Freelancers need to step up in open-source world

Unique, in-house content has always been the core of any news organisation. When it comes to breaking news, most editors hope it will remain that way, but the traditional concept of content provision is facing a metamorphosis.

Unique, in-house content has always been the core of any news organisation. When it comes to breaking news, most editors hope it will remain that way, but the traditional concept of content provision is facing a metamorphosis.

While content must remain king to attract and maintain readership, finite budgets and the need to provide more with less is driving change for web-based publishers, and others.

It is pointing editors towards open-source content, which can enrich the diversity and authority of readership offerings, although many traditionalists remain reluctant to embrace it.

Academics and specialist writers once commissioned by editors to produce op-ed articles about their area of expertise are now contributing to open-source sites such as The Conversation to obtain great visibility for their employers.

The work is authoritative and current, and news sites willing to embrace third-party content are generating sustained debate on issues among their readers as a result.

In addition to the endless feed of wire copy, access to open source content seems to be increasing. News tips from social media, articles from bloggers, columns by vested interest parties – if packaged and balanced as all good journalism should be – are all valid opportunities for the daily news mix.

Many bloggers are crafting a business case around what they do. Their blogs are making some money in extreme niche audience territory. They are then re-purposing copy at discount rates for news sites on the premise that they will leverage audience towards their blog. And so the snowball begins.

The commissioning process becomes considerably more cost-efficient when dealing with academics – and is just a click away – as it can be for day-to-day contributors.

For editors running a budget, this is good news for the purse strings. For freelance journalists used to an easy dollar, it’s a disaster.

What news outlets are realising is that churn copy is easy to come by and isn’t worth digging deep into the well. A 500-word story which they might once have paid the MEAA-sought rate of 93 cents a word might now be negotiated at $200, total. Because of budget pressures, any quibbles about the word rate are quickly negated: “Well, keep it to 200 words then.”

It sounds tight, and perhaps it is. Latitude clearly isn’t quite what it once was.

The upside for consumers, however, is that the well is being freed up in order to commission high-quality longer-form content – and that’s the message freelancers should be heeding. Content is only king if it is deemed quality. Choose carefully what you write.

Stories were, and still are, commissioned on the basis that they will generate readership; the better the content, the greater the readership. Like most news placement decisions in the past, these decisions were made on gut feel, although these days an editor’s instinct can be measured against views generated on a subscription website.

Sure, there are peripheral arguments about worthiness, community good, depth of content, and so on – and these are usually factored into the decisionmaking process. It would be unwise for an editor to reject a high-quality investigation into the misappropriation of government funds, for example, on the basis it won’t generate sufficient traffic to pay its way.

The bottom line, however, is simple. Some harsh realities are being dealt out when breaking down the economics of modern journalism.

So where does this take us, particularly when it comes to freelance reporters? It means that as digital models take over from traditional news models, we’ll see a higher number of journalists finding intricately niche areas of interest.

We’ll see fewer long-form pieces being commissioned by news organisations, and we’ll see freelance journalists being required to produce content of an immaculately high standard. Top shelf requirements do, of course, bode well for those who are confident in their ability to meet demand.

Graduates and inexperienced journalists will struggle in this environment. The door will be opened for those who are experts in chosen fields, providing they can learn to write for a mass audience, rather than their chosen community.

When it comes to the commissioning of enterprise content, the goal posts are changing. Editors lament at their peril: choices now abound. Freelancers beware: the bar is rising.

Simon Holt is managing editor of the Brisbane Times.

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