"ONLINE WRITERS: FINDING JOBS IN THE
Transcript of "Content & Coffee" panel discussion, June 2001
By Katherine Spivey
Principal, Advanced Interactive Media Group,
Adjunct Professor, George Mason University,
"I've been working hard for two full years, but work has slowed the last two months. The upper hand has returned to the people who pay, and the current state of the market is low pay and tough contracts that rob freelancers of electronic rights. Freelancers are the first to go and the last to know, when a dot com tanks.
"The first cliché is that information wants to be free. The first disillusionment is that providers want to be solvent. Despite new rules, economic laws have not been superseded: content must be paid for.
"We seem to be going to a hybrid model of content payment, not paid advertising, not sponsorships, not subscription, but a combination.
- Diversify topics and clients (balance online and off-line).
- Beware of total sites; research companies. Brick-and-mortars more stable.
- Choose clients carefully.
- Join National Writers' Union.
- See clients who publish on multiple platforms.
- Focus on niche markets (write what you know).
- Consider the corporate market; not glamorous but regular pay.
- E-mail pitches (don't send letters).
- Use personal network in pitches.
- Don't send a virus in an e-mail; in fact, don't even send attachments.
- Don't make editors have to handle your material over much (proofread your own work and do the HTML coding if possible).
"As managing editor for news at discovery.com, I used to manage a stable of 30-50 freelance writers, but I'm now down to 4 of my best. Two-thirds of all staff at the site was laid off.
"Earlier, content was all original, each a work of art, but the content now supports Discovery networks exclusively. The primary task now is mostly to repurpose content, although there is still some original material.
"Content for news alone used to be a dozen freelance stories and one feature a week; it's now three freelance articles and no features. And I'm under further pressure to reduce the number of freelance articles, despite being the cheapest news operation on the face of the Earth.
How is this change in the market affecting producers' jobs?
"They are tending to become jack-of-all trades, taking on the traditional roles of design and html.
How is it affecting writers?
"Producers have less time to edit, so writers who consistently turn in clean, edited, correct copy and make it clear they know what they're doing in the online world stand a better chance of being used.
"This new M.O.of going forward with content requires writers to be people who can not only write, but also help alleviate the responsibilities of busy producers.
"Employers are looking for more from employees and freelancers, with the goal of keeping production costs down.
Advice, if you're an editor or manager:
- Know which writers will deliver clean copy quickly and create less
work for you. Use them.
Advice, if you don't want to be full-time on staff:
- Hang on to steady strings.
- Develop off-line clients.
- Consider a nonfiction book.
- Branch out into less exciting, but steadier online stringing positions:
PR, marketing, corporate audiences.
- Realize that the cool content sites have shrunk, or simply disappeared.It's tough out there.
Technology and business writer
Columnist for Kiplinger.com
"When I began freelance writing two years ago, it was at the height of the dotcom boom and I was fortunate enough to land some terrific clients early on.
"At the time, I had already been an editor for several trade publications and I had worked for an actual dotcom, so my background fit nicely into the newly developed niche of "online writer." I transitioned into the "free agent" life by taking a six-month contract job with Aquent (www.aquent.com) working at the U.S. Mint, writing content for their Web site.
"During that time, I looked at all the job boards and those that were specifically targeted at writers. I knew that I didn't want to re-new my contract, so at the end of six months, I'd be out of work if I didn't move quickly. The competition was a lot less stiff back then and few writers had actually ventured online. It was a whole different world than it is today.
"I landed a gig working as the Web Career Expert for Monster.com. I also found some local Web sites, including the now-defunct WomenConnect.com, who were looking for writers.
Needless to say, things have changed dramatically.
"Many of my older clients have folded and the ones that are still around have cut back tremendously and are no longer updating their sites with fresh content as frequently.
"Even so, I wouldn't trade in these lean times for my life before becoming a freelancer for anything (well, perhaps a couple million, but that's another story).
"You can still make it as a freelance writer, but you have to be more diligent than ever before. You must be ready to go into battle, to fight for your right to be a freelance writer (sorry for the mixed metaphors).
Here's what I've learned:
- Have a specialty but be willing to write about lots of different
topics as well.
- Cultivate "bread and butter" clients-the ones you can
count on month in and month out.
- Network-it's the heart and soul of being a successful freelancer.
- Market yourself with a web site, great clips, business cards,
speaking engagements, etc..
- Mix up your client base with both print and off-line clients, small and large clients, etc.
Independent Proposal Consultant
pjsmart at aol.com
"My most valuable tool is the Internet. I mostly network online (much less face-to-face). I've focused job/assignment searching on the Internet, where I can find clients that pay well promptly. You can have a comfortable life billing by the hour; I have.
- Use opportunities to post resumes on job sites.
- Keep resumes short and focused on the work you want to do. (I generally
get a query a day.)
- Use sites to search for gigs-full time or freelance.
- Use the search agents that will fetch for you every day. For example, Jobsleuth.com searches multiple sites.
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