Help Kickstart Wordrates & Pitchlab

wordrateslogo

 

I am proud to announce that this morning I’m going to do more than just write about the problems in the publishing industry. I’m going to do something about them. I’m launching a Kickstarter campaign that I hope will shift the ways that writers think about and market their work. I’m only asking for enough money to design the website. Please share this widely and lets make some great journalism together.

Here’s a link to the project:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/767033302/wordrates-and-pitchlab-fixing-journalism-since-mid

 

The Problem:

Freelance journalism is dying. For the last 20 years, word rates have stagnated. Every year publishers grab more reprint, book and film rights and it is harder than it ever has been to make a living as an independent journalist. This is an important problem that deeply impacts the quality of the news you read. According to a survey by ProjectWord this year, almost half of stories that journalists thought were important to produce were never written because of lack of funding. Along with declining payments, boilerplate contracts weaken copyright and take away valuable ancillary revenue streams.

The dirty secret of the publishing business is that there is still a lot of money in the media. It’s just that writers aren’t getting any of it. Publishing empires like Conde Nast pay less than 1% of their gross revenue to writers and instead buy billions of dollars worth of real estate in Manhattan. VICE, a company that has been valued as high as $2.5 billion, pays a mere $250 for a reported piece. And let’s not forget that its CEO was willing to blow $300,000 on a dinnerwith 30 of his closest friends.

Antitrust laws make it illegal for freelancers to unionize so the only practical solution is to rely on the principles of the free market. It is time for a disruptive website that will change the playing field for freelance writers and photographers. By sharing information and promoting a business model that has been successful in both the book publishing and film industries it will be possible to get a bigger piece of the overall publishing revenue.

 

A Disruptive Solution:

WordRates solves two interconnected problems:

1) The inability of journalists to assess a market for their work before they pitch a story. And, 2) Our general reluctance to negotiate for favorable rates and contracts.

To address these issues, WordRates provides user-submitted ratings of editors and publications with Yelp-style reviews. The public submissions will allow writers to easily gather contact information for editors, compare boilerplate contracts, and submit comments about their experience working with a particular publication. Ratings will carry weight with the community and put pressure on editors and magazines to get better reviews. Journalists will be able to use the power of the community to increase the competition between magazines, create upward pressure on word rates, get better terms on contracts and hold magazines accountable for bad business practices. Except for contact details, these profiles will be freely available online in order to facilitate writers to become the best possible negotiators of their own work.

The second role of WordRates, a section of the website that I’m calling Pitchlab, is perhaps even more revolutionary. It’s a new way to get promising material into the hands of decision makers who assign stories.

PitchLab

“PitchLab” will be a space for both journalists to workshop their pitches with seasoned mentors. Not only will the mentors help polish a story idea into a work of art, they will take on the role of a literary agent and use our contacts in the media industry to shop for the best possible deal for the story. After a piece is accepted, WordRates will issue a standard writer friendly contract to magazines as a negotiating counterpoint to increasingly hostile magazine boilerplates. Just like literary agents, we will pitch to multiple publications at once so that the writer’s ideas can get market rates for their work instead of silo rates that are invariably uncompetitive.

Book authors sometimes receive six or even seven figure advances for their work and it isn’t a secret why: competition. Literary agents take ideas out to multiple potential buyers at once and ask them to bid. Book publishers have to bid well on great ideas because they want to publish the best possible material. Every term of the contract is up for negotiation and great ideas can make significant money. There is no reason that this couldn’t work in the magazine business. Great stories sell more issues, which in turn means higher advertising rates.

Magazine pieces that might sell for $5000 in today’s uncompetitive market, could get double or triple that with the right sales strategy. Indeed, with ancillary rights attached, it could be much much more. Here’s an example: Once, a story that Wired commissioned me for $4500 sold for more than $20,000 in foreign markets. If my contract had been the one that Conde Nast offers now, they would have gotten most of that money.

With PitchLab the mentor has a financial interest in selling the pitch for highest possible price and earning a commission in the process. PitchLab will split that commission with the mentor in a way that is industry standard among literary agencies.

PitchLab will be more than a way to allow seasoned journalists to have a real stake in developing new talent. In time, it could turn into an entire payment ecosystem. In practice, it is easier to negotiate for the value of someone else’s creative work than your own because an agent isn’t afraid to say no to a bad deal. Not to mention, seasoned writers could well use PitchLab to take advantage of mentors who have particularly good negotiating records.

Development

I already have the URL (wordrates.com) and the basic architecture in the works, but I will still need to hire a developer to get this off the ground. Based on extensive conversations with a developer in Boulder, CO it seems that it will cost several thousand dollars for all the bells and whistles—a cool fresh look, a secure pitch lab and rating system. I’ll also need to have some money on hand for legal challenges (this is America after all) and a budget for data entry and secure servers.

Rewards:

What better way to celebrate the power of the written word then with books and membership into this program.

Continue reading…

For the Safety of Journalists

james foley

Freelance correspondent James Foley was kidnapped and murdered by ISIS in 2014.

A few months ago the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalism gathered together some of the top media organizations in the world and hashed out principles for ethical conduct for freelancers and publications that operate in conflict zones. The guidelines are not legally binding, but they are an important first step in reforming the often-broken relationship between publications, journalists and the stories they both want to get into print. As I’ve written over the last year, bad contracts, kill fees and uncertain payments often push freelance writers to take additional risks in conflict zones that can either result in bad reporting, or sometimes even a journalist’s life.

The guidelines issue recommendations for medical training, protective gear, risk assessment as well as transparent payment policies, and credit. They also agree that publications should be responsible for ransom and evacuation of freelancers in the same way that they would be for their own employees. These guidelines are a huge step forward from the previous era where news organizations might simply disavow a freelance writer or photographer who got in trouble while on assignment.

So far there are 60 signatories to the document, but there are still a few notable exceptions that routinely have freelance writers operating in potentially dangerous areas. It’s time to urge The New York TimesNational Public Radio, Conde Nast, Wenner Media, Atlantic Media, and American Public Media to stand up for the safety of the the people who put their lives in their name.

Like many non-binding documents, only time will tell if they signatories are ready to make this more than an on-paper commitment, but something they will act on during a crisis.  I have hope that they will.

I’ll post the complete guidelines and signatories below. Please share them.

 

FOR JOURNALISTS ON DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENTS:

1. Before setting out on any assignment in a conflict zone or any dangerous environment, journalists should have basic skills to care for themselves or injured colleagues.

2. We encourage all journalists to complete a recognized news industry first aid course, to carry a suitable first-aid kit and continue their training to stay up-to-date on standards of care and safety both physical and psychological. Before undertaking an assignment in such zones, journalists should seek adequate medical insurance covering them in a conflict zone or area of infectious disease.

3. Journalists in active war zones should be aware of the need and importance of having protective ballistic clothing, including armored jackets and helmets. Journalists operating in a conflict zone or dangerous environment should endeavor to complete an industry-recognized hostile environment course.

4. Journalists should work with colleagues on the ground and with news organizations to complete a careful risk assessment before traveling to any hostile or dangerous environment and measure the journalistic value of an assignment against the risks.

5. On assignment, journalists should plan and prepare in detail how they will operate including identifying routes, transport, contacts and a communications strategy with daily check-in routines with a colleague in the region or their editor. Whenever practical, journalists should take appropriate precautions to secure mobile and Internet communications from intrusion and tracking.

6. Journalists should work closely with their news organizations, the organization that has commissioned them, or their colleagues in the industry if acting independently, to understand the risks of any specific assignment. In doing so, they should seek and take into account the safety information and travel advice of professional colleagues, local contacts, embassies and security personnel. And, likewise, they should share safety information with colleagues to help prevent them harm.

7. Journalists should leave next of kin details with news organizations, ensuring that these named contacts have clear instructions and action plans in the case of injury, kidnap or death in the field.

FOR NEWS ORGANIZATIONS MAKING ASSIGNMENTS IN DANGEROUS PLACES:

1. Editors and news organizations recognize that local journalists and freelancers, including photographers and videographers, play an increasingly vital role in international coverage, particularly on dangerous stories.

2. Editors and news organizations should show the same concern for the welfare of local journalists and freelancers that they do for staffers.

3. News organizations and editors should endeavor to treat journalists and freelancers they use on a regular basis in a similar manner to the way they treat staffers when it comes to issues of safety training, first aid and other safety equipment, and responsibility in the event of injury or kidnap.

4. Editors and news organizations should be aware of, and factor in, the additional costs of training, insurance and safety equipment in war zones.  They should clearly delineate before an assignment what a freelancer will be paid and what expenses will be covered.

5. Editors and news organizations should recognize the importance of prompt payment for freelancers. When setting assignments, news organizations should endeavor to provide agreed upon expenses in advance, or as soon as possible on completion of work, and pay for work done in as timely a manner as possible.

6. Editors and news organizations should ensure that all freelance journalists are given fair recognition in bylines and credits for the work they do both at the time the work is published or broadcast and if it is later submitted for awards, unless the news organization and the freelancer agree that crediting the journalist can compromise the safety of the freelancer and/or the freelancer’s family.

7. News organizations should not make an assignment with a freelancer in a conflict zone or dangerous environment unless the news organization is prepared to take the same responsibility for the freelancer’s wellbeing in the event of kidnap or injury as it would a staffer. News organizations have a moral responsibility to support journalists to whom they give assignments in dangerous areas, as long as the freelancer complies with the rules and instructions of the news organization.

In conclusion, we, the undersigned, encourage all staff and freelance journalists and the news organizations they work with to actively join in a shared commitment to safety and a new spirit of collegiality and concern.

SIGNATORY ORGANIZATIONS

Agence France Press

Al-Monitor

American Society of Journalists and Authors

Association of European Journalists (Bulgaria)

The Associated Press

Belarusian Association of Journalists

Blink

Bloomberg

British Broadcasting Corporation

Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma

Center for Journalism and Public Ethics (Mexico)

Committee to Protect Journalists

Danish Union of Journalists

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma

Ena News Agency

European Federation of Journalists

Foreign Correspondents’ Club (Hong Kong)

Foro de Periodismo Argentino

Frontline Club

Frontline Freelance Register

The Frontliner (Albania)

Global Journalist Security

GlobalPost

The GroundTruth Project

Guardian News and Media Group

International Center for Journalists

International News Safety Institute

International Press Institute

International Women’s Media Foundation

James W. Foley Legacy Foundation

Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (Iraq)

Journalists in Danger (Kazakhstan)

Mashable

McClatchy DC

Miami Herald

National Press Club

National Press Photographers Association

National Union of Journalists-Philippines

Newsweek

NOS News (Netherlands)

Online News Association

Overseas Press Club of America

Overseas Press Club Foundation

PBS Frontline

Press Emblem Campaign (Switzerland)

Public Radio International’s The World

Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues

Reporters Without Borders

Reuters

Rory Peck Trust

Security First (UK)

Society of Professional Journalists

Storyhunter

Trauma Training for Journalists

Union of Journalists in Israel

USA Today

Video News (Japan)

Words After War

Zuma Press

News organizations, journalist associations or advocacy groups interested in joining these guidelines should contact David Rohde, david.rohde@thomsonreuters.com.

– See more at: http://dartcenter.org/content/global-safety-principles-and-practices#sthash.vC9z1SrJ.dpuf

Why “Cult” is the Wrong Word

cultic

The early 1960s saw a flourishing of fringe religious groups that the press had no other word for than “cults”. It was a simpler time, and the word was meant to describe religious movements that didn’t easily fit into the established religions. The word encompassed hippies experimenting with alternative ideologies, Christian evangelicals, crystal energy healers, and back to the earth types who, might be a little odd, but basically harmless. It was hard to identify exactly what a cult was, except that there were millions of people searching for a personal connection with God. Then, in 1969 everything changed when followers of Charles Mason murdered Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of the director Roman Polanski. They coated the walls in her blood and inked the words “Helter Skelter” above the crime scene. Nine years later 800 followers of the People’s Temple killed a US congressman in Guyana and then took their own lives with cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

After that bloody introduction the world took a new perspective on the word “cult”.  Cults weren’t harmless. They were dangerous.  They stole people from their families, brainwashed them with false ideologies and sometimes even took their lives. Today, the word brings to mind the Branch-Davidians in Waco, Texas and the exploitive practices of the Church of Scientology. There is a burgeoning field of anti-cult literature, support groups for former cult members and exit counselors whose main job is to bring people out of these groups and back to their families. It is clear that many of these groups prey on their members, take their money, and often leave them in dire straights with no one to turn to except for their charismatic leader.

Continue reading…

Tantric Obsession

On Wednesday the Rubin Museum invited me to have a conversation with David Vago, a neuroscientist at Harvard University, to speak about tantric obsession and how spiritual bliss can sometimes go terribly wrong. It was a fascinating discussion in an amazing venue. Here are a few highlights.

 

The Enlightenment Trap

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 1.35.57 PM CroppedIn March of 2006, Emily O’Conner was sure that she was on the cusp of enlightenment. We had spent the last seven days on a silent meditation retreat together in the holy city in India for Buddhists called Bodh Gaya. I was the director of her abroad program, and Emily was my student. Late in the night she filled her journal with a scrawl about what she had learned in the silence. She wrote that contemplating her own death was the key to deeper spiritual realizations. A few paragraphs later she wrote the words, “I’m scared that I will have this realization and go crazy.” Then, on the last page, in a paragraph all by itself, she penned her last words — a final resolution to her spiritual progress: “I am a Bodhisattva.”

When she was done writing she wrapped a shawl around her face, stood on the ledge of the three-story building, and jumped. One of the other students on the program found her body an hour later.

In Tibetan Buddhism a Bodhisattva is a fully realized being whose deep spiritual insights have opened the door to Nirvana. However, rather than stepping though the threshold, Bodhisattvas pledge to remain on earth to help other people to the same realizations. In a way, you could think of a Bodhisattva as a sort of god that exists beyond the realm of life and death. Almost three millennia earlier, in a spot less than a mile from where Emily took her own life, the man who would become known as the Buddha had a similar realization. He spent the remaining time he had on earth translating his knowledge to a growing community of followers. Continue reading…

Editors weigh in on market pitching

A few weeks ago I posted about the relative merits of market versus silo pitching and the post kicked up a lot of conversation around the internet. Yesterday Lesley Evans Ogden reached out to a few editors to see what they thought of the practice. Her piece “Simultaneous Pitching: Views from the Other Side of the Desk” has responses from seven editors, including one that I have known for four or five years (who somehow got my name wrong).

Of course, there’s no reason for editors to like the fact that they might have to compete for particular ideas. So I was happily surprised to see how open most of them were to the fact that the notion that simultaneous pitching is just a fact of the industry. While one or two bristled at the idea that not every pitch they receive might be truly exclusive, they also grudgingly admitted that it could take weeks to even read an idea. One wrote  that the ten minutes that they have to dedicate to reading a pitch can be a burden to an already packed work day. This of course assumes that it isn’t a burden to freelancer to wait in some sort of queue, possibly weeks, for an up or down answer that should only take minutes. What happens to that freelancer if the editor says no? There are only 52 weeks in a year, how many chances can an idea get at bat before it is stale?

All the editors did seem to agree that even if a pitch does get accepted into a magazine, it usually changes as writer and editor work together. And, from this perspective, you could say that there is no such thing as multi-pitching, anyway, since the final product will always adapt to the specific publication.

Tracy Hyatt, Editor, WestworldBC Magazine, notes:

“Back when I started 15 years ago, it [simultaneous pitching] was a no-no because every publication wanted to have exclusive content… Nowadays, we’re seeing a lot of the content repeated all over the place. So you don’t really have any exclusivity on any content, or any ideas for that matter.”

It’s definitely a worthwhile read. It also seems to clear the way for an idea that I’ve been working on to transform the way that ideas get to the market. Keep an eye on this website. Big things are going to happen in April.

An (almost) Deadly Journey on Diamond Mountain

In 2012 Ian Thorson and his wife Lama Christie McNally attempted to find spiritual perfection on a mountain top in Arizona. Only a few loyal followers knew where they were and the supply drops were increasingly sporadic. Water was scarce, but they collected what they could of it in a tarp and a plastic jug after a lucky snowfall. They lived there for almost a month before Christie and then Ian fell sick with dysentery. At first Ian was filled with rage by his plight–going as far as hitting himself on the head with a piece of hard plastic in the cave. They packed an emergency locator beacon and a cell phone with them, but Christie waited three days before she sent out a call for help. It was too late for Ian.

Two months after Ian Thorson died her the arms I traveled to Arizona to try to understand the world through his eyes. I wanted to know why she hadn’t pushed the button that would have saved his life earlier. I wanted to see the place where it happened and feel desolate climate of this part of the world. Most importantly, I wanted to see the cave where Ian spent the last month of his life.

The journey could have killed me.

People at Diamond Mountain all told me that even though they knew where the cave was, no one wanted to visit it. Bad things had happened there and no one wanted to tempt fate.  The sheriff Larry Noland implored me waive off my expedition. He tried to scare me with storiesof poisonous cacti, impossible heat, bears and rattlesnakes in every rocky crevasse. But I was adamant and convinced a local rancher to escort me at least part of the way.

It was only a mile and a half, but it was the hardest hike of my life.  It also turned out that Noland was right on almost every scary story that he told me. I heard rattle snakes, got stuck by a poisonous cacti. Luckily there were no bears.

What I did discover, though, was that McNally and Thorson spent their last days together in a small cave that offered magnificent views the retreat valley below, but very few amenities to support them. At one point the cave had been home to a Hohokom Indian who had stashed, but never recovered, a giant pot of grain on the dirt floor. I also learned that merely visiting the spot was dangerous enough to almost kill me. The rancher, Jerry, turned back after I pushed up a steep gravel slope. He was out of water and thought it too risky to continue.  I pushed on and found the cave. Getting back, however, was even more difficult than coming up.

This is a video I shot on my way back down. I think the pain in my voice explains much more than I ever could with with a keyboard.

This was the beginning of a project that would take me almost two years to complete. First with a story in Playboy magazine, and later as a book “A Death on Diamond Mountain

Inside Pacific Standard Interview where I swear like a sailor

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A week or so ago Noah Davis, who writes a column for Pacific Standard called How Do You Make a Living, noticed the posts that I’d been doing about the broken model for freelance writing in this country. The series explores career paths as diverse as taxidermy to puzzle makers, but very few industries are as coercive or just plainly unfair as freelance writing.

One thing, however, did surprise me when I read this interview. Apparently when someone asks me about the freelance business I can’t help but to swear like a sailor. It’s not something that I realize that I’m doing, but I guess this really does get under my skin.  Below are a few excerpts. Or hell, just read the full interview here.

Continue reading…

Fragile Freelancers and the Fate of Journalism

Earlier this month Project Word released a one-of-a-kind survey on the ways that freelance journalists make their livings. The 34-page report, titled “Untold Stories: A Survey of Freelance Investigative Reporters,” was part of a collaboration between 22 different journalism organizations and included responses from more than 200 investigative reporters. To no one’s surprise, the survey found that freelances are in in dire straights.

Among the more shocking revelations were that:

  • 44% of respondents said they were being paid less now than 5 years ago. 22% said that their income was half no than what it used to be.
  • Inadequate support for investigative journalism has deprived the public of a minimum of nearly 600 stories that could have served the public good.
  • 92% of 137 freelancers reported experiencing “anxiety on a daily basis over finances.

The study lays out the plight of increasingly marginal freelancers in visceral detail, and peppers in writer’s own language for how they have struggled to make their livings.  Amidst bad contracts, limited reprint rights, declining pay, endless debt, and anxiety ultimately freelance investigative journalism is more charity than a career path.

Here are my favorite three quotes:

Continue reading…

Why ISIS probably isn’t selling organs

organs CroppedIn the last few weeks disturbing reports surfaced out of Iraq that the stating that the Islamic militant group ISIS had expanded its terror operations to include organ trafficking. The reports originate from a lone official in the Iraqi embassy and reference dozens of bodies in mass graves missing their internal organs.  The story has since been reported everywhere from fringe new sources like the Jewish Press and the right-wing Freedom Center all the way to more respectable outlets like CNN. FOX news has jumped all over the organ harvesting story and repeated it in numerous reports. In the last week I’ve received two interview requests from major news organizations who were aware of my book The Red Market and wanted me to comment.

It’s true that there is a long history of organ theft  during times of war–most notably during the war in Kosovo and more recently Israel security forces in Palestine. I have no illusions that ISIS would be happy to get into the organ trafficking business if it meant that they could make a little money to support their ongoing terrorist operations. However, I just don’t believe that the reports are credible or that ISIS really has the infrastructure to make it work.

In the six years that I spent investigating organ trafficking networks the recipient and the donor were always in the same city when the operation took place. This usually meant that the recipient flew to India, Pakistan, China or Egypt and the donor was sourced from a prison or a nearby slum. Sometimes they were paid, sometimes they were kidnapped. Occasionally both the donor and the recipient would fly to a Caribbean Island or South Africa for the operation.  I never have heard of a single case of a kidney or heart being harvested in one country illegally and then being sent by air to another one.

The reason boils down to logistics. Transplants are highly coordinated affairs and require the cooperation from hospitals, ambulance services, laboratories, police, customs officials and other government agencies. Everything needs to be timed perfectly or the brief window of keeping the organ alive for transplant will pass.   Continue reading…