While working for high-profile magazines like Wired and Outside, freelancer Scott Carney wrote up a storm and then did some math.
He’d pull in US$5,000 to US$8,000 per story for a feature in one of these publications. Yet when checking out the advertising rates these publications charge, the amounts were staggering -- US$140,000 or so.
“It made me realize that the industry has a tremendous amount of money behind it, but we (writers) are not getting our share,” he told IJNet.
In the process, journalists are underpaid, overlooked and continuing to perpetuate this misguided narrative of the writer as starving artist.
Carney, who’s been in the business for decades and is a published author as well, is fighting back with a Kickstarter campaign that’s stirring up excitement by freelancers trying to thrive in the media world.
The campaign is to fund an endeavor he’s calling WordRates & PitchLab. The concept is a digital hub for freelancers to better share information about publications’ payment rates and contracts, allow them to rate individual editors and outlets and to create a model to better sell story pitches.
“It’s exciting to be able to give back to the community,” Carney says. “I came up as a freelance writer with very little support. I had informal networks but no one teaches you the business skills you need to make it.”
What’s also exciting is that the Kickstarter campaign - with just two days to go - was not only already funded, but Carney also exceeded his US$6,500 goal by over US$2,000. That money is set to make the creation of the web product possible. Carney plans to go live in August. Altogether, 234 supporters backed the project so far.
So, what exactly will this project look like and do?
It’s a two-parter. First, Carney mentions the Yelp-like WordRates platform that he aims to launch. The premise is to give freelance journalists a space to share their experiences contributing to various media organizations. They can craft reviews that speak to what it was like to work with a particular editor or publication. The good, the bad and the ugly tied back to profile pages.
Here, freelancers also will be able to compare terms of contracts, an aspect that is especially kept close to the vest right now. That way they’ll know more about who owns the content produced for that publication, what the kill rates are and where liability falls.
One idea being toyed with is to have email contacts for the editors featured on WordRates behind a wall that only paying members can access. Carney’s still working out the details.
The PitchLab component is part two. Carney envisions a community in which any writer can send in story pitches, particularly for meatier longform features. Once they do, a team of established journalists -- Carney and a crew that he is assembling using his network and who will help during their spare time -- with a great deal of experience and success pitching will vet the offerings.They’d help to sell the pitches with the greatest potential to the highest-bidding publications.
Essentially, it’s turning PitchLab into an agency of sorts. This is by design. Carney, who’s worked with agents, particularly on his published books, says he’s always earned more when someone else is pushing his work.
For freelancers, “it’s difficult to advocate for your own values,” he says. “(If you get an offer for a piece) saying no is difficult when your own self-worth is tied up in it. We want freelancers to look at their worth as a commodity and be able to bargain a lot harder.”
By having these “agents” scout for talent and do the selling he strongly believes he can help freelancers earn a higher -- and fairer -- wage, which is the overriding goal.
So far, besides the Kickstarter financial backing, Carney says he’s been getting a flurry of supportive emails.
“Writers know that things need to change,” he says. And editors, who could be criticized in the Yelp-like portion of the site for being unresponsive or hard to work to work with, see the value because they have the same goals of surfacing great talent and producing great content.
WordRates & PitchLab represent something different because it’s about creating a business model around freelancing that’s more sustainable, according to Carney.
Right now the resources that are out there to assist freelancers, such as Mediabistro and Contently, give tips and provide examples of successful pitches and communications with editors. And other sites like Scratch Magazine have databases comparing the pay across publications, sourced generally by the freelancer themselves. However “not a lot are getting their hands dirty and getting involved in the negotiations,” Carney says.
Ultimately how successful the sites are depends on the involvement of the crowd.
“If writers really come together around this it could take off. If we don’t have an active community we won’t succeed,” he says. “If it fails, though, and the only thing [that] comes out [of] this is that freelance writers negotiate harder, that’ll be a success to me.”
Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Christian Gonzalez