Budding writers often dream of the day their words will reach a wider audience, and that they’ll get paid for their hard work. And for many bloggers who toil in obscurity below the radar, the thought of having their blog posts show up on a huge newspaper site such as washingtonpost.com is enticing.
But the dream doesn’t always match the reality. New blog syndication services BlogBurst and ScooptWords help increase exposure for independent blog content through mainstream media outlets, but neither company entirely puts bloggers’ interests first. BlogBurst has been criticized for a licensing deal that gives up the bloggers’ rights to the media companies without fair compensation, while ScooptWords lets publishers run blog content without including a byline.
The syndication services have been pretty transparent about the business terms of what they’re offering bloggers, and both are in very early testing stages, with ScooptWords having been officially launched just yesterday. So there is room for improvement or changes that would benefit bloggers.
I spoke to Dave Panos, the CEO of Pluck, which runs BlogBurst, and I corresponded by email with Graham Holliday (pictured here), who is heading up ScooptWords. I’ve tried to sum up below what the two services offer and how they differ.
BlogBurst is run by Pluck, an Austin-based company that also offers an RSS news-feed reader. If you join the BlogBurst blog network, you might see your blog content on various big newspaper websites in the U.S., including washingtonpost.com, SFGate.com and various Gannett sites. To join the network, you need the approval of the BlogBurst editorial team, which reviews blogs to make sure they meet editorial requirements.
BlogBurst is looking for topical content with unique perspectives and won’t allow hate speech or libelous content. Once your blog is in the network, it is part of a pool from which staff at participating newspaper websites can pick and choose. Those sites run entire blog posts and are required to link to your blog. (Here’s an example of how BlogBurst content looks in the SFGate travel section.) There is no payment from newspaper sites to BlogBurst or from BlogBurst to bloggers during this initial trial phase (see more on compensation below).
ScooptWords is part of the U.K.-based citizen journalism agency Scoopt, which has been selling citizen-snapped photos to mainstream news outlets. Scoopt allows any blogger to sign up for the service, and is working in concert with Creative Commons to let bloggers choose various commercial and non-commercial licenses for their content. Bloggers display a special “Buy This Content” button on their blog. Publishers click that button to go through the process of buying that particular blog post through ScooptWords. Scoopt pays bloggers 50% of the sale price on the first sale of material, and 75% of all sales thereafter.
So what’s the underlying purpose of a blog syndication service?
“There’s a lot of great blog content out there,” says Scoopt’s Holliday. “Some of it is every bit as good as content produced by professional journalists. However, there’s no obvious route to market for the blogger or way to buy content for the editor.”
Panos says BlogBurst is helping bring publishers and bloggers together.
“We’re trying to create a relationship between the media companies and bloggers, and we’re actively recruiting bloggers for the media companies based on their interests,” he said. “We’re putting tools in the newsrooms of the media companies to allow them to work directly with the blog content and put it directly on their site. We’re trying to be a bridge builder between the media companies and bloggers.”
The two services also have some differences in style and approach. BlogBurst has a searchable database of content from 1,600-plus bloggers in place, while ScooptWords currently expects publishers to seek out the content on blogs or query the service for help. Panos told me BlogBurst works very closely with publishers, with a technological platform for automating feeds to the newspaper websites.
“We’re actively packaging up content from the blogosphere to make it even easier for the media companies,” Panos said. “And we have a team that actively recruits bloggers to fill certain needs. For example, the Houston Chronicle had a need for energy bloggers, and we went out and found half a dozen great bloggers that talk about the energy industry. Our approach is informed by our list of publishers; these sites are busy and don’t have the time to find bloggers and pay on an a la carte basis [as with ScooptWords]. That approach has been tried before and failed for professional content.”
Of course, Holliday was equally dismissive of BlogBurst’s efforts, especially the fact that it hasn’t offered any payment mechanism for bloggers.
“I think [ScooptWords and BlogBurst are] doing very different things,” Holliday said. “We’re selling to the offline end of print publications for a start. We simply offer a payment mechanism for bloggers who want to sell content and editors who want to buy it. We bridge the gulf if you like. BlogBurst is very interesting, but I don’t think it’s a very profitable model, at least not for the bloggers, as it stands. In fact they don’t offer any payment at all. So, ScooptWords is a very different proposition for bloggers and editors. You blog…we sell.”
BlogBurst’s company blog includes no bylines and has little personality, while ScooptWords’ blog is much less corporate and more down-to-earth with Holliday at the helm. Scoopt’s approach seems a bit more blogger-centric while BlogBurst is focusing more on the media companies and their needs.
But Scoopt also acts more like an agency, and requires that publishers pay a finder’s fee of 15% if it hires a blogger for other writing. BlogBurst is more loose on these terms, with no demand for a finder’s fee if a blogger gets hired by a mainstream media company.
As a longtime freelance journalist, I know the ins and outs of media companies and their practice of grabbing all rights for your writing. Most contracts call for the media company to own the rights, leaving the freelancer out of luck when hoping to resell the work elsewhere. These same issues have come up with BlogBurst and have informed the way that ScooptWords is trying to balance the requirements of media companies (who want more rights) and the bloggers (who want to protect their rights).
BlogBurst has a fairly standard licensing arrangement in its Contributor Agreement, which reads, in part:
“You grant to Pluck and its affiliates a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual license to reproduce, distribute, make derivative works of, perform, display, disclose, and otherwise dispose of the Work (and derivative works thereof) for the purposes of (a) modifying the Work without substantially changing its original meaning, and (b) distributing the Work (and derivative works thereof) to Publisher electronic web sites or corresponding printed editions, whether now known or hereafter devised.”
Bloggers such as MedGadget have complained about the restrictive terms of the agreement, especially that Pluck has a perpetual, royalty-free license to the blogger’s work — meaning they can use it forever without paying the blogger. Pluck’s Panos said he was considering the complaints of bloggers and might change the agreement over time.
“This is one of those challenging things to get the balance right,” Panos said. “We’ve been in discussions with bloggers long before we launched the service. Part of the value we bring is helping create the legal relationship between [bloggers and publishers]. If the media company gets rights to the content, there are two questions: What are they able to do with the content, what’s the limit to their use? That’s something we’re continuing to look at. Should they be able to put it in print and should they be able to make changes to the content?
“The other question is how long do they have rights to use it? That’s an issue for the media companies because they want to be a place of record, and if a blogger decides not to be part of the network, then we have this question about what happens to the content that was on the site. We can’t create a hole in the site. We’ll probably make some changes in this agreement to get it worked out over the first year of the service. We’ll probably get more specific about the scope of the use.”
ScooptWords is promoting its partnership with Creative Commons as a nod to writers wanting flexiblity in rights arrangements. However, Scoopt errs on the side of publishers with a rule allowing them to use blog posts without the blogger’s byline. Scoopt explains this on its blogger FAQ in this way:
“We cannot guarantee you will receive a byline for everything you sell. However, every time an editor buys your words he will be sent your name as it appears in the ScooptWords sign-up form. It is up to individual editors and publications whether or not they attribute the author’s name.”
Holliday admits that this rule — and one that allows publishers to change material — could turn off bloggers, but that Scoopt must maintain the no-byline rule because a publication such as The Economist has no bylines. Fair enough, but what’s the use of blog content without a byline? It’s true that many blogs are run under a brand name such as Gawker or pen names such as Atrios, but many bloggers won’t take kindly to having their bylines removed and it goes against the spirit of getting exposure for the blogger.
Compensation and Beyond
The biggest difference right now between the two services is that Scoopt is saying it will pay bloggers within 30 days of a sale, while BlogBurst is only offering a promotional boost to bloggers. But how much Scoopt might pay is an open question. At the moment, Scoopt requires publishers to contact them to negotiate an initial price that can then be used as a basis for future transactions. Here’s the current explanation for pricing on Scoopt’s site:
“The first time you contact us to license blog content, we will set up an account for you and discuss payment rates. If we can agree to a ‘rate card’ at the outset, this makes it simpler for you to click-and-go in the future.”
At the outset, Scoopt will pay out to bloggers using PayPal only, which means bloggers will not only have to pay a cut to Scoopt but also pay a fee to withdraw money from PayPal. While BlogBurst currently doesn’t pay bloggers, Panos says that will likely change after the service has been running for 90 days (it’s been live for about 30 days so far), but no payment particulars have been finalized yet, including how BlogBurst will split revenues with bloggers.
I think the concept of syndicating well written blogs in mainstream publications makes some sense — especially if you can match publications and bloggers that cover similar ground. Any service that helps editors — and ultimately readers — sift through the mountain of blogs to find the good, relevant ones will be welcomed warmly.
But as far as making this idea into a business, that’s another story. As a freelancer, I know that most newspapers have very little money in their freelance budgets, so there’s not much of a pot to split between an agency and a blogger. And the media companies themselves have launched blogs and are often well versed on the best blogging content to try to purchase on their own.
Finally, the bloggers have many other ways to make money off their blogs, from Google AdSense advertisements to ad networks such as Pajamas Media to just asking for donations.
These are obviously very early days for the blog syndicators, so let’s give them time to get the rights issues down, set up fair monetary compensation and prove the market is viable. Otherwise, this will be an idea that will have to wait for Web 3.0.
What do you think? Have you used BlogBurst and what was your experience? Would you read syndicated blog content on newspaper sites or in newspapers or magazines? Do you think Scoopt has a better or worse chance to succeed? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
(Full disclosure: I did sign up for syndication of MediaShift content through BlogBurst, but didn’t get very much pickup of my blog. After learning more about the rights issues, I’ve decided to cancel my account with them.)