Your word is your worth: why journalists shouldn’t write for free

6861197374_17a9d96b5eAbout six years ago, having been made redundant from a role in Brisbane I applied for a number of journalism jobs in Sydney.

One of these was to write for Lawyer’s Weekly. Part of the application process was to write an article for the publication about the implementation of Basel 2 banking reforms on the legal profession (Yes, a very dry topic I know). I spent a great deal of time researching the topic and did a number of interviews before filing a story.

For whatever reason, I never got the job. However the editor at the time – a fidgety Englishman – said Lawyer’s Weekly would publish my article and pay me $100 or thereabouts for my 1,500 word story – or less than 10 cents a word.

I was outraged. I remember I wrote an angry email to the editor, demanding better compensation for my time and effort. He refused to budge. I later received a copy of the edition of the trade mag with my article splashed across two pages and a check for $1o0. It didn’t seem like a fair trade.

I sold the very same article (slightly re-jigged) to an education group I was doing freelance work for at the time, Tribeca Learning (now part of the Kaplan professional training group) for about $1,500 and gave Lawyer’s Weekly the one-fingered salute (figuratively).

It was immensely satisfying.

The issue of journalists, writers and photographers not being paid for their work has come to the boil over the past few weeks in a series of exchanges between my current employer (Fairfax) and former employer (Private Media).

Fairfax’s The Age newspaper had highlighted that Private Media does not pay bloggers for their posts on subscription news and analysis website Crikey and that it had no contributor budget for arts website  offshoot the Daily Review. Instead, it rewards bloggers on a system based on the number of hits the post receives. (I should point out that contributors and those commissioned to write for Crikey are paid, but the rate is to my understanding, pitiful).

The Age’s Ben Butler explained the pay per hits policy for Crikey bloggers:

Blog entries that get 25,000 page views a month earned a ”bonus” of $193.50, those with 50,000 hits $387 and so on, with the system topping out at $4000 for a post ticking past the 500,000 mark.

Critics of the policy included freelance writer Byron Bache who launched an online protest on his blog supported by a number of writers, including former Crikey journalist Amber Jamieson. Bache wrote:

It is ethically reprehensible for a company to expand and actually stop paying the people who produce its product. A company which asks its readers to pay for content doesn’t feel the same obligation when it comes to its writers.

He also pointed out that the Daily Review’s two full-time staff were being paid a reported $100,000+ a year and that it was a distinctly commercial venture i.e. one designed to make a profit and provide a return to shareholders in Private Media.

I should point out that Crikey is a terrific and valuable website with about 18,000 paying subscribers. Blogs are not behind the paywall so readership could in theory be quite high. However, I would argue that few if any stories have ever reached anywhere near 500,000 hits to secure the $4,000 payment and that even reaching 50,000 hits ($387) would mark an article or blog as incredibly successful. So the possibility of getting paid anything meaningful is virtually zero.

The feud between The Age and Crikey/The Daily Review played out over a number of days in The Age’s gossipy CBD column with headings like “Putting the free back into freelance”,  and “Crikey! Writers want to get paid”.

In response, Crikey decided it should publish an explanation of its editorial policies under the rather mushy heading “three cheers for our writers” with an “unreserved apology” for not being open about it’s payment policy plus a link to this policy.

A few days later, Bethanie Blanchard, a Crikey literary blogger, wrote what was clearly a difficult column for her  in the Sunday Age (but for which she was paid for) criticising the Daily Review for not paying freelance writers for what is a commercial venture.

Blanchard admitted that it was “deeply troubling personally to criticise a company we [freelancers] have been incredibly proud to write for” but that there were places were writers could and should write for free to test themselves and fail, such as student newspapers, street press and emerging journals, but not the Daily Review, a “commercial venture”.

I should at this point own up.  I have in fact written for Crikey for free on a number of occasions and happily did so. I never thought to ask for payment since I was a fairly well-paid full-time member of Private Media’s staff and nor did I expect it. I was just pleased to appear in a publication I highly respect (I should also mention that I was paid very fairly for a series of ebooks I wrote for Property Observer outside of work hours).

But writing for Crikey for free was my choice. I certainly wasn’t asked to do so.

It’s a different story if writer’s are approached to contribute to a publication and expected to work for nothing beyond the euphemistic “exposure” or for the possibility of payment if they reach an impossible readership target.

The ABC’s Media Watch highlighted the offer of ‘exposure rather than payment’ recently in an excellent expose on Tennis Australia inviting freelance photographers to take photos of tennis players ahead of the Australian Open without payment in what is a $200 million revenue generating enterprise, paying $33 million in prize money at the Grand Slam event.

Another publication under fire is ‘mommy blogging’ website Mamamia which does not pay bloggers or anyone apart from a handful of its staff, but which appears to be a highly successful commercial venture given the high media profile of founder Mia Freedman.


Let’s be clear. Offering ‘exposure’ is fine for people who are marketing themselves and for whom journalism is not their bread and butter. There are many people who will happily write for free such as mortgage brokers, investment gurus, entreprenuers and real estate agents with their columns serving as a free advertisements.

But if you’re a journalist, photographer or artist who values their craft, you should expect to be compensated fairly for your efforts.

It is also understandable that as the newspaper and publishing industry undergoes its biggest upheaval since the invention of the printing press that new ventures should look to cut costs where possible and stay lean and nimble.

But it is unacceptable to expect people who spend many hours researching, interviewing and crafting stories and who have families to support and mortgages to pay to expect nothing in return but a pat on the back.

Prize-winning author Anna Funder has also weighed into the debate, likening wealthy media companies expecting her to work for nothing but “exposure ” as to suggest she is “running some sort of porn site”.

“That’s a very quick race to the bottom,” she told the first national writers’ congress.

Like everybody else in society, we are doing something useful, something that has value. It has a kind of political value of speaking truth to power, it has an aesthetic value of giving pleasure and delight. And we deserve to be paid. We also deserve to be able to function in the world as human beings with children and mortgages – and they cost money.

Here, here! I say.

What reading ‘All the President’s Men’ can teach journalists

all the presidents men“All the President’s Men” – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s account of how they uncovered and reported the Watergate Scandal in 1972 and 1973 in the Washington Post and brought down President Nixon and his goons – should be compulsory reading for any journalist wanting tips on how to break a big story. It’s practically a ‘how to’ manual on investigative journalism.

I don’t know if they still make journalists like Bernstein and Woodward, but even in the digital age, where research and information is just a search term away, the techniques, tricks and cunning they employed still apply. Truly great stories don’t come from Google.

I should be upfront and say, that I did not find ‘All the President’s Men’ an easy book to read.

Firstly there are the sheer number of characters and the very convoluted plot. In the inside introductory pages of my paperback edition there is a list of 51 people – presidential staff, advisers, aids, campaign directors, lawyers, editors and prosecutors – who were the main players in the scandal. I found I had to constantly turn back to the beginning of the book to remind myself of who each person was as the plot diverged into a myriad different strands.

This may sound harsh, given Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting (and others on the paper) helped the Washington Post win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973, but it’s also not incredibly well written. Perhaps writing a 300 page book gave crack newspaper reporters – accustomed to writing 500 – 1000 word articles – too much leeway to tell their story. There’s too much information crammed into paragraphs and too many minor incidents that get in the way of the overall plot – a good, tight edit would have done marvels to the finished work.

That being said, it does provide some incredible insights into how these two brave, foolhardy, and belligerent reporters dug down the deepest of rabbit holes to uncover the truth.

Married journos need not apply

The first thing that’s apparent is the long and strange hours Bernstein and Woodward put in to crack the story. Neither of them were married at the time or in relationships, nor did they have children. This made it easier for them to work late into the night in the offices of the Washington Post, or drive out to the outlying suburbs of Washington or jet off to Miami or Los Angeles to track down and interview people and give up their weekends in pursuit of a story.

Anyone journalist today married or in a relationship would find it impossible to put in the hours they did – they would either end up divorced or entirely burnt out, or both.

Woodward famously would head out well after midnight to meet up with “Deep Throat” (later revealed to be the FBI’ no.2 man Mark Felt) in deserted car basements to verify information or seek help with stories.

Both journalists also had no qualms about ringing up legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee at 2am and asking if they could come over to discuss an idea or situation.

Hit the phones relentlessly. Put in the hard yards.

In the book, Woodward and Bernstein recount countless hours spent calling people on long lists, hoping to come across someone in the White House, Justice Department or some friend of a friend willing to share confidential information with them.

bernstein and woodward

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward at the offices of the Washington Post in 1972

By beginning at the top of a list and working their way through it, Woodward Bernstein would eventually find someone willing to speak to them. Sometimes they’d spend the whole day just telephoning people in the hope of finding a useful contact. In this way, they built up an incredible network of insiders. This is how they worked:

Each kept a separate master list of telephone numbers. The numbers were called at least twice a week. Eventually, the combined totals of names on their lists swelled to several hundred, yet fewer than 50 were duplicated.

Think laterally, be creative

Bernstein and Woodward were very savvy and had to be because the might of President Nixon, his ‘men’ and the CIA were out to prevent the ties between Watergate and the White House cover-up ever being revealed.

Sometimes they crossed the line and veered into the murky borders of the unethical or illegal – for instance, when they contacted members of the grand jury investigating Watergate who weren’t supposed to talk to the press or on one occasion, Bernstein not identifying himself as Washington Post reporter.


One of Woodward and Bernstein’s scoops on Watergate

(Read the actual newspaper article here.)

On another occasion, they met with chief prosecutor Earl Silbert in his fastidiously tidy office. Bernstein noticed a piece of paper on his desk that had as its letterhead the name of the company where bugging equipment for Watergate had been purchased. He used this information to write a story and was severely admonished by Silbert who called his methods “sneaky, outrageous and dishonest”. Bernstein apologised, but saw it differently:

Bernstein had learnt years before that the ability to read upside down could be a useful reportorial skill…

The point is that no opportunity was passed up. Every lead, idea or suggestion was followed up.

Get people to talk

Bernstein were masters at getting people to talk. One way, was to get themselves inside the house of a person they knew had good information, but was reluctant or too scared to speak and then find ways of staying and chatting. In one rather comical episode, they kept on ordering cup after cup of coffee in an attempt to prolong a conversation with the wife of an important person caught up in the conspiracy.

They write:

The trick was getting inside somebody’s apartment or house. There, a conversation could be pursued, consciences could be appealed to, there the reporters could try to establish themselves as human beings

Be daring out and outrageous

Bernstein and Woodward pulled some outrageous stunts and came close to going to jail.

My  favourite one is towards the end of the book.

Following a day in court where the Watergate defendants are being tried, Bernstein and Woodward along with a couple of other reporters notice three of the defendants and their lawyer trying to hail a cab. Bernstein races down as they file into the cab and

…uninvited got in anyway, piling in on top of them as the door slammed.

But it doesn’t end here:

Bernstein arrived back in the office late Saturday (he had gotten into the cab on a Friday afternoon). He had gone to the airport with Rothblatt and his clients, bought a ticket on a flight one of them was taking, edged his way in by offering to carry a suitcase and engaging in friendly banter, and slipped into the adjoining seat. Bernstein did not have to press the man too hard to turn the conversation to the trial. The story came out in a restful flow of conversation as the jet engines surged peacefully in the background.

Talk about outrageous, but this was the way Bernstein and Woodward operated.

Not all their ideas paid of – and a couple almost sunk them.

They misread what they thought were confirmations from sources on at least two occasions (one involved a source agreeing to hang up after 10 seconds if the story read out to them was entirely true. The source hung up but misunderstood the instructions) with spectacular results. But most of the time they got the story.

Every word matters

Every word mattered to Bernstein and Woodward and to their editors. The lead (opening paragraph) had to be perfect and they would fight over words and phrases and re-write and re-write as deadlines approached. This, of course, would be a problem in today’s 24 hour news cycle, where posting stories quickly as well as accurately is the challenge.

However, the digital age has not dampened the importance of writing well and being able to tell an engrossing story in a few hundred perfectly chosen words, as Bernstein and Woodward did back then. The importance of ‘words’ is revealed in this revelation:

The two fought openly. Sometimes they battled for fifteen minutes over a single word or sentence. Nuances were critically important, the emphasis had to be just right…sooner or later however, (usually later) the story was hammered out.

And let’s not forget the end result of their endeavours, the resignation of President Richard Nixon

Train, planes, buses and toilets: the global giant that covers the world


Had the train station become a bank branch?

That’s sort of how it felt walking through Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station every morning on my way to work this week.

Ascending the escalator from the platform I’d see enormous Bank of Melbourne posters dangling from the steel girders high above the tracks and a Bank of Melbourne billboard on the wall as I reached the mezzanine level. All space not occupied by a retailing brand bore the bank’s purple colours, logo and name including the fencing around the tracks, the staircase, more billboards at the main entrance on the busy corner of Collins and Spencer and even a Bank of Melbourne ad just below the roof a couple of stories up.


The only thing that was missing was the Bank of Melbourne itself. For if you were hoping to deposit a cheque, open an account of apply for a home loan at the Bank of Melbourne you’d be out of luck.


In addition to the advertising blitz, Bank of Melbourne was giving away free coffee in Bank of Melbourne cups served by baristas in Bank of Melbourne t-shirts. The only thing that didn’t bear  its logo were the sachets of sugar and sweetener.


I duly queued up. The coffee was crap and the bean grinder broke down – I’ll avoid the temptation to draw comparisons with bank service in this country and instead ponder what’s actually going on.

DSC_0463-1I went to the website of Southern Cross Station and clicked on the button marked “Advertising“. The page contained this message:

If you would like to advertise your business or services at Southern Cross Station, contact JC Decaux.

Just who is JCDecaux? It’s a French-based global ‘outdoor’ advertising giant specialising in selling advertising space across three divisions: transport, billboards and street furniture. In 2012 it earned nearly $3.8 billion revenue. It employs over 10,000 people and is the largest outdoor advertising agency in the world. The second biggest is a US company called Clear Channel Outdoor with revenues of $3.16 billion.

In Australia’s JCDecaux’s main local competitors are: oOh!Media, the world’s 11th biggest agency and APN (12th biggest), which has two subsidiaries – Adshel and Buspak.


Source: JCDecaus Annual Report (US dollars)

Australians see all of these company names everyday. Guaranteed. You may not notice them – the intention is not to promote them but the ad itself – but they will be somewhere on the billboard or poster. Like this one:

DSC_0491Unlike the dominant forms of advertising – television and radio – outdoor advertising is almost subliminal, somewhat Orwellian.

Your eye registers the ad as you rush past it in the station, at the airport, while you’re waiting for a bus. Perhaps you even stop to ponder it, but more often than not you barely even notice. Next thing, you’re craving a hamburger even though you just ate or a new mobile phone, despite their being the latest model in your pocket. More than likely, you’ve been influenced by a piece of outdoor advertising you barely even noticed, but processed sub-consciously.

The JCDecaux annual report provides some fascinating insights into the ubiquitous-ness of outdoor advertising and its ‘out there, but not really there’ dichotomy.

For example, did you know that street furniture advertising products include all of these: bus shelters, public toilets (blokes, you know the ones when you’re having a slash), self-service bicycle schemes, kiosks for flowers or newspapers, public trash bins, benches, citylight panels, public information panels, streetlights, street signage, bicycle racks and shelters, recycling bins for glass, batteries or paper, electronic message boards and interactive computer terminals.

Transport advertising covers major airports, metros, trains, buses, trams and
other mass transit systems, as well as express train terminals serving international airports around the world.

Nice Airport, France

Nice Airport, France

JCDecaux’s billboard advertising includes the M4 Tower, the UK’s tallest
purpose-built advertising structure at 28.5 meters tall, as high
as a seven-storey building on the main highway to Heathrow Airport from London.

How does JCDecaux  and Clear Channel get access to these public spaces? Generally it negotiates an agreement with city authorities and either pays them a fee or a percentage of the revenue they earn from the ads they sell.

According to JCDecaux’s annual report, the outdoor advertising market is worth around $35 billion annually across the globe, about 9% of the total global advertising market, which is worth around $500 billion.

A relatively small part of the market, but highly influential, highly influencing and somewhat sly and invasive.

Something to think about the next time you get a strange craving or find yourself staring at one of these, while urinating in the airport toilet:


Giddee up: why horse racing is an absurd sport

Horse (8)I rarely gamble. Not because I am puritanical about it, but because I never win. I figure I’m better off burning the bank notes in my wallet for warmth than taking a punt.

On Tuesday, on Melbourne Cup Day I won $5 in the office sweepstakes. The horse I picked up was Verema. That horse is dead. It was put down after breaking a bone in her leg in the race. Not quite sure why I won $5, but it was out of sympathy I think and I shall donate the money to some animal charity in return.

I took the incident to be a kind of omen – about betting mainly – but it also made me think about horse racing and what an utterly absurd sport it is.

Mainly, it’s the idea that horses are somehow willing competitors and participants in these so-called carnivals.

Michael Lynch, a sports writer at The Age, writes in a column that the death of Verema was “sad” but not a “tragedy”.

A tragedy, he said, would be if a jockey were to die as happened in Darwin recently.

Horse racing, he says like all sports come with risks, somehow suggesting that these horses have agreed (perhaps they signed a contract with their hoof?) to take on these risks.

He writes:

“But the reality is that in any sport or recreational pursuit involving horses (or livestock of any kind) there will be casualties.It’s part of the risk inherent in such activity.”

He then goes on to attack those people who will use the example of the death of Verema to accuse the sport of being barbaric, when in fact very few horses die – one out of every 2000. He writes:

“For those who won’t ever approve, one is too many.For those of us who love racing, it is a sad statistic, but one that will be judged acceptable on a risk-to-return basis.”

I am sure his statistics are accurate. He is of course entitled to his opinion, but I found it heartless and in poor taste, and what really annoyed me was this line:

“Verema was a horse that gave her all.”

The notion that the horse had any idea that it was racing and trying to win.

Michael, Do you really think the horse cared whether it came first, second or last?

It makes me think of a classic Jerry Seinfeld joke about horse racing where he muses about whether horses, after the race, walk back to the stables saying: “I was fifth, while I was third…” and why if the whole idea was just to finish at the point they began, could they not have just remained where they were!

Take a listen:

To be fair, Michael Lynch is not alone. Commentator after commentator will talk about horses as if they were consciously involved in the sport. They talk of horses that “race solidly”, that “never let go” that “bolt ahead” as if these animals are cognizant beings, able to make judgements and decisions, to strategize and plot, when really its all about the little man on their backs manipulating them.

Horse racing is not grand. It’s not a spectacle. It’s quite silly and boring. It’s why people get blind drunk on cup day and frequently dress up in silly outfits.

Sometimes it can be cruel. And I doubt it’s ever all that much fun for the horse.

Yes darling, even Stephen Fry can be boring

stephen fryIf there’s a game show, a documentary, a movie or television series featuring Stephen Fry I’m likely to watch it. He’s always immensely interesting, devilishly charming and gives off the aura of an incredibly knowledgeable and worldly man.

Which is why his autobiography “The Fry Chronicles” was such a disappointment and dare I say it, thoroughly boring in large parts.

Perhaps all the very best bits were either in his first chronicle “Moab was my washpot” and covering the first 20 years of his life, which I have not yet read (but have read good things about) – or in his yet to come third volume, likely to begin with his addiction to cocaine.

“The Fry Chronicles” ostensibly covers the years from his time at Cambridge to the success of the musical “Me and my girl” on Broadway, for which he revised the story and dialogue (otherwise known as ‘the book’).

I was expecting to learn something of the inner workings of Stephen Fry’s mind (what makes him tick), his battle with manic depression and various addictions, and where he gets his ideas from – all the elements that make up a good biography – but none of them get any fair treatment. His depression is considered not worthy of his readers, while his addictions to sugar, cigarettes and gadgets are only glossed over. The very last few section of the book – just a paragraph – come under the heading “C” – for cocaine. And then it ends.

It’s not just that he leaves out the juicy bits, but that much of the book is plodding and dull, especially as he narrates the steps he took to achieve success: writing and performing sketches for various Cambridge shows and revues, getting hired to write for Granada TV (now called ITV Granada), the BBC, his friendships with Emma Thomson, Ben Elton, Rowan Atkinson and of course, Hugh Laurie. It’s all either too gushing – or worse, apologetic (he’s especially sorry for having money and spending it on frivolous, expensive gadgets).

Now to be fair, there are some brilliant anecdotes, recollections and insights thrown in amongst “I did this….then I did that…then I met him…then the money starting rolling in” narration that goes on page after page.

One of the most intriguing is Fry’s recount of a visit by Alistair Cooke, the famous journalist and broadcaster and founder of the Cambridge Mummers, the university’s first theatre group open to both sexes. Fry invited Cooke as guest of honour to the 50th anniversary celebration of the Mummers.

Cooke (as remembered by Fry) tells of being on a walking tour through Germany in the 1930s with a friend and coming to a “perfect beer garden”. Later, while they enjoy their beverages, a stage is set up, chairs are laid out and soon the garden is full. An ambulance arrives, then a procession of open top Mercedes limousines. A small man gets out to address the crowd. He speaks. Women duly faint. After he finishes speaking, the little man walks down the aisle and his elbow barges against Cooke’s shoulder, who has leant out to see the intriguing man depart.

“Entschuldigen Sie, meine Herr” (Excuse me, sir”) the little man says to Cooke.

Cooke says in his speech:

“For some years afterwards, whenever he came on in the cinema newsreels as his fame spread, I would say to the girl next to me: “Hitler once apologised to me and called me sir.”

There are many other gems scattered throughout the book and some very funny lines my favourite being  when Fry meets the actress Miriam Margoyles (now an Australian citizen) who introduced herself by saying:

“How do you do? I’m Mir…” She stopped and plucked at her tongue with her thumb and forefinger, “Miriam Margoyles. Sorry about that. I was licking my girlfriend out last night and I’ve still got some c-nt hairs in my mouth.”

Unless you’re a prude you’d have to agree that’s hilarious.

Sadly there is not enough of this in the book and too much apologising from Fry: for getting gigs when he thought he did not have the talent, when the money came rolling in and he spent, spent, spent; and for all the good fortune that came his way.

He’s either flattered by offers of work from famous people (Ben Elton, Rowan Atkinson etc) or flattering others and defending their reputations for brilliance, particularly Ben Elton for some reason.

He spends too much time gushing over the obviously incredibly talented Rowan Atkinson and Emma Thompson and not enough revealing his inner workings, his thoughts on the new wave of comedy that swept over Britain from the likes of Rick Mayall, Adrian Edmondsen and Alexei Sayle and too much timed worrying that no one will find his form of “sketch” comedy funny anymore.

Fry highlights all his privilege and wealth, continually apologizes for having it, and then goes on to describe scenes such as when he and Ben Elton visit some swanky private conservative club called “The Carlton” where the joke is on the old crusty Tory members (there’s a bust of Margaret Thatcher there) because they don’t know who they have let in. The thing is Fry appears more Tory than Labour.

Sadly, an utterly boring account of what has been a remarkable life.

Perhaps Stephen Fry should plead: General ignorance and have another go.