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.

mamamia

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.
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7 thoughts on “Your word is your worth: why journalists shouldn’t write for free

  1. What about the proprietor of Freshly Worded? How much did he pay you for this piece? 😉
    Seriously though as I get into freelancing work this is something I will have to think of more and more.
    My current view is that all these arguments about paying writers play heavily on the idea of fairness. We dont live in a world of fair remuneration. Golfers earn hundreds of times more than what nurses earn and its due to market forces.
    The market forces affecting journalism are such that free competition is everywhere and revenues are therefore dismal. Writers earn what the market says and fair is not in its vocabulary.

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  2. If you pay peanuts you attract monkeys, and quality content attracts readers and profit.

    As a real estate agent I wrote a weekly column for PropertyObserver for over a year, but as you rightly say Larry it wasn’t directly for my bread and butter but rather for ‘exposure’. I enjoyed it immensely but in the end I realized that it was taking up a lot of my free time and the return did not justify the effort.

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    1. Yeah i guess it comes down to value. If u are providing something that creates value or income for someone else, you should be remunerated. But getting exposure can be good too, provided that is all u want

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    1. Thanks for the comment Laura. Very hard to change. Unfortunately newspapers started from the position of offering news online for free, but now want readers to pay. The only way to change this is to produce quality content that readers are happy to pay for. Individual journalists should not write for free if there work has value. Marketing is another matter if that is their sole aim.

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