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I’m in the middle of my sophomore year at college, studying journalism. It’d be my dream to someday work in climbing media. Do you have any advice for what I can do to make that dream a reality?
—Sarah S., Portland, Oregon
Hi Sarah, That’s awesome that you want to work in climbing media. A journalism degree is a great start. The tricky thing about answering your question is that there is no “one way” to get a job in climbing media. Everyone follows their own unique career path. So, I can’t tell you how to get a job, but I can give you advice for how to acquire the tools to work in climbing media. For starters, here’s how myself and editor Matt Samet landed here (or if you don’t care about that, skip right down to the “My Advice” section):
The first piece I ever wrote for Climbing was a report on the White Rock Meltdown competition, held on the basalt crag of the Overlook in White Rock, New Mexico, in 1991. But because I won the event, I had to refer to myself in the third person in the report, which felt weird.
In 1996, I moved to Italy after graduating from college to be with my girlfriend; before I left, I phoned up the magazine and asked the then-editor, Mike Benge, whom I knew from climbing out at Rifle, if he needed any reporting from Europe. Given that I’d just graduated with a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder, it seemed like a reasonable pitch. To my surprise (I was just some dumb, 24-year-old sport-climber kid), Mike said yes—the magazine needed World Cup reporting. So while in Europe, I sent back dispatches on the World Cup events, using my contacts in Italy and elsewhere as sources. As these evolved, the late Dave Pegg, then an associate editor at Climbing, asked if I’d like to write a Vantage Point personal essay on what it was like to be an American climber living in Europe. Apparently, the piece was such a hit with Dave—who was always my biggest champion—and the rest of the editors that they offered me a column in 1997, The Sporting Life.
From there, I became a contributing editor to the magazine, writing exclusively for Climbing for the next five years while I traveled, climbed, and also earned a master’s in English (creative writing); this role included writing features, columns, news pieces, Tech Tips, and so on. I mostly worked with Dave, who took the extra time to help me hone my craft.
When half the staff at Climbing left in 2002 to go to Rock and Ice, I was offered a job as an associate editor. I have been involved with the magazine as either a desk editor or freelancer on and off since that time. I’ve also written and edited for other titles in the climbing and outdoor-sports space. I credit my journalism degree with giving me a leg-up getting in the door initially, though much of my learning since then has occurred on the job, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some very talented peers and mentors.
Growing up, I never believed I could be a writer. My parents were practical people. They wanted me to get a job that would allow me to be financially secure. Any time I mentioned the prospect of writing, it would be dismissed. “That’s so hard to make a living from,” “No one makes any money doing that,” and “It’s impossible to make a career out of that” were the messages I heard. So when I arrived at college, Rowan University in New Jersey, I was undeclared. I’d chosen the school, in part, because they had a student-run alternative magazine, Venue. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living, but I knew that I wanted to work at Venue while I was at school.
Upon starting my freshman year, I immersed myself in student publications right away, taking every opportunity I could at Venue, but also writing for the student newspaper and attending meetings at the student poetry magazine, Avant, even though I did not like poetry. By my sophomore year, Journalism seemed like a reasonable major given my extracurricular activities. I did not want to work at a newspaper, but thought maybe I could go do fun things and then write about them for magazines. Luckily, once I started pursuing writing in earnest, my parents became supportive.
While I learned some valuable things in class, the student publications provided more of an education. I spent all my free time working for them. By junior year I was the editor-in-chief of Venue—somehow the student government trusted me with a budget of $30,000 a year to publish four issues of the magazine to distribute free around campus—the crime reporter and digital editor for the newspaper, president of the Bureau of Student Publications, and something at the poetry magazine—I forget what. I landed an internship at The Onion the summer after my sophomore year. While I’d been gravitating to comedy writing, I was chosen based on my performance on an editing test. It was my knowledge of AP style, not my whit, that got me the opportunity. I can’t say I learned much there. It was cool to see a comedy writer’s room in action, but my time was spent on the menial task of reassigning site categories to thousands of articles in the publication’s archive.
By the time I graduated college in 2007, I had a portfolio of over 100 stories from my student publication work. I applied for jobs at every publication I could find that was remotely relevant. On the same day, I received offers to work at my hometown’s weekly newspaper for $20k a year and Collegehumor.com for free as an intern. I chose the latter. I’m sure they thought my writing samples were OK, but they mainly seemed impressed by my Onion internship. A month into my new internship, the office manager was fired. I threw my hat in the ring and was hired as the administrative assistant to the company founders. I manned the front desk, maintained the coffee reserves, and fulfilled the whims of the founders. That first Christmas, they tasked me with hiring a monkey that could wear a Santa costume for photos at their personal Christmas party. I did, and then was not invited to the party. The following day I saw delighted photos from all of my coworkers that attended—nearly the whole company.
The upside of working at the front desk was that I had plenty of free time with which I was allowed to contribute to the editorial department. I volunteered to take on every task I could. When the brand sold a TV series to MTV, I was promoted into the editorial department so the other writers could film the show.
I worked various editorial roles at Collegehumor. For a while, I was the “user-generated content editor,” which meant I would find the best cat videos to post on the site every day. My last year there, I wrote original video scripts.
What the hell does this have to do with rock climbing?
After six years as a comedy writer, I was laid off. The Internet was changing, Facebook was taking ad revenue that had gone to publishers. Collegehumor struggled to adapt, and the result was layoffs. A few years prior I’d discovered climbing when Brooklyn Boulders had opened their first location. I quickly became obsessed. When my coworkers went to the bar after work, I’d go to Brooklyn Boulders by myself. The day after I was laid off, I left for my first climbing trip. I’d booked it before knowing I would lose my job.
When it came time to start applying for my next gig, I knew that I did not want to live in New York City anymore, nor did I want to move to Los Angeles or Chicago. I wanted to be in the mountains. That rules out most jobs, if you want be employed as a full-time writer or editor. Once again I sent resumes to everyone I could think of. It didn’t matter if there was a job posting. Climbing Magazine was my top choice. They did not have a job posted, but my timing was fortuitous; they knew their digital editor was leaving when they received my resume.
The staff at the time liked my major website experience—Collegehumor had been the number-one comedy website during my time there—and offered me the job after a protracted hiring process, during which I should have given up and moved on. I had to move into an apartment in my grandmother’s house to give me a financial buffer as it dragged on. I wanted the role, and to move to Colorado, so badly that I stuck it out. I even launched my own outdoors website during that time, which probably helped me get the job.
It worked out in the end. I’ve now been a climbing writer longer than I was a comedy writer. And while most of the time I’m sitting at a computer in a cubicle, some of the time the job does look like what I’d hoped for in college: doing fun things and then writing about them for a magazine.
The best suggestion I can give you comes from my old boss Sam Reich at Collegehumor. We’d get a lot of kids asking us how to become comedy writers, and Sam would tell them to start writing comedy. Makes sense, right? To apply that more broadly, you should start doing the thing that you want to do. If you want to be a writer, start writing. If you want to be a photographer, start shooting photos. If you want to be a filmmaker, start making films. They’re all crafts. The only way to get good, is to do it a lot. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people miss this essential step.
I’ve reviewed a lot of internship applications during my time at Climbing. Most of the applicants aren’t qualified. They apply to Climbing because it sounds fun to work at a climbing magazine, but they haven’t put in the work to learn to write. We’ve received everything from a business plan, written for a business course, to a marine biology study as writing samples. That means that those people have never written anything more-relevant to Climbing Magazine than that. Those people want to be at the magazine because it sounds cool. They don’t want to work at the magazine.
As professional bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman more eloquently said, “Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy-ass weights.”
So if you want to be a writer, photographer, director, or whatever, start doing that thing and do it a lot. That alone will give you an advantage over most of the competition. And if you’re reading this during the COVID-19 shutdown, you should have plenty of free time on your hands.
The other thing I’d recommend is to take as many opportunities as you can, because you don’t know where they’ll take you. One of the reasons I typed out my entire career path above was to highlight this point. My classmates at Rowan that didn’t write beyond their journalism assignments are not working as writers or editors today. Some of the people I worked with on student publications still are. My own student publication work helped me to land an internship at The Onion. The Onion internship led to an internship at Collegehumor. That internship led to an administrative job, and that led to my first editorial job as a comedy writer. Then the comedy-writing job led to the job at Climbing Magazine. It’s not a career path I could’ve predicted along the way, but I’m happy with how it has worked out.
The truth is that there are less than 10 people working full-time as climbing publication editors in the United States right now. It’s not impossible to get the job, but it doesn’t happen if you don’t put in the legwork to get good, and you don’t hustle. There are other climbing media jobs out there, to be sure—freelance writers, photographers, etc.–but the same is true for all of them. It’s not easy, but I think most of the people that have managed to make a living through their passion for rock climbing will tell you that it’s worth it. Good luck!
Also, be nice to people. No one wants to work with a jerk.