Will efforts at reinvention improve contributor networks?

Josh Steimle speaking in 2016. Image courtesy Josh Steimle.

Josh Steimle’s digital marketing agency was failing. It was 2013, and Steimle needed to do something drastic to turn it around. A friend in public relations suggested he start writing columns for free. Steimle’s desperation spurred him to become a regular “contributor” to Forbes.com. He has since written hundreds of articles for Forbes, Mashable, Entrepreneur, and TechCrunch, expanding his profile and reputation.

“It absolutely changed my business,” he tells CJR. “The exposure led to writing opportunities at other publications and speaking opportunities, a book deal, and millions in revenue for my company.”

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Steimle believes that first Forbes.com post snowballed into $3 million in revenue for his business. Too good to be true? Act now and he will teach you how becoming a contributor to business and tech sites can transform you from an anonymous executive to an influential “thought leader” in your industry. He has created a class he says can teach you to “skyrocket your income by writing for top publications.

But his class arrives just as many outlets rethink their contributor networks. Is he looking to train people in a dying medium?

 

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HuffPost built its brand on the backs of unpaid contributors, but in January the US version of site dissolved its contributor network, which had grown to a sprawling, unmanageable 100,000 writers.

“Certainly the environment where fake news is flourishing is one where it gets harder and harder to support the idea of a ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ kind of publishing platform,” HuffPost editor in chief Lydia Polgreen told The New York Times in reference to what she sees as the dwindling journalistic value of unpaid contributor networks. (Polgreen serves on CJR’s board.)

Both staff and freelance writers have long criticized contributor networks and many cheered the HuffPost’s change.

“[Publications who use unpaid contributors] inflated the idea that writing is just a hobby, a side project, something people do in trying to achieve something else, not the job it’s been for centuries,” wrote freelance journalist Jen A. Miller in a commentary for Poynter. “Writers trying to make a living with our words were told we should put in hours of solid work creating content for someone else in exchange for the nebulous promise of ‘exposure.'”

Meanwhile, HuffPost said it would pay contributors for writing in new opinion and personal sections.

Last month Forbes went a step further, announcing it would pay each of its 1,500 ongoing contributors—about 60 percent of whom were previously unpaid. Each contributor will earn a minimum of $250 a month with a chance to make more, based on traffic benchmarks.

“In conjunction with these increased expenditures [in our contributor network], we’re redoubling our commitment to quality by putting more resources into the recruitment process and empowering our entire newsroom to find the best contributors,” Forbes Chief Content Officer Randall Lane says via email. “We’ll also review our network regularly and cut the bottom 10 percent annually.”

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Other outlets may not move to pay contributors but still see their value. News site Axios vowed to bring on 200 expert-but-unpaid contributors this year. Newspaper publisher Tronc, whose chairman recently announced his retirement amid declining print ad revenue and circulation in the fourth quarter of 2017, plans to build a network of contributing experts and entrepreneurs to add to the content produced in its newsrooms.

Forbes competitor Entrepreneur isn’t aggressively expanding its unpaid network, but is looking to increase quality. Entrepreneur.com Insights Editor Liz Webber, who oversees the site’s network, has brought on better writers and cut worse ones while holding the total number of contributors to around 800.

When Steimle started writing for sites, just half a decade ago, quantity was everything, and quality was an afterthought.

“The extent of my training when I got signed up with Forbes was an editor telling me, ‘I love what you’re doing on your personal blog, can you publish it on Forbes?,” he says. “In terms of editorial oversight, I wrote 164 articles for Forbes in three years and I received feedback from my editor maybe a total of six times.”

TechCrunch began rethinking its network over a year ago, putting it ahead of those sites that are shifting their priorities toward quality.

“We wanted to dial back the volume,” says Jonathan Shieber, a senior editor at TechCrunch. “From our perspective the change has gone well. The quality of the posts has gone up and the frequency has gone down, which is what we wanted.”

The takeaway: Contributors are welcome, they just can’t be hacks.

 

While plenty of articles offer tutorials on how to become a contributor, Steimle’s “Power Publishing” class, which began in beta in late 2017 with 20 students, appears to be the first of its kind. Guidelines typically ban self-promotion of a personal business, but Steimle’s class avoids that. The course markets itself to students as teaching everything from leveraging the power of social media to crafting tight, provocative pitches right down to the perfect subject line. The price of the class—depending on the level of personal attention someone wants—ranges from $1,497 to a whopping $5,997 a year.

“Our ideal situation has us working with publications, working with editors,” he says. “We want them to tell us what they want in great contributors and we will go out and train those contributors.”

High-quality contributors who are paid for their work (at least at Forbes) should improve writing and reduce editors’ headaches. But quality is only one problem with the model. The changes publications are making will struggle to address troubles built into the system—namely a lack of supervision, which can breed ethical issues. 

Problems with contributors engaging in unethical behavior helped bring down the old model. Shortly before HuffPost abandoned its old network, The Daily Beast uncovered a company paid to write what amounted to propaganda and publish it on HuffPost. Around the same time, The Outline exposed PR companies that paid off writers for tech and business sites in order to get clients mentioned in posts.

Steimle emphasizes he teaches ethical, transparent practices that follow sites’ contributor guidelines, which have long outlawed pay-for-play. But even if contributors are trained and paid, they will never be vetted, monitored, and advised like paid staff writers.

I would always correct them and say I’m just a contributor. But they had no clue about the difference. They just know I write articles for Forbes.

“I don’t know the intricacies [of every network], but generally there is very little oversight,” says Melanie Deziel, a branded content consultant with a journalism background. “There can be problems with fact checking, sourcing. You just don’t see the same level of oversight with contributors as you do with [staff] writers.”

Publications often demand a lot from their contributors. For example, Inc.com’s guidelines state the site is only looking for columnists able to commit to “at least one column per week” and would like writers who “know what it’s like to ‘feed the beast’ and are accustomed to writing for deadlines.”

“For someone who isn’t a reporter, someone who isn’t doing this as their primary job, it’s a tremendous amount of work and you can find yourself stepping down the quality because you need to pump out more than one piece a week,” says Deziel, who wrote a contributor column at Inc.com for nearly two years.

Then there’s the confusion the title “contributor” creates. Forbes’ Lane believes readers are savvy enough to know the difference between contributors and staff and points out the two are clearly, transparently labeled. Steimle is not so sure.

“When I was at Forbes they were very strict about the fact that you could never refer to yourself as a writer, only as a contributor,” he says. “Then I would go and speak at an event and they would introduce me as a Forbes writer. I would always correct them and say I’m just a contributor. But they had no clue about the difference. They just know I write articles for Forbes.”

 

The reinvention of contributor networks suggests publications believe some form of the model is key to their survival. Contributors have helped many sites increase traffic, which has led to increased ad revenue. Steimle, in typical marketing style, tells me everyone can win: Journalism can survive, and contributors can make a profit.

“If I had been trained the way we’re training people, it would have been better for me, better for the publications, and better for readers,” he says. “My hope is that I can help everybody win.”

It’s hard to know if large contributor networks, or Steimle’s class, are sustainable. When HuffPost began in 2005, executives and entrepreneurs who wanted to raise their profiles by moonlighting as writers had few options. Facebook was less than a year old, YouTube had just begun, and Twitter hadn’t been invented. Creating a personal or company blog took time and expertise. Now there are seemingly endless platforms where you can show off your expertise. They may not come with the cache of a Forbes or Inc byline, but they may offer more stability.

“You don’t want to invest too much in a contributor network knowing they could take away that platform and all your work would be gone,” Deziel says. “Luckily we are at a point where the technology allows for people to build their own blogs and run their own platforms on their own terms.”

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Jed Gottlieb spent a decade as the music & theater critic at the Boston Herald. He has written about arts, politics, and Back to the Future for Newsweek, Paste and many more publications. Follow him on Twitter.