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The Downside of Digital Projects

Apologies in advance; this first post of 2015 might be a bit of a downer. Nonetheless, for those of us who have at least one foot in the digital world–and most of us do–it’s worth talking about the downside and drawbacks of digital projects. Moreso, it’s worth talking about how to protect yourself and your work in the digital world.

I was already thinking about this before I met, earlier this week, with a colleague who is a digital content director for a major media brand. “My outlook is bleak,” she said, as we talked about click-bait articles that are sensationalized and not fact-checked and lamented how often digital “strategy” is determined by variables like number of social media followers rather than a writer’s or subject’s actual skills or interests. We talked about the never-ending to-do list of the media property she oversees, a site that could have way more views and engagement–the end-game of any website–but which is crippled by limited staff, micromanagement by people who pretend to know a lot about the digital space but have little actual fluency in digital media, and, she admits, her own flagging motivation.

The real reason I’ve been thinking about this subject though is because so much of my own digital work has been lost or is beyond my own control. Click on any of the links on my published works page and you’ll find that far too many of them generate 404 errors. As editors learn more about how user engagement works, they rewrite URLs or rename stories, and, poof!, my article is floating around in space. But maybe I can’t find it and fix the link (a time-consuming task even if it is discoverable) because the search function on the same website has disappeared completely (the elimination of search functions is one of the worst ideas ever, by the way).

Then there’s the phasing out and shutting down of platforms. If you’re one of those folks who crows about digital’s advantage over the supposedly dying medium of print, check yourself: have you been keeping tabs on how many online properties–even legit, big-name properties with big-time funding and old-school media brands behind them– have turned off the lights and pulled the plug? The New York Times regularly eliminates blogs it has invested time, money, and staffing in nurturing. So does The Washington Post, as my friend and colleague Tracie Powell reported recently for All Digitocracy. And my own former employer, Matador Network, recently decided to eliminate its community blogs, which were the platform many of its writers used to get started in the field. If writers didn’t back up their own work, it was scrubbed from the site and their servers. Fortunately, I’d anticipated that possibility and made print copies of all my past work a few years ago, but the investment of time was hours, as there was no native back-up system that writers could use.

Other downers? Digital editions of print magazines pull their archived issues after a certain period, decide to put them behind a paywall, or another publisher acquires them and they disappear from the Internet in a flurry of renaming and rebranding. Your work gets copied and pasted by someone who knows more about SEO than journalism, perhaps attributing your work to himself or herself or some invented “author,” and it gets more page views, praise, and pennies than your own piece did.

And those are just for starters.

Most recently, I’ve been confronted with a dilemma related to mobile apps. Back in 2010, I signed on to an app development project, the promise of which was that with a core group of talented writers, many of whom had bona fides from the print world, we’d be able to corner the travel app market, which was still young. For me at least, that promise wasn’t realized, and my app never made much more than $20 a month, a sum that never compensated for the time invested in the making and marketing I did for it.

Now the company that owned the platform upon which the app was built and maintained is defunct. When it folded, the ability for authors to access the back-end of their apps–the place where updating is done–disappeared while the business partners tried to figure out the answer to “What next?”. They still haven’t resolved the question, at least not for authors, who have been left hanging, along with their reputations. Our names are associated with guides that are outdated, yet we have no control over those guides. Several writers have pulled their apps from iTunes since they, like I, don’t want their names on out of date material they can’t correct. Others have said that the decision to scrub the considerable amount of work they did just makes them sick to their stomach and they can’t bear to hit the delete button because… where does all that effort go? {Please, don’t answer that question.}

I don’t sit around lamenting or worrying excessively about any of these scenarios or situations; after all, the bumps and jostles are part and parcel of figuring out a media landscape that is changing constantly. I haven’t even taken care of certain tasks that may be within my control, such as ferreting out those broken links and finding the new ones that replace them, because frankly, that’s not the best use of my time. I need to be generating new, paying work.

That being said, I do think there are certain precautions and protections that we can take when exploring new digital opportunities. Here are a few that come to mind based on my own experiences:

1. Get a contract. Read it.
For new and emerging media especially, it’s important that you temper your enthusiasm about the platform by ensuring that you’re holding it to the same standards of professional treatment that you expect of traditional media. If you’re offered the opportunity, for example, to develop an app, make sure that you receive, review, and sign off on a contract first. One important clause of that contract should address what happens if the developer goes bottom up. Where does your content go? Can you control it? What kind of money are you entitled to?

2. Ask about the monetization plan.
So many Internet ventures are launched on a wing and a prayer rather than a solid foundation and, crucially, a monetization plan (much less a viable one). For most players online and in the digital space, it’s getting harder to make money online, not easier. If you’re a writer or journalist who wants to make a living from your work, don’t accept “exposure” in exchange for some pay-off, whether that’s actual cash or equity, down the road. It’s rare for that pay-off to come. There’s nothing wrong with asking about a project’s monetization plan. You may not need proprietary specifics, but you do need to feel comfortable that the people steering the ship have a clue about what they’re doing and that you’ll be compensated appropriately for your work.

3. Back up everything.
Don’t rely on editors or publishers to keep digital proof of publication for you. If your work is destined for an online or digital outlet, find a way to preserve it. Maybe that’s a PDF, maybe it’s a hard copy of your article, or maybe it’s a screenshot or a file uploaded to the cloud. Whatever system works best for you, use it.

4. Keep in close communication with editors and publishers.
Keep an eye on your outlets, especially regular ones. When you notice that a site or platform is stagnating, ask about it. If you’re seeing gaps or problems, so is the average user/reader and these may foreshadow the twilight of the project. You’ll want to make sure that you migrate your own content (especially if you haven’t followed through on the preceding tip) before the site goes dark and your work disappears.

5. Confront content scrapers, then move on.
Content scraping–the act of someone else cutting and pasting your work and trying to pass it off as his or her own– is becoming more and more common. When you notice that your work has been stolen, confront the person who did it. Mobilize your network of readers and friends to call out the offending party on social media. And then move on. Otherwise you’ll spend far too much of your time on a battle for which the odds are not in your favor.

What advice do you have to add? Please share your tips in the comments.

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7 responses »

  1. Thanks for this very thorough and thoughtful post. It’s a realistic view of things and sometimes we need to know the reality. I started publishing when the internet was in its infancy and advertising was dictated by editorial content. Now it’s all turned around and morphing all the time. But there are opportunities out there, it sounds like you just have to be savvy about them. Good luck in 2015.

    Reply
  2. Thank you, this is very useful information. I’m not published yet, but we take things like these for granted very often…

    Reply
  3. Reblogged this on Gabby's Table and commented:
    Yes!!! It’s good that we can be positive and motivate ourselves forward in our freelancing and other business on the web, but this article shows how important it is for us to be realistic. The knowledge Cuaderno includes in her article only helps us to protect our hard work and our reputations as professionals. Thank you Cuaderno.

    Reply
  4. Thank you for sharing your words of experience, Julie. A couple of thoughts:

    1. Intellectual properties are not new, the concept has been around hundred of years, so are the laws protecting them. Intellectual property and copy rights are well established in U.S. and around the world. The bottom line is the creator owns the right.

    2. Cloud, platform, and apps are parts of the disruptive technology that are rapidly changing the creative landscape. As participants, we need to adapt accordingly. It is true that you may not control the platform, the app, or the cloud (god knows who control that), one always control his or her own creation (as you suggested about back up). Relying on others in this fast changing market is not smart.

    3. Cheaters need to be punished. If someone steals your creative work and gets away, there is no protection whatsoever for the intellectual properties (see #1 above). Yes, it takes effort but so is everything that is worth.

    My advises are to (a) get smart with the market, virtual or otherwise. Postings like yours help to draw attention to the need and share valuable lessons for others; (b) get smart with the business ends (as you mentioned about the contract, rights, compensation, etc.) in addition to your own creative work; and (c) get smart with social media and speak up for ourselves. This is no different from labor/ management relations where editors/ publishers are the management.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Terry-

      You won’t find me arguing that cheaters shouldn’t be punished. BUT for freelancers, finding, chasing down, and sending cease and desist messages that have little legal power, it’s hard to see if the investment of time is worth the effort. I once represented a well-known photographer in Havana, Cuba, and I asked him if he knew that gallerists in NYC were making copies of his prints without his permission. He shrugged and said, “If I spent my time dealing with that, I would have no time left to create.” That isn’t to say we should throw our hands up in defeat, but I do think we each have to make tough decisions about how much time we want to spend trying to punish offenders. Unfortunately, the Internet hasn’t yet evolved checks and balances to help us out in this regard.

      Reply
      • Hi Julie. You are absolutely right that we can not do everything. Creative work, business plan, enforcement of copyrights, etc., we are only human and should focus ideally on our specialty. Especially, when you need real legal action, got to get the lawyers involved.
        Having said that, I feel we need not be powerless. For professional writers, such as yourself, power of the pen, along with internet and social networking, is an avenue that should not overlooked. There are options can be leveraged. Individually, our voice may not be heard, but giving up is, in my opinion, not good.
        Afterall who is going to look out for us if not ourselves.
        Feel free to email me (tshen00@gmail.com) if desired.

  5. Pingback: The Downside of Digital Projects | My Comments | Running with Buddha

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