Online journalists research and write content for Internet Web sites. They may be full-time salaried workers or employed on a freelance basis. They may work for online publications, professional associations, businesses with an online presence, and the government. Some writers are volunteer online columnists or contributors and do not get paid for their writing.
Online Journalist Career History
One of the greatest things about the World Wide Web is that people can gain access to information from around the world with a click of a mouse. Whether one wants to know about international news, current events, fitness trends, or recipes, the Internet has a wealth of information on the topic. This would not be possible without the work of writers such as online journalists.
As newspapers, journals, businesses, and organizations continue to make their presence known on the Internet, job opportunities will continue to open up for writers to create, edit, and update the content of sites. The popularity of news sites such as The Wall Street Journal Online (http://www.wsj.com) and CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/) prove that there is a market for dependable, timely online news outlets.
Online Journalist Career Job Description
The work of online journalists is published on Web sites in online publications. They may write articles for “e-zines” (online magazines), press releases that are posted on company or society Web sites, or stories for online newspapers. The online journalist must pay special attention to the tone and length of an article. Few readers will scroll through screen after screen of text.
“Writing for the Web is somewhat different than print journalism,” says Maria Erspamer, an editorial director for a Web site and a freelance online journalist in Venice, California. “The attention span of online readers is not as great.” Erspamer explains that the online journalist must be able to write in a style that provides news while also engaging the reader’s interest. “You need to use a standard voice, meaning that there must be a mix of entertainment and information in your writing. Along with that you need to be concise, since many online readers scan the content.”
While online journalists do not need to be computer geniuses, they do need to know what computer and Internet tools can make their articles more interesting. Frequently, online journalists incorporate highlighted key words, lists, pop-up boxes or windows, and hypertext links in their articles. These items make the articles visually appealing and easy to read. In addition, such things as hypertext links and pop-up windows allow the journalist to include a depth of information in articles that might otherwise be short and superficial.
Stacie Kilgore of Peachtree City, Georgia, is a senior analyst and online journalist for a major research and consulting firm. She believes that, in a sense, writing for the online audience is easier than writing for a print source. “I can include more information,” she says. “For instance, in my articles I can include pop-up windows that explain a terminology or concept. This allows me to reach a wider audience. I can write for the more experienced audience and still be able to reach the newcomers or those with limited technical knowledge.”
Online journalists work for publishing companies of various sizes. These companies may be businesses that have been built solely around Web journalism, such as the e-zine Salon, or they may be traditional publishing companies that have also developed a Web presence, such as The New York Times or Entertainment Weekly. Online journalists may also work for news organizations, research firms, and other businesses that have Web sites where articles are published. Some online journalists are full-time salaried employees of companies, while others may work on a freelance basis. As a freelancer, the online journalist runs his or her own business. The freelancer may get an assignment from a company to write a particular article, or the freelancer may write an article and then attempt to sell it to a company for publication.
Erspamer enjoys her freelance work because it allows her the opportunity to write about topics that interest her. “I always have ideas for articles,” she says, “and the Internet offers a wealth of material and creative venues” When Erspamer writes an article that she hopes to sell to an online publishing company, she must research the topic, find out what other articles on the subject have already been published, decide on the marketability of her article idea, and write about the topic in a new and interesting way that will make her article stand out from others. Freelancers also need business skills to keep track of their financial accounts and market their work. Erspamer notes, “With freelancing it is sometimes difficult to retrieve payment for articles I have written. Sometimes I have to be a forceful business person as well as a journalist.”
Both freelance and salaried online journalists must be organized and able to work under time pressures. The deadlines for online journalists can be similar to those for print journalists. Erspamer notes, “Some articles are time-sensitive, meaning that they must be written and disseminated quickly or the information will no longer be valuable” This time-sensitive factor is especially true for those working for news organizations. Deadlines will be tight, particularly since readers turn to Web sites expecting to find the most up-to-date information possible.
“I have to be very deadline conscious in my job” Erspamer says. When she receives assignments from online publishers, she reviews the articles to be written and prioritizes them according to the assigned deadlines. After she has completed this step, she says, “I do Internet research on the subject, seek out experts to interview to provide backup information, and then write the articles in the order of their importance and the deadlines.” After the articles are written, they are reviewed and turned in to the publisher.
As an online editor, Erspamer solicits writers whose expertise matches the material she needs written. Her responsibilities include overseeing the project to its completion. “I manage the materials and make sure they are all written in the voice that speaks for our product and company,” she says.
Many people working in online writing view the speed at which an article can go from the concept stage to the published stage as an asset. “I like being an online editor because I like being involved with creating a voice for the Web site, overseeing the written content, and seeing immediate feedback,” Erspamer says.
Kilgore also takes satisfaction from publishing her writing online. “What I write gets dispersed quickly, yet it is archived,” she says. “The article is long-standing, and readers can retrieve it quickly through a search, so essentially my articles live on forever.”
One drawback to the online journalist’s career is that many Internet companies are not well established, and thus job security is minimal. However, for those writers interested in being on the cutting edge of technology and having their writing available to millions, the online journalism field is the right place to be.
Online Journalist Career Requirements
If you are considering a career as an online journalist, you should take college preparatory classes while in high school. Concentrate on English classes that allow you to develop your research and writing skills. Take computer classes that teach you to use word processing programs, graphics, and the Internet. If your school offers journalism classes, take these to develop another writing style and learn about publications. To prepare for college and have the broad educational background any writer needs, take mathematics, science, and history classes.
Many online journalists have bachelor’s degrees in journalism. You may also be able to enter the field with a degree in English or communications. While there are currently no specific online journalism degrees available, a number of universities have journalism programs offering courses in online journalism. Traditional journalism courses usually cover such topics as basic reporting and copyediting, press law and ethics, and history of journalism.
In addition to your journalism studies, continue to take computer classes. Learning HTML, a Web site authoring language, can also be helpful to an online journalist and may qualify you for other writing and editing opportunities. It is also essential that you learn the most popular software programs and office tools that relate to the writing profession.
Finally, one of the most beneficial things you can do during your college years is to gain hands-on experience through a journalism internship or summer job at a publishing company. Working in online journalism, naturally, is best. But even if you have an internship at a traditional print publication, you will gain valuable experience. Some schools’ career services offices or journalism departments have information on such internships.
If you want to be an online journalist, you will need good research skills. You must have a love for learning and enjoy searching for new information. You must have the desire and initiative to keep up on new technology and the changes that are constantly taking place on the Internet. You must also have good communication skills and the ability to listen and interpret what others are saying. All journalists must have good grammar, spelling, and editing skills. Online journalists, in particular, must know how to write concisely. You must also be organized, self-motivated, and able to meet strict deadlines. Because you will deal with many different people in various lines of work, you must have good interpersonal skills.
Exploring Online Journalist Career
To explore the journalism aspect of this career while you are still in high school, join your school’s newspaper staff. As a reporter, you will have the experience of researching, interviewing people, and writing articles on deadline. If you do layout work with the computer, you will gain experience using publishing software. Another way to explore your interest in writing is to join a local writing group. Your high school, local library, or community center may sponsor writing groups; in addition, these groups may be advertised in the local newspaper. Contact your local newspaper to arrange for an informational interview with a journalist there. If the newspaper has an online version, ask to speak with someone who works on the online publication. During the interview you will have the opportunity to ask a professional what the best parts of their job are, what type of education and experience he or she has, and other questions that interest you.
To explore the computer and Internet aspects of this career, surf the Web on a regular basis to check out sites and read their content. Join a computer users group at your school or in the area. If your high school has a Web site, volunteer to update the site periodically with reports on school news and events. You could also work on updating the information posted on the Web sites of other organizations you are involved with, such as your church, temple, or mosque.
If you have a particular interest in a subject or hobby, write some articles and submit them to an appropriate Web site for publication. Many Web sites do not pay for unsolicited material; however, getting an article published is an excellent way to break into the field and also to determine if an online journalism career is something you wish to pursue.
Online journalists may work for publishing companies that only produce online publications, for traditional publishing companies that also have a Web presence, and for news organizations, research firms, or other businesses that have Web sites. Online journalists may also work as freelancers, writing articles for various companies and sites.
Companies involved in online publishing are located across the country; company sizes vary. While large and well-known companies, such as The New York Times, attract a large share of the online audience, the ease and affordability of online publishing is allowing many smaller companies to produce online publications.
To get started in this field, a budding journalist may want to write articles and attempt to get them published. According to Maria Erspamer, “The online market is more open to new, unpublished writers than traditional markets. Try to get published on these sites. Many online sites pay little or nothing for articles; however, they will usually provide clips of published work, which helps a new writer develop a portfolio and credibility.”
Some online journalists believe that those interested in the career will benefit from starting out in print journalism and then transferring their skills to online journalism. Those starting out in either print journalism or online journalism usually begin in the position of editorial assistant. Although the editorial assistant job is relatively low paying, it will give you the opportunity to learn the business and usually provides you with your first writing assignments. Talented and hard-working assistants will typically work their way up to full-fledged reporters.
Your college career services office and journalism or communications department should be able to give you help with your job search. In addition, contacts that you make during an internship or summer job may provide employment leads. You can also apply for employment directly to publishing companies or other companies with Web publications. Use classified ads and the Internet as resources when looking for job openings.
Some journalists believe it is easier to move through the ranks as an online journalist than as a traditional journalist working for a newspaper, TV station, or radio station. One reason for this is that online journalism is a relatively new and growing field offering many opportunities. Advancement will also depend on an individual’s goals. A salaried journalist may consider it an advancement to do freelance work full time. A full-time freelancer may advance by publishing more articles and expanding his or her client base. Other advancements may mean a shift in career focus away from journalism. Maria Erspamer explains, “There can be career transition or advancement from a writer to a content developer for a Web company.” Another online advancement can be moving up to the position of editor or communications director. “You may also advance to working in multimedia and using your creative and writing skills as a creative director,” Erspamer adds.
Some online journalists advance their careers by transferring to the print medium and working their way up the ranks of a newspaper or magazine.
There are no official salary figures currently available for online journalists. However, as with other Web-related jobs, online journalists may make slightly higher salaries than their counterparts in traditional journalism. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median yearly income of traditional newspaper reporters was $32,270 in 2005. The lowest 10 percent of all reporters earned less than $18,300; the highest 10 percent earned more than $71,220. Online journalists generally earn salaries on the higher end of this scale. Salary.com reported that Web writers had salaries that ranged from less than $41,551 to $84,565 or more in 2006, depending on their level of expertise.
Incomes are influenced by such factors as the person’s experience, company size, and geographic location. Freelance online journalists’ hourly fees range from $25 to $125 depending on the project and the writer’s experience.
Typical benefits may be available for full-time salaried employees including sick leave, vacation pay, and health, life, and disability insurance. Retirement plans may also be available, and some companies may match employees’ contributions. Some companies may also offer stock-option plans.
Freelance journalists do not receive benefits and are responsible for their own medical, disability, and life insurance. They do not receive vacation pay, and when they aren’t working, they aren’t generating income. Retirement plans must also be self-funded and self-directed.
Online journalists may work in a variety of settings. Freelancers generally work out of their homes or private offices. Salaried writers working for a company generally work out of the company’s offices in a clean, well-lit facility. Telecommuting is becoming more popular and may be an option at some companies. Whatever setting online journalists work in, they have access to technology equipment such as computers, modems, phones, and faxes.
Depending on the project, journalists may work independently or as part of a team of journalists. In addition, they frequently contact people outside of the journalism profession to interview for articles or information. Work hours may vary, and overtime may be needed to finish a project on deadline. Writing can be a frustrating job when articles do not come together as the writer had planned. The environment can be intense as journalists work to produce articles quickly while providing accurate and concise information.
Although publishing companies have traditionally had a business atmosphere, they are often more relaxed than other corporate environments. Many high-tech companies, especially smaller ones, also have a casual office atmosphere that promotes camaraderie and teamwork.
Online Journalist Career Outlook
Though the overall employment rate for reporters is expected to grow slowly due to newspaper mergers, closures, decreased circulation, and more limited revenues, more rapid job growth is expected in new media areas, including online newspapers and magazines. The employment of online reporters should grow faster than the average for all occupations through the next decade. Traditional publishers and broadcasters have continued to move into Web publishing, indicating that online publishing will most likely continue to grow.
Online journalism will continue to evolve as journalists begin to devise new ways to take advantage of the interactivity offered by the Web. However, as the field becomes more established and the number of journalists who have online experience grows, competition for jobs is expected to become more intense.
The Internet and the Web publishing industry are relatively young, and job security with one company in the field is relatively low. Nevertheless, writers who are educated, keep up with technology, and continue to learn should not have problems finding employment.