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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ethics and editorials

As a freelancer, I am always happy to hear of offers for writing jobs. Sometimes I decline because either no pay or very low pay is offered. But today I ran into something completely different: an offer to pay for articles I publish elsewhere in the interest of PR. This is how it works:

This type of PR freelance work is very trendy in the digital publishing space and I've noticed a lot of writers unaware of the potential. With your writing and contributing experience with sites like  ___ and others I think we would be a fantastic team. I would pay between $300 - $500 for these sites alone and more for others.
Please check out the project details below: I am currently working with writers in a wide variety of fields and would love to add you to my network. I know that many top websites do not pay their contributors, so I would like to offer this paid freelance work as a way for you to create revenue from your current unpaid or paid contributor jobs.Second half pay refers to the payment you will receive once you publish an article on any given site. This second half process includes things you already do like pitching, taking on assignments, submitting articles to the editor, and publication.For example, if we decided to work on a project for the LA Times:1. You would pitch an idea or take on a story given to you by the editorial team at the LA Times.2. You would come up with an angle for the story organically, and let me know if I have any sources for quotes, reference that would fit into your story.3. If so, I provide assistance in helping gather sources for the story to include in the article.4. You write the story and I pay you for your work ($X for LA TImes).5. You submit to predetermined publisher for publication (i.e. LA Times, etc.) and once published I pay the remaining portion of the payment (i.e. $X for publication).What I get out of it is working with you to create the articles before you publish so I can integrate my clients as sources as they relate to articles you're writing. If you decide a link to my client's site/page is relevant and makes sense within your article; then I will pay you for writing and publishing that articles due to the added exposure you provide to my client. I will also help you with SEO and title, subheading, keyword research for your articles so they rank better in search engines if you decide to collaborate with on any given article.Links are valuable in the online publishing space, so anytime you think one of my client's sites is relevant and would like to use them as a source, we can collaborate and use this payment structure. 

I'm not altogether naive. I know that content does get skewed somewhat by publishers who are sponsored by or who run ads for businesses. Sometimes it is done with more subtlety than others. For example, I spoke with someone whose business is getting paid by individuals and organizations who want to be represented in Wikipedia. The writing is all done to Wiki standards and has to sound objective, but the clients are the ones paying to get it done so that they will have that kind of web presence. 
 I also realize that some business reps are happy to talk to me because they value the exposure they get for free in my articles. However, it never occurred to me to seek payment from the sources of information or from rep of said source. Doing so seems to open up the potential for conflict of interest. Even if the client quotes are perfectly sound, having to take them into account because of the payment rather than because they are the best ones for the article is also a compromise of journalistic integrity.I ran this by someone who has been in the publishing industry a lot longer than I have. While he conceded that it could be construed to be somewhat unethical, he said that it was "not unlike traditional PR, " in which case the contact would pitch client sources directly to an editor, though money would not be offered in that case.  I've had a bit of that before: people wanting to get  what they are doing publicized.  But the reality is that I can only publish approved topics, and not everyone's business interest will fit the context. And I certainly can't adjust the SEO for the pieces that are subject to editorial changes.  Somehow, I don't think the publishers would take to kindly to my taking payment from another party when they already pay me for the writing work.  And that does have the potential to backfire. 

Also I find it questionable from a legal standpoint.If bloggers who receive compensation for their product endorsements are required to disclose that fact, why would it be legal for writers to take money from people who are pushing a particular agenda on another publishing platform without full disclosure?   Even if there are no legal pitfalls, though,  I don't like getting involved in anything that even smacks of underhandedness.

We would work together to craft stories and subjects to post on websites you currently contribute to, while collaborating on: topics, subject matter, sources, links, etc. in each article. Each freelance project involves paying a sum upfront for your time to create the article and the second half once the content is published by you on a site.

Obviously, the assumption here is that freelancers feel underpaid, as many publishers really do offer ridiculously low fees or even no pay at all (as Huffington Post is infamous for)  because the writer is given such wonderful exposure. The boards who do engage in that should now consider the potential downside to having writers who find other ways of making their writing work pay. 

Just as I tell clients who hire me for web content that I won't create testimonials for them, I don't like having to misrepresent a directed piece as an objective one. This is the kind of subtle moral question that George Eliot looks at in Middlemarch. One character lets monetary considerations influence a major decision, and another absolutely refuses to compromise on her moral scruples at the cost of an inheritance. Some of us are just too burdened by integrity to take advantage of all opportunities.

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