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How to Become a Gonzo Journalist

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In 1970, journalist Hunter S. Thompson ushered in a new style of journalism with his story "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved." Instead of merely reporting on his trip back to his hometown to cover the race, Thompson told the story as a first-person narrative, injecting his own perspective and giving birth to a new style of journalism.

To become a gonzo journalist like Hunter S. Thompson, you’ll need to be flexible enough to meet the ever-changing demands of publications, which may include travel writing, essay writing and standard news writing with a first-person narrative approach.

Becoming a Gonzo Journalist

Gonzo journalism is a writing style, not a career, so the first step in landing a job as a gonzo journalist is to get the degree and credentials necessary to land a job at a publication. Many major publications embrace pieces that wrap the reporter into the telling of the story, highlighting the fact that Hunter S. Thompson changed the entire field of journalism forever. You’ll need plenty of samples that prove you can tackle this writing style capably, especially if you’re going for a position that specifically looks for a gonzo journalism style.

One of the biggest differences between a gonzo journalist and a standard reporter is that a journalist must be willing to participate in the story. This means leaving the office and traveling, whether locally or across the globe. Travel writers often employ a gonzo journalism style of storytelling, as do the many journalists who pen essays for publications like The Boston Globe and The New York Times. Gonzo journalists aren’t shy about offering their opinion, nor does it bother them to share their own personal stories with a large readership.

Other Careers for Gonzo Journalists

The work Thompson did could fall under the header of travel writer, as the article initially was simply coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Publications and websites are always looking for writers who can cover various destinations, and many want you to visit the locations in person and tell the story from a first-person perspective. If you’re willing to freelance, you may even be able to get a gig writing about your own city, eliminating the need to ask for travel expenses in addition to pay.

If you prefer to go the corporate route, you may also find employment opportunities writing about various business conferences and trade shows. Businesses are often looking for content writers and gonzo journalists to attend big events and cover them from an attendee’s perspective. You may also be able to attend local events as a freelancer and then sell your “from the frontline” stories to publications across the globe.

Education Requirements for Journalists

If you grew up reading Hunter S. Thompson books and gonzo journalism articles, you already have a head start on the education you’ll need to become that type of journalist. You’ll find that most employers expect reporters to have at least a bachelor’s degree in either journalism or communications.

In addition to a degree, most employers will expect you to have experience before they’ll hire you. How do you get experience in those early days? Reporting for your campus newspaper, TV station or radio station can give your resume a big boost, but most journalism degree programs also include an internship requirement. This means you’ll need to dedicate part of one semester or your summer break to working for a newspaper, magazine, TV station or radio station in exchange for college credit.

Landing the Right Journalism Internships

Your school should help connect you with an internship that meets your own after-graduation career goals. If you live near a big city or can stay there for the summer, look into internships at larger, more prestigious publications that will impress future employers. You don’t need a specific internship as a gonzo journalist. The important thing is that you’ve learned to write in true journalistic style and that you can meet deadlines and handle the pressure that comes with chasing down a story.

For best results, don’t rely solely on your college’s journalism department to line up an internship for you. If you want to work for a specific publication, reach out to them and see if they have internship opportunities. You can also find internship openings posted on sites like Indeed, and Mediabistro.

Industry Outlook for Freelancers

As a journalist, you have plenty of options when it comes to your talent for first-person narrative reporting. You can pursue a staff position with a newspaper, magazine or TV station depending on your own style. You can also follow the inspiration of Hunter S. Thompson books and write your own.

Another option available to today’s talented journalists is freelancing. Freelancers can charge by the story, earning potentially more than you’d make if you were on salary at a publication. Many journalists choose this route because it gives them the freedom to write in the gonzo style with every story they write, tailoring it to a specific publication rather than working full time for a publication that may require the style to be mixed with the standard style of third-party, objective reporting.

Salary Expectations for Gonzo Journalists

If you have visions of a gated mansion with a resort-style pool and hot tub, journalism definitely isn’t the route to take. Unless you’re talented and fortunate enough to write best-selling books following in the footsteps of Hunter S. Thompson books, you likely won’t see extreme wealth as a gonzo journalist. Typical salaries based on years of experience are as follows:

  • Less than one year: $33,000
  • 1-4 years: $39,000
  • 5-9 years: $46,000
  • 10-19 years: $54,000
  • 20 or more years: $61,000

However, as newsrooms have reduced staff positions, more journalists have shifted toward freelance work. As a gonzo journalist working for yourself, you’ll need to be good at marketing your work and pitching editors. While the majority of full-time freelance journalists report salaries of between $20,000 and $30,000, there are freelancers who make more than $50,000, with a select few making six-figure salaries.

Growth for Journalists and Freelancers

In journalism, it’s all about the market. As a gonzo journalist in a city like Washington, D.C. or San Francisco, you will not only have more employment options, but you’ll also find that pay is higher. However, in order to land those jobs, you may have to put in some time in much smaller markets, which might mean moving from one area of the country to another.

The job outlook for reporters does not look promising, as print publications continue to be phased out in favor of internet content. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a decline of 9 percent through 2026 due to declining advertising revenue to pay journalists. However, some journalists are shifting to freelance careers, pursuing work as authors and content writers, and that field has predicted growth of 8 percent during that same time period.

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a freelancer is competition. So many publications and websites have discovered how easy it is to work with freelance journalists, so freelancers are gravitating toward the field. As a gonzo journalist, you’ll need a unique writing voice as well as the willingness to hustle and meet all your deadlines. Expect to spend a great deal of time marketing yourself and pitching ideas to editors.

  • Realize that in many ways, this type of journalism is a lifestyle. It is a type of documentation that requires the writer to literally live what she is reporting.

Stephanie Faris is a novelist and business writer whose work has appeared on numerous small business blogs, including Zappos, GoDaddy, 99Designs, and the Intuit Small Business Blog. She worked for the State of Tennessee for 19 years, the latter six of which were spent as a supervisor. She has written about business for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2011.

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