Confessions of a tech journo turned flak: ‘This industry is a mess’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

The uncertainty in the media landscape has created similar uncertainty for reporters, who have seen both their salary potential and career prospects erode, making journalism as a career an increasingly fraught proposition. The sensible reaction for many is to decamp for a considerably cushier and less stressful job in public relations, where salaries are higher and advancement more likely. The result: As the journalism ranks dwindle, those of PR swell.

In the latest Digiday Confession, we asked a ex-tech reporter to take us through the grind and explain why they’re not stressing over joining the dark side.

You were a journalist. Now you’re in PR. Why’d you jump ship?
Truth be told, I was pushed out. I think a lot of reporters in the tech news game really take that as a blow to their ego. I certainly did with as many 15-hour work days as I put in. It’s hard to be marginalized as a line item on someone’s budget, but really that’s what ends up happening. I tried not to take it very personally. It ended up being a really good thing, too, because it showed me just how valuable my skill set (writing, reporting, editing, consulting) was outside of tech journalism.

The irony is that while demand for the reporter skill set is high, journalist salaries aren’t.
It’s either the pay (which is a huge factor) or years of busting your ass without having that work getting acknowledged all the way up until they let you go. The compensation to me is very interesting though. We’re paying journalists way less than other positions at these publications. I’m not saying marketing isn’t important, but if your junior marketing people are making more money than your multi-year staff writers, there’s a huge problem.

But journalists aren’t typically driven by the money.
Journalists aren’t driven by money. And that means they are largely unaware of their worth. It’s fucking criminal. And it’s why they’re able to be pushed around at entry-level salaries for decades.

Did you have an apprehensions about making the PR jump? Journalism feels like a priesthood sometimes, and there’s the whole “dark side” narrative about PR.
Yeah, I think that’s still a concern for a lot of working journalists. But honestly, what I think is actually keeping them from coming back from a public relations job is the better pay, better hours (or less hours) and chance for advancement being much greater.

What did you think of the Felix Salmon essay about the death of journalism as a career?
Obviously, I think his argument is more than a little extreme. He nails one thing: this career is hard. But you know what? So is becoming a career musician, TV actor or politician. Of course, journalism is hard. But with the Internet, you have a chance to reach beyond your surroundings. You can work harder, faster, smarter than the guys in the big cities. You just might need to do it part time until you’ve found an “in.” And you have to be prepared for how much this job sucks. It will never be a 9-to-5. If it is, then you’re probably in the minority — or woefully unaware of the other people on staff that are compensating for you being able to not work past 5 p.m.

What did your day as a reporter look like?
I would wake up early with the East Coast crew, spend my first three hours of the day trying to knock out quick “briefs” and breaking-news items. The second half of the day was supposed to be spent doing interviews and reported work, sometimes features.

“Supposed to”?
It doesn’t always work out, because as most reporters know, stories you chase don’t always end up being stories that are worth writing. And since we had a West Coast team (that was understaffed), I ended up working until the evenings way more often than I’d have liked.

How bad did it get?
Well, there was this one day that stands out in particular. I woke up early and ended up posting four times, two of which I was first or near first to publish. Then that bled into an Apple event, which had me writing three more posts. And the earnings call at market close saw me do an additional two. None of them were particularly insightful, but we didn’t have the manpower for someone else to cover that stuff. The next day, I had an hourlong conversation with my editor about not being consistent with my copy (grammar and such gets sacrificed when you’re moving that fast) and that I needed to do more in-depth reporting. This was the same editor that instructed me to cover nine stories in a single day and was honestly oblivious to why all of his criticisms were a result of that heavy churn. I felt like breaking my keyboard in half.

Was that the hardest part?
Balancing the constant pressure to churn out quality work and then realizing that what your bosses really wanted from you was work that earns tons of pageviews. None of the editors want to say this, so it just becomes this game of not quite knowing what’s expected of you. Again, I say, this industry is a mess.

Which is funny because everyone’s talking about how the pageview is dead as a metric.
And the whole “unique visitors” metric is even more bullshit. If you run a news publication, what you’re selling to advertisers is your community. The people who come back repeatedly are the most valuable. News organizations have largely just decided to follow BuzzFeed’s lead and stop trying to do things that keep their readers loyal, coming back every day for more. Point being, very few publications actually know their regular readership. What they really know is numbers.

Are you happier now overall?
Am I happy? Yes, I’m definitely happier than when I was ignorantly trying to mimic robot-level productivity without much-deserved praise for my efforts. But my time as a tech reporter sort of scarred me, but I think now that I’m out, it’ll be for the better. The whole “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” vibe has been a constant theme for me.

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