Creating a not-terrible journalist portfolio in 10 minutes

byDexter ThomasSep 01 in Digital Journalism
Journalist

Greetings, fellow journalist. Do you already have a website? Yes? Great! You can skip this whole section.

If you don’t yet your own online portfolio, you're not allowed to read the rest of this article until you’ve completed the following 10-minute exercise. Seriously. Do the following, right now:

  1. Find the last three pieces you published online. Open all three up in separate tabs so you have the URLs ready.

  2. Go to Medium.com. Create an account if you don’t have one already – you can simply sign in with your Facebook or Twitter account.

  3. Click the green button to create a new “story." At the top, type your name and your email address.

  4. Below that, write “Recent Work." Then on one line after the other, paste the URLs from Step No. 1. Medium will turn them into captioned links. Resist the urge to write descriptions.

  5. Now, click ‘Publish.’ Don’t worry, you can edit later. Just click it.

  6. All done! You can now put this link to your new portfolio in your social media profile: Twitter, Instagram and in your email signature.

Still with me? Congratulations, you’re done making your first portfolio website. Here’s what it should look like. It’s not much, but it’s already more than a lot of journalists ever do in terms of managing their own careers online. If you’d like, you can stop reading now.

…But in case you’re interested in going further, I’ve put together some thoughts on journalist portfolios below. Keep in mind that this article isn’t a site design tutorial – you can find those elsewhere. This article is mostly to help you think through what you should be looking to get out of your portfolio in the first place.

But first, we should admit the following:

Your website probably won't be pretty.

I know, I know. The portfolio we made above isn’t winning any awards. There are no pretty color schemes, dynamic layouts, or interesting fonts. This is on purpose. It’s to prevent you from trying to flex web designer muscles that you don’t have.

There’s a weird pattern that happens when people try to make their own site. Writers suddenly become wannabe web Rembrandts, experimenting with colors, photos, and even tinkering around with code to make things look just right. Often, they give up and never publish anything.

You can avoid this trap by sticking to the basics.

A journalist website is one of those situations where the 80/20 rule applies: minimal effort will get you the necessary results. If your work is good, all you have to do is list it up. The entire point of a journalist website is to give people an easy way to see your work (and then possibly give you money to work for them).

Incidentally, this is why a writer profile on your company's website is not good enough. When I started at The Los Angeles Times, my profile at that site had no information about my previous freelance work – stuff that I was really proud of. And now that I have quit that job, everything I’ve done since is not reflected there.

So, yes, even if you're a longtime employee at a storied legacy publication and you are not on the job market (yet), you need your own site (now).

Keep your time commitment low.

So what’s the best way to make a website? Should you DIY or use a service? Well, it depends on how you value your time. Be honest with yourself – are you willing to spend your next three weekends wrangling code? Or would your time be better spent doing something else?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite services, in order of complexity:

  • Distilled.me - only gives you a paragraph. Limitations are good. Free.

  • Contently.com - paste article links into a long list/grid. Free.

  • About.me - single page only. Limitations are good. Free, or $79/year for premium options like a URL.

  • Medium.com - paste any text or multimedia into a single long page. Free.

  • Squarespace.com - popular, with good options for photo/visual journalists, but kinda unwieldy and prone to over-tweaking. US$144/year.

  • Tumblr.com - actually pretty usable (if you’re used to Tumblr), but you can get lost in tweaking and customization. Free, but you can spend money on templates.

  • WordPress.com - the most customizeable, which for most people is a bad thing. Free, but you can spend money for templates or other options.

Yes, if you use some of the options near the top of the list, you will have a basic-looking site, or even one that looks like someone else's. But, who cares? As long as you’ve got something online, your site is doing its job. Now you can get back to your job.

If it is imperative for some reason that you have the most unique and gorgeous looking site in the world, there’s a simple solution: find a graphic designer and pay them to make your site pretty. In between consulting, revisions and other expenses, you can expect to pay north of US$1,000. Anything less than that probably isn’t worth your money.

Now for the next disappointing revelation:

You’re (almost) never going to update your website.

There’s a reason more people have Twitter accounts than blogs. Updating a website, even an easy to use one, is a pain. So, you probably won’t do it often.

The easiest way to get around this is to make a portfolio site which is evergreen – so even if you don’t touch it for a while, it doesn’t look like you’ve abandoned it. I first made mine in 2011, and didn’t make any major updates until the service I was using went out of business (last month).

Here are five things you can do right now to future-proof your site:

  1. Write only a basic bio/description: where you’re from, your job title, a couple awards/accolades, what you like to write/make. Nothing that will sound stale in six months.

  2. Get a decent photo of yourself. For now, just grab your Facebook profile photo. You can swap it out for a headshot later if you want. (Note: a very good headshot can be made if you have a friend who is willing to point a smartphone at you under some decent lighting.)

  3. Link up your best work only. Pick the three pieces you’re most proud of over the past couple years, and write a quick description of each. Whenever you do some particularly impressive work, drop that in. Keep it to a max of five.

  4. If you use a service that allows for it, use a contact form. That way, if you change your email address, nothing gets lost. This also has the bonus of helping to ward off spammers or trolls.

  5. If you use a service that allows for it (e.g. Squarespace), use add-ons that sync your activity on Twitter, Instagram, etc. If being active online is part of your #brand, this is a low-maintenance way to show that off, because it’s always being synced to your site.

Something about that last bit: for the most part, your site’s job is to show off the best part of you. But if always you’re sending people away to other sites via your portfolio links, the odds that they are going to get distracted go up. So if you’re hunting for freelance or job opportunities, it’s not a bad idea to encourage people to stick around on your site for a while – to give them the extra nudge that you’re worth contacting.

Extra credit: Two add-on tools I like.

I realize the above article is a little nebulous, and contains almost no technical know-how. Again, that’s on purpose: I’d rather you throw together a quick and dirty profile on Medium and forget to update it until the next election cycle than dive headfirst into the intricacies of WordPress for three weeks and never make a damn thing.

But if you’re looking to add some extra reach to your online presence, consider signing up for these:

Contently - mentioned above, but also works as an add-on for a more personalized site. Contently is a great portfolio service, especially for people who freelance or have worked for several publications. It’s also pretty easy to update: all you have to do is paste a link, and it will (usually) parse the title, header image, and publication of your piece. So on your site, you can link up your 3-5 favorite articles, then include a “see here for more” link to your Contently account.

Vizualize.me - If you have a LinkedIn account, this service will parse your profile and create a pretty nice looking infographic of your job history and accomplishments. It’s a little wonky, but a nice way to present your resume. Here’s mine.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Cjames Fotografia.