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Dec. 4, 2017, 9:56 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Want to write for Publish.org? Every step of the process — from pitching to edits to payment — will be open

“Our big premise is, we’re trying to be an open news desk for the internet. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to fuel a healthier, more open ecosystem of journalism.”

If you want to write for the new collaborative, public journalism site Publish.org, you should be open to showing your work.

The Publish.org platform, which had been testing its backend and workflow with a smaller group of writers in closed beta over the past few months, opened up last week to all contributors — people who want to write, people who want to donate, people who want to review other people’s works-in-progress, or all of the above.

How well the model will work ultimately depends on how active its contributors are willing to be, and the platform offers several avenues of participating. Anyone can register and write a piece, and then await public feedback from other Publish.org members (hello, Medium). The bulk of the work that appears on the site, however, will be through its public commissioning process, according to Publish.org editor Sarah Hartley. (Hartley, formerly of the Guardian, oversees project applications at Google’s DNI fund.)

Two calls for pitches are currently open — one on the future of the European Union and another, more open-ended one on democracy — and the stories pitched for each topic are also visible to the public. Also visible will be every step of the editorial process, including whether a pitch has been reviewed, whether it’s been commissioned, what deadline was proposed, and even how much the writer is getting paid for the piece, a fee that writers actually determine for themselves. Editors also promise to respond to all pitches within two weeks with a definitive answer. An editorial board can offer additional guidance and also more broadly directs the coverage of Publish.org.

“We want to make sure that writers know where they’re at in the process, and know what they’re going to get out of it,” Hartley said. “There’s no need to wonder, ‘Did the desk read that proposal? Did they like it? Did they hate it? Has somebody else stolen it?'”

The drafts remain public even when the piece is finalized. During the editing process, Publish.org members can view edits and respond to a template of questions about whether a filed draft fulfilled the basic requirements. Final stories are also available under a Creative Commons license.

Publish.org isn’t looking for day-to-day political stories or breaking news, Hartley said, and sees itself as a place for “in-depth, longform journalism with a global outlook.” Its topic categories are a bit cerebral: ethics, democracy, solutions, culture, geography, and science.

The Publish.org idea itself has been brewing for a long time; I first spoke to Hartley nearly two years ago, when bits of the project began appearing on social media, and the core team was still trying to clarify what exactly the platform would be, to raise money to build it, and to formalize the organization as a community interest company in the U.K., where it’ll be based. (The founders had clearly also managed to grab a pretty good domain name.) It ended up raising €160,667 through grants and reader donations, which has gone to software development and operational costs, and hopes to raise €300,000 in 2018. It hopes to keep the core team small and dedicate the bulk of its revenue to paying writers. Sustainability won’t come anytime soon, CEO Matt McAlister acknowledged, but he’s set a three-year goal for Publish.org to get to €1 million in annual revenue (€333,000 from a robust membership program, €333,000 from foundations, and another €333,000 from generated revenue, like sponsorships for specific channels (no display advertising, though). The team has also considered other uses for its platform, such as letting other publications outsource their freelance commissions — including the editing and payment process — to Publish.org.

If some of this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Publish.org is a direct descendant of Contributoria, a collaborative and crowdfunded publishing platform supported by The Guardian that ran for 18 months before it shut down in August 2015. In fact, its core team of Hartley, McAlister, CTO Dan Catt, and design director Dean Vipond were part of the group of people who first met at The Guardian and later worked together on Contributoria. It wanted to be an open place for the public to vet, vote, and fund ideas journalists put forth and for journalists to work together on those stories, often on topics undercovered by other established news outlets. Some traces of Contributoria — writers setting their own fees, for instance — carried over into Publish.org.

“That was one of the things we learned from our past work: that there are tons of people out there who want to be part of the journalism process, but traditional media outlets are very opaque, they’ve got their own systems, which are effective, but very controlled,” McAlister said. “So in creating this more open environment, we thought, we wanted to make it quite easy for people to contribute, and keep it a low barrier to entry.” (Jimmy Wales’ WikiTribune is playing a similar space.)

To build its initial stable of writers, the site has been reaching out to mostly professional freelancers already familiar with the pitching and editing process, but it plans to work with non-journalists and hopes to “discover new talent” and be “as open as possible to independent writers.” It’ll also open to editorial partnerships to help disseminate its articles more widely. It’s bringing on board a guest editor, for instance, from the anti-Brexit popup newspaper The New European, and might cross-publish pieces with that publication.

“Our big premise is, we’re trying to be an open news desk for the internet,” McAlister said. “At the end of the day, we’re just trying to fuel a healthier, more open ecosystem of journalism. And whether that happens on Publish.org, or whether people experience Publish.org directly or not, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter.”

Publish.org currently has around 1,000 members registered for the platform, a significant number of whom were part of the original Contributoria user base. It’s trying to entice new donors to become “founding members” who will be permanently acknowledged somewhere on the site. It’ll remain free to participate on Publish.org at the basic levels available now, but paying members might get additional benefits in the future as the platform develops.

“That’s something we’re going to work out. Where you draw lines is fuzzy, and we want to keep it that way actually,” McAlister said. “But we’re a nonprofit for open journalism, and we want this to feel like it’s publicly owned.”

The platform is open to the world to try out, but the backend is still being built out. It just started testing “feature image uploading.” Its contributors want to embed content. They want more flexibility on layout and graphics. Publish.org’s peer-review workflow is also a work-in-progress. At the moment, the community feedback is limited to a simple set of yes-or-no questions about drafts writers file, but some writers have asked for more.

“Some of the writers actually wanted us to give harder questions for the community to answer so that they could get really proper, in-depth real feedback on their work. I found that really encouraging,” McAlister said. “It’s going to be a little bit tricky to balance, because on the one hand you want to make it really easy for people to engage with it, and if you ask people to contribute by deeply thinking through a writer’s work, that’s setting a much higher bar to entry. We’re trying to create this inviting environment for people to participate in the journalism process. So we need to figure out how to make both those things come together.”

POSTED     Dec. 4, 2017, 9:56 a.m.
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