Here’s the life cycle of a typical freelance assignment: A writer pitches an editor and both parties agree upon a price. The writer then files the story, and submits an invoice after the story is published. The editor signs off on that invoice and sends it to the accounting department.
In an ideal world, the writer receives his or her invoice 30 to 60 days later, provided no clerical or technological errors derailed the process, but that doesn’t always happen. Freelance writers struggle to find commissions from media organizations, many of which are struggling with declining print sales and competition from new sites that often pay an army of young writers very little money (or, sometimes, nothing at all). In 2019, freelance writers must also compete against websites that churn out fake news in the hope that they’re shared on Facebook.
‘We have these digital-first properties and people who are super high-paced in everything else — a breaking news story hits and they’re right on it — but we have freelance payments that were designed back when they were still building Hearst Castle.’
What’s more, readers are losing their faith in news. “Tumultuous news cycles have made an impact on global opinions regarding media,” according to the “2019 Best Countries U.S. News & World Report” released in January. Some 63% of people agree that there are no more objective news sources they can trust, and 66% say internet news and content is dividing people rather than uniting them. More than 50% agree that political and social issues around the world have gotten worse over the past year.
But now at least one part of that complex, sometimes frustrating process for independent journalists could be made easier: A new plugin tool for websites allows freelance writers and photographers to get paid the instant an editor publishes their work. OutVoice integrates with a publisher’s content management system (CMS) and allows an editor select a freelancer from a drop-down menu, type in the worker’s agreed-upon rate, and hit “publish and pay” once a story is ready to go live. That also notifies the freelancer — and even tracks the payment for tax purposes.
“It feels like the way it should’ve always been done,” Matt Saincome, the 28-year-old co-founder of OutVoice, told MarketWatch. “We have these digital-first properties and people who are super high-paced in everything else — a breaking news story hits and they’re right on it — but we have freelance payments that were designed back when they were still building Hearst Castle.”
The payment platform, now in beta, currently integrates with the content management systems WordPress and Drupal. WordPress has about 60% of the CMS market share and is used by a third of all websites, according to the web technology survey site W3Techs. Drupal, meanwhile, has a 3.4% CMS market share and is used by nearly 2% of all sites. Saincome hopes to eventually make the plugin available for every CMS.
The innovation comes as freelancers make up a growing part of America’s workforce: Freelance workers in the U.S. total about 56.7 million, according to a study published in October by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, a 3.7 million rise in five years. Some 35% of Americans freelanced in 2018, the report found.
The only party that doesn’t stand to gain from OutVoice, Saincome said, might be an accounting person at a small publication who comes in for a week at the end of the month to process invoices. “That would be the person who lost something in this equation,” he said.
The Pacifica, Calif., resident says he once waited several weeks for a $12 check in his early writing career — only to be charged a $35 fee after the check bounced. He wrote for publications like Rolling Stone and Vice before working as a full-time music editor at the alternative newspaper SF Weekly, and in 2014, he founded a heavy-metal satire site, The Hard Times.
Having endured the invoice slog as a writer, editor and now a publisher, Saincome resolved to find a better way. He and his co-founder Issa Diao, a developer and alum of the hardcore punk band Good Clean Fun, invested their own money to build OutVoice.
“When I started my own publication and it got popular, I really wanted to improve upon my experience as a freelancer and as an editor,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to ask my editors to spend a whole day every month tracking down invoices, and I didn’t want my freelancers to go through the nightmare that is the current model.”
OutVoice is now in use by The Hard Times, which has around 200 freelancers on its payroll, as well as some local San Francisco blogs and a corporate tech client, Saincome said. The music publication Consequence of Sound plans to jump on board soon, he added, and several other publishers have expressed interest.
‘I didn’t want to have to ask my editors to spend a whole day every month tracking down invoices, and I didn’t want my freelancers to go through the nightmare that is the current model.’
The cost to use OutVoice is still being finalized, but Saincome envisions it as “a small percentage fee based on your monthly [freelance] spend.” For most publications, he said, that would be similar to what they pay for a stock-image subscription like Shutterstock.
A pair of tweets by Saincome in February explaining how OutVoice worked drew thousands of likes and some incredulous replies. “This would be… life-changing beyond belief,” tweeted writer Emma Dibdin. “INSTANTLY? yo lemme write for hard times,” added rapper DVS.
Saincome fielded questions and absorbed feedback. “There are budgets, limits, 2FA [two-factor authentication], and a system for flagging and reversing fraud transactions,” he replied to one person who raised the specter of potential abuse. “A rogue editor could not drain the company account or anything similar.”
Other features include a way to pay contributors a so-called “kill fee” if an assignment gets axed, as well as the option to pay multiple contributors (like a writer and a photographer) for a single post. OutVoice also offers a step-by-step onboarding process for new freelancers, so an editor doesn’t have to waste time walking them through an intellectual property agreement, W-9 form or publication style guide.
Christina Frey, the co-executive of the New York-based nonprofit Editorial Freelancers Association, who has neither used nor endorsed OutVoice, said anything that helps streamline the payment process for freelancers marks a step in the right direction.
“Time spent on admin is time that can’t be allocated to paid work or professional development,” Frey, who lives in the Annapolis, Md., area and works as an editor, ghostwriter and literary coach, told MarketWatch. “Our skills, our creativity and our time are our biggest assets.”
As a creative professional, she added, “admin is the last thing that I want to spend my time on.” “Too many tasks crowding my mind can get in the way of my creativity,” she said. “When my plate is clear of less-essential tasks, I can work more effectively.”
And for editors, she said, a time-saving payment method “would mean that they no longer have to act as a go-between” for the accounting department and freelancers. “It keeps the relationship more focused on the content, and that’s going to result in a better collaboration,” she said.
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