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Helium interview: The solution to freelancers?

Helium interview: The solution to freelancers?

Helium is an online company that describes itself as, "the online spot to learn what you need to know and share what you know." It combines citizen journalism with peer rating in order to provide a plethora of articles on just about any topic.

Helium brings together a system of news and information combined with a place to submit articles. It even has a "marketplace" where publishers can post topics for people to write about - sort of like a publishers à la carte classified space.

It is a place for readers to find articles that interest them, writers to write about topics that they know and understand, publishers to find articles and non-profits to voice their issues.

It is a unique system of sharing content, ideas and knowledge. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Helium, if the current system will hold up and retain its credibility.

The Editors Weblog interviewed Peter Newton, the VP of business development at Helium.com to get a better idea of how the site works and what their goals are for the future. Newton has worked at Monster.com and The Boston Globe where he was the vice president of advertising.

EW: What is your selection process for articles and writers?

PN: Helium represents the first true meritocracy in the publishing industry. Helium welcomes anyone and everyone to join its community of writers.

We don't select writers; they naturally come to the site and write to areas in which they have an interest (in many cases, a passion) in sharing their knowledge or opinion. Once members join, their work is evaluated by other members though our peer-review rating system. In essence, Helium brings order to the chaos of user generated content. Its patented peer review rating engine elevates the best quality articles.

After a writer submits an article, he/she is presented with two anonymous articles in the same topic area to rate in an "A versus B" comparison. Through the wisdom of the crowds, the best articles rise to the top, resulting in a rank-ordered list for every topic.

The end result is that the best writers are promoted, recognized and rewarded for their work.

New titles are introduced onto the Helium site through members, partners and directly by Helium staff.

EW: Where do you draw the line between journalist and citizen journalist? What about between citizen journalist and blogger?

PN: Citizen Journalism is a very awkward term. Quality journalism demands its participants to be objective, ethical and methodical. Research, fact checking and skillful interviewing techniques are critical to the art. It's not obvious that what we are starting to call citizen journalism possesses any of these traits. I'm certain that the Columbia School of Journalism doesn't teach that the art of being a world class journalist is to be in the right place at the right time. Citizen Journalism seems to be migrating to each individual's "15 minutes of fame" and further and further away from journalism. It might be fun to watch - but so were the lions and Christians in the Roman Coliseum.

With that said, Helium is not really concerned with categorizing or labeling different types of writers. We have created a platform for people to express themselves in writing across a wide variety of topics in a civilized and substantive way, and then have the community sort for quality.

Helium is a site for writers that fills a unique role in the publishing industry. In doing so, we are representing a new classification of online writers.

Our community of members includes professional writers, freelancers, subject matter experts, students and the expert next-door.

We are not attempting to replace investigative journalism or time sensitive reporting. Instead, Helium attracts and produces individuals who have the skill and insight on specific topics that they wish to share with others.

EW: Do you feel that the status of being an "expert" or a "professional journalist" is becoming less important?

PN: No, there will always be a need for professional journalists, especially in covering breaking news or conducting investigative journalism, and Helium is definitely not out to undermine established journalists or copywriters.

Instead, we are trying to expand the ranks of paid writers to include part-time talent that otherwise would be sitting fallow.

Our media solutions product offers newspapers a way for them to supplement what remains of their editorial staff, but is in effect driving down their content-creation costs. We are merely tapping into the notion of "social publishing," in which publishers ask their readership to contribute content.

EW: Do you apply any regulations for topics? style? content? etc...

PN: Yes, Helium has established regulations for topics, style, and acceptable content.

Beyond providing clarity to our members, the community is self moderating. Every new article submitted to Helium is rated by other members. The best content rises to the top. Our members often message each other with advice as to how to improve articles and items that don't fit the standards of the site are removed.

EW: Do you see a shift towards more citizen journalism in news reporting? Both online and print? How will this affect the future of professional freelancers? Is it going to put a dent in the freelance market?

PN: When you say "news reporting", let's be clear that our focus is not breaking news or conducting investigative journalism. With that said, there is a growing paradigm shift in content creation; publishers are increasingly sourcing content, not writers. As for how this will impact freelancers no one can say for sure but one thing is for sure-there will always be demand for quality writing.

EW: Can a person make a living from putting material on Helium the same way a freelance gains income?

PN: The short answer is no. But with that said, there are thousands of Helium members who earn from $40-$100 each month, which is much more than chump change. In fact, some of Helium's highest earning members have made more than $3,000. It really depends on how much members use the site.

Earlier this month, Helium announced upfront payments for all new articles being written by starred writers on Helium.com. This change to Helium's Terms of Service is a move to reward the site's highest quality writers and to promote quality content at Helium.com. In addition, the company's popular Marketplace product - used by publishers looking for top-notch content for their publications - now offers special access to the site's best writers. The move will improve content for Helium's publishing partners and help ensure that the site's best writers will be seen by those publishers.

Many web 2.0 companies offer opportunity for incremental income. With these changes at Helium, highly-rated writers will have an opportunity to earn larger sums for sharing their expertise with the Helium community.

"Helium has grown by leaps and bounds these last two years; it has earned the respect of people and writers around the world," said Petra Newman, a 3-star writer on Helium.com "With the sky falling on our economy, Helium has again found a "pièce de résistance" for people who already have a passion for writing. Increasing the earnings for well-written articles is a win-win situation for both Helium and writers."

EW: What newspapers or websites do you work with?

PN: Currently Helium is working with GateHouse Media's State Journal-Register(SJ-R) in Springfield, Ill. SJ-R recently begun using Helium's "Media Solutions" product to source writers for its op ed section-there are currently over 700 additional papers in the active funnel.

We also provide content for a wide a variety of other newspapers, magazines, online-only sites, etc.

EW: What about your competition? Who are they?

PN: As a producer of content and as a publisher of content, we compete with thousands of companies, yet in most ways, we have no competition.

That said, we really don't see anyone that directly competes with us, in terms of delivering a scalable solution to engage a community to produce high quality content.

EW: Where do you see yourself in relation to news organizations such as the AP or the New York Times?

PN: The New York Times is the New York Times. Helium is not attempting to create a competitor to breaking news.

EW: Where does a site like Helium envision itself in the future? How do you grow / expand ?

PN: Helium is rapidly building the world's largest community of writers. We plan to grow and expand the business in a number of ways over the next five years:

  • Become the partner of choice to the publishing, non profit and broadcast industries for generating quality content at a low cost, while helping engage their audience in the process.
  • Become the content source for any entity needing quality content.
  • Expand internationally; international business represents 60% additional market opportunity
  • Create a community of micro publishers



Lauren Drablier


2008-11-19 16:42

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