ONLINE SYNDICATES PUSH FREE-LANCERS

By: Jennie L. Phipps

But Will Editors Search For Content This Way?


Several new companies are betting that tough times for publishers –
online and off – will make it more likely that content producers,
including small newspapers and freelancers, will be able to fill a breech
created by staffing cutbacks.

Andy Knott, chief operating officer at MediaBullet, thinks his company can change the
way the syndication business operates, giving editors immediate direct
access to content producers while offering freelancers and niche
publications opportunities to sell and resell evergreen material. Content
producers post material for sale on MediaBullet’s site, where buyers can
shop, paying MediaBullet a 10% commission. The seller sets the price.

Knott, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune before he earned both an
MBA and a law degree, describes MediaBullet’s business model this way:
“Suppose you’re the real estate editor for a newspaper. You have a hole to
fill and you’re desperate … So you open up MediaBullet, you find a piece
that suits your needs, you buy it, and use it.

“Serving corporately downsized newsrooms by offering media outlets
preproduced, already vetted material ready to go is a low-risk deal for
them and a big opportunity for us,” Knott said. He expects big sellers to
include video footage, photos, and graphics. Knott also thinks there is a
market for sports or business-related visuals from local media covering
national companies in their geographic areas.

Helping selected journalists resell their work

A site with a similar idea is Featurewell. Founder David Wallis, a contributing
writer at Wired and a columnist for The Washington Post travel section,
is picky about the kind of work he’s selling there. Among the 230
journalists whose stories are on the block include some by Jimmy Breslin
and David Margolick.

Wallis sets the rates and keeps a 40% commission for his trouble. He has so
many writers who would like to join up that he’s no longer taking
unsolicited manuscripts. Instead he’s calling writers whose work he thinks
he can sell.

So far, sales haven’t been impressive. In the first three months, he says
he’s sold about $20,000 worth to magazines and Web sites from about 15
countries.

Publicity about the Web site has helped Wallis get the venture off the
ground as have his own efforts at calling editors at publications and
introducing the idea. Initial enthusiasm has persuaded Wallis that success
will come soon. “Editors are inundated with stories from this freelancer
and that one, but I’ve created a central repository that I think is going
to appeal to editors interested in quality in today’s celebrity-obsessed
culture,” Wallis said.

A similar, but slightly more targeted venture is iTravel Syndicate, a part of Marco Polo
Publications, a company that provides travel information to travel agents
as well as travel writers. Editor Trevor Aaronson says his company has a
leg up on most online syndicators because Marco Polo already has
relationships with editors and travel professionals who occasionally need
content. Most of them already have opted to receive an e-mail newsletter to
which announcements of content available and solicitations for content
needs are being added.

Initial interest, Aaronson says, has come from mid- and small-market
publications that can’t afford to subscribe to newswires or buy material
directly. “Our solution is cheap,” he said. “They can afford to pay $100
for a reprint.” Of that, iTravel Syndicate keeps a 40% commission. The
seller sets the price.

Syndication sites aren’t just a U.S. phenomenon. Three of the most
prominent are based in the United Kingdom, World-Journalist (
http://world-journalist.com), Correspondent.com (
http://www.correspondent.com),and Indipen.com (http://www.indipen.com).

Sergiy L. Lesyk, finance director for World-Journalist.com, said his
company concentrates on English-language publications worldwide and hopes
to expand quickly into Spanish publications. Sellers set the price and
World-Journalist keeps 15%. Lesyk finds that the needs of publishers don’t
always match what’s for sale, and much of the submitted material isn’t of
high quality. He said it discourages repeat business when editors visit his
site and find nothing that interests them. “We haven’t had much success so
far because we don’t have enough useful goods on the shelves,” he said.
“When we get more material, then we can successfully push it.”

The ‘open’ publishing model

Managing quality isn’t an issue for Themestream, which operates an open
publishing model. The site pays its contributors 2 cents every time someone
chooses to read their unedited submissions. Bill Turpin, founder and chairman,
calls his endeavor “a next-generation magazine.”

The dot-com aggregates the submitted content and e-mails it out to nearly a
million subscribers who on average subscribe themselves to 3.5 newsletters
on different topics. The newsletters are essentially indexes to content on
the site. When a reader clicks through to a particular piece of content,
one of the 40,000 contributors is paid his pennies. Themestream makes its
money by guiding subscribers to e-commerce providers and through direct
e-mail offers from retailers.

“It’s the opposite of the old journalistic model where you have a lot of
editors,” Turpin said. A computer puts the best-read articles at the top of
the heap on the Web site and into the newsletters. Although Turpin said his
three editors are always on the lookout for good writers, they don’t
exercise much journalistic control or even fix typos. “We have a very
leveraged cost model here,” Turpin said.

Because the writers are paid based on readership, it’s to their advantage
to persuade as many people as possible to read their material. “All these
authors really help us promote the site,” said Turpin who compares his
authors to an Amway sales force.

While Turpin doesn’t expect his model to replace traditional publishing, he
said readers and advertisers will help sites like Themestream grow quickly.
“We offer the power of personal interest,” he said. “People come to
Themestream to spend time, not save time.”

Themestream plans to license its technology so other publishers can use it
to do similar newsletters, adding Themestream content if they wish. The
company expects to be profitable in 2002, based on revenues that come from
70% advertising and the remainder from licensing and self-publishing fees.

iSyndicate, a big online syndicator to news and corporate sites, also works
with many individuals. For instance, health writer Ruth Winter, a former
reporter for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey, used to write regularly
for traditional syndicates that have since gone out of business. Now her
material is syndicated through iSyndicate.

Her column, Mind Preservers, earns her $200 a week from a couple of sites
aimed at medical professionals. While it’s not a fortune, she’s satisfied
and has hopes that her customer base will grow. “iSyndicate keeps my
picture on the site, they promote the column,” Winter said.

Are editors interested?

So are editors saying “yes” to online syndicates and direct sales? In many
cases, the answer appears to be “no.” Mike Lenehan, editor of the
Chicago Reader, an alternative newspaper that buys a substantial
amount of material from contributors, said, “Alternative weeklies are
tightly focused on a small slice of audience. … The easier it is to get
it somewhere else, the less likely we are to be interested in it.”

Likewise, David Bear, travel editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
also buys freelance material, but he doesn’t see himself scrolling through
stories posted online because he already has dozens of writers vying for
publication. “I’m flooded with stuff. I feel for people who send us great
stories with greater pictures, but there is only so much that I can use.”

Evan Schuman, editor-in-chief of Triangle Publishing Services Co. Inc.,
puts it even more succinctly. As a custom publisher and decision-maker in a
company that uses free-lance material almost exclusively to create
publications for customers that range from Business Week to Oracle,
Schuman doesn’t mince words: “Short of our being overrun by Martians, the
answer is ‘no.’ I have never run into a situation where I would need to buy
copy that way, and think it is extremely unlikely that I ever will.”



Jennie L. Phipps (jlphipps@bignet.net) is an independent writer and editor based in Farmington Hills, Mich.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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