When I met Rakhal Ebeli in Manhattan for a coffee at 4pm on a late-May Thursday, I asked him how many business meetings he had already had that day. I knew he was only in town for a week, after traveling for the past six weeks to visit news organizations, journalism conferences, and universities in the UK, Belgium, and Italy. That day he had been to Hearst and NBC, among many others. “This is my seventh meeting today,” he said. And he didn’t even seem tired.
Ebeli is on a world tour to promote Newsmodo, a new platform he founded to connect freelance journalists—writers, photographers and videographers—to news organizations around the world.
Newsmodo is an online marketplace where freelancers can pitch stories or images, naming their price at whatever they like, or media companies can find a freelancer whose profile they like and send him or her an assignment. It’s free for freelancers to sign up, but media organizations pay a monthly fee for varying levels of access. Newsmodo facilitates all the invoicing, payments, and tech support; it takes a 30 percent cut of each transaction.
As a freelancer (“seller”), you can see the stories and images that other people are pitching, but only the news organizations (“buyers”) can see the prices. Photographs for sale all have watermarks to protect anyone from copying it, and writers can tease as little or as much of the story as they want. Ebeli says freelancers can potentially make a lot of money by licensing the same content to several outlets in a limited way; alternately, they can offer the option to sell exclusive rights to their work, in which case the price will be multiplied by ten.
Ebeli worked as a television journalist in Australia for 10 years, both in front of the camera and behind. It was when he was working as a producer that he got the beginnings of an idea for some type of freelance news marketplace, he said.
“I was so frequently brokering for images and videos that eyewitnesses had shot on their mobile phones, but there appeared to be a gap in this market, where newsrooms were unaware of where to search for this content,” said Ebeli. “They would sometimes look on Facebook pages, sometimes on YouTube, but there was no one destination for both buyers and sellers of that content to go to.”
So that was the inspiration for Newsmodo’s predecessor, newsme.com.au, which rolled out in 2010 and 2011 (now offline, and not to be confused with the New York startup News.Me). Ebeli said that the project had “moderate success,” but it showed him where the real demand was.
“Newsrooms wanted some kind of content to add to their coverage…but that content would not be from individuals who were not trained journalists, who were not experienced reporters,” said Ebeli. “They wanted professional, produced work. So that’s why we went back to the drawing board.”
With investment from Larry Kestelman, newsme soon became Newsmodo, and grew into a team of 15 designers and developers, all based in Melbourne.
Newsmodo joins several freelance platforms that have launched in the past few years, like Los Angeles-based Ebyline, founded in 2009, and the UK’s new Pitch Me, which at the moment is still an invite-only network. Other platforms have a more specific focus: Demotix targets freelance photojournalists (in as much as anyone with a mobile phone camera can be a photojournalist), and New York startup Contently has lately staked its claim on the freelance branded-content niche.
What sets Newsmodo apart is this emphasis on high quality content and high prices to match. New members aren’t screened in any way, but Ebeli and his colleagues have only marketed Newsmodo to freelancers through journalism schools and professional organizations thus far. Ebeli said that of the 4,000 or so freelancers who have signed up to make free profiles on the site, 100 percent of them are freelance professional journalists.
“We’re not putting ads on Facebook, we’re not putting ads in magazines or spending money through a marketing budget that will reach citizen journalists,” said Ebeli.
Likewise, Newsmodo rejects the cheaper-is-better, Mechanical-Turk-style auction model for matching buyers and sellers. “We’re not a reverse bidding war for work opportunities,” he said, “and that’s reflected in our clients—they’re all the world’s best news producers and broadcasters.”
One challenge that this type of service could face is the temptation for buyers and sellers to take their transactions offline after the initial connection, in order to cut out the middle man. Ebeli said Newsmodo has addressed this by including language about just that in the sign-up process. Buyers and sellers must communicate via chat windows and messages within the site itself: no external e-mailing or calling allowed. So, after agreeing to the typical Terms of Service, freelancers must also read and check off this box before their profiles can go live:
As Ebeli put it, “We’re not a dating service.”
Still, what would seem to be conditions for Newsmodo’s success—newsrooms forced to scale down their staff while wanting to maintain the same amount of coverage, professional journalists either choosing the freelance life or having it chosen for them—are, unfortunately, only going to increase.
Ebeli noted that this service could be especially useful for magazines and newspapers that want to find travel tips and lifestyle pieces from far-flung places. With a platform like Newsmodo, it will be much easier and cheaper for a media company to find a writer or photographer who’s already living across the world than to pay to send someone there.
Another interesting development that’s happened since Newsmodo launched is that media organizations have started to use the platform to syndicate their content to others across the world: the buyers have become sellers of their own.
“That wasn’t something that we’d expected to transpire so soon after launching, but in the past week we’ve had a French publication submit over 200 stories from the Cannes film festival: images, videos, interviews, written reviews, previews, the lot,” said Ebeli. “They think, ‘What’s the point of this only having the lifespan of one publication? Let’s see if we can monetize this by selling it to other publishers in other parts of the world.’”
Ebeli said that he has already met with 140 news outlets about doing business, and countless professional journalists’ organizations to get their endorsement. And the world tour continues: when he was finished in New York, the next stop was back to London and Melbourne, then on to Qatar and Bangkok.