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This article was published on August 28, 2016

How side-projects make you a better journalist

How side-projects make you a better journalist
Ben Woods
Story by

Ben Woods

Europe Editor

Ben is a technology journalist with a specialism in mobile devices and a geeky love of mobile spectrum issues. Ben used to be a professional Ben is a technology journalist with a specialism in mobile devices and a geeky love of mobile spectrum issues. Ben used to be a professional online poker player. You can contact him via Twitter or on Google+.

Though I’ve published more than 2,500 articles on The Next Web, this is the first one I’ve written about something that’s mine.

A couple of months ago, a change in strategy meant venturing into the world of freelance work as an editor, tech journalist and media consultant to startups that don’t know where to start with approaching the media.

What I quickly realized is that not having a full-time job meant I could start my own side projects that in turn gives me the opportunity to become a better tech journalist and editor.

It also gives me the ability to truly live the industry I work in publishing’s decline is no secret, and it’s not a problem that’s restricted to old media either. Web ad spends are down, and the pain is being felt across the board.

But being a journalist isn’t the same as being a publisher. If your entire industry is intrinsically linked to the tools you use and write about each day, but you only understand one half of that equation, it feels like a huge missed opportunity.


For example, if I wrote about analytics software and had nowhere to test it out, what I’d have is a theoretical understanding, rather than a practical one. Updates to the way in which Facebook or Twitter let advertisers and partners do business can be seen and felt first-hand, rather than parsed, and reported. Again, that in turn gives me better insight into those companies, how well they’re serving their key users and their relative performance to rivals.

So, my two projects: and Both share the same design but have entirely different purposes. In the two months they’ve been running, I’ve already learned a lot about so many different things, but here are six basic tips if you’re starting any new project.

Believe in yourself

Above everything else, whether you’re doing it for fun or as a money-making project, you have to believe in it. You have to be endlessly interested in your business and how to grow it – you’re going to be spending all your time on it anyway, you may as well enjoy that time as well as achieve something. It’s supposed to be fun, at least a bit.

For example, with years writing ‘regular’ tech news (and I still do!), is a place for me to experiment with different formats and tools. The focus is on super-quick updates, reviews and answers to common questions, but all delivered with the promise that it’s never going to be a 1,500 rant or 3,000 word deep dive.

Those stories still need to deliver value and context, just in a way that people have time to consume.

10secondscreenshot1 (STG) purpose is very different. Quite simply, it’s an area that’s under-served by impartial information incredibly so when you consider the impact that technology can and will increasingly have on everything related to sex.

All the topics are adult in nature (obviously!) and may link to NSFW content, but there’s none on the site itself.

It’s a place for deeper dives on topics that might not make the mainstream tech limelight like whether or not myths and regulations in India will stifle a potentially huge market. It’s a place for positivity, not judgement. So, if you want to read about five of the best Android porn apps, go right ahead. Or if you’re more interested in tech being used for good, perhaps check out the game that wants to teach your kids about sex.

Whatever you want to read, the point is there should be a central, safe place to do that.

It’s a diverse topic, and there are lot of places tech and sex overlap and it’s not a project I can (or would want to) approach alone. It’s one that desperately needs female contributors (drop me a line!) to get that balance right.

Learn as much as you can

In building a side-project or a business, you’re going to need to learn a lot but beyond that, you should be seeking ways that the knowledge you now have is useful to yourself in less obvious ways, or to other people. You’re going to need help at some point, so helping other people out is just good karma.

For me, not only is that building and running the sites, but also using them to understand more (first-hand) about tackling that publisher’s dilemma. By using my experience and skills to bring on-demand editing services to startups and founders, and then building in optional publishing spots all managed directly through the front-end, I’m delivering a service not seen elsewhere.


SexTechGuide, on the other hand, allows me to keep my hand in with managing a team of authors – not something freelance editors and journalists tend to have the opportunity to do. And in full circle, that once again allows me to keep my professional skill set tight and continue to learn new things.

Do your research

This is three-for-one advice, and it sounds really simple but it can’t be said enough.

  • Pick your host really, really carefully. In the two months these projects have been running, I’ve already had to migrate to a different company due to repeated problems. And that’s having actually done my research beforehand too.
  • Budget accurately. Even if you’re just doing it for fun setting up a website (or basic app/service) is not necessarily an expensive thing to do, but it can quickly turn into an expensive thing to maintain or develop. Knowing how much money you have (or are willing to put towards it) even if it’s just for a fun side-project will give you an idea of your measure of success and what it’s cost to achieve. If you’re trying to start a business, the value in this is obvious.
  • Choose your tools. Knowing what your aims are before you begin will help you to find the right tools to achieve the job with the minimum wasted time (and money). I found that as my ideas changed in what I wanted those two sites to be, I had to continually rethink the tools I was using to get the job done. That means time-consuming trial-and-error that’s entirely avoidable.

Accept it

This one is both the simplest and the toughest: Everything is going to take longer than you expect.

Of course, in two more months I’ll probably have learned a whole lot more, but if you follow those really simple tips, you’ll at least save yourself some time.