Writing for Guardian Liberty Voice: 10 Writers’ Stories

Revenue share writing promises pay that often doesn't materialize.

I started this blog to help writers find freelance markets that pay well…and to warn writers away from sites that don’t.

All of which has led me to spend some time looking into startup news and op-ed website Guardian Liberty Voice, a 2-year-old, Las Vegas-based online news site started by entrepreneur and former chain restaurant manager DiMarkco Chandler.

What I learned led me to talk to writers with experience at GLV, to find out more. Before I launch into the writers’ stories, a little background on what GLV is and how I learned of them:

First contact

Earlier this year, a GLV manager emailed me, asking me to write for them and recruit a team of writers to work under me. They are seeking to hire 900 more writers in their quest to “raise the bar on citizen journalism.”

At that point, I’d never heard of them.

They explained that they paid per-ad-impression…in other words, for eyeballs on ads. I responded that I didn’t work for clients without at least some guaranteed pay. But I wondered if they might be a pay opportunity for political writers, a niche with few paying markets.

So I started asking around to find people who’d been writing for Guardian Liberty Voice. I also asked GLV if they could provide a referral to a happy current GLV writer who wasn’t part of GLV’s editorial or management staff, and spoke to one. In all, I spoke to more than ten writers.

To respond to some of the issues the writers raised, GLV senior managing editor Rebecca Savastio served as GLV’s spokeswoman, and Chandler also spoke with me on Skype.

GLV 101

First off, some basics on how GLV works, and what’s been said about the company publicly:

  • As GLV describes on its own About page, the company began as the Las Vegas Guardian, but had to change its name after the highly regarded Guardian newspaper of London objected, evolving to Guardian Liberty Voice. After a brief time as a print publication, GLV switched to digital-only.
  • Writers who apply to GLV are put through a two-week training bootcamp, during which they typically write upwards of 20 posts. On the final day alone, writers are required to write six articles.
  • GLV reports that 80 percent of writers fail to graduate from bootcamp, which means they earn nothing for posts written during bootcamp.
  • Writers must continue to write for GLV for at least 50 days and see royalties top $50 to receive a paycheck.
  • From there, every month that writers have at least two posts published, they remain current with GLV and can continue to receive pay, based on how many views their articles have had. Royalty percentages increase if you post more. Cease writing for them, and all royalties end, even on previously posted work.
  • At least one formal complaint has been filed against GLV with the Las Vegas attorney general’s office by a former GLV writer and editor. In the April 14 filing, Idaho-based Heather Pilkinton reports she ended up working long hours for what penciled out to 47 cents an hour.

The short version

Despite its claims of groundbreaking pay models and carving a new path for citizen journalism, GLV appears to be simply a low-paying revenue-share platform where most of the articles are quick rewrites of items found through Google News.

Writers — many of them brand-new freelancers — often end up earning nothing. Payout documents supplied to this blog provide a single-month snapshot: of 50 writers who were with GLV in June 2013, only two made more than $500 in one month. For the rest, average pay was just $45 a month.

Company founder Chandler is widely described as a charismatic man who draws people to his projects, but promises things he doesn’t always deliver. Among those who feel lied to by Chandler are his former employers at the Las Vegas Tribune. There is much more to the story of Chandler than I have included here — I’ve restricted my focus to what I think might directly affect freelance writers.

For more details, read on to hear from GLV’s writers in their own words.

Earning more with his own blog

Brand-new Toronto freelancer Jonathan Holowka initially spotted a Craigslist ad for GLV. He raved about his GLV bootcamp experience in a post on his blog. Within weeks of posting it, though, he had quit.

In a Skype call, Holowka explained why his viewpoint on GLV quickly changed:

“On the first day of bootcamp, they did show us how much people were earning, and I remember the numbers being quite small. But I saw those numbers and thought, ‘I’m sure I can do better than that.’ I got in my mind that I could surpass that, somehow. And they really seemed to like my writing.”

As a writer with absolutely no previous online writing experience, Holowka says he found the bootcamp “really good, and free…we learned how to write organically and not word-stuff.” He passed bootcamp and was certified.

His pay for 65 articles written over two months? It was $85, or about $1.30 per post.

Holowka’s conclusion was that he could do better putting up his own website — and he has. His site, What To Do When Bored, has made $450 off the first 50 articles he posted on it in just its first weeks, Holowka reports.

Some quit during bootcamp

One of the reasons 80 percent of GLV writers wash out may be because many realize little income is likely, and quit before the bootcamp ends. That’s what Reno-based writer Hamilton Tolson did back in February, after writing just three articles. Here’s a digest of GLV impressions he emailed me:

“I’ll be honest — knowing nothing about finding a job as a writer, other than that I had a marked interest in politics, I was stoked with what I thought was a real job opportunity. [GLV] had me write three articles.

“Then he clued me in to the whole ‘team building’ bullshit by telling me that I too could, perhaps, have a team under me in the future.

“As soon as I attended the first class of bootcamp, I quit.  The first class was a round robin of glad-handing, as DiMarkco and others praised each other back and forth, while we all listened.  I realized I was in a virtual classroom with many others who barely spoke, or typed, English.

“I only wish I had done the diligence to research the company a bit. These people prey on the desperation of young, uninformed writers. I’m ashamed to have been stupid enough not to know better.”

GLV’s Savastio says writers who make it through their initial 50 days are paid a flat $30 for their first three “tryout” posts, and that Tolson went unpaid because he didn’t stay long enough.

Creating fake social-media identities

In contrast to Holowka’s reaction, Denver-based freelance writer Danyelle Overbo told me she found the bootcamp a mind-numbing waste of time. She waited an hour or more while Chandler logged writers in, went over SEO basics, and repeatedly showed writers the GLV categories they needed to use for posting.

“It was really nonsensical,” she says. “He would say things that were wrong about grammar.”

Perhaps the single biggest issue that made Overbo quit was the black-hat social-media techniques she saw demonstrated. In some post-bootcamp meetings, Savastio has shared how she creates multiple fake Facebook identities so she can pose as a fan and promote her posts more aggressively, which she describes as key to helping posts “go viral.”

Savastio says she’s aware this violates Facebook’s terms of service, but says she considers the move “guerrilla marketing” and has no ethical qualms about using this promotional technique.

When she estimated what she’d be earning, Overbo says it appeared to be roughly a penny an article.

“I was trying to launch a freelance writing business,” she says, “and it was just a huge waste of time.”

Earnings: zero

L.A. based new freelance writer Luke Sargent is among the 80 percent of GLV writers who quit by the end of bootcamp. Sargent says he wised up when one editor accidentally opened a payout spreadsheet and he saw the small amounts writers were owed.

“They got 30 articles from me, all free,” he says. “They sell it as, ‘You’re building your business,’ but of course you’re not — you’re building their business.”

He also saw that the premise of earning on an ongoing basis from the news articles was unlikely to pan out.

“That can never happen, because it’s a news site,” he says, “and people aren’t interested in old news.”

GLV’s Chandler says he’s straight with writers from the start — that it could take six months to start earning anything, and that for some, it might turn out to be more of a hobby than a revenue generator.

Who’s his ideal writer? “We’re looking for housewives, and people who don’t have anything to do,” he says. “They love writing and use it to supplement their income.”

Payment delays

If they can get a check, that is. That proved a struggle for Iftikhar Tariq Khanzada, a Pakistani attorney who does freelance writing in his spare time to bring in extra money. He started with GLV in September and wrote 229 articles in all — over 100,000 published words, he relates.

He says his dashboard shows he’s owed $126 for that effort, having hit the $50 minimum last October. But despite repeated requests over a period of several months, a payment was never sent until March — and that was for $108, not $126.

Khanzada feels his distant locale made GLV managers feel paying him was optional. “What could I do to them, from here?” he told me in a Skype call.

This particularly rankled because in meetings, when writers complained, Chandler would tell them to look at their long-term earning potential with fast-rising GLV. He’d direct them to business-valuation site WorthofWeb, which at one point indicated GLV was worth more than $25 million, and talk about how they could end up earning big if they stuck with GLV.

“[Chandler] boasts that he’s buying a Mercedes, and his company has a $25 million valuation, but he can’t pay me $100?” Khanzada asks. “That’s paradoxical. Writers shouldn’t be writing for this scam.”

Overworked editors

To help grow its writing staff, GLV editors encourage writers to recruit a team and become editors. GLV’s Savastio says it is not a multi-level marketing model — writers only earn from the team they directly recruit. There is no “downline.”

Editors are paid a stipend ranging from $100-$800 per month. Though this brings some guaranteed income, the hourly rate for editors may work out even worse than it does for writers.

In the complaint she filed with the Las Vegas attorney general, former GLV editor Heather Pilkinton says that while some editors and key writers were repeatedly promised they’d be given 1 percent equity stakes in GLV worth $250,000, nothing materialized except a stipend raise for Pilkinton to $500 a month. Writer Overbo says she also heard the $250K spiel, but Savastio says she’s never heard that promise.

A few quotes from Pilkinton’s complaint:

“…The saturation of writers is so high in order for writers to actually earn money by writing for the GLV, they must write an exorbitant number of articles. This also means that there are so many articles going up that many articles get lost with only a minimum amount of reads. Because of the 50-day payout and because of the $50 minimum required to receive payout, many writers leave without ever seeing any of the money their articles have earned, meaning [GLV] has accumulated a bunch of free content.

“Editors often find themselves working 7 days a week, upwards of 15 hours a day. [Once, Chandler] decided he needed to call me at 1 a.m.  Very rarely does the total payout for the editors reach $1,000 for an entire month, and that includes the stipend and the commissions. Plus, in order for commissions to be paid out, editors, on top of their other duties, are expected to [write] anywhere between 29 and 112 articles per month.

She also points out that writers see pay only from one of the ad networks that serve ads onto GLV’s pages — Tribal Fusion — while GLV works with several ad networks. Savastio confirms that writers only get paid from Tribal Fusion, adding that revenue from the other ad networks is minimal in comparison, and goes toward the editor stipend payments.

The biggest month she had during her five month stay, Pilkinton made $685, working more than full-time hours. She estimates that given the time she put in, it came out to 47 cents an hour.

For her part, Savastio says she earns little from her editing chores, but enjoys mentoring writers. “Not everything is about money for me,” she says.

A self-described “mediocre” writer who says she doesn’t have the chops to write for higher-paying magazine markets, Savastio adds that she considers the chance to earn a living as a writer a dream come true, despite the 12-hour days.

Her total pay last month, thanks mostly to a couple of posts that got lots of views, was roughly $2,000, or $7.75 per hour. She says that in the world of revshare, GLV’s stipends are rare — when she was looking for a new gig after leaving AOL’s imploding Patch network, she says AllVoices didn’t offer stipends, for instance.

Cloudy visibility

While some writers report they were able to keep tabs on how much they were earning, others felt the information was hard to come by.

For instance, Costa Rica-based writer Mimi Mudd did the bootcamp in February, and wrote over 50 articles over the course of two months. She says requests to see what her income would be were met with weeks of stonewalling. Finally, one editor showed her she’d accumulated just $4.50, not enough to receive a check under GLV’s payout rules. Mudd departed in April.

“If you’re looking for exposure as a writer,” Mudd says, “if you’re looking to get articles published and get clips, there are far better ways to do it.”

Savastio says since Mudd’s departure, she has strengthened the training on how to view earnings and stresses that if posts don’t get huge traffic, writers will not earn enough to see a paycheck.

Article spinning

Then there’s the quality of work GLV writers do. While a small portion of the posts involve unique interviews, writers say the vast majority are simply quickly rewritten from items found searching Google News. Former GLV writer Juana Poareo, reports she earned $800 for 173 articles — or about $4.62 per piece — over the course of four months. The L.A.-based writer says posts are cranked out fast, and that she routinely ran her own articles through Copyscape, to make sure they’d been rewritten enough that they wouldn’t be considered duplicate copy.

Why are writers article spinning? Time pressure to meet their posting goals and keep earning, Poareo says, as well as to quickly recycle the hottest topics currently trending online, in hopes of catching some of the big traffic needed to get paid.

“Writers are pressured to perform and get their articles to go viral,” Poareo, who is deaf, said in a Skype chat interview.

Reading the site myself, I found most stories simply recycle trending news or research press releases, as with this story about 3D-printed cancer cures. Adding insult to injury, GLV’s style is to put the links to the original sources at the bottom of stories, rather than appearing with relevant key words in the parts of the post that derive from each source, thereby minimizing their prominence and the likelihood they’ll be clicked — and also leaving readers to guess which facts came from where.

Vague, unsupported sentences are typical, such as this one from the 3D printing story: “Doctors will agree that current cancer therapies are horribly imprecise.”

Good grammar also appears to be optional, as with the opening sentence of this energy story, reproduced exactly as it appears:

Natural gas vs. oil, which is more affordable -when considering efficiency- to heat a home?

Chandler says GLV now has over 300 writers. Won’t the pay pool be diluted as ever more stories and writers vie for the same eyeballs? Chandler’s plan is to reassign many of the writers to some of the nearly dozen other sites he’s created, to keep things stable at GLV.

The (sort of) happy camper

You may be wondering — who enjoys writing for GLV? In general, new freelance writers who are unaware of any other way to make more money from writing.

One of these is Douglas Cobb, a former teacher and current Arkansas resident with multiple advanced degrees. Cobb has been writing for GLV for over a year, usually writing 40 or more posts a month in his off hours from his regular job at an auto-parts store. He estimates he spends 15 or more hours a week writing his posts.

He’s been given the title senior review editor, though no extra pay comes with this. With an emphasis on writing TV and entertainment-related stories that sometimes include interviews, Cobb has done fairly well by GLV standards.

His pay has ranged from about $250 a month — around $4 an hour — to over $1,000. When I explained what I’ve earned as a blogger, he was interested to learn how to find better markets.

“I knew getting into it that it’s not a way to make a whole lot of money,” he says of GLV. “But it is a way to make some. If I knew of any other places, I’d try them out.”

What will Google do?

The final question about GLV is how Google will respond to the site’s mass of recycled content. Savastio said she’s well aware that a tweak in the wrong direction by Google’s algorithms, and much of GLV’s traffic could vanish overnight. Alexa reports that roughly one-third of the site’s traffic comes through the search engine.

GLV’s Chandler says the worst has already happened.

He reports that earlier this month, he discovered Google had removed all GLV’s stories from its News results. Chandler worked frantically to remove ads from the site and create a cleaner layout, which he says helped GLV return to News results. He admits he may need to remove more ads — and that this reduced ability to advertise may hit writers’ paychecks.

GLV has gotten tougher about who it lets graduate from bootcamp, Savastio says, trying to screen out lower-quality writers to help keep Google happy. Which means that now, likely even more than 80 percent of the bootcamp writers will wash out.

“This pay model is definitely not for everyone,” Savastio says. “It’s performance-based pay. Then again, no one is making anyone work here.”

The past is prologue

Prior to starting GLV, founder Chandler was employed at the Las Vegas Tribune, for about six months that ended with his firing (or quitting, depending on who you believe) in February 2012. The paper’s founder, editor-in-chief and publisher Rolando Larraz, recalls Chandler was so broke when he arrived, he didn’t own a car and was staying in a weekly-rate hotel, for which Larraz footed the bill. Larraz took him under his wing, and soon Chandler had password access to company computers and bank accounts — which Larraz quickly came to regret.

“He wanted to be the publisher, and I didn’t want him to be,” Larraz told me in a recent phone conversation.

In an op-ed piece in the paper in the wake of Chandler’s departure, Chandler’s hire was termed a “fiasco” by managing editor Maramis Choufani. Larraz actually ran a front page article headlined, “DiMarkco Chandler Is Not Affiliated With the Las Vegas Tribune In Any Way,” on Feb. 29, 2012. In it, Larraz warns his paper’s readers and advertisers that he’d discovered Chandler was soliciting ad checks from Tribune advertisers after he’d left the paper, while claiming to still be with the Tribune.

Chandler remembers it differently. In his version, Larraz’s paper was failing financially, Chandler was working to save and relaunch it in a more viable form, and Chandler ended up out of pocket for a new Spanish/English version of the paper the two were partnering on, for which Chandler printed multiple editions.

“I worked without him paying me a dime,” he says.

Interestingly, the Tribune‘s policy of paying writers nothing is what inspired Chandler to create his pay model at GLV. He’s proud to be offering writers at least the chance to earn something, compared with what he saw at the Tribune.

“My writers are making more money than me,” Chandler says, “and they get to write whatever they want.”

In her op-ed piece after his firing, Choufani writes that Chandler had “ill intent, betrayed us, and took what wasn’t his,” leaving “a trail of deceit and lies.” She calls him “a really great con artist.”

“If DiMarkco is still out there fooling others,” Choufani writes, “I feel sorry for them.”

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