Note from Paul: A couple of days ago, I wrote a column about Scripped’s “Showwatcher” — a new site, affiliated with Kevin Spacey, that encourages would-be entertainment writers to produce blog posts for no financial compensation. Put mildly, I had some concerns about the ethics of that kind of business.

The post sparked a medium-sized debate, with some commenters (mainly professional writers) arguing that “each time some Internet startup pleads their case for free content, whether words or images, they embed deeper the misguided notion that neither has much value” while others (mainly Showwatcher contributors) pointed out that “no one is promised anything for writing for Showatcher, and participation is 100% voluntary.

In the interests of fairness, I invited Scripped CEO, Sunil Rajaraman, to respond directly to my criticisms. In the guest post below, he explains how Showwatcher came into being, the motivations behind soliciting unpaid content and how — yes — “the email we wrote to our writers announcing Showwatcher sounded awful.”

It’s a candid, and interesting, response and I’m grateful to Sunil for writing it.

Sunil Rajaraman writes…

“I think there are two major issues Paul has with Showwatcher, which are very important ongoing debates in general: 1. Should writers ever work for free? 2. Does Showwatcher exploit celebrity affiliation to seduce unsuspecting writers?

Background

I want to provide a bit of context on all of this because there are a number of players involved. Here is a bit of background on Showwatcher, and how it came to be.

I co-founded Scripped back in January of ’08 – we provide free, Web-based screenwriting software to aspiring screenwriters. Our goal was to amass a huge user-base of writers (now 80,000 writers in all), and convince independent (not studio-affiliated) producers they should source screenplays from us. We had some success, and sold a screenplay to Spike TV, amongst others (writers were paid generously for every screenplay that was sold).

Last year, we pivoted to a different business, for which we raised a $1M venture capital round. That business, Scripted.com, provides paid gigs to writers – to date, we’ve paid a little over 250k to writers in the year since we launched. In the case of Scripted, we’ve invited some of the best writers from our Scripped.com user-base and put them to work for small businesses in need of content. Sean Dunne, a writer from Dallas, made 45k off the site last year – Paul’s issue is not with Scripted.com.

Finally, there is Showwatcher. Back when we were focused on Scripped, we had a reasonably active blog – thanks in large part to our user-base. Writers from Scripped would send us posts, and ask us to put them up on our blog. The number of posts we received was substantial, and we soon began receiving topic pitches from writers who wanted to express their opinions about movies, and the movie industry as a whole. We decided to create a separate entity from this site, since we wanted the Scripped blog to be focused more on screenwriting-type-issues: enter Showwatcher.

Issue 1: Should Writers Ever Work For Free?

I think the answer to this question is yes, depending on a number of factors. Writers should never work for free for doing any sort of spec work for businesses (writing company blogs, website copy, white papers, and so on). Professional, well-established journalists with good reputations (such as Paul and others) should never have to work for free, unless for HuffPo.

That said, if you are an aspiring writer and want to establish a name for yourself, writing for free for the right type of site can be hugely beneficial for your brand. I know this, because I personally have written for free for Paul’s alma mater, TechCrunch, multiple posts for GigaOM, Screencrave, Paste Magazine, The Content Marketing Institute and numerous other sites. What did I get out of it? Distribution. Writing powerful, original content for sites that get massive distribution is hugely beneficial to your personal brand, and leads to a lot of inbound opportunities. The guest piece I wrote for Techcrunch yielded 25 new customers for Scripted.com in a 24 hour period. I did not get paid for the post, but who cares? Depending on what your objective is you should write for free for certain types of sites.  If you write engaging content, even if it’s for free, and gain distribution, you open up a ton of doors for yourself.

HuffPo, BleacherReport, and numerous other sites do not pay writers, but offer tremendous distribution opportunities for amateur writers. BleacherReport is one of my favorite companies because they managed to keep site content quality high, while still accepting free contributions from folks who are passionate about sports.

Sidenote: the guest piece I linked to for GigaOM is a piece I wrote with Steven de Souza, who wrote Die Hard, 48 Hours, Tomb Raider and a host of other box office hits. Steven was not paid for the post. Why did he do it? He wanted to convey a few ideas he had about Hollywood and tech, and express them to a large audience. I assure you his going rate for paid work is substantially higher than any writer reading this article, save a few.

Issue 2: But What about Showwatcher?

Building a content business is extremely tough, as Paul and the folks at Pando realize. You have to put together a ton of quality content, develop a loyal readership, and keep producing that type of content at a decent enough rate to keep your user-base engaged. It’s a classic chicken and egg problem.

Showwatcher is too early to have either traffic, or legitimacy – enter our affiliation with Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. We met Dana last year, and have a lot of respect for what he built with Triggerstreet Labs – a site which has helped countless aspiring screenwriters get paid, and receive publicity. We had writers eager to produce content, but with the number of movie blogs out there, we figured we had no real shot to get distribution without the right types of people behind the site.  With the credibility Kevin and Dana could potentially add to the site, we figured we could give our writers a real shot at having a platform for putting together a well-trafficked site with some excellent people behind us. We are still terribly early, and it may not work, but if it does we will be very happy for our writers.

Another few key points around Showwatcher:

  • It is 100% voluntary – no one has to write for Showwatcher, period
  • It may not work, and it may never get a decent enough volume of traffic to justify keeping it running, but that’s not going to stop us from trying (especially for our writers who asked for this type of site)
  • We are not offering financial compensation for posts up front for this site, but we are doing a 100% profit share with writers. Any money we make from the site goes to writers – a point that we did not convey in our email because… the site makes no money.
  • This is a side project that is loosely affiliated with Scripted.com – we are not investing a ton of money to try to get this going (in other words, our venture capital financing is not being poured into Showwatcher because it is not core to our business)

Where we Screwed Up

The email we wrote to our writers announcing Showwatcher sounded awful. It was too sales-y and did not convey any of what I shared above in the correct way. We were not trying to use Kevin and Dana’s brand to seduce writers to working for free, but instead, use their brand as a way to establish legitimacy, and potential distribution. Paul was right to blast us here.

That said, I’m hopeful and optimistic that the site does make money, because if it does, writers will get paid. In the meantime, we’ll continue to offer great paid gigs for our writers through Scripted.com.”