Party’s over for Web freelancers
We revisit 14 content sites to take the pulse of today’s freelance market
This column appeared April 27, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.
By J.D. Lasica
Two short years ago we were partying away, Gatsby-like, in the Golden Age of Web Freelancing, a time when dozens of spry Internet startups with an insatiable hunger for content opened their fat wallets and showered talented young writers, editors and artists with bylines, beaucoup bucks and long overdue respect.
OJR heralded the Golden Age in a two-part series detailing freelance opportunities at seven top content sites and at seven more Web wonders — a sampling of 14 sites whose world view promised to overthrow the old order and give freelance journalists their proper due as masters of the universe.
In case any doubt lingered, the Golden Age has turned to dross.
As the Internet economy has spiraled into a bottomless free-fall, so too have the once ubiquitous freelance gigs. Even Web sites like elance and guru.com, which promised to revolutionize the workplace by raising “free agents” to demigod status, have shown us a glimpse of the real future: dozens of temps low-balling each other at rates that would make an Egyptian slave blush.
Now that the content love fest is officially over, we resurveyed all 14 content sites for a reality check. Do they still accept freelance? Have they slashed their rates? Do they still have a pulse?
The news is not all bad. A few of the sites that survived the carnage still rely on contract help — and their checks don’t bounce. But others have scaled back their ambitions considerably. Content may yet rise again, but for now, there’s no sight of Pericles leading us into a new golden age.
Here’s an update on the state of Web free-lancing:
Then: The award-winning crime news site, launched Nov. 11, 1998 in New York, featured daily news and enterprise coverage written by a staff of 17 reporters and editors and a national network of correspondents that grew to more than 130 contract writers. Rates ranged from $150 for a “quickie” assignment to $900 for an in-depth piece, but most fell in the $350 to $450 range.
Now: The company, after a long death gurgle, filed for bankruptcy last fall and seemed to go out of business in early January. But wait! The site is still being updated by volunteers using Associated Press feeds! The volunteers are apparently waiting for an investor to pump new life into the venture. Uh, hello?
Wall of Sound
Then: At Mr. Showbiz, a site covering movies, celebrities and film industry buzz, freelancers wrote about half the site’s content, including CD reviews, movie reviews and celebrity interviews. Rates ranged from $40 for a quick review to $400 for an exclusive interview. Sister site Wall of Sound, “the Web’s music mecca,” also published freelance offerings.
Now: Rumor has it that there is an editorial staff behind Mr. Showbiz and Wall of Sound. If so, they’ve gone into hiding. The two entertainment sites, part of the ill-fated Go Network launched by corporate parent the Walt Disney Internet Group, must be hanging out in some virtual no-man’s-land.
There’s no phone numbers for the editorial staff on either site, and no individual e-mails for the editors listed on the staff page. The editor we interviewed hightailed it long ago. E-mails to Mr. Showbiz went unanswered. Several e-mails to Wall of Sound requesting a phone number were politely rebuffed (“Hello, Thank you for your reply. Again, we do not have a phone number for release, however, your e-mail has been forwarded to the appropriate department. Cheers, Drew, Wall of Sound”). We’ll sure miss corresponding with our friend Drew.
For the record, Disney Internet Group lost a mind-jarring $402 million last year, though the bulk of that, apparently, was not due to whatever was paid out of the freelance coffers.
Update: The Hollywood Reporter reports that Walt Disney Co. announced plans to shut down Mr. Showbiz and Wall of Sound by the end of this year.
Then: The Westport., Conn., startup, launched in December 1998, targeted a general audience seeking practical health news and information. Rates for freelance writers ranged from $100-$150 for a 500-word daily story to up to $300 for an exclusive story of 600-800 words.
Now: We had some problems contacting the folks at HealthScout earlier this month; no one responded to our phone messages or e-mails. That, says Executive Editor Barry Hoffman, was because the site’s parent site, RxRemedy, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December and the HealthScout News Service is in the final stages of being sold to a new corporate owner.
HealthScout currently has five full-time editors, one full-time reporter and 50 freelance writers. “We’re always on the outlook for general assignment reporters who can turn out a good daily story. Having a health information background is useful but not required,” Hoffman says. “What is required is bright writing in the second-person singular to make the story as compelling and relevant to readers as possible.”
The site posts 17 to 22 new stories a day, competing against Reuters Health and Associated Press. “We’re a wire service, not a dotcom,” Hoffman says. “We serve hospitals, HMOs, Blue Shield, Blue Cross, newspapers, broadcast stations and dotcoms. We are Davids fighting Goliaths. When you are the smallest unit in the battle, you’ve got to be damned good, and we are.”
Contact senior editor John Dillon.
Then: Orato, a Webzine headquartered in Niue, New Zealand, described itself as a first-person narrative news magazine and “global soapbox … that delivers the news in its purest form.” The zine touted fees ranging from $100 to $400 for accounts of current events running 400 to 2,000 words, and up to $50 per photo or short video clip. The site’s goal was to become a daily magazine in the spring of 1999.
Now: Rebekka, who answered the e-mail at [email protected], reports: “Orato is still (sigh) in the process of getting enough capital raised to get launched. As you are probably aware, online content is a tough sell this past while, and so we are re-organizing to go ahead. We hope to complete our fund raising in the next couple of months. Free-lance contributions will always be welcomed.”
Getting paid for those contributions is another story.
Then: The San Francisco-based news destination for teenagers welcomed short pieces from freelancers covering sports, technology, personal computing, health, science and finance. Rates ranged from 50 cents to a dollar a word.
Now: React has survived, thanks in part to its acquisition last October by JP Kids, Inc., a media company targeting young teens. Josh Rohmer, associate producer and content manager, says the site is seeking additional freelance reporters to contribute short pieces.
“React.com focuses on interactive content like quizzes and polls for our audience of smart, edgy 13- to 17-years-olds,” Rohmer says. “Topics range from current events, music, activism, dating, sports, movies and television to health, finance, and technology. All the pieces we commission are written to both entertain and enlighten teens. Our tone is edgy but responsible.”
Rates range from 15 cents to 50 cents a word. Contact Josh Rohmer.
Then: The online publication in San Mateo, Calif., then called Upside Today, featured short, timely, Web-only stories on technology and finance in addition to publishing content from Upside, a monthly magazine geared to the executive crowd. Rates started at 50 cents a word.
Now: J.T. Farley, editor-in-chief of Upside.com, reports that Upside.com no longer accepts freelance articles because of cost-cutting measures. “The whole landscape has changed,” he says. “We have a staff of dedicated online writers and editors who do upwards of a dozen original Web-only pieces every day. We also write text stories using interviews and other material from Upside.com’s Internet radio network. And of course, we publish all the content featured in each month’s Upside magazine.”
Then: The technology news publication used freelancers for most of its channels, including Web development, computer help, Windows, Linux and e-commerce, reported editor Stephen Howard. ZDNet paid a flat fee of $300 per story, with articles averaging 500 words.
Now: Howard, now the vice president of content and services, says ZDNet still accepts freelance. “If anything, there’s an increase in opportunities for freelancers because of our merger with CNET,” he says. While the economic slowdown has whittled down the freelance budget in some areas, the rates have not been lowered.
“We’re expanding internationally and now our approach is to buy all rights inperpetuity for all pieces we purchase,” Howard says, “so we anticipate a rate increase for writers in line with that.” Generally, the site pays 50 cents to $1 a word, with articles ranging from 500 to 5,000 words.
Contact Stephen Howard, or call (415) 551-4842. He will direct you to the appropriate section editor.
Then: Impression magazine, an online magazine funded by the University of Missouri School of Journalism, featured work from new and established writers and critics. Published every two weeks, the zine ran everything from personal essays and science stories to author interviews, book reviews and short stories. Rates ran $50-$500 for columns, and up to 75 cents a word for assigned feature stories, said editor Andy Wang.
Now: The site has changed its name to Ironminds.com. Reports Wang: “We’re still up and running, but we’re no longer buying pieces. This is a labor-of-love at this point. Every piece we run is a volunteer contribution.”
Contact Andy Wang.
Then: The veteran webzine made its mark publishing thoughtful, sometimes biting analysis, opinion and essays on a wide range of subjects: culture, technology, politics, media. Rates ranged from 40 cents to $1 a word.
Now: Feed is alive and well and still kicking up a digital dirtstorm on occasion. Founding editor Stephen Johnson advises prospective writers to study the site and interact in the Loop forums before making a story pitch. Says Johnson: “Our rates have not really changed that much, though it’s not so often that we pay a dollar a word for a story. Then again, I’m not sure it was all that common back then, either.”
Pitches should be sent to [email protected].
Then: MSNBC had a fairly generous freelance budget. The Travel section, for example, showcased 800- to 1,200-word features on destinations with a strong news peg and helpful information on lodging, restaurants and attractions. Rates ranged from $300 to $800. MSNBC’s Sports, Opinions, Business, Health and Technology sections also took freelance.
Now: Like other online news sites, MSNBC is weathering the online advertising downturn, forcing a modest tightening of the freelance budget. The site has also solidified its partnerships with major news providers in several categories during the past two years.
Says Editor-in-Chief Merrill Brown: “We have a substantial budget. We have not significantly cut it back. We continue to assign and publish great freelance journalism. We are, however, being prudent about expanding and adding new columns and features. We have a large number of marvelous freelances who make great contributions to our site and are well compensated for their efforts.”
Contact Executive Editor Thomas Brew.
Then: The technology news site, at the vanguard of the digital news revolution, ran quick-hit freelance pieces on technology, culture, politics and business, starting at about 40 cents a word.
Now: The site, acquired by Lycos in June 1999, is no longer associated with Wired magazine. Wired News has changed remarkably little in the past two years. It still has the same four topic sections run by three editors.
Content editor Jesse Barkin tells new writers to pitch him an idea. He then asks for clips, a resume and work history “to get a feel for their experience.” After they’ve done one or two pieces and signed a freelance contract, he may begin assigning stories, especially if the writer is based in Europe, New York, Boston or other high-tech hot spots.
Barkin, who controls the freelance purse strings for all four sections, says Wired News pays “more than 40 cents and less than $1 a word.” The site has 13 full-time reporters and 20 to 30 regular freelance writers.
Contact Jesse Barkin.
Then: Forbes, like other online tech and finance sites during content’s heyday, published a weekly Digital Tool online edition. A typical fee was a flat rate of $1,000 for 1,500 words.
Now: Forbes Digital Tool is no more, but Forbes.com still publishes original Web content. J. Alex Tarquinio, the investing editor, and Charles Dubow, executive editor for lifestyle, work with contract writers most often.
Tarquinio says: “We run shorter articles now so the flat fee rate is a bit lower. Most of the stuff on our site is staff-written, but we do use freelancers. We’re looking especially for strong pieces on personal finance, mutual funds, taxes, real estate or retirement.”
Contact her by e-mail.
Then: The financial news, opinion and investment site, with 50 staff reporters and editors, paid $300-$500 for articles and commentaries that typically ran 750 words.
Now: The financial travails of TheStreet.com need not be repeated here. The startup rode the dotcom tsunami and has been in a slow-motion wipeout for much of the past year. But the remaining staff is carrying on the good fight.
In response to an e-mail query on the types of freelance TheStreet.com solicits, fee rates and advice for contributors, the ever-enigmatic, elliptical James J. Cramer, founder and editor, says only this: “sure we do freelance.”
Adds Editor-in-Chief Dave Kansas: “We do have more than a dozen freelance writers and have recently added several new names.”
Contact Dave Kansas.
Then: The site, launched in late 1997, was just breaking out of the financial news pack, relying on a full-time staff in San Francisco and New York for breaking news, advice columns and investment information. Freelance rates began at $200 to $300 per article.
Now: CBS MarketWatch is now the most visited financial news site on the Net, with a team of more than 100 financial journalists. Executive editor David Callaway says: “Yes, we still take free-lance stories and pay for them. Fee structure really depends on the story, but it can be anywhere from $150 to $500.”
Contact David Callaway.