Writing for the Web

In just a few short years the web (WWW) has emerged as a burgeoning market that may someday rival print (keep in mind this was written in 1993). The rules and customs governing web writing are being formed now from two different traditions: journalism and technical-writing/programming.

These two different traditions come together on the web because there are really two different kinds of web writing:

Web Journalism is the same as print journalism except that the media is the web rather than print. In other words, web journalism consists of articles and stories similar to those that might appear in a newspaper or magazine. The crucial point is that web journalists have a right to expect the same copyright protections as those that apply to print journalism.

Web Authoring consists of creating, building, and maintaining a web site, creating the site’s navigation systems and explanatory texts, and writing for the site the kind of material that business and technical writers produce for clients. The crucial point being that copyrights to the work of web authors are normally assumed to belong to the site owner rather than the writer and that therefore it is allowable and appropriate for web authors to work under work made for hire or all-rights contracts.

Web Journalism Issues

Web journalism consists of writing articles and stories for web publication that are similar to those published in print media. (Note that in this context, we are using the term “journalism” generically to also include fiction and poetry.) Like print journalists, web journalists are usually responsible for gathering or creating the information and shaping the content on their own.

In contrast to web authoring, web journalists are normally not expected to know or use much web technology beyond email and perhaps simple HTML. Web journalists supply copy, and the site administrator handles the technical side.

Web Journalism: Discussion

The NWU views cyberspace as a separate and distinct geographic region — just as the publishing world has traditionally parsed the globe into separate zones (i.e. First North America, First U.K., First Asian, etc). Web-based publications are increasingly competing with traditional print publishers and are paying “content-providers” fees that match and even exceed print rates. As the Web market grows, writers should be able to sell first North American print rights, then sell online rights at full value, whether it is to the original publisher or a separate Web publisher.

The rationale is that publication on a web site is available to an international audience which may preclude additional resale revenues for the author. Therefore licensing to a World Wide Web site is similar to first print rights in different geographic regions, i.e., First U.K., First French.

Increasingly, print magazines with Web versions publish original material online that does not appear in the traditional print magazine. In the case of the Atlantic Monthly, for example, its online site, Atlantic Unbound is competing with issue- and culture-oriented Webzines like Salon, Slate, and Feed.

Web Journalism: Basic Principles

Copyrights. Web journalists deserve the same copyright protection as do print journalists. Copyrights to a web journalist’s work belong to the writer until specifically sold or transferred for a fair payment. Therefore, work made for hire and all-rights contracts are inappropriate and abusive when applied to web journalism.

A primary market. When it was in its infancy the web was considered a secondary or subsidiary market in relationship to print. But now the web has become a primary publication market in its own right that competes with the print market. Therefore, web journalists deserve fees that are commensurate with those paid for similar work in print venues.

Separate rights. Web publication rights are not synonymous with other forms of electronic publication. For example, selling web publication rights to an online magazine does not automatically grant that magazine the right to resell the piece to a database company or someone publishing an anthology in a CD-ROM or electronic book format.

Web Journalism: We Advocate

  • Time limited rights. Writers should license articles for use during a Web site’s cycle (that is, daily, weekly, monthly), or the period in which a site’s home page is fully refreshed.
  • Two media, two sales. When a work appears in both the print and online versions of the same publication, it should be treated as two separate publications, like two magazines put out by the same publisher (any similarity of publication names notwithstanding). Therefore, the author should be paid two separate fees for each publication.
  • Fee structure. One way to compensate writers for the revenue generated by different media is to pay royalties. A publisher might pay a writer according to the number of “hits” to an article, or pay a portion of a database download fee to the author of an article. The NWU is not opposed to these payment scenarios. But at this time, the largest database operators are unwilling to provide authors with either compensation for, or information about, on-line use of articles. And individual magazine publishers claim they are unprepared to provide a detailed accounting of, and regular payment for, on-line article use. Given these current realities, the NWU recommends that writers get paid a flat fee.

Web Authoring Issues

Web Authoring consists of one or more of the following:

  •  Creating, administering, and maintaining web sites
  •  Writing site navigation systems and explanatory texts
  •  Writing for the site the kind of material that business and technical writers produce for clients

Web authors are expected to be familiar with and use web technology. The more technically demanding the work, the higher the pay.

Unlike web journalism where the writer is primarily responsible for researching and shaping an article’s content, the content of what web authors write is primarily supplied by the site owner or developed by the writer under the owner’s direct supervision. The business relationship between a freelance web author and site owner is usually that of temporary-employee-to-employer or of contractor-to-client. Therefore, the normal assumption is that copyrights to the author’s work belong to the site owner rather than the writer. And for that reason, most freelance web authors work under work made for hire or all-rights contracts.

At the present time most web authoring jobs pay a fair rate, and of course we would like to keep it that way. The main problem faced by freelance web authors are clients who insist that the the writer work through a payrolling agency as a permatemp or some other unfair employment mode. Employment mode issues are discussed in ’Contractors, Temps, & Agencies’.

-1993