Part I: Q&A With Politico Co-Founder Jim VandeHei
Over the course of a half-hour interview, Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei very candidly discussed his career and offered his unique take on the state of journalism, reporting, and U.S. politics.
As all freelancers know, it’s pretty difficult to make a living. But investigative journalist Scott Carney is trying to change that with WordRates, the site he started that connects freelance writers, journalists, and photographers and lets them share their experiences and rate their working relationships.
“I’m trying to put very rational business practice into the irrational world of freelance writing.”
Launched less than a month ago, WordRates gained notoriety earlier this year when it raised nearly $10,000—beating its $6,500 goal—through Kickstarter. Apart from providing the kind of information freelance writers need to know to secure better terms for their work, WordRates has also assembled a team of mentors who work with writers to sharpen their ideas and help them navigate the publication world as they pitch them to publishers.
“I’m trying to put very rational business practice into the irrational world of freelance writing,” says Carney, who has written for publications like Wired, Playboy, and Foreign Policy. He recently spoke with Free Enterprise about his background and the company.
What made you want to start WordRates?
It’s just very difficult to make a living as a freelancer, and there are a number of reasons why. The pay is pretty low in general. But much more important than that is that contracts have been getting steadily worse since I’ve been working, with increasingly unfavorable terms to writers. It’s common now to give up film and book rights. Ancillary opportunities are increasingly being sucked up by the magazine.
The idea for WordRates basically came out of me having a bunch of bad experiences and not having any useful resources to help make my career work. At this point, I have a lot of experience in the industry, and I learned through trial and error. I’m just downloading all my knowledge on the Internet and using the power of crowdsourcing to get out as much information as we can about the industry.
Did you have a specific experience when you saw how beneficial these terms are for writers?
One example is a piece I wrote for Wired that was a pretty big hit. They paid me about $4,500 for the story. I was then able to resell that story in foreign publications, so I made about $25,000 on the reprint. These ancillary rights were hugely important for me, especially at the beginning of my career.
What was your experience like on Kickstarter?
It was awesome. Kickstarter is a great way to find a community of people. A lot of people look at it strictly as a way to raise money. And while that’s important, I think it was more important just to reach out, share our idea with people, and get them excited. So, when we launched two weeks ago, I had an excited and motivated community of people ready to take part in the launch.
How do you make sure the reviews are fair?
So far we haven’t had much of a problem with that. We’ll moderate comments that are seemingly baseless. We allow anonymous comments because a lot of writers are worried they might face repercussions. I need to at least give writers the option of leaving anonymous feedback.
“If you only pitch one editor, then you never get a decent deal because you never let the market determine the value of your work.”
Negative reviews happen because sometimes editors aren’t very good. My hope is that they’ll even out over time as we get more and more reviews, and you’ll get a good understanding of what an editor or a magazine is like after another five or six reviews are submitted.
Do you moderate reviews?
I delete reviews that are completely unproductive. If someone says, ‘This guy is an asshole! Don’t work with him.’ Then I’ll delete that because it doesn’t seem relevant. But if they say that an editor doesn’t pay on time and his edits weren’t helpful, then I’ll leave that because it’s actually something substantive about that particular editor.
How are you finding mentors for PitchLab?
I’ve been in the business for 10 years and I’m a pretty well known freelance writer, so I knew a lot of people. And then I looked up people whose work I had respected who were in the same sort of position as me and brought them on. People have been very energized, and it hasn’t been very hard to attract some really top talent.
The only hard part has been finding a good mix of women mentors. I’ve reached out to about 20 people, and there’s some sort of gender problem here. The women I’ve reached out to have been less inclined to put their reputations on the line. I think they’re more worried about repercussions for being mentors than men. I’m trying to push for a more diverse list of mentors, but it’s been very difficult.
Are you worried that certain magazines won’t work with you because of WordRates?
I’m honestly not that worried. I’m sure some magazines don’t like me. But what I’ve been surprised about is that I’ve had a lot of magazines and editors approach me and say that they’re excited about this project and want to work on it. If you leave a positive review for a magazine or an editor, they like that. If you leave a bad review for an editor or a magazine, then you probably don’t want to work again with them anyway. I don’t really see too much of a problem.
“That’s ultimately what I want writers to do: They come on, they work with us, and they end up working on bigger stories than they thought they would.”
What’s surprised you most in the short time the site has been live?
I’m surprised by the amount of traffic we get and the number of reviews. I think people are still tentative about engaging and putting in reviews, even if they’re anonymous.
What do you think is driving that?
I think writers in general are pretty scared about their reputations and their ability to drum up work. The main reason why I started the website is that I’m trying to let writers understand that they do have power in the industry, and that they can stand up for themselves.
Even pretty straightforward advice is that when you pitch your story you should pitch it to multiple magazines at once. A lot of people are skeptical because they feel as though they might hurt the feelings of one of their editors for not giving them exclusive material. But the downside of that is that if you only pitch one editor, then you never get a decent deal because you never let the market determine the value of your work.
Have people been signing up for premium memberships?
We have 700 main members and about a quarter of them are premium, which is fantastic. The website is already generating enough money to cover its design and hosting costs, which is so hard for an internet startup to do right out of the gate.
What’s your goal with WordRates?
I have big plans for what could happen, how this could be a funnel into TV and movie deals. That’s ultimately what I want writers to do: They come on, they work with us, and they end up working on bigger stories than they thought they would.
But I also want to change the culture of writing in general. Even if my site totally fails, even if we don’t get any ratings, and it doesn’t seem like we’re going anywhere, if I’ve convinced writers to negotiate harder on their contracts, then this whole effort will be worth it.