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Thursday, February 22, 2001


ONLINE SYNDICATES PUSH FREE-LANCERS
But Will Editors Search For Content This Way?



by Jennie L. Phipps

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.

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2001, Editor & Publisher.