CENTRAL EUROPE SITE PAYS THE BILL WITH VOLUNTEERS

By: Karim Mostafa

Volunteer Journalists Find Compensation Other Than Cash


As online news tries to figure out how to pay its bills, one news site has
opted for an unusual non-profit option with surprisingly successful
results.

Central Europe Review, which hasbeen frequenting awards rosters as a finalist
in online-onlynewscategories, has in 20 months put together a network of 85
volunteers – editors and writers – who donate their time to compile an
English-language weekly review of regional news.

The site, powered by volunteers, some of whom maintain full-time jobs
elsewhere, does not pay any of its staff or contributors. In spite of a
bare-bones maintenance budget, CER has still managed to expand its coverage
of central Europe to include weekly news updates on 22 countries, up from
its launch number of five. Volunteer numbers have grown from 12 to 85
working on features, commentary, and analysis.

“[The site] came out of an eclectic mix of academics and journalists who
had been dealing with the region,” said Andrew Stroehlein, editor in chief
and chairman of Central Europe Review. The group set out to be a recognized
authority on the region, publishing online content that was also readily
accessible to the general public.

“If you read mass media about this region, it conveys a false image of the
region, one that’s stuck in 1989 or 1990 – cliches handed out time
after time that are just horrible,” Stroehlein said. He hopes CER, which
won an award for excellence at NetMedia 2000 European Online Journalism, is
providing an alternative.

With an editorial purpose in mind, Stroehlein said the founders did a few
calculations, found sponsors, and a wide-pipe bandwidth before launching
the site. Since CER made its debut 20 months ago, Stroehlein, who was a
stay-at-home father, has dedicated most of his time to CER.

The CER office has been a virtual newsroom – an invite-only list-serv
that now consists of 85 members. With the editorial team spread out around
the world, it’s always daytime for somebody working on the site, said
Catherine Lovatt, Black Sea editor at CER. “It has been efficient and
effective,” said Lovatt, who is also a shareholder and director.

So where does the content come from? Besides regularly commissioned content
on the region, the CER site has a “Submit Article” button which anybody can
use to submit their work for review. Out of the 50,000 words published each
week, only half of it is regularly commissioned.

As for the rest, “submissions are anywhere from brilliant to horrible,”
said Stroehlein. “We get 100,000 to 120,000 words a week. Two or three
articles a week out of the blue are worth publishing.”

Contributors get something in return for their efforts. Stroehlein said
it’s “the networking and the cross-freelancing opportunities. For
CV-padding, it’s quite good.” Having colleagues worldwide also provides
sources for many volunteers’ day jobs, said Stroehlein.

Lovatt said her experience at CER got her a job at eCountries.com where she
was a writer and page producer before the site folded a month ago. “I’m
quite respected as an authority on Romania these days,” she said, in
reference to her work on CER.

That work can take up a lot of her time. “Basically, I work all day
Saturday until the wee hours of the morning, eight hours on Sunday, and a
few hours every evening,” Lovatt said.

CER’s work has been recognized by other publishers. The site has exchanged
content with newspaper sites such as Guardian Unlimited in the U.K. and
Kurier Poranny in Poland.

Christian Alden, who edits the Weblog for Guardian Unlimited, agreed to an
informal content exchange with CER after finding the site had original
angles on local issues in the region. Alden said that his daily surfing of
the Web has only solidified his opinion that the Web is quickly becoming a
vast echo chamber, making scarce the original content that begs to differ
from the mainstream.

Alden sometimes wants to publish stories from CER, instead of just linking
to them. In those cases, he checks to make sure CER has the rights to the
work since some writers featured on CER retain their copyrights.

“We’ve given away 10 times as much as we’ve ever sold,” said Stroehlein.
But if a writer does sell a story that originally appeared on CER, the site
gets a cut.

But article sales do not pay the bills for CER. That’s why Stroehlein has
posted voluntary subscription rates for readers to donate if they so choose
– a trend that is taking form among niche sites. CER’s expenses are
minimal, but in the interest of the cooperative effort, Stroehlein monthly
calculates expenses and distributes the balance sheet for contributors’
review in their virtual newsroom.

Of course, the primary costs are time and personal access to the Internet,
said Stroehlein. He admits the site has been lucky that a Prague ISP
donated free server space with an immense bandwidth. CER hasn’t had to pay
that bill yet. Stroehlein also kept to the basics with a simple text
editor, NoteTab, that handled the essentials of HTML and file transfer
protocol (FTP).

It’s an enviable business model, if you can call it such, with very low
overhead. According to Stroehlein, others have questioned him about keeping
Web site costs down. Some are even interested in buying CER’s model.

“Yes, we’ve been approached a couple of times,” said Stroehlein, who last
month accepted a position as editor in chief at InternetContent.net. “We
haven’t been impressed with the offers, but we’re still talking to one.”
The economics would change considerably if bought by somebody and it has to
be handled delicately, he said.



Karim Mostafa (kmostafa@editorandpublisher.com) is associate editor for E&P
Online.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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