Becoming a Journalist: From 0 to 125.000 Readers a Month, My Six Years Journey
Day 33/365: This is my journey as a leading journalist for the local media in my hometown and how it lead me to freelancing
About 7 years ago, I was out of high-school and into Law school. It was a rushed decision. When the only two faculties at the local college are Finances and Law, and you’re broke and have nowhere else to go, Law school sounds like the right thing to do. Forget about your dreams, just sign up and go with the flow. Truth be told, I never found the classes interesting.
One night after my submission, I was chatting with a guy that I’ve met just hours before online. At exactly midnight, he wanted to see me in person, so he asked if he could come by my house and chat “for 5 minutes, no more than 10”. It was weird enough to ask someone you’ve met the same day to get out of the house at that hour, but as the guy was insisting I accepted the meeting.
To put things into context, starting at age 16, while still in high school, I worked as a writer/journalist for several online publications, mostly travel related. One of them was a Romanian publication which never paid me but arranged for me to stay at some nice hotels and theme parks including Arsenal Park, one of the biggest military themed parks and resorts in Europe. At the same time, I was sometimes writing for a local newspaper, but again the payment was low.
Back at the night of the First Contact, here’s this guy that drives to my house, asks me to get out in -25 degrees Celsius wheater in the middle of the night and asks me to run a newspaper alongside him. I was gobsmacked! I had no idea what this guy wanted from me. I was suspecting maybe robbing me or selling me for my organs overseas, but never had I dreamed of a job offer.
Working a newspaper from scratch
After that night, we started working on this newspaper from scratch. I can still remember our editorial office: on the first floor of an old Communist building, actually a huge room with two big, rusty windows and no heat source. Our heat was coming from an old Russian style red tiles stove that was set in the small front room of the office. In winter, I had to break wood at my house, put it inside my old Dacia car and then drive to my office, get the wood up three flights of stairs and lid the fire so that we wouldn’t freeze to death.
“My theory was that a city without a newspaper is a city without a soul” — Luis A. Ferre, Governor of Puerto Rico
The guy that offered me my first ever job, on a cold winter’s night inside his car, changed my life forever. After working for about 6 months at that newspaper, although I never won a lot of money from it, I managed to gather enough knowledge about writing an article, editing in Adobe InDesign, restructuring, editing, print modelling and everything else that no university would have ever thought me.
This guy that I was working with has now worked at Google and moved to London, where he works at one of the best growth hacking agencies in the UK. He is very smart, but working a newspaper from scratch, trying to make it sell in a small town where reading the press was no big deal for the people and having a scarce finance source proved to be enough for the project to fail after about 6 months of very hard work. I still haven’t got my last paycheck, but I’m glad everything happened just the way it did. It’s all about the knowledge that I accumulated, nothing else.
Next up: Television
Although small, my hometown has a television station that has been running for about 20–25 years. The whole media scene of the city was conceived by notorious businessman Iosif Constantin Dragan, a native of my hometown who was the first billionaire (as in USD billionaire) in Romania. After the newspaper project failed and me and my three colleagues were left jobless, I got an offer to work as a news reporter for the local TV station.
What followed was life-changing for me. The first few months were pure bliss at the new job. It was a pleasure to get up, go to the morning editorial meeting, present my subjects for the day and then hit the streets and produce my stories for the afternoon news bulletin.
“Journalism is witnessing history in the making” — Hala Gorani, CNN Anchor
I made a lot of friends, I got to meet and befriended the mayor, police officers, paramedics, fire department workers, important local figures and so on. I even got to create a name for myself, as people were starting to recognize me as “that guy from the news”, although I’ve never appeared on TV.
But as with anything that works way too well in life, things started to shift towards the dark side of the microphone. My boss started to become more and more demanding, firing my colleagues one by one and failing to hire new ones. I was a one-man-team for months, with him being more and more strict and overall obnoxious for no good reason, as I was still doing my job as before.
Becoming my own boss
Coping with that kind of stress and unhappiness was not something that I could afford to do. I was too young for nerves and useless daily arguments. Exactly 5 years ago, after quitting the news reporter job, I opened my own local newspaper, a website where, for a year and a half, I crushed my competition. In order to do so, I used to drive an old Dacia to the events that I was attending and reporting on, being ridiculed by my fellow colleagues.
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed” — George Orwell, BBC reporter
I was struggling for months on end to be able to pay for hosting, for gas and food. I had no editorial office, which cut the costs by a lot but which more often than not obliged me to write from my car or sometimes right at the scene of a crime, accident or other atrocities that I was reporting on. My car would break down quite often, so when I was unable to go and shoot some photos from the scene, I would call every single person in my phone to try and see if they could go and snap some photos for me.
Having the first article about the event online was key to win over the competition. I still remember my breaking story which set my little website apart and was featured in the national media. It was a car accident at a trains crossing just outside of town. My friend was in the area the moment it happened, so he was able to send me some pictures in a heartbeat. I quickly phoned the police and firefighters for quotes and immediately uploaded and published the story online.
Ten minutes later, my story along with my branded photos was featured on every single major news channel in the country. My website kept crashing continuously, for hours on end, due to the large number of users that were trying to read the story. Three people lost their lives that day, crushed by the train while the driver wrongly believed that he could make it over the crossing before the train would pass.
What followed was a year and a half long journey which ended with me owning the most successful news site in town, while my competitors struggled to keep up with me regardless of having 10–15 people editorial teams of professional journalists.
My first real boss
Besides having my own online newspaper, I also happened to be running a personal blog where, years ago, I come up with some mean words about the local papers and put them in a post. The guy that I was writing about was also the editor-in-chief of the now competing newspaper, running a big team of journalists and having a weekly printed edition besides the virtual one.
About 18 months after opening my website, I received a phone call one morning from one of the journalists from the competing paper. He asked me to come over to the editorial offices to have a chat for a possible collaboration. As I was still struggling to make ends meet, regardless of my editorial success, I accepted the invitation and soon enough, I was face to face with my future boss, the guy about whom I wrote all those bad words some years ago.
“I still believe that if your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate, short-term weapon” — Tom Stoppard
It’s funny how people give up on old fights and competitions when their goals are the same. It was strange. We were both loving journalism, yet we somehow never talked about it face to face. We weren’t even saying hello in the hallways before, as both the TV station and the paper he ran were in the same building. And yet there we were, engaging in a conversation, discovering that we had a lot in common and starting to work together.
Leaving the past behind and starting it all fresh allowed me to partner with one of the best press people I have ever met to this date, a man that would change the way I envisioned journalism forever. A true professional, a man of his word who trained a team of dedicated people for the sole purpose of truthfully informing the readers.
For almost 2 years, I worked in the perfect environment and was able to grow and learn a lot about everything that is media related, how to manage sources, how to find the truth and report on it, how to control my breathing when surrounded by 24 Special Forces fighters with 3 fighting dogs that were doing a morning drugs and arms house search and so on.
The “Perfect” project
It was all falling apart back at the newspaper. I can’t go into details as I’d probably signed a confidentiality agreement and I’d hate paying a fine for a paper that I signed years ago and that probably never exists anymore. There was this businessman/investor in our town who was interested in starting a newspaper, so when the editor-in-chief learned about it, he saw the opportunity and went for it. He asked us one by one if we were ready to make the move, and one by one, for the most part of the team, we agreed.
A few weeks later, we were setting up our downtown offices and were putting the first lines of code on the new website. Our project included a printed newspaper as well, but we were all ready to deal with it as it would mean working in the same frame as before,with the newspaper first, website second, while keeping them both on top of the competition.
The day we killed our competition
I will never forget the day we crushed the competition, which happened to be the newspaper that we previously worked at and that let us flock out of the offices like we had no business there. It happened right after the local elections when the whole city turned their eyes towards the media to see what was happening, who was winning and who was losing the battle for the mayor house and the local council.
“Journalism is all about sticking up for the unpopular, not the popular” — Geraldo Rivera, talk show host
We had the best month of the project that May, gathering a total of over 125.000 unique visitors who generated 330.000+ hits on our website. On Election Day, which we covered minute by minute, starting from 6:00 AM before the opening of the polls until way after 2 AM the next morning when they announced the winners, we managed to gather a total of over 40.000 hits on the site. That’s one hit for each and every person in the city!
The project died, but it wasn’t our fault
Slowly, the interest for the project started to dim down. The investor was slowly starting to pull out, and after two of my colleagues left the team, things started to go down the drain really fast. Within weeks, we were forced to dissolve the printed version, which in its entirety survived for just over a year.
This was followed by more problems, which inevitably brought the end of one of the best projects that I’ll probably ever have the opportunity to be a part of. I loved the team, I loved the work and everything about it, but sometimes you just have to swallow your grief and move on. It wasn’t our fault that things went the way they went, but now that I think about it, it really is of little importance who, if anyone, holds the blame.
Working as a freelancer sounds weird to my peers. In my country, that translates to staying around all day and doing nothing, but somehow managing to get by. That’s not the case, obviously, as there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Most people never even heard the term before, so they just assume that you work with computers, which is partially true.
Freelancing is great, to be honest. It gives me the freedom to choose what to work on and who to work with. It leaves room for free time, vacationing and other hobbies, like writing on this blog daily no matter how much work I need to get done each day. It teaches me something about my craft, about how to take care of every penny that you make and how to improve on a daily basis.
I love freelancing, I love creating content and I don’t see myself doing anything else for the foreseeable future. With my strong background in journalism and content creation, my clients get to realise quickly that I mean business and I can deliver whatever it is that they need. It just works, I enjoy every minute of my work and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Yes, freelancing is hustle, it still is a weird job to have and a mystery to many, not just in my country but around the world, but once you get a taste of it, once you see results and get to enjoy the freedom, you will never ever get back to a “9 to 5” ever in your life.
My future as a journalist
Although it seems like I just wrote freelancing the most sincere love letter ever, it does have its flaws. Putting that aside, I am not done being a journalist. You are never done doing press once you started doing it. People still think I work in the local media, even if it’s been over a year since I resigned from that last job. While it’s true that I am currently not writing for any publication, the virus is still there.
I can feel it. I read a news piece and my heart starts trembling even now, after a full year since my very last submitted paper article. I sometimes stop and think about the best moments, the blowing stats, the events and the friends that I made along the way. I want to be there one more time, to witness and to report on what my eyes see, my ears hear and my other senses make out of what’s happening in front of me.
In my opinion, being a journalist is one of the most intense, rewarding, demanding and important jobs an individual could have. As Horace Greely puts it, “Journalism will kill you, but it will keep you alive while you’re at it” which makes total sense to me.
As I’m getting ready to put the last dot on this story, I can’t help but believe that one day, the old team will somehow manage to get back together and start a new project, a new online paper that will once again make the competition tremble and give the people the trust in the media that they lost along the way and change the overall view about the media.
“If journalism is good, it’s also controversial by nature” — Julian Assange
The true power of journalism stands not in the stories, the stats, nor in the monetary rewards, but in the readers and their sincere and undivided trust.
Thank you for your time!
My name is Gabriel Iosa, I’m a 25 years old travel enthusiast, food lover, Psychology student, Full-time Freelancer, writer and Instagram fanatic. You can follow me @gabrieliosa, and if you liked this post, give it exactly 45 claps!
I’m on a mission to write 365 articles in 2018. This is definitely the biggest writing challenge of my life so far. If you’d like to be part of the journey, please follow me here on Medium.com for the daily posts!