Experience Counts for Little With a Writing Sample: The Inquisitr

Screenshot of The Inquisitr recruitment page
It is interesting to note that The Inquisitr, which appears at first glance to be a content mill which requires 100 plus articles per month from its “staff,” require applicants to provide three examples of work published and then ask for a written sample. When submitting your three urls of past work they then state that to save time you may want to write a sample article based on topics provided by them.

After submitting prior work they then inform you that the sample must be written anyway. Fair enough. It is, after all, their company and if they prefer to not mention up front that the sample article is a requirement, so be it.

At no time are any guidelines offered for this sample. After punching out a fluff piece on Heidi Swedberg, a former Seinfeld cast member, I waited over the weekend with no response from my contact at The Inquistr. No email stating that they had received the sample and no feedback. After following up my submission with two emails, the first was a one-word query, “Feedback?” The second asked if they had even gotten the sample.

After getting a response saying that they had and it was being evaluated, the very next day I learn that they do not like the sample and it has not “passed the quality” evaluation required. Could I please write another one.

Uh…That would be a no.

Since 2011 I have written 2478 blog posts for my personal site, I wrote just under 2000 articles for the Guardian Liberty Voice, where I worked as Deputy Managing Editor for Entertainment, 40 articles for Viral Global News, since December 2014, around 7 for Rogue Cinema, I left to work at GLV, and around 3 or 4 for another company called WhatCulture! the last two sites paid nothing to their writers. These stories include interviews, film reviews, television recaps and reviews as well as other types of articles.

I did mention that I’d worked at the Guardian Liberty Voice for 18 months, my position and even provided a link to the site, where I wrote my little heart out, for pay. Their response was that they still required the sample. Again, fair enough. Except for the lack of guidelines, apart from it had to be around 400 words, I had no real issue with the requirement.

Such a short bit of work was a “walk in the park” and took little time to put together. Ensuring that nothing was plagiarized (to the best of my knowledge) and that it contained the “trending” information relevant to Ms. Swedberg was not a problem. This was to be, after all, a sample article, not to be published but used, I thought, to show what I could do. A little something that they would use to provide proper feedback on what they were looking for.

This was not the case. Their response? Write another one which may show your skills a bit better. There was no explanation of what I did “wrong” or what they were expecting. Entertainment pieces are not “real” journalism per se, I should know I’ve been writing these pieces for the last two years, so the bit I submitted should have been fine, on the off chance it was not, I expected a reason more forthcoming than “sorry, it’s not good enough.”

This “writing in the dark” process of applying for what appears to be a content mill site may work fine for them, and for other writers, but I am not playing this game. For one thing, it tells me that this is some sort of power play thing where they can tell then me I cannot write, ergo justifying a lower wage for my product. Either that or they surprised me and read my other blog post where I voiced my suspicions that they were either a sweat shop or content mill publication. I sincerely doubt the latter as they seem to have a system in place that does not recognize other work.

It seems that the requirement to submit three url’s of published work is nothing more than a chance to prove you have been published. The real part of the application is the sample article which does not include any guidelines.

Perhaps I am being picky here. They may be assuming that the basic journo rules that have been in effect for ever and ever, amen, are enough in the way of guidance. Fair enough, if that is the case, but when writing fluff, aka gossip, aka entertainment, the rules bend…a lot.

I already write for a site, which may or may not ever pay me anything. I do not contribute on a daily basis for a number of reasons which includes divvying up my time between memoirs, their site and my own personal blog all while trying to get my site monetized. On top of these time consuming things, I have no Internet, apart from my slow iPhone hotspot so I must ride to either the library or Burger King for Wi-Fi on my bike. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the trip takes a minimum of 45 minutes one way.

Living on a pittance, and believe me it is a pittance, and trying to come up with money for Internet and still be able to eat is a challenge and one that I will not attempt until I can get a few more paying jobs under my belt.

I will end this long winded rant with one thought.

I worked for almost two years on a site that recruited new writers constantly. Hundreds applied on a regular basis and out of the stream of applicants who thought they could write, very few actually could string a sentence together and many of them knew English only as a second, or third, language. So thanks, but no thanks chaps at The Inquisitr. I’ll not play your game. Many will, I have no doubt, but I refuse to believe that my work failed a “quality” check and will not submit again (as I stated in my short email back).

Your loss.

9 June 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Counting Flowers on the Wall…

Snake Oil Salesman

Caught betwixt and between leaves one a little exasperated and not a little depressed. With limited funds there are limited opportunities, this latest life-change has left me feeling a little like the old Statler Bros song lyric: “counting flowers on the wall…” I have recently left a publication which provided a “mast” to fly my flag and interact with some wonderful people. I will not name this organization, but keen-eyed followers may be able to guess the name.

Having spent about 18 months (plus) learning that I’m pretty good at interviewing celebs (that’s spelt working actors by the way and other folks in the industry) covering conventions, Victoria’s Secret events –as well as meeting some very lovely models of same – and watching a ton of newly released films and reviewing them, along with television shows, I realized a couple of things.

First of all, my abilities as a writer were better than I thought. On top of the above items mentioned as part of my personal training process, I also covered local Las Vegas events and each time the recipients of my coverage thanked me profusely for my efforts. It sort of feels like journalism is similar to riding a bike; once trained never forgotten, no matter how long the stretch…

Secondly, I found that I was in a lose/lose situation.

What started as (or what seemed to be) a great offer, soon turned into something very different. Granted, I was still under a certain amount of shock from the very invasive and “hard to recover from” operations that saved my life on August 31, 2012. *On a side note, I discovered while still in hospital, that Michael Duncan Clarke (Green Mile, Armageddon) had the exact same procedure…He did not make it.*

In my England home, I could no longer pay the rent, I owed thousands of pounds and no landlord wanted to let me lease a property with my daughter and her boyfriend. With the prospect of bankruptcy looming, no homeowner trusted me not to default on my share of the rent.

I had been working for website, since April 2013 while still living in my Kesgrave three bedroom home. I’d been released from my job as Prison Officer (ill-health retired with a tiny pension) and given a payout. Hindsight being 20-20, I should have taken less of a payout and more of the pension.

Still, I was writing professionally for a news publication that seemed to be intent on growing in both viewing figures as well as respectability. Pay was pretty dire, but it would increase as our ratings got better (I had been told) and hard work seemed to equal a pretty good payout. The owner, promised to pay his writers and editors fairly for their work.

Google News Logo

On the respectability front, the paper had sources in South Africa who claimed that in June, 2013 Nelson Mandela died, despite what was reported by the corrupt government and the world’s media. This combined with a serious approach to gathering and writing articles raised our ranking and this too felt legitimate.

After writing an article on Madiba’s death where I quoted what we had learned, (Our then World News Editor actually released the story before we could verify another source.) the website was then attacked for three days straight and I was sent to South Africa to talk to sources.

Back in those days, the site seemed to be a proper news publication trying to compete on a global scale. Meanwhile back in the UK by December 2013, I had nowhere to live and my boss then made the offer for me to come over to the USA and stay with him until I “could get on my feet.”

Desperate, I accepted. I paid for my airline tickets and to have my few remaining things shipped over. The cost of all this was covered by me selling practically everything I owned, I then flew to Las Vegas and was met by my employer.

On one hand, my joining the site in Vegas was an excellent chance for me to write for more than my personal blog in a “safe” environment and after an almost 32 year absence a return “home.” I’d been posting up to 8 articles a day for some time on my own site; all for free before working for Vegas site. This was a continuance of working professionally and, in the beginning, my stories were getting hundred’s of thousands of views and I soon joined the “million” club. (Million equaling views and not money.)

Oddly, these huge view counts virtually ended once I got back stateside. Again, making me believe that some “blackhat” techniques were being used by someone.

The money, apart from one very exceptional paycheck, was not brilliant; I was having to use up my small pension from HMPS to live and still running out. The cost of living in the US was much less than that of the UK, I was told, and this turned out to be false. Still, the fact that I had a place to stay and had use of a vehicle was a Godsend and the only real problem was  that views on my articles were steadily decreasing.

While being associated with this site gave me a chance to write for, and become “part owner” of a rising news publication, a lot of the opportunities I got for myself. Once I arrived in Vegas, I began responding to all the “invites” received by the paper to events that excited me.

Comic con, Star Trek con, et al. I began making better contacts with the local Hollywood studio reps at the screenings and became a member of the Nevada Film Critics Society. I got our invitations from the studios sorted out as we were missing a lot, apparently, and in short order I was going to around 5 to 7 screenings per week and writing reviews on the films.

On top of that, I was encouraging other writers (I was an editor) to write reviews on popular television shows to increase our Entertainment area. I also worked very hard to do interviews with many actors and other people in the industry to solidify our exclusive content.

Watching the analytic performance of my articles I noticed a disturbing trend. My views were struggling to reach their previous numbers. Where my average per story was around 50,000 and up in the beginning; now all articles died out at fewer than 10,000.

Combined with penalties from Google News, the site was a member, my pay packets got smaller and smaller. I was on a pay system of (supposedly) $600 per month stipend for being an editor and for doing all the above-mentioned things to set up our entertainment section. Anything over that stipend was to come from my view counts.

The stipend money was taken to pay for my rent. As mentioned above, it was $600 pm for (in the beginning) a single room, shared bathroom and use of the communal areas. Later I got the bathroom all to myself, which had been my understanding all along, and the other bedroom as an office. I was paid between $300 and $500 for my views, but my boss was quick to point out that he was “carrying me.”

My time spent setting up our entertainment section was paying off with interview offers, event invites and despite the fall in viewing figures, we were getting pretty good reception from the industry in terms of responses to queries, et al.

There were many “questionable” things about the business that I either ignored or took at face value. Continual meetings to get money from local politicians and other deep-pocketed investors were the order of the day for most of the year and completely outside my realm of expertise.

I was more interested in writing articles, building a respectable base for the entertainment section of the paper and expanding my contacts in the industry. I also felt that despite the gratitude I’d initially felt at the offer, I was being taken advantage of.

The biggest issue was the change of direction of the publisher. When I first started writing for the paper, his goal was two-fold. To pay each writer fairly for their work and to build the site up to be able to eventually compete and stay in the top 50 news sites in the US.

This emphasis slowly changed. The site was getting a lot of malware problems, a lot of Google penalties and a lot of bad press from former writers who were leaving in droves. Furthermore, they were complaining that the owner of the site was running a pyramid scheme.

While this allegation was not true, at no time did the publisher ask for money from anyone working for the paper, he got funds from advertisers and investors and things were not adding up for a great many who worked for the paper.

There were a great many of these disgruntled folks who got caught up in the penalty issues, the site was hit several times, some were given poor information or training and others just couldn’t get the program. Still more were apparently lied to.

This was something beginning to creep into my dealings with the publisher, along with getting cast in the role of general dog’s body or servant. What started as my not minding doing the odd favor for a “friend” became an overwhelming amount of time doing things that he could not be bothered to do.

Over the time period living with the publisher, I was told about serious illnesses that he had just been diagnosed with such as cancer. A lot of promises never transpired and as things trundled along, the communication became less and less. Information was segmented and only parts were passed on. As a “late stage” co-founder and 2 percent owner of  the company, I found myself continually out of the loop and learning about important things second-hand.

As my dissatisfaction continued to grow, the relationship began to sour. This “friend” who’d made such a great offer suddenly seemed to think it was okay to yell at me in a meeting or during phone calls…it was not. After this happened for the fourth time, I realized that the mutual respect that had once apparently been there was now gone.

After being told repeatedly how it was possible to exist for $300 a month, the money kept getting smaller as were the views. As mentioned above, it began to look like the massive view counts at the beginning may have had more to do with questionable practices that probably helped to bring about the penalties.

Overall, I enjoyed the work I was doing. Meeting celebrities, watching new films and writing about things that I was addicted to, attending comic cons, and doing entertainment journalism was a dream come true. Sadly, once the trust was gone and the “scales” lifted from my eyes, I realized that things were not all as advertised.

For one thing, the site was never going to be sold, as long as money was being made by the publisher  2 percent of this company was never going to amount to anything. Another issue was the accusations of the site being a “content mill.” This allegation was, pretty much, true. The amount of articles required was staggering. I myself wrote almost 1,900 articles from the end of April 2013 to December 2014. For a year I wrote and published between 8 to 10 stories per day on weekdays and up to 15 per day on Saturday and Sunday; a total of around 70 to 80 articles per week.

Before I left, I was contracted to write 62 articles per month. When I began attending the Las Vegas conventions, as mentioned above, the paper was hitting the number one slot in Google News and was generating interviews and making some good contacts. While I was at the Vampire Diaries Convention (A truly abysmal experience as the entire group running the event were small-minded and elitist.) I was called during the second day by the publisher who told me that the conventions would have to go.  Telling me that our output was suffering I was informed that I needed to write more on the weekends. Not more original output, but more regurgitated stories for the readers.

Another charge of “citizen journalists” was also levied against the site and there was a lot of truth to this as well. In most cases, writers for the site were not journalists. I had been trained years ago but many who wrote for us had never been trained apart from what our boot camp gave them when they joined.

Granted not every writer was asked to produce such huge amounts of articles but the idea was to have a lot of stories for people to choose from. In other words a content mill. I did personally learn just how much I could write each day and I also found out that self-discipline was in my vocabulary after all.

Of course writing such copious amounts, with little in the way of monetary gain and little support for original output, led to me becoming  disillusioned with the job. This went a long way to my decision to leave, but I did so secure in the knowledge that my first love of writing (which really ties with acting as first love but only just) is something that I should be doing full-time. *I promise to refrain from using such long-winded sentences in future, if I do so.*

While my time with the site was a learning experience, it was also an exercise in frustration.  Despite this, I truly enjoyed my time as the head of Entertainment and only wish that I’d been more au fait with the world of online journalism.

I do not consider myself a “citizen journalist.” I did take courses years ago and apart from the beginning of my time with the paper, attempted to do unique and exclusive content for my section. Ultimately this was never going to be a winning situation apart from lip service  as volume was required, not originality.

My leaving has put me in the position of counting flowers on the wall, if there were any, as my current abode is out in the middle of nowhere with shaky Internet. While I attempt to get a better set up to continue my writing for other sites, which I am currently doing, interviews and reviews are continuing as and when a signal makes itself available.

Rest assured, I would have left my job earlier if funds were available. Unfortunately pay was kept shallow enough that it was not possible for me to make good my escape. At one rather insulting point, my benefactor informed me that he purposefully kept my pay low so I would know what if felt like to be broke in Las Vegas! I told him in no uncertain terms that I already knew what being broke felt like in a lot of different places, I needed no “teaching.”

I am currently writing more on my own blog with plans of setting it up for proper advertising and I’m working for another news site and writing my memoirs (Goodness that sound very “up my own arse” doesn’t it?), for those who are interested,  from my years working for Her Majesty’s Prison Service.

In many ways this is a cautionary tale; when you hear too many things that, ultimately, you want;  pay attention and realize that you are probably being played. Some people are very good at feeding information that you will believe because you want to.

Since leaving, my life has been hectic and full of reflection. Sort of like the Flowers on the Wall song says, “playing solitaire till dawn…” has given me plenty of time to realize that at the site, things were “okay” for so long because I wanted them to be. Apart from the money issue, I was having fun and learning that I could do so much more than I realized. Finally my end came, like so many others, because of greed and the fact that the company dream as portrayed, was not real.

As a final point: I left the publication on December 31, 2014, despite fulfilling my amount of articles and doing interviews and covering events right up till the end, I have received no money since my half-pay packet in December. So unlike the song’s message, no one is too concerned about my, or anyone else’s, happiness.

The Fireman by Stephen Leather…Vintage Leather

Published in 1989, The Fireman by Stephen Leather is his second book. Leather was still working as a journalist at the time so it is no wonder that his protagonist and his story are set in the world of journalism.

Fireman is the term applied to a ‘high flyer’ in the news world. They are the journalists who are sent around the world at a moments notice to cover the big stories. They are the heavy hitters, the Babe Ruth’s of reporting and as such are on call twenty-four hours a day. It is an exhausting job, but one that pays well and you have a guaranteed by-line.

The main character is the fireman that the title refers to. Or was the fireman before he got jaded and his intake of alcohol required that he be “dried out.” The rehab was paid for by the newspaper he works for and he has slid down the professional ladder to second string crime reporter. One step below an overpaid youngster.

The paper is being taken over by computers and their workforce is dwindling. The fireman gets a call from Hong Kong where his sister Sally is working as a free-lance journalist. She has fallen from a tall building and the Hong Kong police are calling it suicide. He now needs fly to Hong Kong and sort her things out and explain to the police that Sally would never kill herself.

Set in the days before Hong Kong was “given” back to China, the colour and the pace of the place is brilliantly painted for the reader. The ex-pats and their comfort in a self-imposed exile from England are just as colourful and also sad. These are not life’s movers and shakers, rather they are the ‘also rans’ who have managed to find a place higher up on the social ladder.

That Stephen Leather has a solid background in journalism is apparent in how well he describes the setting of the newspaper’s working environment. I worked for a local rag in the early 90’s. Not as a journalist, but as a driver. As the paper was more localized I was privy to how a lot of things worked and got to see how every thing came together to produce the paper.

But, even if you haven’t worked in that arena, you can feel the authenticity of the characters and the pecking order as laid out by Leather in his book.

Written in the first person, you never learn the protagonists name. When I went to write this review I ‘skip read’ through the book repeatedly to find his name. Not there. This, I have been lead to understand, is a common device with Mr Leather in a few of his books. It does not detract from the story, if anything it helps give the impression that you are living the action right along with the hero.

And there is a lot of action to live through. You follow him every step of the way as he tries to find out who was behind his sister Sally’s murder. It is entertaining and very fast paced. As this was his second work to be published, it lacks a lot of the polish that his later books have. But the rough edges don’t detract from the story and it is still a good read.

In an interview, Leather has stated that he was not too happy about the family circumstances that his editor insist that he put into the story. I can empathise with him as that part of the story stuck out like a sore thumb and did feel “tacked on.” I won’t say what it is but I do believe that you’ll find the same when you read the book.

When the villain is finally tracked down and dealt with it is one of the best cases of poetic justice I’ve seen. I enjoyed my leisurely perusal  of vintage Stephen Leather and I am looking forward to reading some of his other earlier books.

While this book is not in the same league as Fair Game or Nightmare, Stephen still shows that splendid ear for dialogue that makes his books stand out so much from other authors.

I would highly recommend reading The Fireman. It will entertain you and hold your attention.