hellman_money.jpgI felt a little nervous about returning to the Bay Citizen office Thursday afternoon.

Just a few days earlier, I’d written a decidedly un-gentle analysis of the nonprofit news startup’s plan to pay bloggers – the Bay Citizen calls them “content partners” — $25 to reprint their posts from time to time. As I boarded the elevator and rode past their downstairs neighbor Red Door Spa, I hoped I hadn’t worn out my welcome.

So, what’s the difference between a content partner and a freelancer? A couple hundred dollars, how and where your article appears, and who owns it.

It’s important to note that I’m far from neutral on the topic of freelancing, since it’s what I do (for The Bay Area Reporter, Streetsblog, SF Weekly, etc).

So I’m writing this account of the meeting not as an impartial observer, but to share my impression…and to ask for yours.

comparison.jpgLast week’s “content partner” meeting was attended by about 40 people, a broad cross-section of the online writing community. Yesterday’s meeting was similar: a pleasant mingling of about 20 Bay Area freelancers, eager to hear what the BC had to offer.

What the BC has to offer is a couple hundred dollars per article. For short pieces, freelancers can expect $350; for long ones, $700. Culture and trend pieces will hover in the neighborhood of $500, interviews around $200, and photographers will get a day rate of $250.

It’s less than the $500 to $3,000 that Appeal commenter and Bay Citizen content partner Frances Dinkelspiel suggested they’d pay, but is comparable with what you’d make at places like the SF Chronicle, and not dissimilar to the hourly rate paid by publications like The Bold Italic.

At the moment, they’re also open to pitches for regular columns — but not opinion pieces.

Pitches should go to the Managing Editor for News, Steve Fanaru; or to Culture Editor Reyhan Harmanci. They should be brief, Well-developed and concise, one to three paragraphs. BC will be looking for unique stories that haven’t been covered elsewhere and that have a Bay Area impact. Jonathan jokingly defined “Bay Area” as “not quite Santa Rosa to not quite Santa Cruz” — ha!

Although it’s hard to predict the volume, they estimated that they’ll run fewer than 20 freelance pieces a week.

The definition of “long” and “short” and the exact price paid will be determined case by case, depending on what the BC decides they need from the freelancer. This reminds me of how it works with news funding site Spot.us; there, a reporter sets a price for their piece and then justifies the amount that they’re asking for.

When justifying my price, I try to “sweeten the pot” with value-adds like exclusive interviews, photos and video, and historical research. I would expect that it’ll be similar at BC: if you can show them, “hey, I have some extra piece of information that changes the story and nobody else has it,” it would probably improve your chances of negotiating a higher rate.

Of course, we don’t yet know exactly what that negotiation will look like, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, like the price itself, the process is handled on a case-by-case basis. It’s not unusual for me to have a bit of a back-and-forth via email about what I can offer and what a publication can pay before we land on a specific fee. And sometimes, that number changes over the course of a story.

But the BC prices sound pretty good, especially after the $25 license described last week.

In fact, those $25 content partners may feel a bit shafted. Twenty-five bucks, when other writers are getting hundreds of dollars for the same kind of content?

But content partners get something that freelancers don’t: they retain ownership of their work. Freelancers sign away right of first publishing and agree to an exclusivity period, which would be a deal-breaker for most blogs. Weber clearly sees this as a strong and clear distinction – when I emailed him asking him to elaborate between the two different relationships, he said:

“Matt, content partners would be folks who own or operate their own publishing outlets and are looking to develop them. In those situations we are proposing to *co-publish & sub-license* stories in exchange for a package of benefits. Freelance arrangements would be when we are *assigning* and paying for specific stories, working with the writers on those stories, and acquiring much broader rights to the work. I’m not sure what’s been so unclear about this.”

This strikes me as a smart strategy from the BC’s perspective, since it gives them the flexibility to maintain good relationship with other content producers.

After the meeting, I was chatting with a writer who pointed out that plenty of other sites feel free steal content. Why is the BC being so conscientious about striking up deals with bloggers, she wondered? The answer, I would guess, is that it makes bloggers into BC’s friends, rather than competitors.

As a brand new and unknown entity, staffed in significant part by non-locals, the BC might need to depend on contributions from established longtime local writers.

“The whole point of this is to be supportive of independent local media and local bloggers,” Jonathan wrote to me in an email after my first piece appeared. “But not sure what agenda you are serving by deliberately making it sound like a lesser deal than it is.” Even with the promise of payment, the BC will still need to cultivate warm relationships to entice that local talent. (For example, one of my primary motivations for writing for the Appeal is that I like working with Eve.) We won’t know if they’re up to that task until after they’re up and running; so until then, Bay Citizen freelancers, the tipline is open.

So, it’s a good deal for the BC, but is it a good deal for writers? It looks like one to me. The price is good, and Steve Fainaru made a particularly encouraging comment about freelancers carving out a niche for themselves: if you do a good job on a particular beat, he said, they’ll be likely to come back to you for more. That means that at some point, you may not need to pitch every single story; instead, there may come a day when the BC approaches you.

Of course, that isn’t different from how it works at any other paper. But it’s encouraging to hear this best practice acknowledged.

And its similarity to how other papers are run might be its largest strength: while some details of the content partner program still seem to be in beta, this more standard and traditional arrangement between the BC’s editors and freelancers might be easier for everyone to recognize and understand. This presents some entrepreneurial writers with an interesting choice: to freelance or to partner?

For example, I do both: I freelance here and there, but I also run sites with original content like Writers Getting Paid and Stop8.org.

I’ll have to be strategic about how I balance my time between building the relationship of those sites and selling more immediately-lucrative reporting. But not everyone’s like me; so for those of you considering a relationship with the BC, I’m curious: do you favor their “content partnership,” freelancing, or both? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

After all, diversifying the outlets in which your work appears is a practice that’s existed for as long as reporters have supplemented their income by writing books. But the rules changed as the Internet opened new channels for journalism, and in the San Francisco market, a freelancer’s options for local stories are pretty limited.

Having a new, well-paying outlet for writers in this town is certainly a good thing. By combining content partnership with freelancing, the Bay Citizen, as long as their donors keep donating might have a shot at creating a little petrie dish that, I hope, might just establish a colony of healthy, thriving writers.

And then, of course, make all of us rich.

For a look at what the Bay Citizen site might look like, see Uptown Almanac — using what they term “professional internet skills,” they report they they uncovered what they say is the Bay Citizen’s site-to-be.

Please make sure your comment adheres to our comment policy. If it doesn't, it may be deleted. Repeat violations may cause us to revoke your commenting privileges. No one wants that!
  • Sarah Fidelibus

    Great article, Matt. I am not a “writer getting paid,” but I am someone who is supremely passionate about quality news and information; if TBC is adopting a “best practice” when it comes to working with freelancers, then this arrangement sounds like it will be good not only for freelancers but also for those of us who are voracious consumers of media of all types.

    Full disclosure: I donated to TBC back when they still appeared to be affiliated with KQED; I had no idea at the time that my small donation would end up landing me tickets to their launch party, so I will be there on Wed. evening.

    The tone of your article is, to my mind, pretty balanced, and I appreciated your thorough coverage of the meeting.

  • Susie Cagle

    Am I the only one who’s less than thrilled with these rates, considering how bankrolled the Bay Citizen is? Comparing a media organization with millions in start-up capital to a non-profit that pays reporters via private donations seems a little cuckoo to me — especially when with the latter you retain the rights to your work. I’d be interested in how long that nebulous Bay Citizen “exclusivity period” lasts.

  • Josh

    I want to hope that at some point they hire writers, in-house. I want to hope, that at some point a journalism school gets a booster shot of staff assistance on site, paid interns at the “paper” (website) and some grants/scholarships for student projects.

    Right now, sure, this gives some ‘kid’ the way to make some cash along the way, but it doesn’t sound like enough to count on anyone ever negotiating benefits. What happens when stories go “big”, do the writers get residuals? What happens when a “big name writer” wants to do a column? My point is that real investigative reporting takes backing, teamwork, an institution, it can’t be a couple reporters putting everything on credit cards and hoping they have a book deal after fighting the other sides lawyers. That’s called a pot shot, and it means that intrinsically we lose most of the time. That’s not the way to build it.

  • Matt Baume

    To be clear, they do have a staff of full-time writers to produce some of their content. The rest of the content will come from wire services, partners, and freelancers. And maybe from other sources that they haven’t yet revealed.