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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The incredible bravey of forgotten refugees: a review of “All that I am” by Anna Funder

all that i amI read “All that I am” by Australian author Anna Funder purely on word-of-mouth.

I’d been told and heard that this book was very good, but knew nothing at all about the subject matter, plot or characters.

The cover of the version I read shows a  woman in a red coat walking past what looks like the Reichstag in Berlin, her reflection a red blur on the wet pavement.

The story, as it unfolds inside the cover, is about a group of German refugees (all but one  are Jews) who are forced to flee their homeland when Hitler rises to power  in Germany in the early 1930s.

Not only are they Jewish intellectuals, but left-wing leaning and socialist – in complete opposition to all that the National Socialists (the Nazis) stand for.

They all manage to obtain refugee visas in London, where despite the constant and very real risk of deportation, they continue to do what they can to plant stories in the British press about Hitler’s plans for  rearmament and his viscious policies towards the Jews and others he deems undesirable.

The central plot of the novel is what happens to four characters, namely: Ruth Wesseman, a bohemian Jewess and intellectual married to non-jewish journalist Hans, Ruth’s cousin Dora, a firebrand, fearless pursuer of justice and freedom (the heroine of the novel) and Dora’s lover, the celebrated left-wing German playwright and agitator, Ernst Toller

There are two narrators: Ruth, now a frail old women in her nineties, but with all her mental faculties intact, who tells the story of her life in Berlin, London and Shanghai before immigrating to Australia in 1947 while recovering from a fall in a Sydney hospital; and the playwright Ernst Toller, living an agoraphobic, reclusive life in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York in 1939 who tells of his relationship with Dora Fabian, his one true love.

The novel moves effortlessly back and forth across timelines from the cake shops along Bondi Road to the Bohemian nightclubs of Berlin to an attic apartment in Bloomsbury in Central London and a terrace house in Hampstead.

They are all real people and Funder’s genius is to breathe life into their characters, relationships and pysches and like a detective piece together the story of what happened to them.

One of the most enlightening aspects of the book is its exploration of the lives of German refugees forging an existence in London.

This is the book’s central canvas – the secret, untold stories of people who lived under the very tenuous, conditional protection of the British government, a government not yet aware or perhaps not yet convinced of Hitler’s evil intentions and hoping  that appeasement might prevent war.

It is the brave acts of these refugees, who risk their own safety to connect with those still trapped in Europe and get their stories into the newspapers and public consciousness, which ultimately convinces Britain that war is the only route to peace.

What’s most shocking is how easily refugees fleeing persecution – despite the horrible fate that awaited them – could be sent back to Germany if British bureaucrats got word of political activities, in some cases colluding with Nazi operatives.

Such a fate befalls one of the colleagues of the four protagonists. A former German policeman, he is expelled from Britain for speaking out at a trade union convention, and his mistake is being heard by the wrong people.

Once the expulsion order is granted, an immigration agent is assigned to watch him until he is deported. His fate, severe beatings and a first-class ticket to the concentration camps, where he gets to clean the toilets.

The book also recounts the fate of Jews aboard the MS St Louis, a refugee boat that sailed from Germany to seek asylum in Canada and the USA in 1939. It’s fate is told through the eyes of Clara, a jewish refugee and secretary to Ernst Toller while in exile in New York. Her brother is aboard the ship as it remains moored just outside Havana.

Clara is transcribing Toller’s life story (and what will become his memoir), while he urges her not to give up hope as the fate of the MS St Louis remains uncertain. Eventually it is sent back to Europe, where a quarter of those onboard would later die in the concentration camps.

The refugee’s tale, as told by Funder, should resonate with readers in Australia or anyone fortunate to be living in a free country.

The debate about refugees, particularly those that arrive by boat, is such a political hot potato here, that most forget that these are real people’s lives we talk so glibly about and discuss as if they were not human at all – objects to be “processed” or “turned back”.

Upon reading ‘All that I am’ I did some background reading about all the characters in the book, especially the central character of Dr Ruth Blatt (Ruth Wesseman).

Funder was a friend of Ruth Blatt and was no doubt inspired to write about her life through the incredible story she told her.

Searching online, I came across Funder’s interview with Ruth Blatt for a radio broadcast on the ABC.

After you’ve read this gripping, moving story about heroism, bravery and what it means to be all that you can be, listen to the radio broadcast to hear Ruth Blatt tell her story in her own words.