Paying for Writers - A New Model
The decline of print publications is back in the news. With the advertising market gone sour, budget problems are bad and jobs for professional writers are disappearing faster than ever.
Oddly, print people continue to blame paltry internet revenue on the biggest, most successful internet companies that are only peripherally related to their own problems. In this week’s Time Magazine cover story a former Time editor talks about search engines, portals, and aggregators piggybacking on their content. But “Piggybacking” is a gross oversimplification of what search engines, portals, and aggregators do. Yes, search engines treat words as crawable, indexible, representable objects, but what percentage of these words come from the pros? It’s a speck.
A better focus of print media’s attention would be topic-specific websites (travel, entertainment, health, music…) who are wooing readers away with original, albeit often poorly written copy from their user bases paired with user ratings and algorithms. In travel, readers who used to rely on well-written copy from print media for things like hotel and restaurant reviews have in short order turned to aggregated review and rating sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp.
The question we asked ourselves is this: why can’t good writing be part of the equation? Solid editorial content can thrive in the midst of user ratings, algorithms, and the social internet. We wonder whether traditional media feels so threatened because the web has shown that many smart people on the ground can collectively create something much more meaningful than a few people in a (corporate) ivory tower.
We’ve set out to put this idea to the test… and here are some of rules we’ve chosen to follow…
1. Start from the premise that the quality of the content matters.
Sounds obvious, but have you read the reviews for a hotel on TripAdvisor lately? Have you read a guidebook and realized that the writer never visited the place in question? Not all writing is equal. No trip becomes a Trazzler trip without the intervention of an editor who read it and liked it enough to publish it. We have worked hard to set up our site so that users are encouraged to only submit trips for places about which they have something substantial to say. We have been blown away by the quality of the submissions.
2. Rely on a combination of free and paid writing.
Create a system to reward the best contributors, not with meaningless contest prizes but with real freelance writing contracts and jobs that pay a professional rate. We could hire more writers for less money–as so many sites do–but we decided early on that we wanted to dedicate a high percentage of our budget to hiring those writers who embrace the idea of Trazzler and have a one-of-a-kind contribution to make (see #1). We will continue to do this. In fact we have a long, long list of Trazzlers that we want to work with in the future. (Are we paying out as much as we’d like? No! We haven’t raised as much money or started making as much money as we’d like. But we’re getting there, stick with us…)
3. Surface the best writing.
Create tiers that reward good writing and deep-six bad writing. If there are multiple submissions on the same topic, showcase the best writeup first. We believe this is good–not only for readers–but for writers as well. Who wants to write a solid, intelligent piece and have it languish in a literary sludge pit?
Note: An interesting article to follow this with: Clay Shirky’s Why Small Payments Won’t Save Publishers.