Freelance Salon: new ways to make online journalism pay

London Freelance Branch have always been an asset to freelances throughout the NUJ – their newsletter (mailed to all freelance members) is full of pertinent information, their Freelance Fees Guide is an excellent resource, and they have run some inspiring conferences on new ways to make journalism pay.

Their latest venture, the Freelance Salon (in partnership with Freelance Industrial Council), is an offshoot of those conferences, designed to reflect the way the freelance world is changing and to share new ideas. (The aim is for other branches to follow suit: Oxford branch, of course, has already held a similar event.)

The first London event, on 15th October, took the theme “Online publications: stories of growth and opportunity”. The speakers were Alex Wood, Editor in Chief of online publication The Memo, and Peter Jukes, a consultant for Byline, a crowdfunded platform for news.

The stories of how they got there were worth hearing in themselves – proving that as a freelance you can’t make any assumptions about the shape of your future career – but what came out of the talks, and discussions afterwards, gave some insight into new business models.

Freelances are discovering now that they must diversify in order to make money, but publishers are in a similar position (if on a different scale).

Byline has become, said Peter Jukes, the most visited crowdfunded journalism site in the world. Even so, he believes that they may need to cross-subsidise it with another site. (It currently makes money by taking a commission.)

There are different ways to subsidise online journalism with related income streams and, surprisingly, one of these might be print. Alex Wood’s previous job with Tech City News included a web publication, which didn’t make money from advertising, and a print offshoot, which did.

For online publications, display advertising is dying and many publishers have turned instead to “branded content” (aka advertorial). Alex and Peter both agreed that this is a threat to editorial integrity and undermines trust. Instead, The Memo uses commercial work to subsidise editorial, acting as an agency and using the skills of staff and freelances to produce content such as videos, annual reports or microsites for corporate clients.

What does this mean for freelances? Like most editors, Alex wants experts with their own niche but said too that “freelances need to be entrepreneurial”.

Peter reinforced this message, talking about “unique models for unique moments”: his crowdfunded career began when, by chance, he found himself getting paid to live-tweet the phone-hacking court case.

With Byline, journalists use the platform to pitch their ideas, not to an editor but directly to the readers. (“You’re not begging: you’re providing a service.”) There’s the column model – readers paying a writer with particular expertise to keep writing regularly – or the project model, where payment is made for covering one particular story. It works, said Peter, “where there’s an audience and a story to tell”.

For freelance journalists to crowdfund successfully, they have to think differently. They must be able to motivate themselves, have a track record and have a constituency already. They must also be adept at using social media: “The more you engage, the more people will be prepared to pay – they feel you’re talking directly to them.”

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