The Bezos Effect: Why The Washington Post Wants to Be the Uber of Freelancing

This article originally appeared on our sister site, The Freelancer.

For all the technological progress that has been made in the past couple decades, it often seems like freelancing for media companies is stuck in the ’90s.

When I wrote a story for BuzzFeed, which, admittedly, doesn’t work with freelancers very often, edits were done over Google Docs, contracts were passed between a number of business intermediates, and the check took almost a month to arrive in my mailbox. For a company that embodies everything digital, I found it a little odd that BuzzFeed would send me an actual check. And for freelancers trying to make a living, this is just part of doing business.

The antiquated process isn’t the fault of anyone in particular, least of all the editors, who hate getting bogged down in these time-consuming administrative tasks as much as anyone. Lately, however, it seems media companies are finally realizing the kind of benefits that come with an organized, intuitive, and software-driven freelancer network.

The Washington Post, one of the more tech-savvy newspapers of the old guard and the third-largest national news provider, recently released a new platform called the Talent Network, which went live June 22 and is meant to connect freelancers to editors throughout the newspaper’s 600-person newsroom in Washington D.C.

Before launching the network, the Post functioned like most media organizations: freelancers had personal relationships with an editor or two, contract signing was a slow process, and pitching took place over email. Now, Jeremy Gilbert, the publisher’s director of strategic initiatives and the main architect behind the Talent Network, wants to bring freelancing into the 21st century.

The project was originally envisioned by Anne Kornblut, an associate editor at the Post, who formulated the idea during her time as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford last year. While the rest of the freelance economy has flourished with technology in the last few years, journalism had largely been left behind. In the network’s promo video, Kornblut explains that it was inspired by other software-driven freelancing networks such as TaskRabbit and Uber—she says they even jokingly referred to it as “UberLancer.”

How the Talent Network works

Like other marketplace solutions, the Post’s Talent Network is all about eliminating barriers to entry. Freelancers submit detailed profiles about their experience and work, are vetted into the system, and then can pitch their own stories or accept assignments posted by editors.

Vetting is a manual process handled by Eva Rodriguez, the editor assigned to run the network (though the end goal is to automate the process more in the future). Factors that impact entry include whether you’ve worked with the paper in the past, the clips you submit (Gilbert recommends three to five of the most relevant), and what kind of special access or skills you can bring (such as living in an obscure, but newsworthy area, or whether you have strong camera skills that complement your reporting).

The Post declined to provide any data on how many freelancers have joined the platform so far or what the acceptance rates are like, though Gilbert said, “We continue to have strong interest from freelancers wanting to be part of the Network. Our editors are already relying on the Talent Network for all kinds of things including covering breaking news situations like the shootings in Lafayette, LA and Chattanooga, TN.”

As Gilbert hinted at, the marketplace primarily targets freelancers who produce breaking news reports, enterprise stories, or multimedia projects. Breaking news has received special attention since one of the Post’s biggest challenges is quickly finding reporters who work and live near areas that need coverage.

“Our national team covers politics, but also the country in general,” Gilbert said. “There was a point at which the Post had bureaus all over the country, and Anne wanted to find a way that she could still have the same kind of scale and reach that the Post used to have.”

To accomplish this, Gilbert and his team focused on helping freelancers find the right editor for their stories and vice versa. In the past, Gilbert noticed that there would often be missed opportunities because a freelancer who worked with one specific editor wasn’t able to find the right editor for a different story, or an editor wasn’t aware that the perfect freelancer for an assignment was already in touch with a different editor in the 600-person newsroom.

“Unless someone thought to ask, and sometimes they did, ‘Does anyone know a person in this area?’ It wouldn’t work,” Gilbert said. “More often than not, people say, ‘Oh, I don’t know someone, so I guess I either have to wait until we can send someone there or we’re not going to do the story.'”

At the moment, this matchmaking process is, like the vetting process, largely done by Rodriguez. She uses the system’s pitching and profile systems to match editors and freelancers together. Though more automation will almost certainly be developed in the future, Gilbert believes using talented human editors like Rodriguez are key to successfully implementing the project in these early stages.

“We want to ease our editors into feeling comfortable in hiring more freelancers since most are used to working with a small set of freelancers that they often know personally,” Gilbert said. “So at the beginning, we’re doing that very stringently to make sure that everybody that is getting into the network isn’t someone that anyone of our editors does not feel comfortable with.”

Improving the Post’s old-school payment process—which still required freelancers to print out contracts and send them back as scanned documents or snail mail—was also part of the project, though Gilbert admitted that, like most of the network, these updates are still a work in progress.

“We got a lot of these old back-end steps out of the way so it’s just a smoother, faster process that leads to faster payment,” Gilbert added.

In other words, much of the contract and payment processes are being brought online and implemented into the Talent Network—but this seems to be a secondary priority to the matchmaking functions so far.

For now, all of the freelancer profiles are private—there are no ways to share a portfolio outside of the network itself, a potentially useful feature for writers who want to show off their work to potentially land other jobs. Though Gilbert doesn’t see that changing anytime soon, he told me that opening up the profiles to the public is something they have considered.

Is proprietary freelancer software the future?

Perhaps the most intriguing future for the Talent Network is its potential productization. At the risk of self-promotion, one of the best examples might be the company that runs this site: Contently, which has risen to the top 100 of the Inc. 5000 by coupling proprietary content marketing software with a network of 50,000 journalists and freelance creatives. It’s easy to see media companies following a similar route.

After all, media companies that build proprietary software have made a habit out of licensing it to other companies as of late, and Gilbert and the Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon, see a lot of revenue potential for the Talent Network.

“We’ve talked to Jeff Bezos about [productization],” Gilbert said. “He, as you know, does software as a service in a way that virtually no one else does. But we’re going to make sure that we have lots of great freelancers and lots of great assignments get published in the Post and then can figure out what we want from there.”

The Post may, in fact, be the originators of a new trend. Vox Media, arguably the most tech-oriented company in media, is also in the process of creating their own proprietary freelance network called “Freelancers.” According to the company’s product blog:

The goal is to provide our editorial and art directors access to a clean, visual method of recruiting freelancers for upcoming projects. The data included in Freelancers not only includes internal notes on the individuals style and experience, but also personal comments on interactions with our teams during past collaborations. This allows for us to quickly find the right people, for the right task at the right time.

For freelancers and editors tired of dealing with outdated systems, the potential spread of freelance network software around the media world can’t come soon enough. The day I stop getting checks in the mail weeks after I finish my work is when I’ll know the future is (finally) here.

Image by Festa

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