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Features Posted November 18, 1999
Freelance-o-mediaries
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version

Related Stories:
Seven More Web Wonders for Freelancers
Golden Days for Web Freelancing
The explosion of publications online has created a new breed of freelancer.

"I am an Internet bloodhound -- if it's online, I can find it," said writer/editor Pamela Wilfinger, who says she does 99% of her work for Internet publications. "I easily spend 18 hours a day in front of my teal green iMac. You no longer have to deal with office politics; you can work from home. I don't have to live in New York City to find jobs. I can live on a deserted island, in Alaska or on a rustic farm. As long as I have a computer and a stable Internet connection, I can query markets and send in assignments."

But even the most plugged-in and energetic of freelancers sometimes need help sorting through the cacophany of new sites and ethereal submission guidelines. Wilfinger herself has created a sort of support-group for professional writers by publishing a weekly e-zine called Inscriptions, which helps some 2,800 subscribers find work and hone their craft.

Since online editors have a similarly difficult time weeding through the massive volume of e-mailed queries and submissions (see related story), a ripe market has opened for brokerage services intermediating between the two camps. So far the Web-based infomediaries that have emerged weigh heavily on the freelancers' side of the coin, most probably because all seem to have been started by freelancers themselves.

One of the first and best-known of the freelance brokers is Content Exchange, a six-month-old service that matches online venues with "online content talent." (See OJR's "Seven Wonders of Web Freelancing") The service, founded by Amy Gahran and Editor & Publisher Interactive columnist Steve Outing, includes a database of around 1,000 freelance writers searchable by topics covered and fee requirements, and an as-yet unfinished "venue" database. Gahran and Outing e-mail a Content-Exchange newsletter to 2,500 subscribers, and also co-host the Online-Writing e-mail discussion group, which has nearly 1,700 subscribers. Gahran also edits another content-creation Web zine called Contentious, which she says gets about 3-5,000 readers per month.

"More and more freelancers are focusing primarily on online media, simply because that's where more and more of the steady paying work can be found," Gahran said, by e-mail. "The number of freelancers who do mostly online work must number in the thousands, at least."

(Since adding my profile to the talent database this June, I have yet to receive any e-mail from editors using the service.)

Two new freelance-federations have partially launched this fall: EPNWorld, based in France, and Wordarchive.com from New Zealand. Both come as champions of the freelancer and protectors of the copyright, though their methods vary.

"The traditional structure and practices of the Global News industry have left freelancers to fend for themselves," said the "EPNWorld Team," via e-mail. "We'd like to think that this is all about to change."

EPN's formula is to let qualifying journalists submit articles with their own conditions for use at correspondent.com. Qualifying Web publishers can see free headlines and summaries of the articles at newsatsource.com (which is not yet functional), and purchase the whole item with a click of the mouse. Thorough screening will attempt to limit participating correspondents to "professionals with proven track records," and publishers to "verified press/broadcasters or Web publishers."

EPN, which will collect 15% on each transaction, says the system will help freelancers protect their copyright and spread their work, while publishers will be able to buy consistently good work and even communicate directly with correspondents for individual assignments.

"We have already received about two hundred applications from journalists without any marketing," the team said.

(I applied for the service Oct. 31 and hadn't heard by Nov. 16, though their full launch is slated for "the following weeks.")

Wordarchive, scheduled for a full launch Nov. 20, is much broader and takes a grassroots approach. Writers of all stripe (academics, scriptwriters, journalists) fill out a brief application, and are then encouraged to cut and paste as many of their past and current articles as they'd like. In return, they receive 70% of the advertising revenue created by their pages.

"The magazine-style media is essentially a high-churn throw-away business -- which also results in a lot of replication (articles on how to fix your bike innertube every summer in bike magazines)," said Gwilym Griffith-Jones, a self-described "young chap" who dreamed up the idea and then launched it with four friends. "It is also obvious that the people generating the news and content are not benefiting from it like the Murdochs of this world. This would suggest squashing the system -- bringing both ends closer together: the revenue source (the advertiser) and the source (you)."

The articles are displayed in the order of submission, then sit in the archive, available for searching. Founder Polly Stupples said the idea is to "grow the site to where it becomes a general knowledge bank of well-written material," then hopefully a faithful audience will develop -- including publishers looking for talent.

The site is designed largely for freelancers who own the copyrights to their old articles, and are not opposed to making a bit of cash off their own archives. If that amount is between $50 and $250 a year, authors will receive one annual lump sum; if more, than payment will come at the $250 level.

(I pasted 10 old articles on the site, and the founders promise up-to-date "hit statistics" by Nov. 20).

Wilfinger says she's sampled a few services, to no avail thus far. "I've 'auctioned' my services on the Monster Talent Board and recently started looking for extra assignments on elance.com. Neither of these services have panned out for me," she said. "I think the most promising brokerage service is Content Exchange. The people behind the scenes are leaders in the online writing world, and their reputations will most likely bring in some high-caliber clients."

For all their lofty liberation rhetoric, freelance brokerage sites for now seem largely destined to make sense out of the lower rungs of the publishing ladder. The vast majority of freelance professional writing, after all, is corporate, technical, niche and newsletter-bound. And, once an elite freelancer is established, why bother?

"My sense is that this is one area where one ought not to be seduced into letting the technology stand in the way of a good telephone conversation," said Kevin Featherly, a new media writer based in the Twin Cities who has no intention of using an intermediary (and who has contributed previously to the OJR). "If you're going to rely on the technology, make it e-mail. Find out who is the relevant person at a publication, whether online or not, query them with good story ideas, and keep plugging away until you hit a target."

... to Desperately Seeking Good E-Freelancers

What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.

 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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Copyright 1999 Online Journalism Review