The Accidental Journalist

Felix Salmon, who writes for, offers advice to would be journalists. Salmon explains the insurmountable difficulties new journalists face and the lack of pay to go with it. There’s a lot to his article, but the overall advice is to avoid a career in journalism.

I’m sure that many people have told you this already, but take it from me as well: journalism is a dumb career move. If there’s something else you also love, something else you’re good at, something else which makes the world a better place — then maybe you should think about doing that instead. Even successful journalists rarely do much of the kind of high-minded stuff you probably aspire to. And enormous numbers of incredibly talented journalists find it almost impossible to make a decent living at this game.

Salmon describes how he rose through the ranks writing for dry publications and eventually encountered some luck. I don’t have the same exact journey as his, but I too encountered luck.

When I wrote about Web 2.0 services in 2007, I chose WordPress to publish my content and was immediately struck by the WordPress fascination bug. The more I used it, the more curious I became about themes, plugins, and how it was developed.

I published blog posts chronicling my journey, sharing the things I learned. At the end of 2007, Mark Ghosh who owned contacted me out of the blue. He asked if I’d like to write for his website and get paid to do it. I have no idea how Mark discovered me, but his site was the largest publication devoted to WordPress at the time, so it was an opportunity of a lifetime for me.

I wrote for WLTC for at least a year, covering everything from news, to controversial topics in the community. Not once did I ever think I was a journalist. To this day, I struggle with calling myself a journalist because I don’t like the term and the baggage that comes with it, bearer of the truth and all.

The point is, I started off as a blogger and learned everything I could about WordPress as a user. I passionately shared my knowledge with an audience I didn’t quite know I had. It eventually afforded me a paid gig (this is the first lucky part). I agree with Salmon in that, the advice of five or six years ago of starting a blog and getting discovered is exceedingly difficult.

There’s no particular reason to believe that the best route to success is to first get your foot in the door churning out listicles, and then somehow work your way up the ranks. That might have worked for a few early BuzzFeed employees, but they, too, were lucky, winning the pick-the-right-startup lottery.

Similarly, there’s no particular reason to believe that the advice I’d give five or six years ago, which was basically “start a blog and get discovered”, still works. With the death of RSS, blogs are quaint artifacts at this point, and I can’t remember the last time I discovered a really good new one.

Personally, I hate the chains and shackles that come with the journalist title, at least the way I define the term. I just want to do what I’ve been doing for years; write about the things that interest me and if it happens to be similar to journalism, then so be it. I’d rather do that than actually be a journalist. Besides, what is a journalist anyway?

Salmon ends his post with somber advice:

If all you care about is the great journalism, then, well, go out and find great stories to tell, and tell those stories in a compelling manner. You’ll always be able to find somewhere willing to publish them, even if they pay little or nothing for the privilege of doing so.

On the other hand, if you’re more career-oriented, and want a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road, I don’t really know what to tell you. Except that the chances of getting there, if you enter the journalism profession today, have probably never been lower.

Good luck to anyone out there pursuing a career in journalism, looks like you’ll need it.

I’m Not A Good Journalist

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a good journalist. For the longest time, I’ve been some random guy that has a fascination and curiosity with WordPress and have used a website to document my journey. Somehow over the years, that’s lead me to become this thing called a journalist. A title given to me by my peers, not by me. Personally, I don’t like the title of journalist but I don’t have much of a say in the matter.

When it comes to writing stories, for whatever reason I don’t do common sense journalistic things which in many aspects, are just common courtesy. For example, asking for permission to use text in a conversation as a quote attributed to that person. Or, ask someone to answer a few questions for an article and instead of using a snippet, I use their answers in the form of an interview without consulting them first.

What sucks about these kinds of mistakes I’ve made and continue to make is that deleting a post doesn’t work. Once I hit the publish button, I must deal with the consequences if I screwed up. It’s depressing and gives me a sickening feeling in my stomach to receive an email from a person I quoted in an article asking me why I didn’t tell them their words would be used in the way that I presented them. In just about every instance, they’re in the right while I’m definitely in the wrong. The only thing I can do at that point is apologize, tell them I can take the post down and that I understand if my actions have burned the bridge of communication between us.

In an effort to try to prevent myself from continuously falling into this trap, I’m writing down a list of things to do (and print) or consider when I’m involving other people into articles I write.

  1. Understand it’s my responsibility and mine alone to make sure the other party knows specifically how their words will be used.
  2. If I tell the other party I’m going to use their words in one way and in mid-stream decide to use them in another, inform the other party of the change as it’s their right. It also gives them an opportunity to allow or deny the use.
  3. Always ask for permission and never assume. Assumptions are traps and almost always lead to trouble.
  4. Just because my email signature says everything is on the record unless told otherwise, it’s not enough for a lot of people or they don’t see it.
  5. Never ever take words from private conversations and make them public through a post without explicit permission.
  6. If the post is an interview, send the person you interviewed a private review copy of the post out of courtesy before it’s published for review. Or if you end up using a lot of quotes provided by them in a post. This is probably one of the most important things to keep in mind as a final OK from them drastically reduces the chance of getting a pissed off email from them.

Some of the things are repeated and for good measure. Many of the things I have in my list are common sense/common courtesy but damn if I ever think these things through before hitting the publish button. I feel like shit when I mess these things up and get an angry email. It also doesn’t help when the victims are people I know and interact with at WordCamps and other places. There are only so many bridges that can be burned before no one will talk to me. I need to take all this shit more seriously and treat the conversations people have with me with more respect.

If you’ve been a victim of my negligence, I sincerely apologize.

What Is A Journalist Anyways?

Let me start off by saying I’ve never gone through a journalism class or have received training to become a journalist. I’ve used various sites within the past 10 years to write about things I’m interested in. It just so happens I took a big interest in WordPress when I discovered how easy it was to publish content and modify themes to make it look the way I wanted.

I started watching the project and would publish my thoughts on the direction WordPress was traveling. I published news articles, opinions, and linked to others in the WordPress community when I thought their article was something others should see. The way I write posts I consider to be common sense. I read a blog post, figure it out in my head and then write what I think, linking where possible. I’m a curious guy who doesn’t have all the answers so I ask questions when possible to those I thought would have the answers.

Somewhere along the way, people began to view me as a WordPress Journalist. I think of journalists as people who report on a story, with all the facts in hand, checking them 50 times to make sure they’re right. They write for the New York Times, Washington Post, and appear on CNN. Journalist is a serious word and I think it carries with it a lot of baggage or responsibilities. Baggage I’ve not trained myself to carry around. I don’t view myself as a journalist but rather, an enthusiast blogger fascinated with the WordPress open source project. That at least sounds a lot more fun than being a journalist, where everything seems to be so serious all the time.

In the age of blogging, it’s been discussed multiple times as to when blogging becomes journalism. When is that line crossed if the line exist at all? I don’t have the answer. I’m just some guy who lives in Ohio, that writes about WordPress because it’s something I’m interested in. I’m not trying to be a 60 Minutes kind of guy but rather, satisfy my own curiosity. If that’s what a journalist is, I guess I’ll add that to my list of fancy titles and live with it.