22 November 1999
2,000 words

Meet the Web Editors

Write for the Internet, shop at the Salvation Army
New webs offer great opportunities, not much money
$.30-1.00/word, but chance to break into TV or Science

Note after the dot-com crash: The Internet has changed since this 1999 panel. Praxis and Discovery.com are no longer free-lance markets. But most of their insights into journalism on the web are still valuable.

NEW YORK--If you're a beginning writer willing to invest the time in low-paid work at 30 or 40 cents a word, the Internet offers great stepping-stone opportunities: jobs on TV or in magazines like Science. The web sites are the back doors to the most prestigious magazines, cable and TV operations. If you're a more experienced writer, there are also sites that pay up to $1 a word, generally for more involved stories. You know the drill: you can make a good hourly rate out of it, but it's complicated.

The Science Writers of New York heard editors of 8 web sites explain how they are hiring writers to work freelance, full-time or on long-term projects. The writers growled at the low rates, but drooled at the prospect of 19th-century style scientific expeditions.

Health is one of the most popular topics on the web, often followed by astronomy, the editors said at SWINY's "Meet the Web Editors" panel at the Rockefeller University on 16 November 1999, to an audience of about 50 writers, many of them students or beginning writers. Web users want to know about science. So the major web sites need writers who can figure out how to make sense out of the terabytes of information that pour onto the web.

"Web readers tend to like really cutting edge articles," said Charlene Laino , health editor and producer at MSNBC . "They don't care if the work is in the rat or the mouse," and won't be available to humans for 20 years.

(For what it's worth, one of the test stories I use to evaluate whether a medical web site is current and understandable is bone marrow transplant for breast cancer, and MSNBC had the best story I've seen so far. "Breast cancer therapy debated" )

Negotiating better rates

The Discovery Channel Online and ScienceNOW pay about $150-200 for 350-word pieces. Rates can reach $1/word at MSNBC, HMS Beagle, 21stC, and PraxisMD. The best money seems to be from PraxisMD, ghost-writing articles for doctors, at $2,000 a shot (good pay if the work goes smoothly; not for beginners). HMS Beagle, whose readers are life scientists, offers $1,200 to repeat writers for their 1,500-word profiles.

But many editors will make a deal. If you can give them a better product or make their long hours easier, they'll raise the price. You can sell packages of 3-4 stories, pictures and other media content more easily, and for a higher rate, than a single story. "I generally pay about 75 cents a word," said Laino. "However if you're doing a whole package for me and throwing things in like a quiz or a survey, [or a timeline or video], it usually ups the price. Something that would have been $750, I'll give you $1,000. It's all negotiable."

"I'm not paying a writer just to write," said said Karen Watson , senior science producer at Discovery Channel Online . "If that person is helping me to create an architecture of the story, if that person is helping to create side elements to the story," then "we try to negotiate something very fair."

(Note: On 11 November 2000, Discovery.com fired most of their news division, suspended freelance assignments, and Watson said that their editorial future is "unclear", although they would be paying invoices for completed work. Discovery.com will now be tied to Discovery Channel programming.)

It doesn't hurt to know HTML coding--but it doesn't help much. Editors are looking for writers who can write, not code, said Lois Wingerson , editor of HMS Beagle . Your own coding will just get in the way of their own house style.

During the question period, many writers broke into angry protests on the hard lot of the writer, and the humiliatingly low rates.

"I think most of the writers that work for me feel that they're being paid very fairly," said Watson, who pays $200 for a 350-word story and $150 for a newsbrief. "They're not being paid New Yorker rates but they're not taking New Yorker time to do their pieces," she said. $200 is $50 an hour if you are seasoned and can do the job in 4 hours, she added. Neither does she insist on all rights, except for Expeditions. "Our news features and Expeditions pay substantially more but are negotiated per package," she said. "Seasoned writers are used for the bigger packages and are paid in part according to their participation in the overall multimedia creation of the story."

Writing for the web

Web writing, like most writing, should be concise--people won't read more than 2 screenfuls. "How can you possibly" report in 300 words on articles in Science and Nature, one young academically trained writer asked Erik Stokstad , editor of the AAAS' ScienceNOW . "The abstract itself is 300 words," she said. "They're so technical."

"Yeah," admitted Stokstad. "It's hard work." But they use a formula. The point is not to relate everything in the paper. The point is to digest the most salient information into a news brief. "They're meant to be lively and accessible."

ScienceNOW pays $150 for a 300-350 word story, which might go up to $225 if the story is picked up by Science and the Encyclopedia Britannica .

But readers might read a group of related stories. Games and quizzes go well on the web. Hyperlinks might be "the most important new punctuation that has been invented in the last few centuries," as Steven Johnson of *Feed* called them, but hyperlinks can be done well or poorly, said William B. Millard , editor of Columbia University's 21stC . "I would like to see more authors put some attention into the 3-D hypertextual aspect of their work," because then he won't have to do it.

Eliene Augenbraun , DO, PhD, general manager of Science & Technology News Network , which runs Science Friday's web site, actually has data on the users of their site. Like other NPR listeners, they tend to be male, and over 40, "but we do have a lot of younger kids using sciencefriday.com," she said. "What they like most are the links. A lot of our focus groups say that the urls are the most important things." She tells writers that "the links are really, really important," and they should be tested.

Personal journalism often works well on the Internet. "We try to favor a tone that's sort of knowing and a little bit edgy or wise-ass or snarky," said Millard. "We want to be a little bit iconoclastic." Millard pays about $1 a word for 500-word media critiques, 1,000-word articles in the multi-disciplinary section, and 1,500-word think pieces.

PraxisMD is bringing a print journal for doctors, Current Practice of Medicine, on line, said Mary Crowley , editorial director. The web version will be much-expanded with articles for doctors ($2,000 for the writer, $200 for the doctor), articles for patients ($500), and links within the articles to "drill down" to further information. They are also creating a webzine (50 cents to $1 a word), with a "lifestyle kind of fun look at medicine." One feature, similar to Slate's Breakfast Club, is "The Stan and Rosanne Show." Stan is an intensivist at Tufts in Boston, and Rosanne is a nun physician in rural Alabama, "and they're emailing each other their experiences," she said. "We hope they fall in love and get married."

Opportunity vs. low pay

With low rates comes opportunity. "We are a good place for starting journalists to begin," said Watson. In the great tradition of 19th-century newspaper circulation-building adventures, she sends her writers out on "expeditions," digging dinosaurs in Alaska , or searching for tigers in India . "We bring people to Washington DC, we teach you how to use the laptops," satellite phones, video cameras, and digital cameras.

"There are 2 people on staff at Science in the news department who began by writing regularly for ScienceNOW," said Stokstad. "The print news editor started to take notice, commissioned print pieces for them, they impressed the print editors enough that they got hired." A third writer was also brought onboard but later left for NPR.

"If you're going to write for a nascent media like the web you're going to get fairly exploited," said Augenbraun. She pays interns $100 a story, and experienced writers $200. "We don't have cash to pay. So we try to provide training instead. We'll work with very young writers, writers with no clip files," and train them. "If you have an opportunity to get real training take it," she said. "We consider ourselves a vertically integrated broadcast company, so most of our people, if they want it, have an opportunity to work on TV writing and on web writing."

At MSNBC, you might be asked to provide some background for a quiz or other interactive to accompany a piece by NBC's Robert Bazell, said Laino.

Telecommuting sometimes works, but has limits. A T1 line can't carry the information that flows over a coffee machine. "I in a sense telecommute from New York to London," said Wingerson. "I can't tell you how difficult it is. I miss daily contact with the overall editor of Biomednet." But Augenbraun disagreed. "Our company started as a virtual company," she said. Ira Flato was in Stanford, CT, and she hired a freelancer in Rochester, NY, sight unseen.

What pays the bills?

Readers don't pay for the web as they would for a print version, "so how are they being supported?" asked another writer. "I don't want to seem pessimistic," but how can they continue without making money? Her own magazine's web site is a "sinkhole" for money.

"Our site is not making money at the moment," said Liz Rawlings, editorial manager of The Alchemist, a sister publication for chemists of HMS Beagle. "But our revenues from advertising increases as the membership goes up." She pays $370 per 1,000 words for news or features and $170 per book review. "Probably not great by U.S. standards," she said apologetically.

"We're not breaking even yet," said Wingerson, "but we're projected that we will." She pays $300 for web or book reviews, $300 for press commentaries, $500 for career stories, and $1,000-1,200 for profiles of scientists or laboratories.

Discovery Channel has heard before that it can't be done. It was founded 14 years ago by John Hendricks, a corporate development officer at the University of Maryland, who tried to sell the TV networks on the idea of 24-hour documentary programming. "Nobody took it," said Watson. "He found investors and now he has a company that is worth more than a billion dollars. He believes that the Internet is a similar kind of concept." Discovery has an integrated operation with over 100 stores, catalog operations, and travel services.

The web site is "a way of enhancing what you have on broadcast," said Watson. "You're able to throw to online, people want additional information," she said. "It's a way of having a beefier product."

"It's a wonderful time to be a science journalist," said Wingerson. "Because there's going to be a growing demand for what is called tertiary content, the need for people to interpret, in easily accessible ways, this mass of information that's going to be suddenly available, to help find out and translate the best of what is being published, now that anything can be published anywhere," she said. "So for those of you that are starting out this is a great time to be coming into the profession."

"Now is the golden age to work with independent producers," said Augenbraun. "If they're independent they'll be bought by somebody else. I think it's a great time to take a chance 'cause you can't lose."

--Norman Bauman

Read a transcript of the meeting