Journo-startups that appeal right to readers

Fed-up writers are doing it for themselves

If you spend any amount of time around freelance writers, you’re familiar with the litany of complaints. Most publications don’t pay well. Publications that do pay well expect freelancers to do so much reporting up-front, before they’ve accepted a piece, that it makes pitching a financially risky prospect. Globetrotting freelancers have to convince desk-bound editors that their ideas will be relevant to readers outside the major cities of the east coast. If freelancers want to undertake an ambitious topic, one that’s dangerous or requires international travel, they’ve got to front the cost of the plane tickets and cross their fingers that their insurance will suffice. Don’t even get them started about waiting for the check to come—or harassing publications until it’s finally in the mail.

Enter the freelancer-founded collective journalism startup. Deca, a new nonfiction platform created by an international collective of magazine writers, is based on the premise that freelance writers know what readers want and what makes a great story, at least better than staff editors do. “Imagine if a group of writers for top magazines decided to write for you instead,” says the video on Deca’s Kickstarter page, which only went live last week but has already met its $15,000 funding goal. Deca, which will publish stories that are “shorter than a book but longer than an article,” joins longform-oriented startups like Atavist and Byliner in selling original content as individual Kindle Singles.

Each Deca member agrees to write one story per year and to edit another. This commitment to editing each other is another way of circumventing more traditional magazine structures, in which editors edit and writers write, with few opportunities for switch-hitting. Within Deca, each story idea must be approved by two-thirds of the collective, and before publication each piece must be green-lit by three-fourths of the collective.

“The Atavist is great. The stories are great. But it’s set up like traditional publishing,” says Vanessa Gezari, one of nine freelancers who make up the Deca collective. “You come to them. They are the gatekeepers. They approve your idea or don’t. They publish it. If it does well, it’s not like other writers benefit from that directly.”

But Deca works differently. For each $2.99 Kindle Single they sell, Amazon keeps 30 percent and 70 percent goes to Deca. Of that 70 percent, 70 percent goes to author, 5 percent goes to the editor, and 25 percent goes back to the Deca general fund. That means writers can expect $1.46—roughly half of the sale price—for each Kindle Single sold. And everything that’s in the collective kitty gets distributed equally among members at the end of the year—meaning even its lowest sellers reap a bit more of the benefits.

But as Gezari broke down the budget for me, I found myself wondering if this really is a better arrangement for freelancers who feel exploited by traditional magazines. Sure, I might have to work harder to sell editors on my ideas or agree to tweak my initial pitch to their specifications, but at least I have a contract for a guaranteed amount of money that doesn’t fluctuate based on how many people read my work or purchase the magazine that week. Deca plans on publishing nonfiction stories of about 10,000 words each. For its writers to come anywhere close to earning a mainstream magazine’s per-word rate, every single one of its stories is going to have to be a massive hit. Even top-selling Kindle Singles are more useful in generating an audience for journalism than they are in generating revenue. Does Gezari think Deca will work financially? “I think it’s worth a try,” she says. “We think this is an idea that’s worth putting out there.”

Last year another Kickstarter-funded longform startup, The Big Roundtable, launched with a similar premise to connect writers and readers, with no editorial intermediary. It promised that $1 from each story sold would go back to the writer, though readers were welcome to donate more and asked to pass along links to their friends. This year, though, founder Michael Shapiro, a Columbia Journalism School professor (and CJR contributing editor), admitted that it’s not financially sustainable.

More traditionally structured longform startups that rely on Kindle Single sales have struggled, too. Byliner, which has been around since 2011, recently emailed its contributors, “We’ve struggled to reach the level of growth we’d been hoping for the business, and thus we’ve begun conversations with possible partners about the future of Byliner. We’re working to find a good home for our platform and your stories.”

Even traditionally structured journalism startups are a risky proposition. But the Deca collective is optimistic that they’ll be better off together than they were freelancing apart. “I do think that our model is different in that it spreads risk as well as reward,” Gezari says. “That seems like something new and worth trying.”

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk