What I learned in five days working for a citizen reporting website

Claude AdamsI’m a freelancer. I’m driven by hunger, boredom and ego and I’ll do anything, writes Claude Adams. So he signed up to write Olympics pieces (paid-for…sort of) for Allvoices, a Los Angeles-based citizen journalism website  Here’s how it went.

In case you don’t know it yet, the future of journalism is eyeballs. Eyeballs are everything. Tomorrow’s successful journalist is an eyeball accumulator. It’s a simple formula, really. Each time your headline, photo or lede provokes the Internet surfer to hit the enter key, your story gets one eyeball. (To be optically correct, it should be two eyeballs per reader, but never mind.) Eyeballs, more often called “hits,” add up. They are the cyber-equivalent of bums in seats. They are the measure of your proficiency as a modern communicator.

Okay, you’re Net-literate so you already know this! But I didn’t. I learned it by working for five days for an online outfit called Allvoices, a Los-Angeles based company that calls itself “the leader in citizen reporting.”

Now, citizen reporting is a euphemism for no money. Everybody knows that. But Allvoices decided to go the extra step, and to start a service called Provoices. “We recognize that these are tough times for many journalists,” went their pitch. So they would pay “up to $250 per story” to qualified journalists who were selected for the Provoices program. Plus there was this teaser: they “may pay much more for certain high-traffic stories.”

Allvoices, they said, already has 200,000 registered citizen contributors, reaching more than 4 million monthly visitors. The Provoice correspondent, then, would reach a vast audience that had already been carved out, and make scads of money. All you had to do was bring in the eyeballs. Easy.

I’m a freelancer. I’m driven by hunger, boredom and ego. I’ll do anything. I’m a word whore. So the day before the Olympic opening ceremonies, I got in touch with the Provoices chief of correspondents and traffic cop, Lynda Gorov, an “award-winning” former correspondent for the Boston Globe. She sent me a contract, and I agreed to do daily pieces on the Olympics. The next thing she asked me was, did I have tickets to events? I said no. If I could afford Olympic tickets, I wouldn’t have to do this kind of work. (I didn’t say that.)

She told me she wanted stories that “push the envelope.” She used the word “quirky.”  She didn’t want my writing to be “stuck in conventions.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but freelancers always say yes first and worry about the fine print later.

So I said yes. “The pay ain’t great,” she continued. “I can offer $150 a day for a really productive day . . . maybe one 250-word story and another 500-word story, or a list and a long piece. We love lists.” That didn’t square with the earlier promise of $250 or “much more.” And I didn’t know what she meant by a list. But I didn’t want to quibble. This sounded like easy money. “Let’s see how it goes,” I emailed back, along with the signed contract.

My first story was on the death of the Georgian luger, and it talked about other dangerous Olympic events. It came to 640 words, and took about two hours to research and write. “Really good,” Lynda wrote back. The story, headlined “The Danger Games,” chalked up 1,037 eyeballs. I was pleased. We were off and running. But she could only pay $75, she said. (“Sorry, small budget, an entire Internet to fill!”) Oh, and she wanted me to post the story on my Twitter account, and on my Facebook page. More eyeballs.

My next story was about a violent anti-Olympic protest in downtown Vancouver. “This is where I get embarrassed about the money,” Lynda emailed me. “I pay $25 for those sort of things. Yes?”

I swallowed hard. This was all going in the wrong direction. But I said okay. For my follow-up, I pitched a long story “with a bit of edge” on why there were so few Canadian aboriginal athletes on the Olympic team. She said if she were an editor at The New York Times, she’d commission it right away. “But my budget is super tight.” Too tight for a Times-worthy story? I scratched my head and said I’d offer it to somebody else.

My next story was about the controversy over Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko and the quadruple jump. It took me three hours, ran 650 words, and had a grabby eyeball-catching headline (“Climbing the Mount Everest of Skating Jumps”) Lynda was unhappy. She said it read  “like something anyone anywhere could have done . . . Let’s come up with something more original next.” Ouch! I shot back an email asking how much “original reporting” they expected for 75 bucks.

After this, the dialogue became progressively less civil. I requested that she be much more specific about the content they wanted. “Hey, I’m looking for eyeballs,” she replied. “Anyway we can get them without stooping down.”

Okay, I got it. Stooping down just a little bit, I sent my first and only list: Ten newspaper headlines that make Olympic organizers cringe (Example: “From Disaster to Calamity” from The Guardian) Lynda thought it was “very funny” but the Provoices eyeball meter didn’t agree: Only 56 hits. I followed up with a proposal about a story on women’s hockey. “Ok, go mock them,” she said.

The women’s hockey story (which was definitely not mockery) destroyed our editor-correspondent relationship. She hated my first effort, crucified my second, and dismissed my third rewrite with a killer put-down: “That lede is a snooze.” I retorted that she was expecting a lot for a little money. “You’re ordering Stilton on a cream cheese budget,” were my exact words. Ignoring my witty metaphorical flourishes, Lynda said she was tired of my “snits.” “So far,” she said,  “none of your stories have gotten much traction (and in some cases none at all.) It’s my job to figure out why and help you fix it.”

That was a low blow. I took ten deep breaths, and delivered my final rocket: If eyeballs and traction were the measure of good journalism, “why isn’t Ryan Seacrest the chief of correspondents?” I offered to throw a reference to Angelina Jolie into my women’s hockey lede to catch some eyeballs, but Lynda had decided that she and I would never arrive at a détente. “I’m sorry our system didn’t work out for you,” she concluded.

My career as a Provoices correspondent in ruins, I went back to the website and tallied up my accumulated eyeballs for the five pieces I’d submitted. Grand total: 2,752.

Pretty pathetic. One story alone (“Pediatrician Charged with 471 Counts of Child Rape”) had almost as many hits in just a few hours. I clearly have something to learn about the new social media.

POSTSCRIPT: Two days later, Lynda telephoned me at home. We had a testy conversation about the vagaries of print journalism, and then she told me the Provoices program was “in hiatus.” Something about budgets and cashflow. I’m not sure but I have a terrible feeling this was her subtle way of saying I would not be paid. I guess that makes me a citizen journalist.

Claude Adams is a freelance journalist and videographer.