Working as a tech journalist was a career move I have zero regrets about. The pay was never fantastic, and the content was often a bit dry, but the experience of chasing down leads and telling stories about cutting-edge tech was a life experience like none other.
Those years left me with an abundance of wisdom that served me well in many aspects of my career and personal life. These lessons helped shape the writer I became and the father I would become.
I traveled to San Francisco with a coworker in order to cover a tech conference happening in the heart of Silicon Valley. Our task was to film video interviews with speakers and representatives involved in the conference and to shed light on some of the exciting products and services being announced there.
We stayed in the city for three days, though most of the interviews we had set up were finished on the first day. Two days with nothing to do? Not a chance.
My coworker, who had been working in the industry for longer than I had, opened his laptop and started searching for startups operating near the hotel we were staying in. He made calls, chased down leads, and landed a series of additional interviews that kept us busy the entire time we were in the valley.
Not wasting the opportunity to visit these companies in person made our trip extremely productive. We visited a startup that created robots for telecommuters wanting to maintain a physical presence at the office. We stopped by Google and Apple headquarters, linked up with journalists working with other outlets in our space, and turned in double the number of stories we would have had otherwise.
Most freelance journalists operating their blogs or social media publications don't dive deep enough into the story. It's easy to take press releases, reword them, and publish them as some form of hard reporting. The thing is, nothing is achieved by doing this. No truths are uncovered, no Pulitzer Prizes won, and indeed, no audiences grown.
A good story introduces the reader to the subject. A great story tells them something they couldn't find out anywhere else. It uncovers new information and asks questions that haven't been answered before.
Even doing product reviews, I needed to test the device against criteria other reviewers didn't. Is it good enough to cover the most common use cases? Is it better to explore the limits of what the device can do?
Networking is one area that I never quite mastered. Sure, I can introduce myself to someone at a conference and make small talk about the food or some of the exciting exhibits. What I wish I had spent more time doing is building actual relationships.
While sure, there are a million small outlets out there covering stories; there is a small core community that goes the extra mile and attends events on the regular. One might assume you compete with these folks, but the actual writers and video content creators on the road are enjoying the ride more than anything.
This community is exceptionally welcoming, and everyone I've interacted with goes out of their way to lend a hand. The people you run into in conference halls one day are often the ones you collaborate with the next. Never underestimate the importance of getting to know the people you're in the trenches with.
Most of my stories didn't involve whistle-blowers or any secret sources, but the importance of protecting your source's confidentiality can't be overstated. Your sources are the lifeblood of your story. Without their trust, you can't go to them to verify information or provide additional insight.
Treat your sources like they're your best friends. Professionally, they are.
This lesson serves me well in the world of technical writing. Engineers are my sources, and I have significantly benefitted from going the extra mile to ensure that working with me is as easy and enjoyable as possible. This could mean discussing code branches over a game of ping pong or chatting about the next engineering sprint over burritos at Chipotle.
Whatever gets you and the source talking is generally worth doing.
Nothing will burn a writer out faster than feeling disconnected from your work. While it's essential to cover hard news with facts, leaving any of your personal opinions out of the story, you can still leave your mark through the style of storytelling you use. Your storytelling approach can be as unique as your fingerprint.
Publications can utilize AI to push out soulless content. It takes a good writer with a trained eye for detail and a mind for storytelling to create a compelling copy (or videos) for which readers (or viewers) want to keep coming back. Audiences may arrive for the story, but they'll stay because they find some inherent value in the storyteller's way of uncovering the truth.
Here I am now, working as a technical writer documenting APIs for our customer's engineering teams. While the work is very different from what I did before, the fundamental lessons I learned in the field have served me well every day.