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Pressland and WordRates Are in a Fight to Save Freelancers. Will Anyone Win?

By Tim Beyers and Susan Johnston Taylor November 4th, 2015

Scott Carney and Jeff Koyen want a better deal for freelancers—even if it means angering powerful media companies, and each other, along the way.

Koyen, a 20-year freelancer, serial entrepreneur, and current editor in chief of Van Winkle’s, unveiled the beta version of Pressland on October 15. Carney, a one-time academic turned investigative journalist, launched WordRates and a companion service called PitchLab on October 19.

WordRates and Pressland have the same goal: to provide some much-needed transparency for an industry defined by obfuscation. And they do it the same way: by allowing freelancers to rate and review media companies and editors much like one would review a restaurant on Yelp. Ultimately, Koyen and Carney both want to give freelancers writers some muscle.

But while the two services share the same goals and function, WordRates and Pressland are very much at odds—and their similar release dates didn’t help in clearing the tension between the two companies and their creators. Nor did Koyen buying WordRates.org and WordRates.net and, according to Carney, redirecting them to point to Pressland. Koyen now says the land grab was a joke.

“Oh, the great domain name battle! I was just f*cking around,” Koyen said. “I redirected them to WordRates.com minutes after Scott lost his shit on Twitter. I’ll transfer ownership as soon as the lockup period is over. I never planned to use them.”

Carney confirmed that Koyen has promised to hand over the domains within two months, but the move indicated that WordRates and Pressland wouldn’t be playing nice.

In spite of the bickering, the launch of the two sites may mark a turning point in the relationship between freelancers and the companies that employ them. If they take off, Carney said, editors at even the most prestigious publications “are going to have to pay attention to freelancers.”

Two projects, one mission

Not surprisingly, Pressland and WordRates share similar creation stories. Both grew out of frustration with publications that pay too little, too late, and take too much. And, much to the chagrin of their creators, both share the same elevator pitch: “Yelp for media.”

Koyen and Pressland

Koyen has spent years attacking the problems facing freelancers from different angles. In 2012, he announced Assignmint, a platform meant to unite and simplify the workflow of a freelancer. From pitch to contract to payment, Koyen’s software was meant to manage it all. Plans for the project even included an A.I.-like system for matching freelancers to potential clients based on their work history.

Yet that never came to be. Today, Koyen says Assignmint remains a “passion project” that serves a handful of users who log in daily.

Now, much of his focus is on Pressland, which is meant to solve a different problem: the shadowy practices of publications and editors that have frustrated him and his fellow freelancers throughout their careers. His ultimate goal is to make Pressland as important to the freelance life as LinkedIn or Twitter.

“The next time you change jobs, I want you to say to yourself, ‘Okay, have to change my Twitter bio. Have to change my LinkedIn page. And oh yeah, I should update my Pressland profile,'” Koyen said.

With Pressland’s anonymous five-star ratings system, Koyen hopes that the late payers and publications with exploitative practices get their comeuppance.

“There are many jobs I wouldn’t have bothered pitching had I known the reputation of the editor or publication,” Koyen said. “Waiting 90 days after publication for your expenses to be reimbursed, then another 30 for your check? F*ck that. I’d rather take less money from a dependable, highly rated outlet.”

Carney and WordRates

Unlike Koyen, Carney took a much more public approach to WordRates’ creation, starting with a headline-grabbing Kickstarter campaign in April [Full disclosure: Taylor contributed to the Kickstarter]. By the end of the campaign, he’d raised nearly $10,000, surpassing his goal of $6,500, but the expected launch date of June ended up being delayed to October.

WordRates uses much of the same mechanics as Pressland to filter the good publications from the bad, but the reasoning behind the project varies slightly. Instead of broken payment systems being the main focus, Carney has crusaded against pay rates themselves—he believes the vast majority of magazine publishers should pay more than they do.

All you have to do is look at the ad rate sheet, he argues, to see how underpaid writers are. He also points to contracts, claiming that the most egregious offenders take away book, movie, and TV rights. Carney cites Condé Nast—publisher of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Wired, among others—as one of the most indulgent.

WordRates aims to combat this practice by providing contract information to those who pay for the premium edition: $35 for six months or $50 for a year. Carney granted us access to a sample of his advice to writers who receive the standard Condé Nast freelance agreement, which he called “horrendous.”

Condé Nast did not respond to requests for comment.

WordRates.com was on track to end its first week with 600 members and over 30,000 page views, according to Carney. Pressland also attracted “several hundred users” in the first few days, Koyen said. Hundreds of Yelp-style ratings of publications and editors are now live in both databases.

Can they deliver?

Though WordRates and Pressland are two of the most high-profile efforts to empower freelancers in recent memory, some aren’t so sure if they’ll deliver on their lofty promises.

“We’ve seen resources for writers/editors come and go over the years, so the jury’s still out on how these will pan out,” said Michelle Goodman, long-time freelancer and author of My So-Called Freelance Life. “I write about startups for Entrepreneur and some things that sound great on paper or online don’t always get off the ground or deliver what they promise.”

One problem is that pay rates and mastheads can change on a dime, so entries could quickly become out-dated. That’s why Meredith Quinn, managing editor at The Writer magazine [Full disclosure: Taylor has written for The Writer in the past], warns against writers relying on crowdsourced information without doing their own research.

Nor are these sites a substitute for forging professional relationships yourself. “The key to forging a new partnership is writing a professional query directed to the appropriate person,” Quinn said. “One person’s experience may not be indicative of an editor’s entire persona.”

Other editors we contacted using information found in Pressland and WordRates pointed out that it may be unfair for writers to rate editors who can’t assign stories to freelancers. Carney admits that’s a potential flaw, saying that “from a logistics standpoint” it’s tough to know how to segregate the masthead when editorial responsibilities shift rapidly.

There are also the issues that have followed their model company, Yelp, for years, such as “troll” reviews and the tendency for reviews to fall under one extreme (“I hate this restaurant!”) or the other (“this is the best restaurant in the city!”). Koyen recognizes that Pressland may suffer from similar issues, but he believes the positives outweigh the potential negatives.

“In terms of following the Yelp playbook—there’s an issue of reaching critical mass, to be sure,” he said. “To have the reviews and ratings net-out to being fair and accurate, we need both the axe-grinders and the ass-kissers to weigh in. We’re not just encouraging shit-talk. We want credit to be given where it’s due.”

Still, he says that people should review an editor, even if you don’t have any nice things to say.

“If you happen to be a real asshole of an editor? I hope you get called out on Pressland.”

To monetize, or not to monetize?

Pressland and WordRates aren’t the first to crowdsource information on pay rates and editing processes at media outlets.

FreelanceSuccess.com and ASJA both have paycheck directories available to paying members that provides both positive and negative information about particular editors and publications. The Freelancer also has a rates database available on our website.

Perhaps the most well-known effort, however, is Who Pays Writers?, which Manjula Martin launched as a Tumblr blog in late 2012 and has since collected over 800 entries.

Like the information provided by ASJA and FreelanceSuccess.com, many of Who Pays Writers’ entries lack the details Pressland and WordRates plan to provide, but they do give some basic information on whether a publication was easy to work with or if the writer faced payment delays.

Who Pays Writers’ content is freely available to anyone without creating a log-in or paying a subscription fee, and Martin intends to keep it that way.

By contrast, WordRates hides editor contact information and contract advice behind a paywall. Everything else—ad rates, editor profiles and ratings, and so on—is free with registration.

Pressland does not charge a subscription fee, but does require registration to access its content.

“Transparent information about pay rates isn’t editorial content and it isn’t a service or a product,” Martin said. “This information is a resource, it belongs to the people who choose to disclose it, and I hope it will be used by writers as a tool to collectively gain more power. A labor struggle should not be seen as an opportunity for third parties to ‘monetize.'”

Koyen, for his part, said he has no plans to monetize Pressland. “That’s the benefit of being completely bootstrapped and beholden to no investors.”

So what’s the plan for keeping the lights on? For now, Koyen is committing personal time and capital as he did with Assignmint. “I happen to have a great day job, so there’s no pressure at this time. But down the line, if it takes off? I can imagine raising a few bucks, hiring a developer, designer, and editor and paying them good rates to expand functionality,” Koyen said.

WordRates isn’t so altruistic. When pressed about using WordRates to monetize crowdsourced data—such as contact information—Carney pointed to the value-added contract advice he and a group of appointed mentors provide to premium members.

“Most of Wordrates is free. Regular members can see reviews and edit profiles, submit to PitchLab and compare advertising and pay rates,” Carney said.

Earning trust, and belief, for the long-term

The success of any crowdsourced content model lies in its ability to source high volumes of quality content. Once the initial launch buzz dies down for both projects, the challenge will be getting freelancers to continue sharing contact details and editor reviews.

Jennie Phipps, a veteran freelancer and owner of FreelanceSuccess.com, cautions that this could be easier said than done.

“Herding freelancers is maybe harder than herding cats,” she said. If information becomes stale or outdated, then there’s less incentive for freelancers to actively contribute, and the sites become less appealing.

For WordRates, Carney expects to do most of the database maintenance himself.

“It’s gonna be a nightmare,” he said, and he may be right. In two cases, contact information provided to us in WordRates resulted in bounced emails. Carney corrected the problems quickly enough, but the errors themselves are instructive. One address was simply wrong. The other was for an editor who had left the publication in 2007.

Pressland is likely to suffer similar errors, especially when you consider that Koyen plans to track 15,000 publications. Keeping all that data fresh means earning (and keeping) the trust of freelancers who contribute.

“Even though I promise complete anonymity, we’re all rightly suspicious of platforms and their assurances,” Koyen said. “No one wants to be the asshole who slags a popular, powerful editor—only to be sold out by the host website. I’ll never sell anyone out, but that trust must be earned.”

Poking the media bear—and starting a revolution?

So far, the industry has resisted the changes Carney and Koyen say are necessary. Some publications still hand out abusive, rights-stealing contracts. Editors still change the scope of stories and demand endless edits without paying for the extra work. Kill fees are often abused. And publishers can spend months sitting on overdue payments.

WordRates and Pressland’s Yelp-style ratings aim to hold editors and publications accountable for these practices, and that’s bound to rankle some.

“The pissy ivory tower editors were less enthusiastic [when approached about Pressland],” Koyen said. “But those are the people who should be nervous about Pressland—they treat their writers and peers like shit, so f*ck them. And yeah, I call some of these people friends.”

Carney isn’t as hell-bent on justice, though. Like Koyen, he wants fairer deals for freelancers. His belief is that writers will make better business decisions when they have the information to do so. They’ll pitch to publications provably willing to pay the rates they want, on the terms that they need. Koyen agrees.

“The true value proposition [of Pressland and WordRates] is connecting freelancers with editors via an open directory,” he said. “It’s an issue of empowerment for writers and accountability for editors and publishers.”

It’s clear that empowerment and accountability could, at the risk of hyperbole, be revolutionary. Whether WordRates or Pressland—or both—can make good on that promise is harder to see.

Tim Beyers is a Denver-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, AOL DailyFinance, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, The Washington Post, Writer’s Digest, and The Motley Fool, among other outlets. Find him on Twitter @timbeyers.

Susan Johnston Taylor has written for The Boston Globe, Entrepreneur.com, FastCompany.com, USNews.com and many other places.

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