Pay per view

Feb 16 2016

When Daniel Johnson-Kim graduated from Columbia, his job prospects in the journalism industry were dismal.

“I probably applied to almost 200 jobs and I got nothing,” he said. “I was making the ‘Pick up your dog poop’ signs at Central Park.”

Johnson-Kim said that his experience in the journalism market is not uncommon. But a new media startup could help aspiring writers break in.

These days, Johnson-Kim is a news editor at Slant News, a crowd-sourced journalism platform. The basis of Slant is a 70-30 revenue model, where writers get paid 70 percent of the advertising revenue that their story produces.

Slant was started in response to a lack of diversity in newsrooms and obstacles that prevented new journalists from getting in the door, said Amanda Gutterman, cofounder and editor at Slant.

“We can use this platform to really help empower people who got the door slammed in their face — or don’t even know where the door is,” Johnson-Kim said.

Slant News was funded and incubated by Israeli startup Mobli Media, Inc. and soft launched last summer.

In the seven months since its soft launch, Slant has garnered 11.2 million views. By comparison, BuzzFeed (founded in 2006) got 79.3 million views in October 2015, while Vox.com (founded in 2014) got 12.1 million in the same month.

How it works

Anyone with a Facebook profile can sign up to write for Slant News, a lower barrier of entry than most traditional news organizations.

A sidebar on the homepage provides writers with “assignments” if they need news-worthy ideas. Recently, the topics ranged from the Flint water crisis to Justin Bieber.

Once the writers have completed their piece, they turn it in to be edited by the Slant staff. Jess Dickerson, a news editor on the team, estimated that Slant publishes at least 50 stories a day.

Writers can add text, video, or any kind of media they want. When the story goes to the newsroom, the editors copy edit and repackage the stories with SEO-friendly headlines, attractive cover photos, and Google key terms.

The best stories — chosen by the editors —get pushed to the homepage of the website, have more attractive visuals, and are publicized on Slant News’ Twitter feed. The writers are also emailed tips on increase views on their stories.

An example of a Slant writer's dashboard, with analytics about the writer's stories.

An example of a Slant writer’s dashboard, with analytics about the writer’s stories.

But how much does the average writer get paid? Gutterman said it varies. While the top writer made well over $1,000 on one story, some are making $40 a story, and others make nothing, she said.

“I always tell the writers: ‘Don’t worry if your story doesn’t make a ton of money,’” Gutterman said. She added that there is usually a learning curve with new writers, and they often make more money in their fourth or fifth story after paying attention to their story analytics.

The idea is not for writers to get rich, Gutterman said, but to help them break into the industry.

Clickbait?

Having the payment of writers depend on the number of views their stories get would seem to breed a “clickbait” brand of writing in Slant, but the publication is no stranger to hard news.

The editorial decisions in choosing which stories get elevated to the homepage help push the more news-worthy and hard news content to the front, Gutterman said.

Dickerson said she often sees people writing for Slant who aren’t looking to make big bucks, but want to write creatively or get exposure.

“We’re not a cat video website,” Gutterman said. “You see whimsical stuff, but not clickbait.”

One of the most successful stories on Slant News was a report on a mass murder by Boko Haram. Gutterman said the story is set to round off at 70,000 views.

Still, Johnson-Kim said Slant News is not above publishing soft news stories.

In the list of ten tips provided by Slant, writers are advised to “write stories that get you and your friends talking at a bar.”

Miles Johnson, also a writer for Mother Jones, started writing for Slant starting during its beta phase. He has gotten around 300,000 views on his 77 stories since his first piece in June 2015. One of his particularly successful stories was about women’s pay in the World Cup.

The story, published in July, continues to earn Johnson some pocket change – about $12 last month.

“It was pretty straightforward,” Johnson said of the story. The time involved in writing mostly involved the process of looking up statistics. He declined to say how much money he has earned in total from writing Slant stories.

According to Who Pays Writers?, a blog that collects reports from freelancers, The Atlantic paid a writer $100 for a 1,000 to 2,000-word online article in 2014. Slate paid a writer $350 for a shorter online essay in 2015.

The model that news organizations like the Atlantic and Slate use to pay writers may get writers more money up-front, but is a “one-time thing,” Johnson said.

Overall, he said, Slant’s model is more fair to the work writers put in.

“Having a model that pays you consistently based on how that piece performs online to me is closer to some sort of equitable structure than paying you just for producing it,” he said.

Diverse perspectives

True to its mission, Slant News has created a low barrier of entry to story publication. This, combined with ethnic and racial diversity in the editorial team, allows for stories with diverse perspectives, writing styles  and topics.

The ease of entry invites writers of all kinds, including contributors who have no experience in journalism at all, and those who are already professionals.

For Tacuma Roeback, who started his career in journalism in the ‘90s, Slant was an opportunity to learn how to be a better digital journalist, and an opening to write about the topics he wanted to focus on.

Although Roeback has garnered over 640,000 views on his 123 stories since he started writing for Slant in June of 2015, he also works other jobs, including managing a blog for a startup in Chicago.

Roebuck said Slant is a good way for freelancers and writers to start thinking about themselves as a brand.

“It’s a great launching pad for established writers who feel burned out in this digital realm, to get back to having a presence in the marketplace,” he said.

And, Roebuck said, writing for Slant is fun. “At one junction in my life, I had to sell insurance. And you know, I love it, compared to selling insurance. So this is like a second childhood for me.”


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