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Features Posted November 18, 1999
Desperately Seeking Good E-Freelancers
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version

Sidebar:
· Freelance-o-mediaries
Sites that support stringers.
It's never been easier to be a freelancer, especially in the United States, where tens of thousands of print publications and their editors are accessible at the click of a mouse, and the field of decent-paying online outlets grows daily.

For many editors, however, that ease is precisely the problem.

The same technology that removed the barriers to entry for publishing has allowed millions of would-be freelancers to inundate in-boxes with under-cooked story ideas and illiterate rants. For some, the din of this new borderless communication can make it, perversely, much harder to find good freelancers in an efficient manner.

"You can't believe the number of half-baked queries I get and the crap that gets sent in unsolicited -- almost always via e-mail," said CBS Marketwatch Editor-in-Chief Thom Calandra. "I wonder if online submitters feel they can just hit the send button with their stream of consciousness."

"I wonder if online submitters feel they can just hit the send button with their stream of consciousness."
In the good old days, before 1994, envelopes, xeroxes and printing machines apparently provided enough of a logistical hurdle to weed out the novices, crazies, and impulse-pitchers that editors know too well. But now things have changed.

"My mail is constantly bombarded with freelancers who are either clueless or simply not spending more than 15 seconds to write me a query letter," said Andy Wang, founding editor-in-chief of Ironminds.com, a daily online media-based publication targeting college students (and the successor of Impressionmag.com). "A lot of this is the nature of the Web. When you write a query letter to a print magazine, that involves a lot of thought -- or at least hard-copy clips and a SASE. Online, you can send the same lame pitch to 20 magazines in five minutes without buying a stamp."

Some editors of better-known online magazines have taken nearly Luddite steps to avoid the crap-flood. Slate, for example, instructs solicitors to send their queries and manuscripts by the U.S. Post, complete with self-addressed stamp envelope. In a break from online tradition, Slate's staffbox does not include any e-mail addresses for editors.

Such behavior is not surprising for any freelancer who has used the Writer's Market annual guidebook of publications, where regional gardening quarterlies eagerly supply submission guidelines, while top-drawer magazines do everything to be ignored.

Elite publications like Vanity Fair, Playboy and Time magazine prefer to rely on their own network of contacts, rather than provide any encouragement to the type of person who would buy a Writer's Market in the first place. To this day, the high-paying magazines of Conde Nast (The New Yorker, GQ) and Hearst (Cosmopolitan, Esquire) do not have proper Web sites.

"Online, you can send the same lame pitch to 20 magazines in five minutes without buying a stamp."
But keeping e-mailing barbarians away from the gates of Big Publishing has a flip side. So-called professional print freelancers, finding an easier entreé in cyberspace, send in surprisingly mediocre stories and ideas to online editors, some of which seem to indicate a lack of respect for the medium or the publication.

"I've had queries from established columnists, including someone at USA Today, and I've been less than thrilled at the prospect of working with them after looking at their work," said Royce Webb, editor and publisher of the literary-minded sports site Sportsjones, via e-mail. "One of them has been a columnist for 10 years, and he said he wanted to write at SJ so he could have the opportunity to get 'funky' -- I'm familiar with his very mundane work, and I figure that if he can't figure out how to get funky as a long-time columnist, something's wrong."

Tim Cavanaugh, special guest editor of the satire-and-commentary site Suck.com, who is careful to stress that "the writers we have at Suck.com are among the best writers in America," has nonetheless had his share of negative experiences with established writers.

"I have occasionally noticed an unfortunate tendency to send in sub-par stuff. That I definitely attribute to the writer's lack of regard for publishing online, and it does aggravate me," Cavanaugh said by e-mail.

"I have occasionally noticed an unfortunate tendency to send in sub-par stuff. That I definitely attribute to the writer's lack of regard for publishing online, and it does aggravate me."
Many online editors' complaints are familiar to anyone who has edited a print publication, or read the "tips" section of a Writer's Market book, or in Writer's Digest magazine.

"The thing that annoys me the most is that it's obvious that most of these people who pitch me have never even read Impression," said Wang, via e-mail. "I wrote back one woman who had an interesting background and asked her what sections of Impression she'd be interested in writing for. She wrote back that she didn't know because she hasn't read the magazine. Huh?"

Amy Gahran, the CEO of Content-Exchange, has spent the last couple of years helping freelance "content producers" find work. She says the common mistakes in online queries are "Pretty much the same as for print publications -- not taking the time to study a publication so you can get a feel for what they really do and don't want, not going to the trouble of finding the right contact person or learning the right contact procedures, pitching completely inappropriate ideas, etc."

WHAT THE EDITORS SAY

Editors of top online publications say quality and identifiably iconoclastic style tend to attract a more relevant and qualified crowd of freelancers.

GettingIt.com, a free-wheeling opinion/essay site that tickles the underbelly of pop culture, has rounded up a solid list of freelancers to write roughly 85 percent of its copy within just three months, said Senior Editor Mat Honan.

"I think a lot of writers enjoy contributing to GI because we provide an outlet for some of their ideas that might not see the light of day otherwise," Honan said. "Not everyone is going to run stories on masturbating clowns, how to smoke pot in public or gold teeth that miraculously appear in the mouths of evangelicals. ... [Also], we pay well and we pay quickly."

When a site is specific enough, the print reporters who cross mediums to contribute are usually trying to expand their opportunities and take advantage of new freedoms, many editors report.

"We've worked with several very talented and successful print journalists anxious to create a mark they felt would count on the Web," said Editor Linda Richards of January Magazine, a books and authors site that, notably, doesn't have buy buttons next to the books mentioned.

"We've worked with several very talented and successful print journalists anxious to create a mark they felt would count on the Web."
"Typically," said ZDNet News Senior News Producer Michael Fitzgerald by e-mail, "print reporters who don't want their stuff cut way down would turn to us to see if we'll run it."

The print reporters usually take some time adapting to the medium, said Lew Harris, editor-in-chief of E! Online, which runs about 80 percent freelance and pays "print rates." "The quality is BETTER than what we used to see in print, needs a lot less work," he said by e-mail. "That said, I would also say they don't seem to get the idea of faster, quicker, punchier writing for the Web. They tend to write the same way they do for print." (Higher-echelon print magazines typically pay freelancers between $1-$3 per word, while the rates of online trailblazers such as Salon.com and Wired News and start nearer to 50 cents.)

Wendy Woods, editor-in-chief of Newsbytes, which runs about 30 percent freelance, seconds that motion. "The biggest problem isn't mediocrity, it's speed," she said by e-mail.

Suck's Cavanaugh has some amount of skepticism about the quality of established writers. "Most of the worst writing I've ever read has been in print," he said. "I wouldn't wipe my ass with most newspapers' OpEd pages, which are full of banalities, received ideas, blinding glimpses of the obvious and frequently poor grammar and style."

Some of the better establishment types use online freelancing as a way to blow off steam. Doug Thompson, founder of the political news site Capitol Hill Blue, says some of the best of his freelance work comes from D.C. correspondents "who give me stuff their editors won't touch," he said. "Some (like Julia Malone at Cox News Service) actually use their own names, some use pen names and some give me stuff that I can only use without bylines or anything that might ID them (one of my regulars works for the Post, another for Gannett)."

But with the wheat comes piles of in-box chaff, Thompson said.

"I have a second tier of freelancers who submit something that may be usable about 15 percent of the time (about 150 of these come in over a month's time) and then the third tier who submit and submit with stuff that I could never use (runs about 2000 a month). I get a lot of stuff that's stolen from other publications and, whenever I challenge it, the people just disappear."

But, as annoying as some of the "send button" queries can be, GettingIt's Honan points out that there is an equally convenient button for dealing with bad e-mail queries.

"I don't tend to spend too much time on the ones I don't like," Honan said. "And since everything's electronic these days, I don't even have to toss something in the trash ... deleting e-mail is easy. The only annoyance comes in replying."
 
What has your experience been with Web editors and freelancers?
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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© Copyright 1999 Online Journalism Review
ting for the Web. They tend to write the same way they do for print." (Higher-echelon print magazines typically pay freelancers between $1-$3 per word, while the rates of online trailblazers such as Salon.com and Wired News and start nearer to 50 cents.)

Wendy Woods, editor-in-chief of Newsbytes, which runs about 30 percent freelance, seconds that motion. "The biggest problem isn't mediocrity, it's speed," she said by e-mail.

Suck's Cavanaugh has some amount of skepticism about the quality of established writers. "Most of the worst writing I've ever read has been in print," he said. "I wouldn't wipe my ass with most newspapers' OpEd pages, which are full of banalities, received ideas, blinding glimpses of the obvious and frequently poor grammar and style."

Some of the better establishment types use online freelancing as a way to blow off steam. Doug Thompson, founder of the political news site Capitol Hill Blue, says some of the best of his freelance work comes from D.C. correspondents "who give me stuff their editors won't touch," he said. "Some (like Julia Malone at Cox News Service) actually use their own names, some use pen names and some give me stuff that I can only use without bylines or anything that might ID them (one of my regulars works for the Post, another for Gannett)."

But with the wheat comes piles of in-box chaff, Thompson said.

"I have a second tier of freelancers who submit something that may be usable about 15 percent of the time (about 150 of these come in over a month's time) and then the third tier who submit and submit with stuff that I could never use (runs about 2000 a month). I get a lot of stuff that's stolen from other publications and, whenever I challenge it, the people just disappear."

But, as annoying as some of the "send button" queries can be, GettingIt's Honan points out that there is an equally convenient button for dealing with bad e-mail queries.

"I don't tend to spend too much time on the ones I don't like," Honan said. "And since everything's electronic these days, I don't even have to toss something in the trash ... deleting e-mail is easy. The only annoyance comes in replying."
 
What has your experience been with Web editors and freelancers?
Tell us on the OJR Forums.

 



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


[ Frontpage ] [ Features ] [ Back to Top ]
© Copyright 1999 Online Journalism Review