A tech journalist's unexpected path to freelance

Changing reader tastes and the downturn in print advertising are making it tough on some longtime trade magazine hands.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
4 min read

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories about the recession's effect on the tech industry.

Robert Mullins, who covered servers and software for 10 years, competes with bloggers who have less experience but will work for less money. Robert Mullins

News gathering and job hunting during a down economy aren't unalike, says longtime technology industry reporter Robert Mullins. They both require spending inordinate amounts of time trying to get people on the phone, trolling the Web for leads and swallowing lots and lots of rejection.

For most of the past decade, Mullins covered Silicon Valley, writing about servers and open-source software at publications like Software Development Times and NetworkWorld. Like most seasoned reporters covering the tech sector, it meant always working with a safety net; 401k, health insurance, and steady pay.

Mullins is on his own now. A staff reduction in August at the publication he worked for has meant that the 53-year-old still covers servers and software, but now gets paid by the story. Mullins has been forced to work as a freelancer. Say goodbye to the salary and the 401k, and he pays for his own health insurance. After working 30 years as a reporter, Mullins and other journalists like him find themselves caught between tectonic shifts occurring in the economy and tech journalism.

In a sagging economy, one of the first cuts U.S. companies make is to their advertising budgets. Anybody who has ever worked in media knows that when ad money dries up at newspapers or trade publications, pink slips start to fly. And now heap on more bad news: at the same time traditional print publications face an ad-revenue downturn they also are seeing unprecedented competition.

While blogs and tech publications such as Gawker Media and Wired.com have also laid off employees, Web-only publications continue to snatch away readers and ad dollars from traditional outlets. Many blogs keep costs down by filling their staffs with younger writers. The new generation of reporters, who probably would prefer the term bloggers, may lack reporting experience, but often have extensive hands-on experience with the subjects they cover. They also seem well equipped to handle some of the new job demands in tech journalism, such as filing video stories and podcasts and writing shorter but larger numbers of stories.

In this climate, some old-school journalists struggle to fit in.

"I was up for a job...and I was considered a strong candidate," Mullins said. "But later I found out they hired an entry-level employee. Of course entry level means you don't have to pay them a lot...I've been doing this for a while and there are younger people out there that will work for less and who are quick learners and have a lot of energy. They also don't have the same salary demands as more experienced reporters. They get some of the positions that I might have otherwise qualified for."

A Web-only world
It's not hard to find examples of how the Web and blogging have changed traditional journalism. Most of the country's major daily newspapers have asked reporters to blog at the same time they write for their print editions. InfoWorld, a stalwart tech magazine for three decades, dropped its paper edition and went Web-only last April.

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The century-old Christian Science Monitor also scrapped printing newspapers on a daily basis. Starting in April next year, the Monitor will publish on its Web site and offer weekly print and e-mail editions.

But attempts by print publishers to cash in on the Web have met with mixed results. Print publishers are losing advertising revenue faster than they can make the losses up with Web ads. To reduce costs, print publications have borrowed ideas from Web-only competitors and tried to remake themselves into speedier, sassier news shops.

"The rise of the blog economy is replacing traditional coverage by reporters who ask questions and investigate things," Mullins said. "While some of the legacy print publications are also trying to do some investing in things like blogs, and video and using surveys to interact with audience, some of their more ambitious plans I think are going to take a while before becoming stable."

Well, there's plenty of freelance work
After getting over the shock of his own layoff, Mullins realized he was fortunate in some ways. First, there's plenty of freelancing work available. "The good thing is that there are all sorts of freelance opportunities out there because of the number of technology blogs or business blogs that pay reporters by a per-story basis," Mullins said. "But whether there's enough to replace a full-time salary is another thing. You just keep knocking on doors."

One part of Mullins' day is spent pitching story ideas to editors and writing; making sure money continues to come in. The other part is spent sending out resumes, calling contacts to see if they've heard about job openings or tracking down editors about giving him work. With a mortgage to pay on his Santa Clara, Calif., condominium, Mullins jokes that he's learning to mix Starbucks coffees as a "just in case."

The arduous process can sometimes get him down. "It can be frustrating and depressing to be sending e-mails and getting nothing back," Mullins said. "I have friends who help encourage me."

As for the future of tech journalism, Mullins is confident that the public will always crave news.

"The tech industry is still so vibrant and constantly changing," Mullins said. "There is always going to be a need for someone to report the news. If the publishers can figure out the economics, there might be some good prospects."

Next in the series: Finding hope in the iPhone App Store