As print publications retrench and online publications expand, both are trying to figure out what to do about generating fresh content at minimal expense. And with staffing costs rising, it makes sense for both to hire freelancers.
But apart from the reputable publications vying for their services are numerous shady operators trying to take advantage of a freelancer’s eagerness and talent.
It used to be that the quality publications were easy to spot — they had highly regarded, established reputations and stately brick-and-mortar addresses to house them. Plus, they carefully mined the freelance market for only the best contributions and set the bar for newcomers trying to put their names in print.
These days, all it takes is a computer and a Web connection to feign legitimacy.
So, when shopping the market for possible publishers, be wary of potential charlatans preying on a freelancer’s good faith. Here are a few things to watch out for:
Too little detail in ads — Sales pitches that are devoid of information, or those that merely highlight links to job-bidding sites instead of company websites, probably are trying to lure freelancers into something other than a job. Do a little homework on a potential employer before entertaining ideas of becoming a prospective employee.
Payment in advance — Some sites promise long lists of job offers or professional contacts and preferential treatment for a freelancer’s work in exchange for a monthly or annual fee. Don’t bite. Nobody should have to pay just to be considered for employment.
Specific requests for original work — Legitimate publications may ask writers to contribute general samples of their writing to better judge a contributor’s style and readability. But those that get specific regarding subject, format, keywords and source links may be only mining the marketplace for free content. A way around this: Suggest writing two or three paragraphs, or just the lead, to demonstrate an approach to a story. If they back away, do the same.
Exaggerated promises — Sure, the job may be a great opportunity for budding writers, with the promise of big pay later. Or the ad is hiding a larger truth: that the job really means working long hours for nothing in return. Avoid writing for free; the promised payout of regular assignments later as sole compensation now rarely works to the contributor’s advantage. Freelancers never should sell themselves or their talent short, because promises don’t pay the bills. Furthermore, jobs that sound too good to be true probably are.
A flood of ads — Requests for content that turn up everywhere, and repeatedly, suggest the purveyor is desperate and prefers volume over quality work. Steer clear of anyone trying too hard to attract attention.
Website sign-ups — Sites that insist on registration just to be considered for a job could be doing that to drive up their number of original visitors, especially if they are sites that also have forums encouraging reader comments. Not all sites utilizing this approach are untrustworthy, but exercise caution if they place a premium on comments and lengthy profile information, as they may only do that to bombard visitors with spam.
Grammar and spelling errors — What publisher that promises great things in exchange for quality content lacks similar quality in its sales pitches? Probably not the kind of publisher that’s worth a self-respecting freelancer’s time.
David Sheets is a sports editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.