Payment for Matt Saincome’s first writing gig—a freelance piece for a local music blog, for which he was paid $12—took months to arrive. And then it cost him $35 when his bank rejected the sloppily made-out check. “Great,” Saincome, the 28-year-old chief executive of OutVoice, a new digital payment system, remembers thinking. “I’ve waited 90 days, and I ended up paying $23 to write this post.”
Such horror stories are endemic in freelance journalism. Writers and photographers are sometimes prohibited from invoicing until a piece is published, which may come many months after they complete their work. An overworked accountant on a small staff might make a simple mistake, or an editor with a tight freelance budget might nudge a writer’s invoice into the next month’s lineup to allow for greater flexibility. For freelancers, it’s often difficult to get a sense of when a check might finally come through—or if it ever will. In 2018, the National Writers Union, which goes to bat for mistreated members, collected more than $200,000 for unpaid freelancers, according to NWU president Larry Goldbetter.
OutVoice, which launched in August 2018, is meant to ameliorate such slights by integrating with a site’s content management system and initiating direct deposits to contributors at the click of the “publish” button. It immediately notifies the recipient that payment is processing, which takes two to three days once a bank account is linked. Unlike digital invoicing platforms such as Kalo and Wave, OutVoice doesn’t generate invoices to be approved; instead, it cuts to the chase and pays contributors directly.
Saincome, a musician and former SF Weekly editor who freelanced for outlets such as Rolling Stone and Vice, envisioned OutVoice after he started The Hard Times, a satirical punk-news site. Channeling punk’s DIY ethos, Saincome recruited Issa Diao, a fellow musician, to do the coding. “If you can organize four of your least organized friends to travel around the country and be on time at 30 different shows for under, like, $2,000—total cost—you can pretty much do anything,” he jokes.
Launched on The Hard Times and its spinoff, Hard Noise, OutVoice has since netted its first investor, the content-monetization startup Coil. (Saincome won’t disclose investment figures but says he’s working on a seed round of funding.) The four-person OutVoice team includes one full-time employee who was hired to court big-name publications. In September, Saincome wrote on Twitter that he planned to step away from his own work at The Hard Times “to focus on bringing OutVoice to as many pubs as possible.”
Freelancers have greeted OutVoice as a welcome change, calling it “a breakthrough” and “one of the best things happening in publishing right now” and “a step in the right direction” towards solving a systemic problem. “I was kind of shocked when they said it’d process in two to three days,” Victoria Rose, a Brooklyn-based freelancer who was paid with OutVoice for her writing on the gaming site Fanbyte, says. She adds, “OutVoice definitely takes the cake for simplicity.” (Disclosure: I’m not an objective reporter here. This summer, I wrote a short piece for the website Hard Noise and was paid promptly via OutVoice. It was unprecedented in my experience as a freelance writer.)
But revolutionizing the status quo isn’t as simple as creating a shiny plug-in. There are hurdles to implementing platforms such as OutVoice, including the cost of transitioning to a new system and a general sense of inertia. Why would publishers change something that’s not troublesome for them?
There are logistical sticking points too. Anna Codrea-Rado, a freelance writer and activist for media freelancers, points out that many publishers don’t like to rely on third-party software for security reasons. And while OutVoice might reduce costs in the long run, magazine consultant Mary Hogarth says, it also might be seen by smaller, independent publishers as another slice from an already strained budget, especially if they still need at least one accountant to look over charges.
Then there are entrenched attitudes. Addressing unfair payment practices “can’t be led by the technology,” says Codrea-Rado. “It has to be led by cultural change.” Hervey Evans, chief executive of the magazine consultancy Erazmus, Inc., attributes such problems to power, rather than logistics. “Frankly, the convenience is not the issue,” he says. “Publishers can send checks or other payments out promptly if they are so inclined.”
To Saincome, OutVoice is a bargaining chip. As the field of freelancers grows and full-time staff positions in traditional media companies shrink, a reliable and immediate payment model could help publishers woo writers who have their pick of outlets to work for.
So far, the most well known publication to try OutVoice is Rolling Stone Australia. (Prices start from $29 per month; Saincome says he’s shooting for “a very small percent of your total monthly spend,” in the range of a cheaper Shutterstock subscription, for small companies.) But OutVoice has wedged its foot in the door exactly where it’s needed most: these are the places where nascent journalists start building their careers, especially as local newsrooms waste away. OutVoice is beginning to erode the barrier to entry for working-class journalists—people whose voices are sorely needed, but who can’t afford to do work that doesn’t pay promptly.
This post has been updated for clarity.