This week we were lucky enough to have some time to speak with freelance writer Pam Baker. Pam told us about her job, Twitter, and how to have a successful relationship with a freelance writer. For more information on Pam you can go to her website, or follow her on Twitter: bakercom1.
RaceTalk:What’s your favorite part about being a freelance writer?
Pam Baker: I get to choose the stories I want to write. Editors pitch me on stories, and I pitch them, but ultimately it is my choice as to which stories I actually write. This means I’m always working on a story that is truly interesting to me, I’m never stuck on a single beat, and I’m not mired down in newsroom bureaucracies.
Plus, I own my schedule! The workday is totally under my control. The freedom is exhilarating and the work is always interesting and challenging. That’s a perfect combo for me.
RT: Are there any particular topics that you especially enjoy writing about?
PB: Actually, I get bored with staying on a single beat, something I refer to as a “brain-rut,” so I like to write about an eclectic mix of topics. You are just as likely to find my byline on lifestyle and travel stories as you are on tech, business and finance stories. What I most enjoy is writing “big picture” stories — articles that expose what this narrow topic means in the scope of the bigger human or industry story. I find such stories more meaningful and challenging.
RT:You’ve been very active on Twitter, and seem to have gotten a lot of great sources for your stories there. How useful has it been for you?
PB: Oh, yes, I love Twitter. It gives me many advantages as a writer. For one, I can see which topics people are most interested in and that cues me to story ideas. Secondly, it is an ideal way of finding new sources for my articles. By reading Tweets and Tweet history, I get a good feel for the person’s knowledge and interest in any given topic. I can also tweet that I’m looking for a source and my DM box will then fill up fast with suggestions. This is very handy when I’m working multiple deadlines. To date, I have used 49 sources I found among my Twitter followers in various articles.
Last but certainly not least, PR people can see what I’m working on and better target their pitches to me — that is incredibly efficient for me, the PR pros and their clients. I move fast and write a huge volume of stories, so I don’t have time to hear very many pitches outside my current story focus. This has to be as frustrating to PR pros as it is to me. Twitter is the only real-time tool I’ve found that solves the problem for both sides. I always have time to read a tweet — so pitch me in a tweet! But don’t give too many details in the tweet because I look for stories I’ll be first or exclusively reporting. If I like your tweet, I’ll DM you my email and we’ll discuss it further privately. If you have a really hot story — DM me pronto rather than tweet.
Forget what you learned in PR school when it comes to working with me and other freelancers like me. Remember, media is cutting staff drastically everyday, so you will be working with more and more freelancers over time. In my case, my body of work is so huge and diversified, it isn’t practical for PR people to track it all. Even my own web site doesn’t contain all my work. Nor will it do you any good to pitch me on a story I’ve already done and not necessarily prone to cover further since I don’t work a definite beat. So while it will help you to look over my web site to understand my style and voice, and maybe a few of the 200 or so publications I write for, your best bet is to tweet your pitch to me and respond to my HARO requests.
RT:How many stories do you usually work on each day or week?
PB: Freelance writing is a business so I focus on earnings rather than story count. I have a $1000 a day earning minimum which means I make sure I write enough to earn at least $1000 every single work day. Because rates paid to freelancers vary, some weeks a single article may meet my goal, other weeks I can turn as many as 15 articles. I write feature articles and cover stories — not straight news pieces — so it’s not really workable to do more than 15 in a single week because quality would suffer. I also write white papers, web content, speeches, and business plans so those assignments affect the number of feature articles and cover stories I do in any given week.
RT: Is there a topic that you’ve been itching to cover?
PB: Not really, no. As a freelancer I can scratch any itch any time — that’s the beauty of freelancing.
RT: What advice do you have for PR people looking to work with freelance writers?
PB: First, understand the power and force of freelancers. Never treat a freelancer differently than a staff writer, especially now. In this economy, all those newly unemployed staffers are quickly turning into freelancers (but mostly against their will). They will return as staffers and editors when the economy gets better. Tick them off at your own — and your clients — peril.
I’ve been a freelancer for more years than I care to admit, so I have no problem with PR people respecting me– most PR firms are very familiar with me already and everybody from Bacon’s to Daylife tracks at least some of my work. But newly laid-off staffers, aka freelancers, complain to me everyday that they have trouble getting PR people to even return their calls. That’s a huge mistake. When you disrespect them, they feel like you kicked them when they were down. They’ll never forget that.
Second, don’t worry about which publication a freelancer might write your story for; instead, focus on the power and draw of the story itself. The freelancer will sell it to the highest paying publication the story fits — which is also the publication with the highest number of readers which, in turn, benefits you and your client. Focus on the story you are pitching and let the freelancer bump the story to the highest audience they can reach. It’s also common for a freelancer to write multiple angles on your story and then sell it to multiple publications which means you can end up with more coverage than you would with a staffer.
The financial crisis has begun to take its toll on the mobile ecosystem, as evidenced by a recent GetJar poll which found that 75 percent of respondents are planning to cut back on their cell phone bill or waiting to upgrade or buy a new phone.
It would seem that as the economic downturn continues, consumers are being forced to reconsider their $90/month cell phone plans or that smartphone they’ve been eyeing. However, for those who still need to satisfy their mobile cravings there are other options. Another bit of research released by comScore this week found that many mobile subscribers are purchasing iPhones as replacements for other Internet and entertainment services. The study indicates that although the iPhone still comes with a significant price tag of $200-$300 plus monthly service charges, it may ultimately save consumers money by eliminating the need for things like landlines and mp3 players.
All of this helps to explain why the fastest growing group of iPhone owners is comprised of individuals who earn between $25,000 and $50,000/year. iPhone owners in this income bracket increased by 48 percent between June and August of 2008.
comScore’s Mark Donovan remarked, “These data indicate that lower-income mobile subscribers are increasingly turning to their mobile devices to access the Internet, e-mail and their music collections… Smartphones, and the iPhone in particular, are appealing to a new demographic and satisfying demand for a single device for communication and entertainment, even as consumers weather the economy by cutting back on gadgets.”
For other financially savvy mobile users, forgoing the iPhone in favor of T-Mobile’s recently released G1 and a ride to the nearest Wal-Mart may not be such a bad idea. Five hundred and fifty Wal-Mart locations across the country began offering the G1, which runs on Google’s Android operating system, at just $148.88 yesterday, a full $31 less than it retails for at T-Mobile stores. The $148.88 price point will be available to both new users and existing customers who are eligible for an upgrade.
One time long ago almost everyone heard the memorable line “you’ve got mail”. These days, not so much.
However, earlier today AOL launched some new features to the homepage in order to make the site more ‘social networking’ friendly, TechCrunch reported:
Users can log into social networks (Bebo, MySpace, Facebook and AIM) to view news feeds and update status. Bookmarks can be added to the top left of the page, and a feed reader is included at the bottom of the screen. AOL is also inserting direct inks to third party news sources via Relegence , a company they acquired in 2006 and began integrating into AOL Finance in late 2007.
This is a smart move by AOL, because there are so many social networks right now that it’s becoming hard to keep tabs on all of them. Even just remembering each password can be a daunting task at times. The ability to have one destination where you can have access to your email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. can really streamline everything and keep you in one place, sort of the way Robert Scoble lives, eats, and sleeps while using FriendFeed.
But just because it could make it easier doesn’t mean people will use it. Will you?
Over the last couple weeks I’ve managed to distract BusinessWeek’s media columnist Jon Fine from the market tumult and presidential election (which he blames for everything these days) long enough to answer some questions for a Q&A. Here is a bit of our email exchange.
Jon Fine: In retrospect, Grim’s assessment was also wiser than mine.
RT: Which media outlets are best positioned to avoid being hit by ad budget cuts?
JF: In classic recessionary terms, the economic downturn hasn’t even happened yet. But that’s just academic. It’s universally expected. And 2008 was a lousy year for advertising even without it. Barring a miraculous recovery, the next several months are going to be a very ugly environment for virtually all ad-supported media. If I may crib from some analysts who follow this, just about every medium will have a down year for advertising in ’09, with the exception of online and cable TV, and even those will have see their prior growth rates significantly attenuated (And not all cable networks will stay in positive territory). If you’re Google, you’re probably OK. If you cater exclusively to the high-high end and you’ve been around a while, you’re probably OK. If you derive all of your advertising from simple food products—Campbell’s Soup, that sort of thing—you’re probably OK. Live sporting events will be OK. One potential sign the roof is absolutely caving in is if Super Bowl advertisers end up paying significantly less for ad time than they have in recent years. Cheerful stuff, huh?
RT: It seems that marketers turn their attention to online advertising when their budgets get crunched, because of the nearly real-time measurable ROI. Do you think digital outlets will fair better then print / digital combinations?
JF: Depends on how you define it. Can you be a media company without actually producing some, uh, “content?” (A word that should be killed, but there’s no easy analogue to it. “Programming”? “Stuff”?) Once the answer to the question was no. But then Google bought YouTube, and you’d have to see YouTube is a media property, even if Google doesn’t actually make anything that appears on that site besides the ads.
RT: What are your current thoughts on what Rupert has done with the Wall Street Journal in making it into the bizarro (conservative) New York Times?
JF: This is a shibboleth. I don’t see any particular conservative tilt showing up in its news pages. Bear in mind that the editorial page is historically far to the right of where Murdoch himself is these days.
RT: Will it pay off down the road?
JF: The risky move was buying a business that derives a great deal of revenue from a newspaper. The bet, of course, is that the Journal’s journalism has untapped value. I agree with this—but, of course, I kind of have to, as I’ve pretty much bet my career on there being some as yet untapped long-term value in the kind of topnotch content produced by the BusinessWeek’s of the world. Will it pay off down the road? I have no idea. I hope so, because a world with an impoverished Wall Street Journal is not one I’d like to live in.
On a slightly different topic: I’ve made this point before, but Murdoch buying Dow Jones was the best possible realistic outcome for the Journal. They’ve got an owner who plainly adores the property, who is willing to tolerate losses and less than stellar returns at his newspapers, and who has enormous resources. It is hard to see how a still-independent Dow Jones would not have gotten crushed by the kind of downturn we may be facing, and harder still to imagine them getting through said downturn without massive layoffs at the Journal and elsewhere. On the other hand, look at what’s happened to News Corp’s stock (NWS) since Rupert bought Dow Jones.
Yesterday, the expanding global financial crisis hit home. Unfortunately, as has been reported, Racepoint Group made a 20 percent cutback in staff. It’s never easy to part with co-workers and yesterday we lost some very smart and talented public relations practitioners (and fellow bloggers), who are going to be missed dearly. What makes it even harder is that we lost some great friends as well. We thank those who are gone for their contributions to this organization.
While yesterday was a tough day us, we’re not the first and won’t be the last PR team to have to face the new economic realities. However, we’re determined to move forward and believe that Racepoint is well positioned to weather the storm and see our vision through.
As someone once said more poetically than me:
“Adversity is a fact of life. It can’t be controlled. What we can control is how we react to it.”
Add this to the list of strange stories: A woman in Japan has been arrested (in real life) after deleting her (virtual) ex-husband’s video game identity.
The couple was (virtually) married in a video game called Maple Story, and the woman’s (virtual) husband decided he wanted to (virtually) break up. She got upset and hacked into his (real) Maple Story account to delete his online persona. She was arrested this week on suspicion of hacking.
The crime could result in a five year prison sentence and a fine of $5,000.
Unfortunately, this virtual divorce and murder is just an example of what’s happening in real life due to video game that may seem a little to real, and social networks like Facebook becoming the official guide to relationship statuses.
Just this week a man in London known as the ‘Facebook Killer’ was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his ex-wife. The man killed his wife after she changed her Facebook relationship status to ‘single’ just four days after they separated. The man told offers he felt devastated and humiliated that she changed her relationship status so quickly and publicly, and announced that she was looking for other men.
These two cases are unfortunate examples how some people get way too wrapped up in what’s online and aren’t able to separate social networks and video games from real life. Let’s hope they don’t continue.
It’s an interesting experiment for NBC, as the show won’t air on television until next week and much of their dedicated audience will have likely already watched it by then. However, all of those Tina Fey SNL appearances might be able to boost the show’s ratings regardless.
What do you think of NBC’s plan to release some shows early? Will it pay off to create a buzz online before it airs on the network?
In Monday’s New York Times Claire Cain Miller compared the web’s two most popular micro-blogging websites Twitter and Yammer, and pointed out to her readers that although both sites offer a similar service, they have polar opposite business models.
Twitter which has had over 3,000,000 users since its creation in 2006, asks users the question “What are you doing?” to which the user posts “tweets” in 140 characters or less. Anyone can use the site, and is free to “tweet” about whatever they like.
Yammer, a newer service, is aimed at corporate clients and asks the question “What are you working on?” The service was designed to allow coworkers to communicate without flooding one another’s email inbox. To date, Yammer has 60,000 users.
Although Yammer my not boast the same user numbers as Twitter, it is bragging about something else – revenue. Yammer’s Chief Executive David Sacks explains:
“Yammer’s business model is compelling because it spreads virally like a consumer service, but earns revenue like a business service. Anyone with a company e-mail address can use Yammer free. When that company officially joins — which gives the administrator more control over security and how employees use the service — it pays $1 a month for each user.”
The folks at Twitter would have to disagree. With $20 million dollars in backing from founders and venture capitalists, Twitter firmly believes growth is the top priority, and the key to the success of the business. Miller reports:
“Like the value of the telephone network or the Internet itself, the value of Twitter increases with the number of users. So growth is its top priority, said Evan Williams, Twitter’s chief executive. “If we spent time monetizing early on, it would have meant we weren’t doing other things that made the product better for users,” he said. Registrations have grown 600 percent over the last year.”
Although growth is clearly the top priority for Twitter, the executives are aware that as the economy seems to be taking a downward turn, it’s wise to have a plan B. Twitter is considering charging companies who wish to use Twitter as a platform to respond to their customers, and monitor what they are saying.
But at the core of its business model, Twitter still believes growth should come first. Chief Executive Evan Williams compares Twitter to Google, saying to Miller:
“He (Williams) noted that Google itself began as a search engine with no revenue before finding the lucrative advertising model that has turned it into a business titan. “It was the classic story of not worrying about monetization yet and getting their product right”.
At the close of her piece, Miller argues that no matter the number of users, or the potential for growth, in an economic crisis, Twitter may have no choice but to shift its focus to the bottom line.
Which business model do you support – Capital then growth? Or growth then capital?
Stephen Baker of BusinessWeek addresses a crowd at Google’s New York Offices in October
By Kyle Austin
RaceTalk recently had the opportunity to pull Stephen Baker, a senior writer with BusinessWeek, away from hawking his new book, to answer some questions on, well, his new book (among some other things). Here is a large excerpt of our conversation on the Numerati, Google, IBM, targeted ads, the credibility of the New York Times and even the “Greek God of Walks.”
RaceTalk: Thanks for joining us Stephen. I’ve done quite a few of these interviews with folks like John Markoff, Joe Nocera and David Kirkpatrick (to name a few), and you’re the first to schedule an interview via Twitter. It got me wondering, what was the experience like writing a story through Twitter earlier this year? I remember seeing the collaborative process online, but didn’t have a chance to catch the end result.
Stephen Baker: The story “Why Twitter Matters,” came out in May, a week after I opened up the live thread with the Twitter community, which allowed them to contribute to the story (May 8-9). Anyway, I got a lot of input, but the trouble with it was people didn’t want to write paragraphs. I was hoping they would craft the story with me. They just wanted to give me ideas and leave the story writing to me.
RT: I imagine it was tough for them to contribute 140 characters at a time?
SB: Yes. I thought they may try to write paragraphs together (140 characters at a time). When I set it up I thought it was going to be so easy. I would write the topic sentence for the paragraph and while the responses come in, I can go off to the Modern Museum of Arts and enjoy myself for half an hour – and then come back to see the paragraph constructed. It ended up being pretty chaotic and took a lot more work than a regular story.
RT: Seems like from the journalists I follow, you are updating more frequently on Twitter than most. Do you still enjoy it and find it useful in communicating with the people that you are most interested in keeping in touch with?
SB: I mean I enjoy it. I only update three or four times a day, so I don’t do it that much. But I do enjoy it, and it’s occasionally useful.
SB: I was not at all interested in starting this book project to begin with. The only reason I was looking at the subject was because I was looking into national competitiveness. Someone at BusinessWeek suggested that math was at the heart of the national competitiveness issue. In other words, we weren’t graduating enough mathematicians. Math was at the heart of all these technologies that the Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Japanese were threatening our nation’s supremacy with. So the editor in chief of Businessweek sent me off to do a cover story on math with no further instruction. So I began looking at math and it is such an enormous world. I didn’t have a story on math until I spoke to Samer. Then I saw this data-mining and modeling, which was really important, not only to business, but society. It really gets at how we are understood; and we are understood by our data. Those people that can understand this data and master these tools have to do with computer science and mathematics (aka The Numerati). That’s how the project started.
RT: One of the first places you visited for the project was IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Laboratory, where they are studying worker’s data (i.e. time spent, productivity). From visiting there, what were your thoughts on their thinking around using data in this way?
SB: I think their thinking is extremely advanced. I think sometimes it’s misinterpreted to be heartless and big brotherly. However, their hopes are that they can understand their workers better by studying certain data. In doing so, they can put them in positions where they can thrive. Put them along side workers that they get along with and in situations that are more challenging and interesting. The premise of this, I don’t think is bad at all. I guess the part that I would be concerned about is that not all companies are as enlightened as IBM in this regard. So if they (IBM) produce tools that let companies monitor and model their workers, some companies will try to put us into a 19th century assembly line – even as information workers sitting at computers.
RT: Interesting, so that is kind of the future of where this may be going. If you look at where data-mining is today, and I thought it was a telling inscription on the cover of your book from Chris Anderson which illustrates where it is today, “A Must read for anyone who wants to understand life and business in the Google age,”what are your thoughts on online advertising and behavioral targeting? Obviously there has been a lot of commotion recently about behavioral targeting and the failure of NebuAd, Phorm and ISP tracking; so how has Google been so successful (in using data-mining and targeting) – while escaping the privacy debate?
SB: I think they’ve escaped it largely because people love to use Google. They use it and view it as a vital tool. They look at it as Google providing a service to them and less as providing valuable data to Google. That’s one thing. The companies that are going to thrive in this world are going to have to give us something (value) for our data. Google passes that test. The other test that Google passes is that they don’t really have to know us specifically. In fact, they can misunderstand us many, many times. If they give us 10 ads a year out of thousands that are of value to us, they make money on that. They don’t loose money by showing ads that don’t have meaning to us. That’s the real key for the Numerati. The companies that thrive are going to be those that don’t loose anything by getting it wrong occasionally.
RT: Do you think they have the upper-hand over competitors because it’s search based, with consumers posing questions that they want to see the answers/advertisements for? It seems that advertisers have trouble in targeting display ads online, because they don’t have consumers posing direct questions that they can answer/target with ads.
SB: If you look at what advertisers know about us – some of them look at the Web pages we look at and some look at the articles we click. All of those are indirect ways of figuring out what our interests are. In looking at these they can understand quite a bit about you and me, but trying to boil it down to exactly what we would want from that information is hard. Google doesn’t know that much about you or me from a search query. They know something specific, which is what is he/she looking for. That what, he or she is looking for is often something directly connected to the marketplace. A much tighter connection to money and more direct then the other ways.
RT: I read in one of the reviews of your book where you noted “blogs are real-time reaction,” versus putting out a poll or doing a focus group and then waiting for the answers to come in. This you said, provides a huge opportunity for the Numerati to mine blogs. Can you expand upon this?
SB: If you look at traditional marketing, they bring 12 people into a room for a focus group and pay them and the people monitoring the group a huge amount of money. They ask them a series of questions about a face cream, the soda they are drinking or the advertisement they are supposed to watch. The trouble in that is those people are supposed to represent the entire marketplace. What’s worse is those people’s answers may not be honest. They might be trying to please the monitors, answer politically correctly or be too embarrassed to admit what their real answer is. They don’t always provide accurate answers. The blogosphere is full of millions of people’s thoughts and feelings, expressed rather freely, about almost anything you can imagine. The Numerati are getting the tools to go through millions of blogs to figure out the approximate age and gender of the blogger. Then they can also analyze the sentiment of the blogger on certain subjects – whether it’s Barack Obama or a Coca-Cola ad, which allows them to come up with a back of the envelope trend on if certain ads/marketing has been successful with certain demographics.
RT: Living in Boston, I caught your recent slide-show contribution to Boston.com on 10 technology developments headed for the mainstream. I was specifically interested in your thoughts on Newscred, which tracks and analyzes the credibility of news. What are your thoughts around Newscred and the overall idea going mainstream?
SB: The idea has some power behind it. The public really cares about this issue but it is going to be hard to model it. People often feel that the magazines or publications which they object to aren’t credible. I don’t want to touch a red button issue here, but as a journalist if I wanted to affect the slant of a publication and get my point of view into stories – I think the most difficult place to do that would be the New York Times. I have lots of friends that work there and the editors there are incredibly rigorous. At the same time the New York Times is loathed by a large group of the population and considered a left-wing paper. Those people may say the New York Times isn’t credible, while another large group of us would say it is. There are other news publications that aren’t well known – say the Des Moines Register, which wouldn’t get as many negatives as the New York Times and could perhaps come out more credible than the Times. Whether it is or not, I don’t know.
RT: Another idea you mentioned going mainstream was Compulsion TV. I found that interesting, given that there was so much talk about this idea several years ago. Everyone wanted to talk about how in the future, women will be able to buy Jennifer Aniston’s sweater while watching an episode of Friends (may be a bit outdated fashion today). Do you think we are getting closer to this and who do you think in the TV realm will be the leader in the way that Google has been online in targeting ads?
SB: I don’t know who the leader is going to be. I think it’s going to be big. I know a lot of companies are digging deep into that. One of the people that I profiled in the book – Dave Morgan of Tacoda (sold to AOL) - is a leader in behavioral advertising and is looking next at targeted TV ads. I mean the day is coming, fairly soon, when you and your next door neighbor will be watching the same TV show, while getting different ads.
RT: Out of the people you spoke with for the book is there a top 5 Numerati? The rocket scientists of data-mining?
SB: It’s tough to rank them. The Google people are way, way at the top but I didn’t talk to them for this book.
RT: Is that because they declined?
SB: They talked to me when I was doing the BusinessWeek cover story in 2006. Then I told them “I’m writing this book, I’ll be at it for two years, can I have a bunch of your time?” They didn’t really give me a lot of time. So I spent more time at Yahoo!, which served the same purpose. I really wanted to talk with big Web companies that deal with oceans, and oceans, of data. I’m kind of glad I didn’t do Google because they are so widely covered and if I just came out with research I did there two years ago now, it would seem stale. As far as top 5 stars, I don’t really have a list.
RT: Finally, you’re a Phillies’ fan, do you have them over the Rays in the World Series?
SB: They’ve got a 40 or 50 percent chance.
RT: We’re mostly Red Sox fans here, so we’re still recovering.
SB: You know, I was cheering for the Red Sox in game 5 because they looked so bad. I thought maybe the Phillies have a better chance again them. Jason Varitek can’t hit anymore, Beckett has a problem with his oblique, Wakefield is hittable and Manny isn’t in the line-up. Then they come storming back and I’m thinking I don’t really want to deal with this club. Pedroia and Youkilis can just tire pitchers out. The Phillies aren’t deep in pitching. If Hamel started a game and Pedroia and Youkilis both have two ten-pitch at bats to start, it would kill the Phillies’ rotation. So I thought it would be better to have the match-up with the more free swinging Rays.
RT: You should have interviewed the Red Sox number’s guy for your book – his name is escaping me.
SB:Bill James. He did Money Ballalready though. The Numerarti really focuses on how they understand us as people. There’s plenty of room for the Numerati to do other things in baseball, finance, medicine and all these other areas. I really focused on the people aspect. The voter, the shopper, the worker, the lover, the potential terrorist. Understanding us all as people.
RT: Great way to end, thanks for your time Stephen.