Digital publishing platforms are giving a voice to new writers and shape to novel storytelling techniques. Among them is Follow the Geeks, a series of 10 tech-entrepreneur profiles from a reporter–editor team at the IT-focused B2B brand of CBS Interactive, TechRepublic. Follow the Geeks launched on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo last fall and published its first profile this month (read it here). The weekly online posts will be wrapped up in an e-book at the project’s duration, and is expected to include reader comments. We caught up with TechRepublic staff writer Lyndsey Gilpin, who is co-author of the project and a 2013 graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill graduate journalism program, to talk about serial publishing, j-school in the Information Age, and tips for reporters covering a new industry.
How have you learned the ropes of the tech industry?
LG: I had no experience in technology writing. I wrote about environmental issues in graduate school and knew that’s what I wanted to do. So far I’ve done that, but with a tech angle. Technology is in every facet of every industry. Every day I learn something new. I interview really intelligent people, Google terms I don’t know, and ask a lot of questions in the office. I came into the job and was transparent [about how much I knew]. You just have to be ready to ask questions.
Were there benefits to coming from outside the industry but having a media background?
I came at it from a new perspective in that I didn’t really know how the tech industry had been [historically]. I just know how it is now. And I think that that has helped. I‘ve learned so much about different ways of storytelling through journalism school and I think that sometimes technology writers struggle to humanize what they’re writing about. That’s important, especially to reach a broader audience.
How did you get involved with Follow the Geeks?
[Co-author Jason Hiner] and I were talking one day about wanting to write books and he brought up the idea he’d had for Follow the Geeks. I totally loved it. I thought that it was a fresh way to release stories. We both liked the fact that [serial publishing] had been done throughout history. It’s exciting to revive that form of publishing, and people love series.
While you were working on the project, the Serial podcast launched and received a lot of attention. How do you think that has impacted Follow the Geeks’ reception?
It’s been validating to see the success of that because even though it’s audio, a crime story, and has cliffhangers at the end of each episode, it’s the idea that people love to see what comes next and to hang onto stories. So when we say “serial,” people kind of latch onto it quicker.
How will Follow the Geeks be formatted?
The theme of the book is the future of work and each of the 10 chapters will be a standalone profile. Our premise is that the future of work will be a lot more entrepreneurial. The technology and media industries are both changing rapidly, and we’ve seen so much of the entrepreneurial spirt [in these sectors]. Most of the profiles will be of new-media innovators. People will recognize either their names or the products they’ve created.
What platforms are you using to promote the project?
We knew we wanted to be active on Facebook and Twitter. And the crowdfunding campaign has helped with email. We threw a launch party in Louisville a couple of months ago. Our idea in creating this platform is to turn a book into a conversation. You can’t do that unless you breach multiple types of audiences through different platforms. The Medium post came up organically because [the platform] is so popular with a lot of the people that we want to get interested in this. It’s so much of an experiment. We want to make sure people know that we’re accessible and responsible to them. If we can keep doing that—no matter if it’s strategic or it comes up as we go—it will help make the project a success.
What advice do you have for journalism or communications students pursuing careers in the field?
Keep an open mind. There’s so much good journalism out there and you don’t have to work through the [conventional] system to do it. Build relationships with everyone you can. Your colleagues will be your bosses and your employees and your competition. They’ll be everything to you. That network is huge and I never realized it more until I started working on Follow the Geeks and had to reach out to everybody. That extends to your sources. Building relationships with them has been one of the most important things I’ve done so far—emailing them when the story is done and thanking them; responding to their feedback; changing something quickly if I’ve made a mistake. Listening and really focusing on the people you’re interviewing—they’re not just words, they’re people that have a story to tell. Everyone wants to get the story out fast, you need the quote and you’re done. I’ve never looked at it like that and I think that’s been helpful.
Why did you choose Baratunde Thurston, CEO of CultivatedWit and former digital director at The Onion, as your first profile in the series?
He is an incredible example of the future of work. He’s a comedian, technologist, writer, innovator, entrepreneur—and he does everything with great passion and thoughtfulness. People can find value in his story because he is so self-aware. Every opportunity is an opportunity to learn, and every experience builds on previous ones. Those small jobs, gigs, and events that don’t seem to matter at the time, even those years of your life when you have to work a job you’re not in love with to pay the bills, he is proof that it’s worth it.