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New Ways to Make Journalism Pay

24 November 2012

Are you a writer, sub-editor or photographer?

Or perhaps a web editor, content strategist, blogger, media package creator, multi-platform operator, brand journalist or social media consultant?  Maybe you are a social technologist or a ghost Tweeter.

The largest growth area in journalism is the freelance sector in a media landscape at present in flux. As staff jobs dry up in print and broadcasting, many more people are joining the ranks of the freelance. And increasingly, more people are starting their careers as freelances, using blogging or other social networks to promote their work.

It is also – as an NUJ London Freelance Branch conference heard – because the role of the journalist has evolved into many new areas and enterprises.

Two hundred journalists met in London at the event, co-hosted by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, titled New Ways to Make Journalism Pay. The size of the audience was an indication of the thirst for information and tips on negotiating the new media landscape.

It was also a recognition that, for many, times are tough.

As John Toner, NUJ freelance organiser, pointed out, the word "pay" in the title was an obvious lure. For, while the internet has made publishing easier than ever before, it has also undermined the prevalent business model and devalued  what most journalists produce – namely "content", or as we used to call it "words".

Lucia Adams is the digital development editor on The Times. She does not commission words, she commissions packages.

Getting started

Fiona Cullinan, a freelance digital journalist, has doubled her money since switching from being a sub working on print magazines. She has had to reinvent herself but has used her experience as a print journalist to do so. She started by doing a blog, using, to experiment in the digital medium. This blog is now her cv,  where she demonstrates her work and skills.

She soon realised that today journalists need to be a one-person newsroom  -- writing, editing, videoing, taking photographs, uploading content, distributing it and monitoring online discussions.

She now makes money in a variety of ways, from training others to use digital skills –recently doing a one-to-one on Skype to a journalist in Mongolia – to writing blogs for companies, to Tweeting on behalf of companies and clients to brand journalism.  She tells people all about it on Twitter.

Christian Payne was a staff photographer who found that his picture captions were getting longer and longer. But it was when he realised that more people were seeing a video he had put on YouTube, made from pictures he had taken in Iraq, than from anything he had published in a newspaper, that he decided he was on to something.

Today, he calls himself a social technologist and multi-tasking communicator.  He puts all his work on the internet and 90 per cent of his work goes out via Twitter. He said:

"I champion story-making with mobile devices and, although I am a card-carrying journalist, I prefer to be called a blogger, as I share my content across multiple platforms."

This exposure, he said, had led him to be offered work from a range of clients, including the United Nations and British Council. He also makes money by acting as a consultant or trainer to help people make their media mobile. He still flogs the odd photograph, but makes more money by tracking down publications which have used his work without permission.

Sharing tips, investing in skills and webinars with crumbs
All the best companies take training seriously and invest in the skills of their workforce.  It is equally the case if you are self-employed. The importance of keeping skills up to date and learning new ones is vital for the freelance journalist. This message came loud and clear from the speakers.

The NUJ runs a range of courses at competitive prices for members (latest course dates) and facilitates a range of networks which members can use to share tips and useful apps and pick each other's brains.

Fiona Cullinan makes time every week to keep up to speed. She said:

"On Fridays, I go to my local café, buy a pastry and look at YouTube tutorials and webinars to keep my skills keen. It always pays off."

Christian Payne said:

"Share your stuff. If you come across a good piece of software or kit or a useful app, tell everybody about it."

Old-fashioned shoe leather, doing the research and just doing it
Anjum Wajid is a freelance broadcast journalist and latterly a freelance media ethics trainer. She said that the traditional ways for freelances to operate still held true. You need to do your homework in finding out who are the commissioning editors, track down the independent production companies and keep a look out on the BBC website for commissioning open days. You need to be ready to be available if there is a disaster and the BBC needs extra hands and you need to anticipate events, such as the Olympics, when there will be extra demand.

Lucia Adams, digital development editor on The Times, said it was worth investing time in getting a really good list of people on Twitter to follow.

Christian Payne said: "I try to follow people a whole lot smarter than me."

Or try Google reader and put together a list of publishers.

Research new places to sell your work: find out the trade publications and NGO publications. American academic quarterlies such as the Virginia Quarterly Review pay well. Try think tanks, which may need help in putting together infographics or media packages. Try the gaming industry.

Network like crazy was the advice of many of the speakers. Find out what conferences/book launches and fairs/events are on: go there and network. Attend NUJ events, join e-networks; even your branch meeting may result in picking up a commission.

Rate for the Job
Samuel Johnson said it was only blockheads who wrote for nothing. But another strong message from speakers was that setting up a blog, using Twitter and other social media networks, as well as having an up-to-date website, were useful ways to market your work.

Blogging and liveblogging events can raise your profile. In Praise of Ranters in Dressing Gowns, an article by Jon Slattery in The Journalist magazine, cited the case of Josh Halliday whose blogs about journalism and education led to a job on The Guardian.  50 Shades of Grey started life as a self-published book. But Martin Cloake, journalist and author, said: "Don't expect to get rich blogging."

In the past decade the price of everything has gone up – apart from the rate for a newspaper or magazine shift which seems to have stuck at £130-40. Economic pressures and the willingness of new entrants into journalism to work for little or nothing is depressing rates.

The NUJ collects and collates shift rates being offered for freelances. To keep this up to date, members are encouraged to contribute.

But what about the new digital jobs?  Fiona Cullinan has suggested day rates on her website. These include: content strategy £350-450, content marketing/brand journalism £250, web editing £200, copywriting/blogging/social reporting £180-250.

The rule as ever is to negotiate and always make sure you have agreed a rate before taking on the work. Hina Pandya, freelance writer, blogger and e-book publisher, said: "Every time you get a job, always ask for more than they offer."

The other rule is to learn to say no. If you agree to exploitative rates, you will be preventing others from getting work that pays a living wage.

What to do with 9,000 Belgian football fans
John Chapman (@Belgofoot) writes about Belgian footballers on Twitter and, to date, he has almost 9,000 followers. There is obviously a great interest in the subject. But how do you transform 9,000 fans who love reading news about their favourite subject into paying customers?

Tim Dawson, journalist and joint-editor of the New Model Journalism website offered a number of models.  Once you have built up a set of followers on the freemium model (giving it away for nothing), you can switch to the premium model where, to find more information, you will need to pay. Or, as Tim has done, turn your knowledge into an e-book and market the e-book via Twitter to all your avid followers.

To get started with  e-publishing, Google kdp and download the free guide. If you feel squeamish about Amazon, try iBooksauthor, Smashwords or Bookbaby.

Tim has produced The Bicycle Reader, a Kindle-only magazine that was produced with no capital and has already sold 1,000 copies. Other examples include Phil Mac Giolla Bhain's  Downfall, the story of Glasgow Rangers' recent travails. This best-selling book started off as a website, breaking stories about the club, which peaked at more than 650,000 hits a month, and Phil attracted more than 17,000 followers on Twitter.  He did place Google ads on his site but says that revenue from those has not even covered a third of his mobile phone bill.

Hina Pandya also went down that route. She wrote a blog which had a good following but was finding it difficult to get paid work. So she published her travel guide as an e-book and says that sales have exceeded her expectations.

The answer for some freelances is to specialise and capture a niche, but Hina has a different view.  After taking an international politics masters she wrote policy documents for government departments. But today she writes about anything "given a healthy dose of interest" and has written for  Mercury Records, Island Records, The Economist, The Times Educational Supplement, Runners Fitness, North London Papers consortium, View London, Quirky Guides, as well as many other magazine and online outlets.

When she was commissioned by the Syfy tv channel to blog about a television programme Continuum, she found that her related Tweets about the programme gained a significant following. The broadcaster subsequently agreed to pay her to publish in this way.

Going to the dark side?
Fiona Cullinan says on her website: "The internet has enabled brands to be publishers and they need publishing help, hence the need for brand journalists, or web editors, or whatever the preferred title is." She explains that brand journalism is not the same as marketing. It is about using a journalist's skills to create content (surveys, interviews, graphics, opinion pieces) to support the brand.

She said in answer to those who believe that brand journalism is going to the dark side: "I still try to follow the NUJ code of conduct. I see myself as a safeguard for brands – I help keep them honest."

Peter Kirwan is a freelance writer who specialises in writing about technology and the media and is a regular contributor to The Guardian, Press Gazette and Wired. His advice is to cross-subsidise your journalism by working for corporate clients. He writes white papers -- reports used by companies to promote their name or brand, aimed at the press and trade press.

He said: "There is a real hunger for content and we have the writing skills incredibly valued in companies that need promotion."

New Markets
Huma Yusuf, former editor of the Pakistani English language paper Dawn, spoke about "breaking into the BRICs", namely the media markets in countries such as Brazil, India, Russia and China.  "Media is booming in these countries," she said and advertising revenues have not been hit.  "In India, newspaper sales are growing at a rate of 1.5 per cent a year and The Times of India is the world's highest-selling English language newspaper with a circulation of 4.3m," she said.

There is a real thirst for content among people in such countries – particularly news about how their country is viewed abroad, how their countrymen conduct themselves or are perceived abroad or more general diaspora news. Again, research will be needed to make sure your pitch ends up in the right inbox but, at least in the case of South Asia, editors tend to display their email addresses on their paper's websites and most are 'addicted' to social media.

Pay rates, she says, vary between $50 and $1,000 for 600 words, but this can be improved if you offer multi-media packages, as many Indian papers have slick websites that are perilously thin on content.  One way to break into these markets, Huma suggested, was to try smaller titles first – for example in India the magazines Caravan, the Far East Economic Review or Outlook.

Make sure you know how you are going to be paid; perhaps set up a PayPal account with the publisher.   Also think beyond the media. Go to think tanks or try organisations such as Gateway House, the Indian Council on Global Relations.

New Models
The conference heard from Una Murphy who has set up View, a free-to-download digital magazine serving Northern Ireland's voluntary and community sector.  Set up with Brian Pelan, an experienced journalist who has worked on papers including The Belfast Telegraph and The Irish News, the monthly magazine received modest grant support to get it established but now survives on advertising from suppliers to voluntary organisations.  It is generating more than £2,000 a month in revenue and is well-established in its target market.  Una said that research to test the market had been very important.  Read more about this story here 

Mark Watts, editor-in-chief of subscription investigative news service Exaro, did no market research. He said: "The real enemy of journalism is not Leveson but accountants and market researchers. They told us that churning copy was more profitable than real journalism and they were behind the budget cuts at the BBC.  But all over the place real journalism enterprises are springing up to meet real-news needs – so freelances should keep their eyes open and, if you can't see what you are looking for, maybe do it yourself."

He knew there was a real need for investigative journalism; all he needed to do was find a financial backer.  The model he used was based on ProPublica, the US investigative journalism organisation which was set up with support from the Sandler Foundation and others including the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation.

But with the closure within a year of the Journalism Foundation, set up to promote "free and independent journalism", when its backers the Russian billionaire Lebedevs pulled the plug , this model has  its inherent dangers.

David Boyle, the author of The Case for Media Co-ops, described several publications that had succeeded using the co-operative model. The West Highland Free Press was bought by its 13 employees in 2009. Today they pay themselves well and, after servicing debt, make a return of two per cent on capital. At Ethical Consumer magazine, declining advertising revenue threatened its survival. An appeal to readers, however, raised an investment of £200,000. The readers are now the magazine's owners and receive a four per cent return on their outlay.

Guy Smallman took himself off to Afghanistan, paying his way, and avoided being embedded with the military. This freedom has allowed him to cover stories that were not accessible to colleagues and to cover subjects other than the war, for example Afghani Olympic competitors and poppy production. He has promoted his work via social media and built up  a reputation which has recently enabled him to source crowd-funding larger projects.

NUJ and freelances
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, closed the conference by saying that the union was committed to extending its services for freelance members.

"It is really clear to me that that this has been a fantastically useful day and as our industry is increasingly freelance, I know how important it is for you all to keep your skills up to date – but it is also good for me to hear from you what you need from the union," she said.

Michelle promised that contributions made during the day would inform the union's work in the months to come.

Tags: freelance, new models, pay, new media, newspapers, broadcasting