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Making money digitally

NOVEMBER'S London Freelance Branch meeting was educated,entertained and informed by Bill Goodwin, introduced as being most famous for his battle to protect his sources when he was at the Engineer (January 2003) and now Premium Content Editor at Computer Weekly. We'd promised that he'd cover "everything a freelance needs to know about digital journalism", and he made a good stab at it.

Bill Goodwin © Hazel Dunlop

Bill Goodwin tells it like it is

The internet has radically changed journalism, he began: "and not only for the best". For example we've seen the closure of local newspapers and Newsweek going online-only. Many publishers made the mistake of assuming that advertising would follow print onto the web.

They were wrong. Google and Facebook are consuming quite a lot of the money that would otherwise have gone to newspapers and magazines. And advertising rates have gone down because bureaux have emerged that buy space and sell it at a reduced rate.

It's been tough, especially for business-to- business sites - and for freelances. When Bill started freelancing years ago a page lead in a Sunday paper earned £500 - it is often less than that now. One IT publisher pays journalists £15 a story and expects them to write features free of charge in return for that.

It's also changed "content". The model of making money by selling advertising on websites assumes "a sort of newswire approach": if you get a story up more quickly you get more hits, and more money: this leads to pressure for "churnalism", as Nick Davies called it in Flat Earth (March 2009). There is pressure to go for the stories that generate the hits, rather than those that meet the needs of the target readership - though that's self-defeating.

And the structure of news organisations has changed, generally becoming much flatter: posts like news editor and picture editor have often disappeared.

The wall of pay

Another business model is the paywall: that works well for publications like the Financial Times - specialist, with most subscriptions paid on expenses by readers' employers. No-one is sure whether News International has a sustainable model for the Times or Sun.

Yet another group includes Exaro News, which makes money by selling data. For example they have a system for extracting insolvency data and cross-referencing to Companies House records. The downside is that some, including some with funds, may ask: "why do you need the journalism, why not just sell the data?" The answer is that journalists are good at finding sets of data and at presenting what they mean.

Finally, there's "lead generation". Bill's publisher has a "Big Brother engine" behind the website - to find out what people read and what budgets they control. IBM will pay good money to email a "white paper" to Chief Executives of pharmaceutical companies with a certain turnover... and the system can tell IBM there are these six other people in one of the companies also downloading documents on the subject in question.

Computer Weekly had three attempts to make money online. The first was a paid-for service, with each journalist working one day a week on it and four on the paper. It didn't take off. The second was investment in a "Computer Weekly 360" project, a database combined with journalism. They spent a lot, and it lasted a year, until the dotcom crash. Now there's a combined team producing print and web copy.

The web nature

Bill gave handy bullet-points on what the web is like:

  • it is infinite;
  • there is no space limit;
  • there are no deadlines - or rather the deadline is always now;
  • there is no competition to get on the front page; and
  • stories are rarely spiked - at the moment.

Now staff journalists on CW have not just to file stories, but also source photos, check the credits, select "tags" for search engines, write the headlines and often write boxouts. He doesn't know of publications that really have photography budget any more: writers have to take them.

And writers have to plug their own work on social media. Some use Twitter a lot for conversations - Bill uses it mostly to plug the latest story. LinkedIn is used a lot to promote stories and contact people; its "advanced services" can help a lot with finding contacts such as ex-employees of a company, but are expensive.

Advice to a young hack

Some freelances have been very successful plugging specialist skills - for example the ability to shoot and edit video. Having your own website and a blog are now compulsory - everyony hired on Computer Weekly recently has had both. Data journalists are being snapped up - it's worth getting into crunching the numbers until a story falls out, and City University does a good course.

So it's not all gloom: some of these emerging business models will be successful and once we've got through the fiscal crisis some interesting opportunities will emerge. Bill says we're "already seeing an upturn" and Computer Weekly is expanding: rates may even rise for the first time in 15 years.

"While the web taketh away," Bill concludes, "the web also giveth."

Questions in meatspace

The editor of the Freelance was puzzled by the assertion that there's no competition for the front page - there are still the front-page story on the website, and one Very Serious publication is constantly tempted to go for "sex is a diet aid" over world-changing news. Bill reported that there was "robust discussion" in Computer Weekly on whether to go for quality journalism or for the Britney Spears stuff that gets the online hits.

We discussed blogging: Computer Weekly pays some journalists to blog, with rates depend on the "traffic" they draw. The top performers bloggers get £300 a month for three to five pieces a week. And "what is the recipe for a blog?" Bill "came across a blog on the world of Twiglets based on a little bit of code that mined stories about the savoury snack..."

And what about the technicalities? The City Lit does a course in building web pages, which is "not as difficult as you might think". Particularly as a sub, it's worth learning how the HTML markup language works: you "can learn enough" in a day. If you're purely blogging, you can probably get away staying with what the WordPress package offers. And, again, video shooting and editing is a very good skill to have.

Last modified: 04 Dec 2013 - © 2013 contributors
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