A week of journalism: How to move between print and online

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One of the biggest issues for writers today is how to move between print and online. The issue is really authority. For print people, moving online is difficult because their established offline authority has relatively little meaning online. Conversely people who are mostly online understand that there is a much more structured way to earn authority offline, and they want to feel they are respected in that way.

In both cases, the way to get to the other side is, first and foremost, to care about the other side in a way that is deeper than prestige and self-preservation.

There’s advice here for online writers first, print writers second, and everyone who isn’t a writer and worries about the length of this too-long-to-be-a-post post can skip to the last two paragraphs.

Here are three ways for people to move from online to print:

1. Understand that it’s about paying dues.
And surely you know what I think about paying dues. But you need to work your way up in the print world. Even if you’re great. Sure, there are exceptions, but not so many that you should build a career plan based on them. So if you are doing a lot of work you don’t like doing, and a lot of work you’re not really learning from, you might be on a solid path toward an essay in the New Yorker.

2. Write all the time and expect to be rejected all the time.
You absolutely have to believe that you are a good writer. You must believe this independently of what the rejection slips tell you. Or there is no way to go on. You also absolutely must figure out what you are good at, and this will make rejections in other areas not hurt so much.

No one is good at everything. Very few people really are essayists. Very few are columnists. Very few people give good advice about sex. Fortunately there are lots of different specialties. Figure out what’s right for you. Some people can write for Maxim and some can write for The Atlantic. Few can write for both, but both take talent.

3. Learn the rules.
You have to know how to write a good query. Just stop everything you’re doing and learn how to write one. And have someone you trust review your queries at the beginning. Good resources for this are Media Bistro’s How to Pitch section, and the classes for writing queries at Freelance Success.

The rules for print are arcane. How to get a column is arcane. Mostly, you can’t ask for one — an editor asks you. How to get syndicated is arcane. (But here is some advice on that anyway.) The only thing that is not arcane is the rule that people hire who they like. It’s true in every industry and publishing is no different. So get to know editors if you want writing assignments.

Soul search tip: Ask yourself why you want the prestige of writing for a big-name publication. Prestige is not an end in itself. It doesn’t change who you are, and it doesn’t change how good (or not-so-good) your writing is. Sure, prestige opens doors, but what door do you want to walk through? And why? Because maybe you don’t actually need that particular type of prestige to get where you want to go.

Here are three ways for people to move from print to online:

1. Get a voice and have opinions.
The world does not need another Associated Press. We already have it. So making a name for yourself online is not going to be about duplicating the reporting that the AP is doing just fine. Online success will be something different. It will be about taking a stand. Even if it turns out to be wrong, just take one. This means you have to unlearn all that impartiality.

2. Get off your print pedestal.
Writing online doesn’t mean taking all the stuff that the New Yorker rejected and pasting it into blog software. Writing online means genuinely responding to the community you’re talking to.

If you “just want to write” then moving online is not for you. Because print is about writing from authority and everyone listens. Online is about establishing your authority and having conversations, and people dis you.

Also, be careful whom you emulate. Some people leveraging huge offline brands to move online are not necessarily the online writers you want to emulate. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, is not part of a conversation. He is a great print journalist posting his stuff online. Seth Godin is not having conversation. He doesn’t even accept comments. He is an extremely highly paid public speaker who writes an online diary.

You have to think about where you fit in this new world. And how you want to be. It’s not just writing. It’s a discussion, and there are a lot of different ways you can talk.

3. Educate yourself. Constantly.
The video titled The Machine is Us/ing Us is one of the most enthralling things I have seen about writing online. It has been viewed 2 million times and 5000 people left comments. This video shows what writing online is and what it will be and where we fit. I have watched this video fifteen times, and each time I learn something new.

Many of you will understand almost nothing of this video when you watch it the first time. But if you watch it, and then you read blogs, and you read your news online for a few weeks, and you set up a Google alert system, and then an RSS feed. And after each of those actions, you look at the video again, you will understand a lot.

Soul search tip:
I know this sounds like tons of work. But if you really want to move your print career online, this is the work you have to do. Are you totally annoyed to hear this? It’s okay to not want to learn about how information is spewed and sifted online. Maybe it’s not that interesting to you. But then be honest with yourself: If you don’t get excited about learning about it, why would you want to be a part of it? Think about other career options that get you really excited about learning.

And you know what? This is career advice that applies to everyone, in any career. You need to love learning and exploring in the career you choose. Or else what are you doing there? And you need to be going after something bigger than prestige. If nothing else, we know it’s inherently unsatisfying.

So find what you love to learn about, and find what you’re great at doing, and see where they intersect. That’s where your career potential is strongest.

Other posts from “A Week in Journalism” series:

How to be a freelance writer without starving

Why journalists misquote everyone (and how I met my husband)

Seven ways to get an agent’s attention (by my agent, Susan Rabiner)

7 replies
  1. Mike Berry
    Mike Berry says:

    Actually, if you are regularly published in print, it’s not too hard to make the shift to online. Why? Because, chances are, your published work will be put online by whomever has bought it first, whether you take any action or not.

    Every time I write a book review for the San Francisco Chronicle, it’s automatically archived at SFGate.com. Every time that happens, I write an entry on my personal blog that links to that archived story.

    I intend to do a better job of leveraging my 20 years’ experience as a book critic into new online opportunities, but the first steps of the process are kind of a no-brainer.

    * * * * * *

    Hi, Mike. Really good point about taking steps. We all have to feel our way through the transition. The important thing is to be doing something. Trying things to see what works.

    Everyone – Mike’s blog is, in fact, way more than links to the Chronicle. I was thinking of searching for journalists who seem to be doing a good job of blending their online and print stuff. It seemed like a daunting task to make that list. So I didn’t. But really, Mike’s blog is a nice example for us all to check out:



  2. Adam
    Adam says:


    If you are really interested in a good example of this, check out Bill Simmons from ESPN.Com – great story, started with AOL Digital City, moved to his own site for a few years, then was scooped up by ESPN (where I believe now he is the most (or one of the most) read columnists on their site) – and I don’t have to tell you how popular that site is. In a strange turn of events, he now writes for their magazine as well….

    He has managed to do a pseudo-blog on ESPN.com as well as post regular columns. He is constantly giving advices to upstart writers/journalists and has real issues with the old line newspapers (he went straight from college to the Boston Herald).

    Long story short, you may want to shoot him an email and ask him to contribute to this topic. He’s already written a lot about the topic and my gut says he’ll write you back


  3. Sheila at Family Travel
    Sheila at Family Travel says:

    This is a terrific post, Penelope. I just had a networking luncheon here in Austin with a bunch of pretty savvy communications specialists, and to my surprise I was bombarded with questions about blogging (as though I were the Big Goomba Expert just because I write on 4 of them — gosh, maybe I know more than I think.)

    Anyway, many of them did seem mildly annoyed at all of the work it takes; that a blog is this giant gaping maw that demands to be fed. They didn’t see why it would be worth it, and it was hard for me to justify since they simply didn’t really understand the whole “discussion” or community part of it.

    I’m going to pull out the stack of business cards that I acquired today and fire this link out to a few of them….

  4. Julie O'Hara
    Julie O'Hara says:

    Great article and not the same old thing I always read about careers in journalism. I think you really nailed what it takes to establish a print vs. an online career/platform. The rules for print really are arcane. I’ve started seriously working on a freelance career and I’ve had some small successes so far following those arcane rules, so it does work if you don’t give up. Just wanted to say thanks for a great piece…

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