In this age of the incredible shrinking newsroom, how can editors get enough stories to fill the paper?
Former newspapermen Bill Momary and Allen Narcisse founded Ebyline Inc. in 2009 to provide a solution, giving news organizations a way to work with freelance writers and syndicate stories more efficiently.
Since launching last year, Ebyline has signed up some big-name customers, including the Los Angeles Times and Variety. The company now has expanded its service to include radio and TV stations.
Joe Howry, vice president and editor of the Ventura County Star, said Ebyline has helped the paper in the cost-cutting transition from covering news mostly with staff reporters to using more freelancers.
“Ebyline is a great assistance as we move forward to that new direction in the newsroom,” Howry said.
The Sherman Oaks company contracts with both freelancers and news organizations. Freelancers sign up to use the company’s online software by submitting examples of their work. They then pitch ideas to publishers or sell completed stories.
Publishers use Ebyline to find new contributors or help manage their existing freelancers. The use the software to track assignments, receive the finished articles and manage invoices. Publishers also can use the service to buy content from other publishers or sell their own content.
Ebyline charges publishers an 8 percent transaction fee when a story or photo is purchased; the fee is in addition to the freelancer’s pay, not deducted from it. So, for example, if a freelance photographer agreed to get $200, the publisher would pay $216.
At first, the company, which has six employees, only facilitated transactions for print stories and photographs. Last month, Ebyline updated its technology to manage audio and video files so it can add radio and TV customers.
Scripps Television Station Group, which owns stations in Phoenix and Baltimore among other cities, was Ebyline’s first customer to sign up for the audio and video service. Ebyline has about 45 total customers such as the Sacramento Bee, non-profit website ProPublica and all Scripps-owned newspapers including the Ventura County Star.
“Our go-to market is publishers because they invite their freelancers to join,” Momary said. “Those freelancers then become discoverable to other publishers. That’s how we’ve grown our customer base.”
Although some customers, including ProPublica and Cars.com, use Ebyline to syndicate their stories, most publishers sign up for Ebyline to better manage their freelancers. The Star, for example, typically has about 75 freelancers under contract at a given time. Before using Ebyline, the paper didn’t have an organized way to keep track of which freelancers it sent to cover events. As a result, different editors would sometimes accidentally assign different freelancers to cover the same event, Howry said.
“It’s a tremendous administrative tool not only in terms of our ability to quickly assign stories to our stringers but also in the whole process from assignment to the invoicing and payment of stringers,” he said.
Instead of waiting for the publisher to pay freelancers, Ebyline advances the payment to them and then charges the publishers for the payment plus the transaction fee. That way, freelancers are guaranteed quick payment.
Marc Cooper, director of Annenberg Digital News at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, spent much of his writing career as a freelancer. He said Ebyline has hit on a longstanding problem in the industry: Newspapers are notorious for being late on payments. But he wondered whether changing the relationship between writers and editors from one on one to online would cause new problems.
“Successful freelance relationships generally include very close working relationships between the editor and the contributor,” he said. “The more disconnected the editor is from that contributor, the more room there is for all kinds of problems.”
Before co-founding Ebyline, Momary had worked as vice president of advertising at the Star and as a regional advertising manager at the Los Angeles Times. Narcisse, the company’s chief operating officer, also worked for the Times and was director of operations at its Spanish-language newspaper, Hoy.
The pair’s newsroom connections helped them get Ebyline off the ground and many of their past employers have signed up for the service. Their journalism experience has also helped their credibility.
“They understand what the pressure and pain points are in our business right now and can look ahead and see where we might need help in our organizations,” said Andy Vogel, senior vice president of digital and mobile at Chicago-based Tribune Co., which owns the Times. The newspaper’s custom publishing group, which creates advertising-supported magazines, has been using Ebyline for about five months.
Newspapers have struggled as readers and advertisers have abandoned print for online. As a result, many newsrooms have cut staff and shrunk their papers, or have relied on wire stories to compete with the fast-paced online news environment.
Momary said he and Narcisse founded Ebyline to come up with an alternative.
“We believed we could help out with technology to sustain quality content,” he said.
Several other websites help freelance writers find homes for their stories. A Lansdowne, Va., company called Publish2 has also created a syndication platform for papers.
But Joshua Benton, director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, said Ebyline should be able to distinguish itself with its technology for the newsroom.
“A lot of products have been aimed at freelancers to give them a marketplace to pitch their goods,” Benton said. “But working with freelancers generally requires more work from the editor. It makes sense that there would be a market for a tool that would try to streamline that operation.”