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The Online Marketplace: Juggling the Needs of Editors and Freelancers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Wallis didn’t need scratch paper to compute the potential.

A story based on a prison interview he’d conducted with ousted Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega in 1998 sold more than 20 times. He made a cool $20,000. “It really opened my eyes to the allure of selling work. The possibilities.” It suggested that the life of a story was much longer--and more lucrative--than he had ever imagined.

Wallis, a New York-based journalist who has contributed stories for an array of publications, including Wired, the Washington Post Travel section, GQ and the New Yorker, knows intimately the puzzle-piece life of the freelancer, the mad scramble to make up a whole.

Though freelancing allows for the freedom and romance to move about the world--or in and out of many worlds--it also exposes one to the vulnerability of working without the safety net and large-scale exposure that staff positions often provide. For many freelancers, it’s not just being in the right place at the right time--but letting editors know who you are, what you can offer and that they can count on you.

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With the advent of electronic disbursement of news, databases and Web sites, the freelance world has become, at face, much more profitable. But at the same time, it’s also become more of a minefield. Understanding the give-and-take, Wallis figures he’s come up with a solution that might help both time-pressed editors and working journalists alike.

Two months ago, Wallis launched Featurewell.com, an online marketplace for writers and editors. The focus, he says, is to provide sophisticated, quality content to newspapers, magazines and Web sites. So far, he has sold work in a dozen countries. “I see it as an idea bank of some sort.”

Wallis has signed up more than 225 journalists, including David Margolick, Jimmy Breslin, Justin Kaplan and Peter D. Kramer. Contributing writers receive 60% of proceeds of sales; editors receive exclusivity within their market.

Featurewell.com arrives in a moment when many writers have been buffeted not only by the inclement climate of the dot-coms, but the contentious debate over the increasingly baroque language of contracts and copyrights that have become part of this faster, streamlined electronic age.

“A lot of the places I string for are buying all the rights into perpetuity,” says Mark London Williams, an L.A.-based technology and entertainment writer. “It’s tough because what do you do? Threaten to withhold labor? That’s why it often gets litigious.” While organizations such as the Authors Guild will review and help its members negotiate freelance publication and syndication contracts, a site like Featurewell.com, says Williams, is unique. “As far as I know, it’s the first site that is labor friendly. . . . It’s unusual for writers to get more than half.”

Registration to the site is free, but is only open to newspaper, magazine, trade journal editors and new media producers. Wallis does not accept unsolicited manuscripts and editors pay for the rights to publish stories on an “a la carte basis.” The price, says Wallis, is not only determined by the length of the piece, but “by the newsworthiness of the article or how large the news organization is. So, for example, if it is a piece on Clinton versus mining in Zimbabwe--the Clinton piece will cost more. A German newspaper will pay more than an African one.”

To get some buzz going, Wallis says he’s been “pressing the flesh” at various conferences. “We’ve done direct sales and cold calls and that sort of thing.” But it’s pretty self-explanatory--"If you’re an editor with a hole to fill on deadline, here’s an opportunity for a free service.”

Wallis has recently made syndication deals with ForeWord, the magazine of independent publishing, Ironminds.com, Poets & Writers, and Reason magazine to market their content on his Web site.

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“We’re put out by a nonprofit and have limited staff resources to focus on reprinting markets,” says Mike Alissi, publisher of Reason. “We’ve got exceptionally good writing and would like to get a lot more play. We liked his business model. So our hope is to get more exposure for our writers and publication.”

Last summer, Steven Brill’s Contentville was accused of selling writers’ work without asking for permission. In October, the online magazine Salon.com sent out contracts asking writers for retroactive electronic rights, as did the Boston Globe. And the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether publishers may include freelancer’s articles on electronic databases without specific permission of the authors. The suit filed against the New York Times, Newsday and Time Inc. is being pressed by a group of writers, including Jonathan Tasini, the president of the National Writers Union, who alleged that there had been an infringement of copyrights in 21 articles published between 1990 and 1993.

With all the rules and roles shifting, it’s a nasty wilderness out there, says Wallis, and Featurewell.com is a bit like having an agent or perhaps, a big brother out there looking out for you.

“There is a definitely political aspect to the company,” says Wallis, who sees Featurewell.com as not just a network to protect the interests of writers, but those of discerning readers as well. “We’re watching the shuttering of foreign [newspaper] bureaus, so we’re trying to create a stringer network to find the best journalists to send the top stories,” he explains.

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Providing a network that attracts the top writers, says Wallis, betters not just the lives of the writers, but the readers as well. “You’re not going to see a Pamela Anderson story on Featurewell. Celebrities stories sell well, sure, but even the celebrity stories you’ll find on Featurewell will be well written. And as elitist as that sounds, I’m proud to be part of the media elite.”


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