TCS Daily

The Genuine Article

By Ken Layne - September 24, 2002 12:00 AM

When journalist David Wallis launched his Web-based syndication service two years ago, it seemed a pretty humble enterprise compared to the online syndicates of the day.

His wasn't a slick multi-million-dollar content marketplace portal like iSyndicate or ScreamingMedia. Instead, Featurewell would be about quality journalism and fair treatment of writers - not exactly the buzzwords of the dot-com era.

Those other Web syndicates have mostly vanished or were consolidated into enterprise streaming solutions or whatever (every "404 Not Found" tells a story), but Featurewell celebrates its second anniversary this week with a party at Manhattan's Roger Smith Hotel. Featurewell writers Andy Borowitz, Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays are among those scheduled to give readings. Power Point presentations are unlikely.

There are some 800 writers - Jimmy Breslin, Eric Alterman, Catherine Dunn, Christopher Hitchens and Andrei Codrescu, to name a few - who use Featurewell to sell their work again and again to the 900 editors signed up with the service. Wallis has a reputation as a fierce defender of free-lancers' rights, and this combined with his record of actually getting the money from publishers to journalists makes Featurewell a friendly place for an impressive roster of writers.

"Writers appreciate the fact that we give them as much as possible, a very fair cut," Wallis said. Featurewell pays 60 percent of sales to writers, a generous share in the syndication business. Newspapers benefit too, because they get to run quality stuff at a good price.

By hand-picking his writers and the pieces he sells, Wallis has created what those Internet-bubble moneyholes never could with all their fancy content management systems: a solid relationship with newspaper editors based on personal service. Wallis started Featurewell with just $30,000 and a Web site built by his business partner Marc Deveaux. This year, the small company is expected to sell $200,000 worth of articles.

"We're still around," Wallis said. "Proudly defying expectations, proud to be a dot-com. I never thought it was going to be the next Yahoo. That was a problem with a lot of the companies out there - they all expected to be huge enterprises."
Wallis says he "kept expenses really low" and doesn't even have a marketing budget. "I see all these sites that got $20 million, $50 million for Web sites. For a million or two, I could have done wonders."

Maybe. But his easy-to-use site seems to do the job just fine. Every registered buyer already has the technology to get a Featurewell story. It's called "cut and paste," and even newspaper editors can do it without difficulty. Wallis prices the articles based on length, newsworthiness, the size of the paper and the rights being purchased - generally print rights in the paper's circulation area.

While the Internet makes it simple to receive and deliver copy, Wallis says it's human attention that makes the business function.

"It's somewhat counterintuitive to the Web, because people say the Web is all about automation... But the human touch of a phone call lets the client know two things: I let them know there are people, real people, behind the Web. And if they were thinking about filching the material, there are real people to track them down like bloodhounds."

Collecting payment sometimes demands creativity, as was the case when an editor in Mexico repeatedly failed to pay a bill. Wallis decided to play on the editor's machismo. "I now question your honor as a gentleman," Wallis wrote. The editor was furious, but quickly paid up.

"I am your worst nightmare if you owe me cash," Wallis says.

Annual sales of $200,000 won't put Featurewell on the cover of Forbes, but the syndicate is already profitable. Try to come up with the name of another journalism dot-com with actual profits. Wallis expects annual sales to reach $1 million by the company's fifth year.

The survival and success of Featurewell has a lot to do with the fact that Wallis is himself a prominent journalist. He writes regularly for the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post and contributes to the New Yorker and Wired. (When an article about Featurewell referred to him as a "former" reporter, Wallis says he took the first plane to Guantanamo to file a story. "I write to keep myself in the game," he says. "It also lets writers know that I have toiled as they have.")

My free-lance pals in Los Angeles had good things to say about Wallis and Featurewell, so I got an introduction from syndicated columnist Amy Alkon and media critic Catherine Seipp a few months ago. (Wallis doesn't take unsolicited submissions.) I turned in a humor piece originally written for, and a few days later Featurewell sold it to a North Carolina weekly I didn't even know existed. There are tens of thousands of daily and weekly newspapers in the world, and it's very unlikely any single writer will know editors at more than a handful of those publications.

Encouraged by the first experiment, I put a Sept. 11 feature up for sale. In two weeks, Wallis sold it to five papers - including the San Francisco Chronicle and Toronto Sun. For a free-lancer, that's just astonishing. And for writers accustomed to working in a single market, it's a terrific lesson on the handling of secondary rights.

With thousands of publications recently planning big Sept. 11 anniversary packages, Wallis was very busy helping editors fill space. "I'm a war profiteer," he said earlier this month, surprised by the huge jump in sales. "I'm a merchant of death."

He's actually a merchant of information, using disruptive technologies to remove some of the most annoying, labor-intensive parts of the free-lance writer's existence.

"I thought the Internet could take a lot of hassle away from that," he says. "Featurewell simplifies the processes of the free-lance lifestyle. I've written a lot of checks to a lot of writers. Not necessarily big checks, but sometimes they are. I also want to make money on it."

An "unabashed fan of the newspaper," Wallis knows all those thousands of papers aren't going anywhere soon. And each of those papers has a news hole that must be filled again and again. Might as well make it easy for them... and for the writers.

The author is a writer in Los Angeles and the publisher of

TCS Daily Archives