Robert E. Calem is in this month’s Autowriters Spotlight because his career reflects how the interplay between the Fourth Estate and the Internet has changed what he still dignifies with a capital: Journalism.
Writing has always been a solitary endeavor, but when I began my career nearly three decades ago (in 1986) Journalism was a group effort. Reporters researched and wrote, editors edited, fact-checkers checked facts, photographers took pictures, and graphic artists put everyone else’s efforts together — along with advertisements sold by publishers — on printed pages. The ultimate aim of all of this activity was to build the publication’s brand.
Now, it seems to me, Journalism itself is a solitary endeavor. Reporters no longer just research and write; they also take pictures, shoot video, and use their personal Twitter and Facebook accounts to promote their work to an audience that follows them individually. While they may work for publications they do not own, and still in the end help to build those publications’ brands, they are in a very real sense independent and building their own personal brands as well. Undoubtedly, the Journalists who have the strongest personal brands are best prepared to survive the loss of a job or succeed in the search for a new one even as their employers’ brands collapse.
So, after 23 years of flying solo as a freelance Journalist, I have finally taken the first step toward a truly solitary career: I’ve launched my own website and, with it, my own brand.
This was easier than I expected — and also just as difficult.
My entire career had centered around technology, but as a reporter not as a creator.
Soon after graduating from McGill University in Montréal with a degree in English, I started my Journalism career as a freelance contributor to a trade magazine covering video graphics and special effects, and this led to my first full-time job as a founding editor of another trade magazine covering consumer electronics, which led me to the role of top editor at a third trade magazine that I helped to start — this one about consumer electronics for home offices. Next came studies for my Master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University in New York, and then a job as the technology editor at a financial newswire. When that newswire folded during the economic downturn of 1990, I began freelancing.
That wasn’t my intended career path at first. I had been looking for full-time employment again, but the Journalism industry was contracting and I found no openings. Many editors I knew offered freelance assignments to help keep me afloat, however, and I soon had no reason to continue my hunt for a staff job. I was busy covering a beat I enjoyed (technology), earning accolades from editors in the form of ongoing assignments, and earning a living through self-employment.
I also was evolving with the changing media landscape. In 1995, the World Wide Web emerged as a commercial entity and a publishing medium, and I pursued it as such. Already a regular contributor to The New York Times newspaper (mostly to the Business section’s technology coverage), I switched to reporting for The New York Times on the Web (nytimes.com) when it launched that year, covering technology and the Web for the CyberTimes section. That continued for several years and led to constant work contributing to other major publications online, including The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition (wsj.com) and Newsweek.com.
In 2004, when BMW started offering Bluetooth as a dealer-installed option, I took this as an opportunity to meld my career covering technology with my passion for automobiles, and I started regularly covering car technology. I also gained new outlets for my autos coverage, including Edmunds.com.
Meanwhile, I have been reading some of the leading blogs that cover consumer electronics and autos, and I have sensed that the career I love is becoming a relic of the past. Their stories are badly written and superficial — often only lightly researched or entirely based on press releases. They are a poor imitation of traditional Journalism. Yet these are among the most-highly-trafficked publications online, with huge international audiences.
Thus, I concluded last summer that to have longevity practicing Journalism the way I was taught to do it and want to do it, I would have to supplement my freelancing with my own publication on the Web and build my own brand around it.
I bought a URL with my name in it, signed up with a “host” that would store and serve my webpages to visitors, and researched both tools for building my website and sources of advertising that would generate revenue from it. In the nearly 20 years since the dawn of the Web, I discovered, website building had become easier than I’d expected. Software to quickly create and set up a site is cheap or free. Third parties supply the ads that provide the revenue.
By last fall, I had built the site in my spare time, replete with sections and subsections. In February, having produced an initial batch of stories, I finally launched it.
Now open to visitors at www.robcalem.com, the site comprises five sections to span the range of topics I cover regularly plus any other subject that I think will interest readers: Autos; Devices (which could be anything from iPods to high-tech refrigerators); Apps; Sports Tech; and Random. Also, each of those sections contains three subsections: Features; News; and Reviews. Moreover, every article on the site is new — not a revision or republication of my work for other outlets — and each has the depth, breadth and clarity usually associated with an excellent newspaper or magazine article.
I deliberately did not create a typical blog filled with short stories written in a colloquial or stream-of-consciousness style that emphasizes the writer’s opinion or personality over the facts.
It won’t be easy keeping my site filled with fresh, high-quality content, but I’m hoping that my effort to do this ultimately will attract and retain a sizable audience of interested, appreciative readers.
Ad revenue grows only with audience size, of course, and so far both have been small.
Nonetheless, even as I confront challenges I never faced as a Journalist before, I remain hopeful that there still will be a market for well-written and informative examples of good old-fashioned Journalism for decades to come. I know there will be a need.