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Getting paid to write is so 2012

Lately, many of the best blog posts I’ve seen being shared online are hosted on a new platform called Svbtle. What is this site and how do they get so much good content?

svbtle_logo

Svbtle calls itself “A curated collection of great people who have things to say.” In other words, it’s a blog platform closed to everyone except people approved by the site’s editors. The focus is on writing: the design is spare, there are no ads, and most posts have no pictures. Svbtle hosts more than 200 writers, many of them excellent. Most of the writers are experts in the tech community, and write about business ideas in frank and opinionated ways.

Svbtle just announced it has secured funding to expand. Well deserved — it’s a smartly designed, extremely readable site.

Also, by all indications, none of the writers get paid. Writing for Svbtle is a privilege. You have to apply for membership. They offer copy editing and fact checking, and pitch these as free services.

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This is an interesting development. At newspapers and magazines, copy editing and fact checking are not thought of as services provided to you. They’re irksome processes that frequently leave your precious sentences mangled and tattered, slashed by the knives of heartless editors. And yet, as a writer, you persevere anyway, because this is part of your job—a noble job, and one for which you receive a check for every other Friday.

Not so at Svbtle. This is a new bird.

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Let’s take a little detour to compare the models for sourcing online content, and see how Svbtle fits in.

Dinosaur media. Examples: The New York Times and most newspapers and magazines. A ponderous, expensive, full-time staff of writers and editors produce high-quality content and, for their labor, get money and Pulitzers. You have to be good to write there.

Traditional online media. Examples: Gawker and its ilk, tech blogs. Professionals on a shoestring budget do what newspapers used to do, but faster and sloppier. You have to be good to write there, and also willing to work hyper-fast under stressful conditions.

Crowd-assisted online media. Examples: AOL/Huffington, Forbes.com, Business Insider, Buzzfeed. A few paid professionals do some journalism in between curating viral-friendly listicles. Meanwhile, an army of volunteers churns out massive amounts of crap for SEO purposes. The barrier to write for them is extremely low, but so is the money (if you’re lucky enough to get any).

“It’s a privilege to blog for us” media. Example: Svbtle. Thought leaders hoping to promote themselves and their companies apply to use the site as their blogging platform, knowing it will help them reach more people. In return, Svbtle gets good, free content and readers know the site will always have interesting things to read.

So Svbtle takes elements of the old models (high barrier to entry—you have to apply to write for them, and they are selective) and the new (writers are volunteers, which biases the site toward people with time on their hands or something to sell).

And now it’s attracting the attention of investors. Should a blogging platform that’s making money off good writing pay its writers?

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As a professional writer, allow me to express outrage at the idea of people doing writing without getting paid for it. Ha ha, just kidding! Free writing has been happening forever and only people with a serious lack of perspective are bothered by it.

Why write for free? I imagine Svbtle’s 200 writers do it partly to educate people about their area of expertise, and partly to shill. In that respect, Svbtle is like TED talks.

And as with TED talks, Svbtle founder Dustin Curtis takes some flack for being to techy-insidery and elitist. (I imagine much of the griping comes from people who applied and were rejected from his tiny blogging club.) When you tell people it’s a privilege to do work for your site, some people will buy it, but others will be extremely pissed off. Of greater concern is whether Svbtle is sustainable. If the site starts to charge for its platform, good writers will probably bail. If Svbtle becomes ad-supported, the writers will want a cut. If Svbtle changes to become a more open ecosystem, the quality of the content will fall, to everyone’s detriment. It’s all a very tricky balance.

As peculiar as Svbtle’s model might be, right now it happens to work. Like public radio, it’s a messy compromise that results in unexpectedly excellent content.

Quality stories are quality stories. Regardless of where they came from. Even if nobody’s getting paid for them. Even if writers are perhaps being manipulated. I really enjoy reading Svbtle, and I think the people who write for it are pleased to have an audience. Good luck to them!

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Technology

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