Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Hearst Partners With Helium

It's not news that the newspaper industry is in trouble. Hardly a week seems to pass without word of layoffs, shrinkages, mergers, or closures. It's a scary time for print journalism.

Now newspaper giant Hearst has hit on an interesting way to save money. According to this article in the Boston Business Journal, Hearst will partner with content site Helium, using Helium's "citizen journalists" to contribute local and lifestyle stories to the Hearst Newspapers chain. "Hearst executives say the deal will enable its newspapers to provide local content at a lower cost than using staff resources...Hearst is proud to be a pioneer in leveraging new models that will transform the newspaper industry."

How it will work, apparently, is that Hearst will put stories on specific topics out to bid. Writers can then submit stories through Helium, and Hearst will choose those its likes best and compensate the writers. No word on what the compensation will be, but given the typical article fees paid by publishers soliciting articles through Helium, I think it's safe to assume that "lower cost" in the quote above means "way less than we'd pay a professional journalist."

This is a win-win for Helium, which gets, at the very least, publicity and credibility, and possibly also a bump in membership, drawn by the lure of writing for Hearst. It's a win for Hearst too, which gets to acquire content at bargain prices. For readers of Hearst newspapers...if the arrangement generates high-quality content, it's a win, but a lot of the content on Helium and similar sites is very poor, and I suspect the Hearst people will have to sift through a lot of dross to find the pearls.

And for writers...well, those few who are chosen may regard it as a win, although being grossly underpaid by old media as it attempts to transition to a new business model doesn't strike me as a dream gig. Most, though, will be stuck with a spec story and no compensation. And that's not a win in anyone's book.

35 comments:

David Dittell said...

Victoria,

Very good look at the situation. Bidding for jobs is by definition a buyers' market, and this is only going to make it tougher there.

I guess the appeal to writers is that you're giving up realistic pay now for the chance to earn it back after you've gotten credibility from writing for a newspaper.

Barbara Whitlock said...

Just some added perspective on this: Helium's partnerships with newspapers are helping them stay afloat with reduced staff. More than that these partnersips open up powerful means for readers to participate in creating the news they read.

Professional journalists still play a vital role for these newspapers, but others can also participate.

For example, writers and citizens can participate in discussing issues of the day and have their articles and bylines in print as well as online. This expands visibility for writers.

Areas like movie reviews, restaurant reviews, lifestyle content are fertile ground for a more expansive group of writers to participate in.

This is a great step in expanding democracy in the "third estate," because citizens can participate in informing other citizens and government leaders.

This is an exciting democratic revolution, which opens up more opportunties for writers, expands the voice of the citizens and retains a role for professional journalists.

The content Helium writers will provide newspapers like Hearst (and many more) are added opportunities for writers, not diminished in any way. Journalists are losing their jobs and newspapers are closing. Helium's partnerships with newspapers helps keep them going.

If you'd like more information on how you can participate write to me: bwhitlock@helium.com.

Barbara Whitlock
Community Development Manager
Helium.com, Inc.

freddie said...

I'm still with Victoria on this after Barbara Whitlock's post. I think newspapers would be better off trying to figure out a way to make money from their online content rather than making partnerships like this.

Personally I wouldn't have a problem subscribing to a newspaper online for the same price I can get it in print.

Barbara Whitlock said...

This is exactly what the newspapers are doing, with the help of Helium technology.

In addition, they open up opportunities to more writers.

This is a win/win for folks who write on the web.

Leslie said...

As a former freelancer, the "getting exposure" thing is something I've heard before. I've also heard that the Huffington Post doesn't pay its Twitter people. It's very, very hard to make money as a freelancer. Helium and Hearst are doing what they need to do in a time of changing paradigms, and that's pretty much that.

Victoria Strauss said...

Barbara, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

I can absolutely see how Hearst benefits from this arrangement. That's very apparent, as I pointed out in my post. And I'm all for keeping print media going. It's devastating to see the closure or contraction of so many venerable newspapers.

But I still think that writers are being shortchanged in this arrangement. If these "citizen journalists" are good enough to be featured in Hearst newspapers, they should be paid a competitive rate, not the peanuts that most publishers that participate in Helium offer. Of course, we don't know yet what Hearst will pay--but it seems clear that it will be less than they'd pay professional journalists or freelancers--otherwise, they wouldn't be talking about cost savings.

Plus, while some writers will be chosen, many more will not. It's tough enough as it is for freelancers to make money--but writing spec stories on the chance that yours will be picked for publication is even more precarious. Especially since, as these will be local stories, the chances of selling them elsewhere will probably be pretty limited.

To be honest, I don't have a very high opinion of the "citizen journalist" concept, which can be useful in specific circumstances (such as a natural disaster) but in general seems to me to be part of the culture of amateurism fostered by the Internet. Publishing, in any case, is not a democracy; it is a meritocracy--and I believe that as both a reader and a writer. As a reader, I am completely uninterested in "expanding democracy in the 'third estate'"; what I want is good journalism. As a writer, I recognize that I must be better than my competitors; otherwise, the recognition I receive is meaningless and there's little reason to strive for excellence.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I was once a Hearst employee, in the days before Women's Rights, the days when all women applicants had to take a typing test (but not the men)--no matter what position they were applying for. I had to fight to get the interview I came for rather than put in the typing pool. That was the norm back then. I did get the job--editorial assistant at Good Housekeeping magazine. We were underpaid then.

I have stories to tell about the low salaries/freelance payment at other papers to this day. It seems sort of unfair to target them for something that is rampant in the news industry.

Best,
Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Find my "Life Begins at 60" first person essay that tells some of these stories on my website at www.howtodoitfrugally.com

BuffySquirrel said...

This is what happens when people give their work away for free.

*shrugs*

Barbara Whitlock said...

Let me clarify the nature of these partnerships between newspapers and Helium.com.

There are three types of interface between writers and newspapers you will see:

1. Participation in debating issues of the day. This is where newspapers are using Helium technology to engage their readers and allow readers to share their views more directly. At present CT residents are sounding off about whether Rep Chris Dodds should share in the mortage mess blame. MA writers are writing about whether to support Federal legislation to curb global warming.

CT Post editors choose the two best articles on each side of the debate, and they get published with byline credit.

This is democratic in the best sense of the word: Citizens get more direct access to the third estate. They don't write the news articles and editors still choose high quality articles to feature, which provide checks on the democratic element. But we all know that journalists don't hold a monopoly on political opinion. Plus engaging communities is terrific all around.

2. The second way Helium is partnering with newspapers is to help them build out hyper local lifestyle content. These are articles they do not have staff coverage for. These are paid gigs to Helium writers. Very short articles (350-400 words) for $45 is not bad.

3. Helium is helping newspapers expand their online websites by co-branding with Helium and supplementing with Helium content.

Yes, there are less jobs for journalists. But the opportunities Helium provides freelancers did not cause displacement of those journalists. These gigs complement the work of professional journalists and engage local communities.

I understand the general lament about lower pay for freelancers. However, I think there are also folks stuck in "old world" thinking on this, and forgive my direct comments on this -- I don't make them to cause offense but to add other realistic factors to consider.

The days of huge paying freelance gigs has passed. It makes it harder to make lots of money relying on traditional freelance revenue streams. Those are losses.

Yet, in the current climate, freelance gigs tend to be shorter and can be done more quickly. Each individual gig may not pay highly, but there is no limit to what a hard-working, entrepreneurial writer can do.

So, when traditional freelance or journalist revenue streams dry up, this is cause for concern. I think it's good news, though, that this Information Age has more readers than ever. The Internet helps expand opportunities and deliver to those readers.

Helium partnerships with newspapers also help newspapers stay afloat and engage communities of readers more directly.

And, of course, experienced journalists and freelancers compete with advantage. The gates may be open further, but a smaller segment succeed.

Helium.com is built on a competitive model. We provide open opportunity, but only quality rises. We have new ways to restrict access to Marketplace gigs too, and our best writers will be hand picked for special opportunities down the pike. But even now we have lots of members supplementing their monthly income significantly at Helium.

For example: We have a retired teacher who earned $5K in her first 6 mos writing for Helium, and she said she only spent an hour a day writing to Helium's Marketplace. I'm sure she writes elsewhere as well. Hard work and ambition can go far.

And this is the state of the profession now. The Internet may blur lines between professionals and amateurs, and create more opportunties overall (and with that increase less pay per individual gig), but professionals compete with strong advantage.

The nature of capitalist economies and technology advancements is change. I think freelancers can still do very well if they shift gears and take advantage where they can.

And such is the state of our current economy overall. Helium, in contrast to national trends, has been able to steadily increase payouts to our writers.

Hope this helps clarify.

Barbara Whitlock
Community Development Manager
Helium.com
bwhitlock@helium.com

freddie said...

For professional writers with families who need full-time work, this "competitive model" is terrible. Sorry. Sometimes "old world thinking" was right to begin with. This model harms professional writers by paying them less while exposing them to greater competition - hence, increasing chances exponentially that they won't get paid at all. No wonder agents are awash in more query letters right now.

Anonymous said...

I've been freelancing for over five years (part time) covering local school events and I am paid $35 per story by a northern New Jersey newspaper...extra if you take your own photographs ($45).

Now, if you know anything about the cost of living in northern New Jersey, you know those amounts do not go far here.

This partnership might be good in the long run...it might be bad...but, as a partime local freelancer, it might actually be a pay raise!

Eirin said...

In addition, they open up opportunities to more writers.

Is this a variation of the "Giving new writers a chance" phrase?
'Cause whenever I hear that I start looking for the "And here's how we'll screw you over" clause.

Barbara Whitlock said...

I know there are loads of professional writers hurting right now, but I ask you to not hit the wrong target with your frustrations.

Helium has not caused newspapers to close down and high pay freelance opportunities to dry up. We are trying to create new supplemental opportunities in the midst of that downfall.

Increased competition does lead to strain, but I'm not sure how you hold back that evolution to return to what used to be.

I think it's just a new world for freelancers, and they need to be entrepreneurial and take advantage of every opportunity out there to find new revenue sources.

Helium provides some of those opportunities.

Barbara

BuffySquirrel said...

Of course, the next logical step is for the citizens to start doing Barbara Whitlock's job for free :).

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

Helium is a waste of time for any journalist with clips in their portfolio.

Victoria, have you ever heard of this statistic before?

"How many books do first-time authors sell? Over 195,000 new novels are published by traditional publishers in the U.S. every year. Of those, 70% sell fewer than 500 copies."

A bunch of book marketing blogs have cited this to, in my view, water down the appeal of mainstream commercial publishing to make self-publishing seem more attractive. It looks like the marrying of 2004 stats and the 84 titles of iUniverse selling 500 copies.

TK Kenyon

Randy Godwin said...

This is really sad. Hearst must really be scraping the bottom of the barrel to partner with such an unethical site. Helium is known for their unfair banning of writers so they can confiscate their articles.

This site has become a writers nightmare with censorship being the main way of holding down dissent. Their user agreement changes almost on a daily basis with the staff staying busy fabricating reasons for the unethical behavior practiced by Barbara and the other unsavory stewards.

This site has reached a new low in the publishing business. The rating system used here is a joke of course with many terribly written articles holding first place in the rankings.

Any protests against the unfair practices will get a member booted or else the protests get removed by the mail-order Reverend, Rex Truelove or the simpleton Piper.

Hearst publications deserves to fail if they deal with these thieves. Do not believe anything the staff of this site tells you.

Anonymous said...

Randy, your comment is another example of strewing slander right, left and center. Can you back up your statements with facts, i.e., names, titles of articles, unpaid sums, etc? Can you give us an example of the rules that change on a daily basis? It's easy to make such sweeping statements, but you should back them up.

I don't understand your post. Everything is bad about this service, but then you complain about censorship and running the risk of getting booted out! If it's so bad, why are you worried about this risk? And if it's so bad, why join in the first place?

I agree with the earlier comment that writing is a meritocracy. If the quality is low, readers won't return. Only common sense. But if the writing is so bad, why do people keep buying more of it? This whole story is pretty weird in my opinion. So many people buying trash and so many writers willing to be associated with it.

Victoria Strauss said...

Randy and others, I'm aware of the ongoing argument in the comments thread of my earlier post on Helium. Please take all such discussion there. I am not interested in having it clutter up the discussion here.

Barbara, thanks again for your detailed comments. I very much appreciate the additional information, which certainly helps to clarify both the Hearst/Helium collaboration and the intentions behind it. I guess the lesson we can take from this is that writers, without whom neither new nor old media could exist, are always at the bottom of the heap--no matter what the setup.

Here's an interesting article on the issue of diminishing pay and writers' increasing willingness to write in hopes of recognition rather than pay. Some day, will only the wealthy be able to afford to write?

Victoria Strauss said...

Mark asked if I'd heard of this statistic:

"How many books do first-time authors sell? Over 195,000 new novels are published by traditional publishers in the U.S. every year. Of those, 70% sell fewer than 500 copies."

It's hard to comment without knowing where these figures come from, but I suspect that they conflate on-demand and short-run titles produced by small and micropresses with titles from larger commercial publishers. Given the difference in marketing and distribution, you really can't compare the two. Certainly, it's very possible--or even likely--that a micropress-published author will see sales of fewer than 500 books, but for authors with larger publishers, the averages are much higher.

I also question the 195,000 figure. According to Bowker, when you exclude on-demand and short-run titles, just over 50,000 new novels were produced in 2007. Even accounting for the large title output of small and micropresses, it's hard to imagine them producing enough to add up to 195,000.

Natalie said...

Okay, this is pedantic, but whatever: journalism is the fourth estate, not the third.

Anonymous said...

Victoria, I apologize for cluttering up this thread. As you suggested, I will answer the queries put forth by the anonymous poster below mine in the other thread.

Randy Godwin

Victoria Strauss said...

For those who are interested, the other Helium post is here. It's gathered a lot of comments, including a detailed one from Randy.

John Geary said...

"The days of huge paying freelance gigs?" Hello! How many huge paying freelance gigs are there out there? I've been freelancing for 10years, after 10 years as a newspaper staffer, and I have yet to come across a "huge paying freelance gig."

If she's going to comment on this situation, she should really know what the heck she's talking before putting words down. This kind of comment leads one to believe Ms. Whitlock is seriously lacking in her knowledge of the industry. And with that kind of lack demonstrated, how can you really trust anything she says? It's just spin control!

Anonymous said...

I received an email from Helium today (I checked out the site after reading the post on Writers Beware) regarding a new competition--$200 for the best story about the real estate market. The email included these instructions:

Worried that you don’t know much about real estate? Senior Steward Rex Trulove has the following advice:

"It is surprisingly easy to write about real estate if a person lives in a town or knows someone who does. Not a lot of research is required. If you don't get the paper and haven't been paying attention to real estate, just call a local broker or Realtor. Brokers are more than happy to talk about what's going on."


I find this a little disturbing. When I'm reading a how-to article, I like to think the author knows a little bit about the topic. A single conversation with a broker is unlikely to give a balanced view of the market for that area.

countingsheep said...

Did you guys know that the word "penis" is not legit because it is obscene?

http://podbloggers.ning.com/profiles/blogs/a-doctor-who-thinks-the-word

I am so pissed at the Helium community board for THIS.

BTW, the Hearst thingy was an April Fool's joke!!!!

David Arthur Walters said...

An investigative journalist has uncovered evidence in archived Helium pages that the so-called writers agreement has been changed to say articles cannot be deleted once post - it did NOT say that before. Plus Helium has now launched a Title on the subject. See the comments and links at:

http://ukauthors.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=23310

Anonymous said...

Recently, Helium.com started sending out emails to writers outside the U.S. Would like to know if the message below appears discriminative. As we all know, writing and speaking are 2 different things and even native English speaking countries have people who are not good at their written mother language. The Message:

As you may be aware, Helium recently changed its policy about accepting contributions from every country around the world.

Helium.com instituted this policy as a result of careful consideration of its members and its publishing partners. Since our goal is to become the top-quality content site on the web, we realize that, as a US-based company, we cannot accept writers from countries where English is not the primary language. It has put those writers at a disadvantage in rating and getting the most from writing on Helium. To prevent frustrations from all writers and to limit staff time spent trying to accommodate non-English-speaking writers, we have decided to stop accepting submissions from locations that may have a negative impact on the quality of our site.

Because you cannot access Helium, or will soon be blocked from access, we feel it is only fair to remove your content from the site. Full rights to the work revert to you. We recognize that the version of your work that exists on Helium may be your only copy, so we will not begin removing content for four weeks (in mid-July). (For an easy way to copy multi-page articles, click “Print article” in the Article Tools tab on your article page, then copy and paste that version to your computer.)

If you have earned over the $25 minimum payout, we will be crediting your Paypal account.

Readers from around the globe are welcome to enjoy Helium's articles. In the future, we hope to be able to offer a full experience of Helium that works well for everyone.

Thank you for your understanding,

Team Helium

Anonymous said...

The only problem with Helium's suggestion to copy articles before their target removal date is... how can one do so when since March, people have been reporting not being able to access their accounts. So they will just have to search for their name...and do manual copy and pasting... which is too tedious if you have like over 200 stuff to copy.

Why can't Helium send the copy of articles to these poor quality, non-native English speakers instead?

Any better suggestions?

David Arthur Walters said...

In re foreign languages: It is increasingly evidence that no writer has a real contract with Helium. According to the User Agreement, it can be altered at will with or without notice to anyone. What we have here is - for lack of a better word - a fascist organization i.e. a right-wing, top down dictatorial corporation.

David Arthur Walters said...

Incidentally, I have raised several of the concerns of Helium's "content contributors" with Hearst officers, and I suggest that others do the same.

David Arthur Walters said...

A response to the foreign language issue appears at:

http://heliumsagas.blogspot.com

Title:

Helium’s English Is Not Good Enough
By HE™

Susan Rand said...

Besides all that, getting money out of Helium is like giving a crocodile a root canal. I tried for months to get the money they owed me, kept getting the runaround, various people promising me they'd resolve the situation, and they did - they waited me out until I got tired of haranging them, then they pocketed my money.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe how terrible the copy offered on Helium is. Yes, it's cheaper than that offered by professionals, but you certainly get what you pay for.

Anonymous said...

Helium is misleading writers and changing their contract far too frequently.

The only way to get Helium to act fairly is to file a complaint with the state attorney generals office in Massachusetts.

They need to receive a lot of complaints before they can act on behalf of writers. People can complain anonymously.

Apparently based on the below linked blog, if enough writer's complain Helium can be held accountable.

Meanwhile there are many other sites that have fair and upfront contracts that do not change frequently.

http://onlinewritingadvice.blogspot.com/2011/01/helium-is-scam-one-writer-speaks-out.html