in auto manufacturing. There you go — three articles right there.

At Hypergrid Business, we get between 30,000 and 100,000 readers a month, and our stories are indexed by Google News, so people will want to talk to you. Plus, I can help you find sources.

You can also look for similar blogs in your topic area, places where the blog editors don’t have budgets for freelance writers, but would like some content, so they’re willing to take a risk on someone just starting out.

Just keep in mind that blog editors get dozens — or more! — pitches from would-be writers every day, 99 percent of them junk. I can tell that a pitch is junk because in the email, the writer tells me that they’re a regular reader of my blog, that they really loved some random article I wrote, and that they “guarantee that the article will be 100% unique, top quality and Copyscape protected.” That tells me that they’ve never read my blog and that their article will be random cut-and-pastes from the Web with some paid links randomly stuck in.

You don’t have to read my publication in order to write for me. You just have to be professional at your writing, and know what our coverage area is, and pitch something appropriate. And if you’re just starting out, you don’t even have to pitch a specific article. Just tell me that you’re starting out, what your background is, and what general kind of thing you want to write about and I can suggest story ideas to you.

Step 5: Build your Rolodex

Okay, you’ve got your first assignment, either from one of your old editors, or from me, or from someone else willing to take a chance on you.

Where are you going to find people who know about the regulatory compliance issues in the assembly manufacturing sector? (Or whatever it is that you’re writing about.)

First, Google it. I can’t stress this enough. Check Google News for stories written in the last year and see who they’ve quoted. Then contact the PR or marketing departments at their companies or universities and ask for an interview with the expert, or with someone else who can talk about the topic. Tell them your deadline and the publication you’re writing for, and include a link to your previous articles on the topic. Make the deadline at least a couple of days before the story is due, so that after you do the interview, you have time to write it up and also to ask follow-up questions if you have any.

Second, go to your contacts, either people you knew from your previous reporting or people you’ve connected with on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Third, go to PR Newswire and set up a free journalist account and post your query on Profnet. It’s free, and your query will be sent to a lot of PR people. A lot of PR people. Make sure your query has a clear subject line, such as “Experts sources needed for feature article about regulatory compliance issues in assembly manufacturing.” Be as specific as you can in the headline. Then, in the body of the query letter, explain the kinds of sources you’re looking for. Are you looking for people who work in compliance departments of manufacturing companies? For independent experts, analysists, consultants, and professors? For vendors selling compliance-related products and services to manufacturing companies? Be as clear as you can, and, of course, include your deadline and publication.

Another option is to post the same query on HARO, which stands for Help a Reporter Out. It’s actually now owned by the same company that owns PR Newswire. Again, it’s free, and your query gets sent to a lot of PR people who can connect you with sources.

Now, sit back and wait for the results to come in. While waiting, you might Google around for some more experts.

When someone gets back to you, and they’re a good fit for your story, set up the interview, or, if they prefer email, send them your questions. If you’re working through a PR department, the interview will usually be a call-in conference number, with the source and at least one PR person on the call. Don’t worry about the PR person being there. Instead, use them in case you have follow up questions, need links to products, services, or reports that the source mentioned, or need a photograph of the source.

If someone gets back to you and they’re definitely not a fit for your story, say something nice like, “I already have enough sources for this particular article, but I’m always interested in story ideas about my topic area. I’m particularly looking to write about X, Y, and Z in case you have any ideas.”

If someone gets back to you and they’re in a gray area, then wait a little bit until you have more responses, then pick the best ones and turn down the other ones gently.

When choosing sources, pick the ones that work for the biggest companies, that are the most famous experts, or that seem to have the best stories to tell. Feel free to ask the PR people for more information if you need it to make your decision.

Remember to save everyone — PR people, experts, everyone you come into contact with — into your database, contacts list, spreadsheet, Evernote file, or whatever other method you use to keep track of sources, and categorize them by type of job and expertise.

Step 6: Write a real article

So now you’ve got your website fleshed out, you’ve got the beginnings of a Rolodex, you’ve got at least one publication willing to run your articles, and you’ve got a couple of stories published.

Now you will need to write the kind of article that the high-paying publications want to see.

I call it the “three part trend feature.”

This article will have nine sources. Three people who use the technology you’re writing about. Three people who sell the technology. And three people who are independent experts, analysts, consultants, or professors.

Say, for example, your story is about new software that reads people’s minds, and how it’s used by insurance companies to screen job candidates. You’ll want three HR people who work at insurance companies and use these devices, three vendors who sell the devices, and three independent experts who’ll tell you what the market size of the mind-reading device industry is and what percent of companies are planning to use it.

The first place to start is by finding the vendors since that’s the easiest step. Vendors want people to find them and buy their stuff. Ask the vendors to connect you with customers and experts. Of course, the vendors will only set you up with people who say nice things about them — so make sure you also talk to the vendors’ competitors. Also search the web and reach out to your own contacts to find other HR people you can talk to.

Then, you’ll need to figure out what your story is. This should involve some kind of motion, and three reasons for that motion.

For example, the story could be that the use of mind-reading devices by HR is increasing because it helps companies weed out crooks and liars, because it helps them make sure the candidates are a good cultural fit, and because it helps them place the new hires in the best job for them thus reducing turnover.

To write this story, you will need experts to confirm that use is, in fact, increasing. Ask them for surveys or predictions. Google will also help you find recent research on the topic. Then you’ll need to ask the HR people you talk to about each of these three topics, and then ask the vendors about how the mind-reading headsets actually work.

Or maybe the story is about how the mind-reading devices are a huge flop, because of privacy concerns, because they don’t actually work, and because they cost too much.

How do you find out what the story is, and what the three reasons are? You do online research, you ask your editor, or you ask the first couple of sources you talk to. If, after you do more interviews, you find out that the story is actually something else, go back to the people you’ve already interviewed and ask follow-up questions about the other aspects of the story.

I also like to ask everyone at the end of each interview, “Is there anything else you think is important about this that I haven’t asked you about?” and “Do you mind if I contact you by email if I have any follow-up questions?”

Step 7: Create your list of editor prospects and introduce yourself

Once you’ve finished your real article, the three-part trend story I mentioned above, or even two or three of them, you’re ready to start pitching to paying publications. In your research, you should already have come across publications that publish articles on your topic. If you’re already working with an editor, such as myself, they can suggest some markets for you to approach.

Don’t be scared to call people. Nowadays, hardly anyone uses the phone — but being able to cold call people is a major part of the job of being a journalist.

When you call, or when you contact editors via email or LinkedIn or some other method, don’t beat around the bush and annoy people. Tell them that you’re a technology journalist, that you’ve recently written several articles about topic X and that you’d like to pitch some stories to them. Have some ideas for stories ready to give them.

If you have a connection, tell them that so-and-so suggested that you contact them. Better yet, ask your connection to make the introduction.

Editors are always looking for new writers. And if an editor isn’t looking for new writers right now, they will be, soon enough.

That’s because freelancers are flaky. They’re always going off to sail around the world, or get distracted by something else, or throw in the towel on the freelancing and get a full-time job.

And because editors know that freelancers are flaky, they like to spread the workaround, so that if the freelancer disappears, they won’t be left with no content — they’ll have other freelancers who are also working on stories.

Remember that other freelancers aren’t your enemy. There’s enough work to go around. Your biggest enemy is your own attitude, your fear of cold-calling, your foot-dragging on pitching, your general tendencies to procrastinate. For every one time you lose an assignment to a competitor, there will be 99 times that you lose an assignment and it’s your own fault.

Don’t worry about your ideas being stolen. Really. Nobody wants to steal your ideas. If you see a story you just pitched appear in a publication the following week written by someone else, the editor didn’t steal your idea and give it to their buddy. That other story has been in the works for months.

If an editor tells you that they’ve got someone covering that beat, or someone else is working on the story already, offer to help. Pass along the tip or lead or report or contact. Be nice. If you’re whiny and paranoid, nobody will want to work with you. They’ll be more likely to assign a story to you next time you pitch because you’re easy to work with, and also because they feel slightly guilty that they turned you down last time.

Step 8: Always be pitching

As you read the news and see something that sparks your interest, or a PR person sends you a promising story idea, save it in your pitch file. Then, on a regular basis — say, once a week — gather all the ideas into an email and send it off to your highest-paying editor. Each pitch should have a headline and a sentence or two or three of explanation, and there should be five to ten pitches in an email. Don’t waste time over-researching a pitch. Nine times out of ten, the story won’t be a good fit for the publication, or it will a good fit and they’ve just done it, or someone else is already working on it.

Expect five percent — or less — of your pitches to get accepted. As you get to know the beat and the publication better, the odds will go up. But they won’t go up more than ten to 15 percent or so, even in the best of cases. So pitch a lot.

If you’re complaining about not getting enough work, before you blame the economy, or blame the competition, or blame the editors, or blame the weather, check and see how many pitches you’re sending out. If you want to be filing one feature article a week, then you should be pitching 20 story ideas every week.

It’s important to pitch on a regular schedule. If not, disaster awaits.

Here’s what happens: you don’t have any work, so you pitch like crazy. You pitch and you pitch and you pitch. Then, all of a sudden, assignments start coming in. It takes a few days or a few weeks for editors to decide to assign a story, and when they do, it all comes in a rush. You’re desperate, so you take all the work you can get, no matter how little it pays. Now you have to scramble to do it all. You research, you interview, you write. You’re too busy to do anything else. Then, the last story has been filed. You’re done. You look up. Oh no, you have no new work! You panic. And you start pitching like crazy again.

First of all, the stress will kill you. Second, you fill up on the low-end assignments — the lowest-paying markets where the editors are quick to assign you stories because they know you’re overqualified. And then you don’t have the time to take on the higher-paying assignments for the bigger publications that take longer to assign stories to you.

Instead, set aside time to pitch on a regular basis. Pitch the highest-paying editors first. Then, after they’ve turned down the story ideas — and only then! — pitch them to the next editor on the list. That way, you fill up on the good, juicy assignments, and you fit in the lower-paying ones into the time you’ve got left.

Step 9: Diversify

If you want to be a freelance writer, and not just gathering clips in order to find a full-time job, then you’re going to need more than one publication that you regularly write for.

As you come across new publications while doing research, add them to a file. Then, on a regular schedule — say, every two months or so — update your introduction letter with your latest clips and send it out to new editors. Then, every six months, contact the editors who’ve turned you down before because they either aren’t looking for new writers or because they want you to get more experience first.

Keep doing that until you’ve got enough work to fill your schedule.

Then, once you’re fully booked, scale back on your outreach and now focus on replacing your lowest-paying markets with higher-paying ones.

Step 10: Build your brand and build your business

As you build your career, don’t neglect the marketing side of it.

If you’re a freelance writer, you’re a business owner. Businesses have to have people who do accounting, who do administrative work, who do sales, and who do marketing.

Since you’re a one-person operation, you have to schedule time to wear each of these hats. If you don’t make time to send out invoices and follow-up on those that are past due, then you won’t get paid. If you don’t take care of your databases and contact lists and keep your calendar organized, you won’t be able to write your articles. If you don’t pitch, you won’t have work. And if you don’t market then you won’t be building your brand.

Having a brand makes it easier for you to find sources, to get work, to get better-paying assignments and other opportunities.

With a strong brand, you’ll be asked to speak at conferences, contribute to books, judge industry competitions, be quoted as an expert in the media, and much more.

It starts with a good website and regular social media posting on your preferred platform or platforms. You might also want to answer questions on Quora or Reddit, volunteer for relevant non-profits, or start our own organizations or publications.

You can also repurpose your articles into a book, or, if that’s too big of a project for you to tackle on your own, team up with other writers, or one of your editors, on a book project.

If you get busy enough, and you start seeing that you’re getting bogged down with routine but time-consuming tasks, you can outsource. You can hire virtual assistants to maintain your website, organize story pitches, post on social media, do background research, set up interviews, or get reprint permissions and organize articles into a book.

The more specific and clear the task, the easier it will be to find someone who can do it for you on a site like Freelancer.com. At the beginning, delegating will actually create more work for you than it will save. You will have to find the right person and train them. But then, once you’ve got them up and running, you can expand the amount of work that they do and scale back your level of oversight until it hits a happy balance. Then you can focus on outsourcing the next easiest but time-consuming task, either to the same person, or to another freelancer.

There’s a big mental shift you go through when you hire people. Instead of being an individual contributor, you’re now a boss. The reason that you’re a freelancer in the first place is probably that you hate working in an organization. Now you’re creating one! If you’ve never done it before, it’s easy to get frustrated and disheartened. If you’re committed to growing your brand and your business, however, then it’s a step that you’ll have to take.

Join business organizations so that you have a peer group of other people who have done it. Take business management classes from your local economic development groups or educational institutions. Take online classes. Get a business coach or mentor.

And pick a routine, low-impact task and practice on it. It might take a few tries before you find the right person for the job. But it gets easier.

I myself have had periods where I’ve had several people working for me, and periods where I’ve been working on my own. It depends on what I was doing, and on what I was trying to accomplish.

Right now, I’m at a point in my life where I think I’ll start hiring people again in a year or so. I’ve got some projects that I’m working on that will require more people than just me. It’s a little frightening. But change always is. Plus, I’ve done it before and had a blast. I’ve managed writers for a daily newspaper and ran an overseas news bureau for a few years, ran non-profit and professional groups, and of course Hypergrid Business itself has had more than 200 contributors over the past decade. Having a team behind you means that you can make a much bigger impact than you can do by yourself.

Plus, it’s fun.