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Why some promising freelance platforms fail

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Why some promising freelance platforms fail

Julie Schwietert Collazo | October 19, 2015

Spot.us. Contributoria. Uncoverage. Emphas.is.

Some of these names may be familiar, but you've probably never even heard of the others. Don't feel badly: Journalism funding and publication platforms come and go rapidly, and we're in a moment that's oddly reminiscent of the general dot.com bust of the late 1990s.

Sites and apps launch to breathless acclaim, asserting their commitment to revolutionize journalism. They tout their coverage on TechCrunch, MediaShift, WIRED, and The New York Times, and manage to secure a round or two of investment funding or a prestigious grant, only to pull the plug shortly thereafter.

Journalists, for their part, are left in the lurch, having invested time building out yet another profile, importing links and PDFs into still another portfolio.

They've brought their network with them, convincing friends, family members and colleagues to back their work on these promising new sites. Even those journalists who are supportive of digital innovation in journalism find their enthusiasm waning as one site shutters and another one launches.

It isn't just their time or income stream journalists lament when these platforms fail. Lauren Razavi, a freelance journalist for The Guardian, New Statesman and VICE who used Contributoria to crowdfund and publish seven stories in as many months, says the disappearance of that site earlier this summer also had less tangible consequences.

“The biggest impact that Contributoria had on me was in terms of experimentation and community," she says. "Underreported stories found an audience through the platform, and it was possible for fledgling writers to receive feedback and edits on their work from professional journalists. I think that collaborative element combined with not being restricted by a news agenda was really interesting."

Razavi notes, however, that this democratic approach to funding and publishing also had a downside that may have contributed to its demise.

“One of Contributoria's biggest problems was infiltration by non-writers (and indeed non-native English speakers in many cases) looking to make money -- this meant that some of the proposals and sometimes even the stories that appeared on the site were of a very low quality,” she points out.

With an abundance of sources where a reader can access responsibly reported and well-written stories, why would they invest time reading less compelling ones on Contributoria?

This question hints at the missing part of the equation when it comes to devising a new journalism-oriented platform with staying power, says Kevin Davis, former publisher and head of INN, then called the Investigative News Network, and now principal consulting for KLJD Consulting.

The problem with sites like Contributoria, Spot.us, Uncoverage, Emphas.is, and others, Davis says, “is that they all tried to help publishers monetize from the perspective of publishers, not the audience. In other words, the problem they were trying to fix was articulated by and for journalists and was not focused on the communities and people served by the journalism.” By that, Davis means readers.

In Davis's opinion, the average reader isn't interested in helping to revolutionize journalism, much less save it. Readers want what consumers of journalism have always wanted: to be informed and entertained.

“None of these platforms helped consumers in any way,” Davis contends. In fact, he argues, “they failed to articulate and become a solution for the problem at the consumer-level.” This is too bad, Davis adds, because “consumers are, ultimately, the largest potential source of funding.”

That's why Davis is interested to see whether a site like Beacon, which does figure the reader into the equation, is able to survive for the long-haul.

Davis says there are sites avoiding these problems, but, interestingly, none of them markets themselves as journalism sites. As examples, he points to WordPress and MailChimp, both of which help publishers “reach and engage audiences, rather than monetize them.”

Ultimately, however, a platform does need a monetization end game if it hopes to survive beyond start-up phase. As a plethora of new sites rolls out this season, including Pressland and the much-anticipated PitchLab/WordRates among them—will journalism innovators finally develop products that pull all the pieces together in a way that works?

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Johan Larsson

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