Archive for April, 2012


Assignmint promises to change freelancing

There’s a new player in the marketplace promising to change the way freelance journalists do their jobs, and the results are supposed to be spectacular.

But so far, it’s only a promise.

Assignmint.com is the Web address for this ambitious operation and Jeff Koyen, a former New York Post writer, is the person said to be in charge of it. According to the early media buzz, Assignmint intends to consolidate all aspects of freelancing — from pitches to payment — in a cloud-sharing model designed to streamline the business in such a way that freelancers have more freedom to be productive.

The site and Koyen’s plan gained attention last week in articles by Fast Company and Mediabistro’s FishbowlLA. However, for now, the site itself only asks visitors to submit their email addresses if they want to be included in the limited beta release in June. Assignmint tentatively launches in a broader format later this year, and at least the basic memberships will be free, Koyen says.

Ideally, once registered with Assignmint, member freelancers can “filter and manage incoming pitches, issue assignments and then handle all related fulfillment (e.g. contracts and invoices) right from their dashboard,” Koyen explained in FishbowlLA. Assignmint is even expected to have features for matching freelancers with prospective clients.

Premium accounts meanwhile will have a broader selection of workflow and sharing tools, as well as advice on 1099 tax filing.

Assignmint is targeting writers and editors first, other media later. And if that relationship works as intended, the site will expand to include academia, and financial and IT services, among others, Koyen says.

Surely though the most interesting part about Assignmint will be its attempt to minimize hassle from payment collection. Assignmint proposes to act in the freelancer’s interest in exchange for a yet-to-be-determined service fee, sort of the way sites such as eBay and PayPal handle e-payments.

At least that’s the general idea. For now, however, Assigmint is like a story pitch that’s a long ways away from payout.

David Sheets is a sports content 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 dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

 

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Is there such a thing as ‘idea theft’?

Picture yourself in this situation, if you haven’t already: You’ve pitched a story idea to a newspaper, magazine or online editor, received a nod of acknowledgement either in person or by correspondence and words of praise but not commitment, was thanked for your input and then left with the impression the editor would get back to you for follow-up. Days, weeks, maybe months pass without that follow-up.

Then, forewarning aside, the same story idea turns up, in almost the identical context as your pitch, in the editor’s publication.

The first natural thought is, “That (insert your favorite insult here) stole my idea!” A grand display of teeth-gnashing, fist-clenching and floor-pacing follows, and soon after arises the notion to give that editor a piece of your mind.

But before you do, consider two things. First, if you intend to give someone a piece of your mind, remember to leave enough for yourself. And second, the likelihood that the editor “stole” your idea is indefensible and improbable.

The truth is, nobody “owns” a story idea. Those thoughts swirling around in our heads afford no collateral by themselves. We like to think they do because of the inspiration they give us and the biased belief that nobody else had them. But unless an idea is written down, it doesn’t technically exist. And even then, it must be copyrighted before the owner can pursue and expect compensation for theft.

When an “original” story idea winds up flowing from someone else’s pen or keyboard, a few factors probably came into play:

It wasn’t original — Across decades and thousands of publications, assorted story themes have been hashed and rehashed, with tweaks made here and color added there as freshener. Arguably, the idea you’re pitching took root the same way it did for another writer, and another writer before that. Inspiration takes many forms, one being the unanticipated reflection of another person’s inspiration.

Bad timing — Chances are, too, the publication had an idea much like yours on its calendar. Publications of all sorts stockpile ideas and schedule them well in advance to keep their production on track; your idea might have been on the docket or in process long before it became “your” idea.

Editor’s prerogative — Part of what editors do daily is determine the optimum bang for a publication’s buck, and that includes finding the best writers and reporters for particular story ideas. Experience, talent, resourcefulness, enterprise — these all factor highly when editors assign a story to one person instead of another. Bear in mind though, this does not imply greater general competence; rather, it points to specific competencies certain stories need to shine.

Lack of expertise — Along that line, for freelancers, this suggests they develop and hone special skills and have a “niche” they can call their own. An editor shopping a story idea on mutual funds or needlepoint, or seeking and editor who can easily clarify either story, will choose talent they know has better-than-average knowledge of those topics before tossing it up to the crowd. When making a pitch, prove not only the story idea’s value but yours as well.

Of course, not every editor or publication possesses sterling intent and unassailable character. Because ideas lack easy protection, it’s possible for editors to plumb for ideas after their dependable reserves of material dry up, or their motives are unmasked, but this is bound to bring them detrimental long-term results. The various publishing industries, whether print or electronic, are close-knit environments made tighter through the nation’s economic tumult over the past four years. That and the rise of social media have forged both direct and relational connections between writers and editors that were once unimaginable.

So basically, editors who lift others’ ideas too often risk their reputations and their jobs, an unwise tactic to take in a shrinking marketplace.

But to be sure, writers can employ tactics of their own against the concept of “idea theft”:

Research — Look into a publication’s background regarding freelance work. Learn the publication’s policies and practices, and try talking with other freelancers to see how they were treated. Above all, read through as many back issues as you can find, to see what ideas have been done and how they were presented.

Confidentiality — Ask editors to keep ideas confidential and extend the courtesy of a reply once they know whether to go with the story. No editor is obligated to do this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. And if the pitch is submitted in print, clarify the confidentiality concern with a line or two making the same request. Furthermore, keep story sources out of written proposals where possible, if for no other reason than to protect their confidentiality as well.

Contact — Stay in touch with editors, but don’t hound them. A call, email or note after a couple of weeks to remind them you’re eager to get to work is OK. Maybe mention, too, that other editors have expressed interest in the story, but say this only in honesty. Don’t make allegations or claims that editors can verify but you can’t.

Patience — Most editors, no matter the publication, are swamped with offers and ideas amid their other work. Weeks may pass before they’re able to give a response. So, scrutinize the calendar and plan to give pitches well ahead of the events they address. Harried editors will appreciate it.

David Sheets is a sports content 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 dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

 

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Back to the Future: Advice for Those Who Hate the Whole Personal Branding Thing

By Carol Cole-Frowe

There’s so much advice out there these days about personal branding, also known as “Keeping Your Name Out There.”

You know what I’m talking about. You need to Facebook, Linked In, Google Plus, Pinterest, ad nauseum. Who has time for all that? I’m lucky if I can keep up with Facebook and play the occasional Words With Friends game with Alec Baldwin. Maybe update my website every other month if I’m lucky.

I get exhausted thinking about keeping up with all the social media sites, especially if you’re working crazy freelance hours and trying to have a decent family life. And when you’re freelancing –  trying to humor a few beloved pro bonos who think you can write their newsletter in no time flat? Every freelancer I know gets pitched at least once a month for pro bono. I don’t know about you, but I like to get paid when I write — except for when I don’t — and I prefer to choose those things, not have them choose me.

My advice is if you want to put yourself out there with the least amount of effort, I’d advise that you do these few things. First, I know what you’re saying. Gosh, Carol, I’ve never heard “get a website” before. But humor me for a minute. Here’s a couple of reasons you need these tools, and I’m just betting you don’t have one or you wouldn’t be reading this. In order of importance:

-       A Website is like leaving around a brochure about your wonderful self. It’s static, just sitting there working for you, and waiting for some lovely editor who’s interesting in reading your work. And then if it’s good, it will sell you while you’re napping. You can make one easily with GoDaddy.com,   FatCow.com or several other good hosting sites. I’m reasonably technologically challenged and I used FatCow and Drag and Drop Builder to build my website-work-in-progress at carolcolefrowe.com. And tracking my stats, I know a bunch of folks check it out. Categories to consider: About Me or Bio, Portfolio, Photography, Buzz, Blog, Contact Me. If I can do it, you can do it. Bare minimum — get a website.

-       List Yourself in the SPJ Freelancer Directory. It works.  In fact, I got a stringing job for the New York Daily News only yesterday from the Freelancer Directory that will pay my Society of Professional Journalists memberships for several years to come. List your new website on it.

-       Get Professional Business Cards. There are several sites on the web where you can get inexpensive business cards, like VistaPrint. Even better, see if you can trade out your favorite graphic designer some writing for their website for their talents on your’s. Or save up and get a really special individualized card. Make sure you note that you’re a SPJ member and your brand-spankin’-new website, mobile and fax if you have one.

-       Blog. I hear the collective groan from here. You don’t have to blog about stuff about your  job (unless your boss makes you.) Write about what you love, like hiking or recycling or gardening. Make it a habit to post at least once a week, then post the link on Facebook and Twitter (see below.) When I started seriously blogging at the first of this year about my gastric sleeve surgery and offering compatible recipes, I thought I was writing to myself for awhile, especially since I’m a newbie and still learning. Then all of a sudden I have thousands of visitors who’ve found me from several dozen countries including Russia, Brazil, India, Germany and Australia, and I was the most shocked person out there blogging. Then I monetized it and I’m actually making money writing a blog. Building it is easy and self-explanatory on WordPress or Blogger. Once again, pictures or graphics are key to keeping interest.

-       Suck It Up and Get on Facebook, minimum, even if you just use it to occasionally promote something your particularly interested in or your latest freelance article, book or blog. I’ve gotten freelancing jobs from people who wanted to find me and couldn’t figure out any other way than messaging me on Facebook. 160 million users? Not a bad potential audience. I recommend posting pictures, they’re the best point-of-entry into any article and that hasn’t changed. Folks love to look at pictures.

-       Twitter. I used to hate Twitter until I got the hang of it. It’s all in the hashtags, which is putting a number sign aka “#” in front of your key word, and you can find anything, complain about anything, reach out for any info, all in 140 characters. When I recently complained about an airline on Twitter, I got a personal letter apologizing for their “glitch.” Do I need to tell you to post pictures?

That’s the bare minimum for “Those Who Hate the Whole Personal Branding Thing.” Now go out and do it. In order.

What are your ideas for personal branding and marketing without sitting all day in front of your laptop?

Carol Cole-Frowe is a full-time independent journalist, based in Oklahoma and North Texas, and vice president of the Oklahoma Pro Chapter of SPJ. Her website is carolcolefrowe.com. Reach her on Twitter at @carolcolefrowe.

 

 

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Additional tips on better self-editing

Ignorance is one of those things that doesn’t improve with practice. Yet a lot of writers in all corners of the craft insist their prime obligation is committing ideas to words, and whether it’s the right word is not always their concern.

“The first draft, I’m just trying to get everything down,” a book author told me. “After that, I leave it up to my editor most times to clean it up.”

This approach is fine for getting ideas down as fast as they come to mind; in fact, I endorse it. Lately though, I’ve seen more blogs, short stories, novels and non-fiction works come out in final form that suggest the commitment to clean-up was abbreviated or lacking altogether. What these shoddy pieces portend is embarrassment for the author, the publisher, and potentially the readers who expected professional work in the first place.

Blame this boom in boo-boos on the ease of electronic publishing, which has reduced the gap between writing and marketing to a barely perceptible slit and goads us into stream-of-consciousness creativity. We are all just a keystroke away from fame and fortune, we’d like to think. Thus, we’re inclined to rush the process.

In a previous post I broached a few basic tips for freelancers to improve their editing. Here, I offer more to consider, such as:

Creating a “mission statement” — Have reason and focus when writing. Don’t hang the hope that “something will come to me” on protracted banging of the keyboard. A goal can guide thinking, and clear thinking guides creativity. Establish goals at the beginning so that your purpose is obvious at the end.

Thinking about brevity when writing briefly — Writing space always is at a premium, even online. So, too, is the readers’ attention. Research has shown that readers flip through Web pages faster than printed ones, which means writers have less time than ever to make a good impression online. Short, punchy words tend to help in this regard. Long words can trip up readers and force them to stumble through one’s prose, if they bother staying around long enough to finish.

Using active verbs — And speaking of brevity, active verbs take up less space than passive ones, because the passive ones are bigger and heavier and need modifiers to carry them along. Active verbs can stand alone and bear their own weight. Sure, passive verbs have a place in English — wherever slow, ponderous writing is a premium.

Avoiding redundancies — There’s really no reason to say the same thing more than once in writing. Let me repeat: There’s really no reason to say the same thing more than once. Unless you’re doing it for effect.

Trimming fat — Closely related to redundancy is excess verbiage — usually, the adjectives, adverbs and prepositions that pad our speech. Though it seems when first written that they help drive home a particular point, they in fact delay gratification or they overstate an idea. Use adjectives sparingly, limit adverbs to those times when it’s absolutely necessary to alter the verb’s definition, and make sure prepositions are always in their place, which is very close to, if not next to, the object they’re supposed to modify.

Doing the math — Just about all the journalists I know drifted into writing as a career in part because they were poor mathematicians, or had a natural aversion to numbers. Words were their passion. The thing is, good reporting often relies on making sure things add up the way they should, whether the scale of measure is math or logic. Take time to check the math. Or get someone else who’s good with numbers to do it for you.

Paying attention to personal quirks — This speaks broadly to everything said above. Our shortcomings are characteristic of our personalities. Detail-oriented people may miss seeing the big picture, while big-picture people may gloss over subtle distinctions. Still others have trouble in general with spelling or grammar or word usage. Subdue your ego long enough to gain perspective of personal writing or reporting flaws, even if it means asking other people about them, because those flaws could be the first things readers see in your writing.

Pacing yourself — Speed is essential in typing tests but not in thoughtful writing. Sure, deadlines constrain our penchant for doing things in free-form ways, but taking care to prepare for a writing or editing project can eliminate scheduling and organizational obstacles that slow us down. With careful preparation comes time to think clearly and carefully about what we’re writing, and given adequate time we can pace our production.

Editing more than once — In my line of work, however, speed counts. Newspapers never are casual places, and the closer to deadline my colleagues and I get the more prone we are to hurrying through our edits to news copy. This is not acceptable behavior, mind you, just one of the vagaries of deadline journalism. Freelancers, on the other hand, have rather more control over their schedules, and fortunately, more control over the editing process. They should understand that one re-read does not constitute a good edit; two, three, even four re-reads is much better. Because our minds slip into comfort zones as our bodies do, we’ll easily read past some errors while we’re keyed in to finding others.

If it helps, edit a piece at least three times taking three approaches: first, editing for story structure and clarity; second, for spelling; and third, for grammar. Dividing your focus on purpose improves the chances you’ll catch more errors and heighten your credibility.

David Sheets is a sports content 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 dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

 

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Take a look: Web resources

As freelancers, we know a little about a lot. And one of the things we do (or should be doing) is keeping an eye on the newest technology to make our jobs, and those of our clients, a little easier. Here’s a quick list of some of my personal favorites. Didn’t see something you love? Comment and add it!

Know ‘Em

Whether you’re a beginning freelancer or an old pro, you should know how important a brand is. Keeping that brand similar in the realm of thousands of social networks can be next to impossible. No worries, use Know ‘Em. They’ll scour all the networks for you and provide information about whether your handle or tag or username is already taken. From there, you can rebrand, sign up or switch it out.

Mezzoman

Meeting a source somewhere? An old friend? If they’re far away, it’s always harder to dig out the map, find a town halfway, then select a location that isn’t sleazy or unpleasant. Mezzoman will find a meeting point somewhere in the middle at a business of your choosing – coffee shop, Italian restaurant, book store, park. With apps for phones, it’s easy on the go as well.

Jux

Looking for a new way to present things? Want to run a cool graphic countdown on your website? Present something to an editor? Jux might just be the way to do it. Lay large graphics or photos behind a countdown, blocks or information or simple titles. The fullscreen view makes a distinct impression and it couldn’t be any easier to use.

Ifttt

With all of the tagging, following, friending and frolicking on social networks, it’s hard to keep things straight. Did you thank that person for the follow? If you connected with someone on LinkedIn, did you already friend them on Facebook? Or Twitter? Ifttt, which stands for “If This Then That,” gives you the ability to have action and reaction. Use their many channels to set up an “if this,” (someone friends you on Facebook) and “then that,” (message them Hello). If it rains in the designated zip code, they’ll call you, or text you, or post to your Facebook. The possibilities are endless and this one is my personal favorite.

There’s a quick taste of some new web resources. Stay tuned for more.

 

Tara Puckey is a freelance journalist based in Indianapolis, Ind. She focuses on military reporting and social media, helping clients navigate the digital world. Puckey has served on the national board, founded a local campus chapter and remains active in the freelance and membership committees. When she isn’t writing, typing or browsing, she’s spending time with her husband, Bryan, and their two daughters, Alexa and Brooklyn.

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