Suite101 Expands: Another Small Sign of Hope for Writers?

Last Updated Sep 16, 2009 8:41 PM EDT

For content creators -- researchers, reporters, writers, editors, designers, photographers, producers and many others, both online or off -- this has been an especially prolonged and disorienting recession. It has often seemed that just about everyone you know in the business has lost his or her job recently, with seemingly few prospects of landing a new one.

My sense, however, is that the tide is beginning to turn.

In the past few weeks, I've been noticing more and more job listings seeking freelance writers, bloggers, and other professional content creators. Executives I've interviewed at a range of companies -- from behemoths like AOL to large companies like Examiner.com to a range of startups have told me they are now actively seeking talent, and that they are willing to pay at least something for it.

This past weekend, while serving as a judge for the Society of Professional Journalists, I was struck with how many former newspaper reporters and editors among my fellow judges seem to have recently found new opportunities online, many with university programs or with non-profits; others with startups.

These were not early adapters, i.e., those who moved to the web in the mid-nineties, but rather people who lost their long-held positions in the wave of layoffs sweeping through the industry just these past two years.

In this context, it's worth taking a look at one of the for-profit companies that appears to be building its growth model on the contributions of freelancers. Vancouver-based Suite101 today announced that it is expanding globally by launching websites in Spain and France. It already has a presence in Germany and North America.

According to the company, its English-language site publishes articles by 2,500 freelance writers and gets 15 million visitors a month, "most of whom find the site by searching the Internet for information on a specific topic." So it is still a relatively small player in the industry, though not necessarily by Canadian standards, eh?

The company says one 29-year-old stay-at-home Mom made $5,000 in monthly income writing for the site.

Now, of course we all have to stay properly skeptical about these kinds of claims until we are given some more detail, which in this case I am seeking from the company. (No answer by deadline.)

Still, I have little doubt that with enough effort and strong enough content, a good news and information site can grow its traffic globally and attract enough ad revenue that -- if it shares that with contributors (which is what Suite101 does) -- home-based entrepreneurs may be able to build up a business over time.

Even better for the individuals, of course, would be a model that compensated the contributors on the basis of a combination of revenues, like a cut of distribution deals plus an ad-share scheme, all based perhaps on a small monthly retainer.

Of course, in the aggregate, this all adds up, making the marginal cost of content creation nowhere near that ideal figure of zero that drives most citizen journalist efforts. But the market that will drive this -- the talent market -- suddenly is getting much more attention that it was even a few months back.

Meanwhile, years of experience as en editor taught me that while anyone can try to write effectively, a much smaller group can actually do so at a high level of quality on a sustained basis. So, the trick for everyone from AOL to Suite101 will be to hire the right writers!

Related Bnet Media links:
The Examiner.com-NowPublic Hookup: Part Two "There are a number aspects of this week's acquisition of NowPublic by the Examiner.com that promise to put the business model of a hyper-local news network to its largest test to date..."

Inside the Examiner.com Purchase of NowPublic: Hyper-Local Media "While pondering today's news that the Denver-based Examiner.com, which aims to be the top local news network nationally and perhaps beyond, has purchased NowPublic, a tech-savvy, user-generated content pioneer based in Vancouver, I couldn't help wondering what William Randolph Hearst would think about all of this..."

AOL's Business Model: Part Two "During my conversation with AOL's Marty Moe the other day, he talked about writers, editors and other content producers in a way I have rarely -- if ever -- heard from an online business executive..."

AOL's Business Model: "High-Quality Content to Scale" "Until around three years ago, you would never have mentioned the phrase "high-quality content" and AOL in the same sentence, because there simply was no connection between the two..."

NPR Redesigns To Provide A News Destination Site "National Public Radio (NPR)'s newly designed website has gone multimedia in that it now provides a lot more text stories in addition to its traditional audio reports..."

Is AOL on a Mission to Save Journalism? "When a friend forwarded that article from TechCrunch claiming AOL has 1,500 writer/bloggers on staff, and is planning on doubling or tripling that number over the coming year, I started thinking..."

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.