Cast a Wider Net

Once a virtual afterthought in the minds of most writers, webzines are beginning to make a real impact on the public consciousness. The web now monopolizes a shocking 25 percent of consumers’ overall media time, according to the Online Publishers Association. Readers are downloading webzine content onto their iPods, PDAs and cell phones. And some magazines, notably Teen People and Elle Girl, have ditched print editions altogether in favor of their more cost-effective webzines. This all adds up to good news for smart freelancers who want to expand their range beyond print publications. The webzine publishing industry is growing, so read on and find out what some of the best online editors have to say about their market.

EMILY BAZELON is a senior editor at Slate (slate.com), an online magazine of news and commentary on culture and politics.

JEANNE CARSTENSEN is managing editor of the news and commentary site Salon (salon.com).

AMY L. WEBB is the founder and editor in chief of Dragonfire (dfire.org), a digital news and culture magazine offering slice-of-life stories behind the headlines.

ADA CALHOUN is the senior editor of sex and culture webzine Nerve (nerve.com).

JOHN WARNER is the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (mcsweeneys.net).

DO YOU BELIEVE WEBZINES WILL EVER BECOME MORE POPULAR THAN PRINT MAGAZINES?

CARSTENSEN: Some online magazines already have many more readers than the top print magazines. I don’t believe it’s a matter of online replacing print. I think there will always be a market for weekly or monthly magazines you can stuff into your purse. Online magazines only add to the ferment.

CALHOUN: I think eventually everyone will read both without feeling like they have to choose sides. For example, I like The New York Times website a lot, but I still read the print version every morning. I just like holding it. Then I check CNN.com and MSNBC.com.

HOW DOES WRITING FOR A WEBZINE DIFFER FROM WRITING FOR PRINT?

WEBB: The web requires many more elements. Digital storytelling means that a piece may have 500 words in print, a two-minute audio clip, 37 links, photos and a searchable database. Writers hoping to break into web publications must think of themselves as “information brokers” rather than reporters—they need to be capable of collecting information for multiple platforms. That said, solid reporting and writing are solid reporting and writing, regardless of the medium.

WARNER: I don’t treat it any differently, though I suppose with online publications there’s a greater demand to be timely or produce a piece in rapid response to events. I think sometimes writers mistake online publications for the minor leagues and don’t always take sufficient time to polish the pieces they submit, which may be keeping them from having success.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST MISTAKE FREELANCERS MAKE WHEN PITCHING YOUR WEBZINE?

CALHOUN: Not reading the magazine. They know something about Nerve—usually that it has a reputation for being sexy—and send in something totally random we’d never run, like erotica. We don’t publish erotica. We have a young (21- to 34-year-old), very smart readership. They’re highly educated, live in cities and are very up on new bands, movies, books and TV shows. We’ve published some of the most celebrated fiction writers of the past 10 years, and we regularly run serious pieces by journalists who also write for The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. But freelancers who don’t read Nerve just hear “sex and culture magazine” and send in dating tips, embarrassing confessionals or porn. I just delete all that.

BAZELON: Pitching a news feature sort of story rather than an idea with a strong argument. A good Slate pitch is short and to the point. One to three paragraphs stating the idea, your argument or take, the evidence that supports your argument and why the piece is a good fit for Slate. The best pitches are aimed at a particular department or feature in the magazine.

WARNER: Pitching us at all would be a mistake because we want only the completed piece ready for reading. The single biggest reason pieces are rejected is because they just aren’t the kind of thing we publish. We concentrate almost exclusively on short, conceptual humor, but a significant portion of what we receive is fairly straight short-short fiction. I understand the confusion because McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is known for publishing short stories, but a quick perusal of our archives shows what we’re interested in.

HOW MANY SUBMISSIONS DO YOU GET A WEEK?

CARSTENSEN: The flow of queries and submissions at Salon is constant. It’s difficult to know how many we receive because they’re sent to many different editors, but I’d estimate at least 25 a day, maybe more.

WARNER: If you include sections like Lists, Sestinas, Reviews of New Food, Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond, as well as submissions for the main page, we probably get 350 to 400 submissions a week. I’d guess about 5 percent are accepted, but that really varies from section to section.

IS EDITING FOR AN ONLINE PUBLICATION DIFFERENT FROM EDITING A PRINT PUBLICATION?

WEBB: It’s much different because we’re editing multiple elements. For example, there are guidelines that need to be followed when linking to an external site within a story. Each site needs to be evaluated for accuracy and bias, and we even need to consider what words, exactly, we’ll be hyperlinking within the story because it can change the emphasis of a particular idea. Sometimes stories are told in different pieces, so there may be a photo component, a moving graphic, an audio clip and a print section. All of these items get edited first by a section editor, then by our managing editor, then by me—which means that we’re evaluating details, as well as the way a package will function electronically.

ANY TIPS FOR HOW FREELANCERS CAN BREAK INTO YOUR MARKET? WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A SUBMISSION?

WEBB: We get a lot of general queries—”I’m a freelancer, here are some of my clips,” or “I’d like to contribute”—without any story pitches. We’re interested only in compelling pitches that show the writer has done prereporting and found a great story. Because we don’t publish and update throughout the day, writers should pitch us stories that have depth and lots of interactive possibilities. A writer might have a fantastic story from the remote regions of China, but if we can’t also get digital photos, audio or other interactive elements, we won’t be able to use it.

WARNER: Whether or not it makes me laugh is really the only criterion. Because I’m reading hundreds of submissions a week, a laugh means by definition that the piece is fresh and different in some way. It’s really about finding that unique comic take on something that will also speak to a larger audience. Certain sections of the site, such as Reviews of New Food, are less demanding than others and are sometimes a good way to break in. The biggest thing is to really polish the work. Time is of the essence for editors, and often I’ll see a piece that has potential but needs work and time to bring it to fruition. In a perfect world, I’d have that time to work with a writer to help him shape that promising piece, but the truth is, if I have to choose between a piece that needs little (if any) work, and something that’s a diamond in the rough, I have to take the one that’s ready to go.

BAZELON: We’re especially interested in newsy pieces that make a surprising point that other publications are missing. Also, we lik e slide shows—essays built around a group of images. Those are a good way to break into writing for the magazine.

CALHOUN: We’re always looking for exciting, original personal essays, fiction, and popular culture essays and interviews. Our pay rates vary wildly depending on the piece and the writer. As a rule, we offer a rate comparable to other online magazines, but we can be even more competitive if it’s something unusual that we’re dying to have. I like getting pitches by e-mail. Like most editors I know, I hate talking on the phone.

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