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When journalists write for free it hurts our democracy

We all like free, but who really pays? Image sourced from Shutterstock.com

When journalists write for free it hurts our democracy

We all like free, but who really pays? Image sourced from Shutterstock.com

It might seem like good business sense when new media proprietors decide not to pay their writers, but the cost is adding up for those of us who value a healthy democracy.

The arrival in Australia of Huffington Post, which built a big part of its empire on using unpaid bloggers to tell the “inside story”, brought a brief outcry on social media using the hashtag #paythewriters.

To be honest it was more like a whimper from an already underpaid and undervalued part of society. HuffPo Australia is, after all, just one in a long line of successful international and local news publications which either pay nothing or pay little for the work of some wordsmiths. They pay curators, but not those who actually produce the work.

There are three players in this tragic comedy: the proprietors of the non-paying media outlets who get rich off the wealth of a creative class; the writers who often cling to romantic ideals about what journalism is and deny the realities of a business model; and finally the tragic readers who are left with articles written by those with vested interests.

It is a sad reality that like the iron ore price, the bottom has fallen out of the freelance market. Just a decade ago a trained and experienced journalist could command $1 a word if they were producing good words for a business publication. The invoices would be paid on time and the work would often be commissioned in advance. It might still be difficult to pay the mortgage, but it could be done for those with certain skills.

But even 10 years ago business writers were a special lot. They were paid well. Travel writers could expect little more than 25 cents a word, sports writers found themselves with unpaid match reports or ghost writing for footy heroes, and music writers rarely got a cent. Poets and creative writers could only muster a byline. Today many freelancers earn just 5 cents a word, if that. Often they get little more than “exposure”.

Jennifer Mills wrote in a recent article in Overland:

“A major newspaper emails me via a literary journal to ask if they can publish one of my stories. I am afraid that in these straitened times all we could offer you in exchange for publication rights to the short story would be a quid pro quo arrangement in terms of publicity. They’re waving ‘exposure’ at me like it’s a cheque.”

Less journalism, more commentary

The problem is, the ease of producing the written word in the digital age has created a buyers’ market. No longer are journalists valued for their important skills of being able to analyse, synthesise and create understandable copy that puts pressure on people in power. Journalists are increasingly considered hobbyists who can work another job and doing their writing on the weekend. It’s rather like the Uber model of journalism, where people only take it up for pocket money that supplements another income. You can almost hear them saying: “I’ll just take my journalism out for a spin this weekend and see if I can raise a bit of spare cash.”

The attitude of the proprietors has created a fertile ground for those of us (including academics) who are paid to write, and or propagate certain ideas or ideals. The list includes those who write for The Conversation, appear daily in our newspapers, on our televisions screens, the Institute of Public Affairs, the Grattan Institute, the Lowy Institute, Per Capita, the big four accounting firms, the high profile lawyers, and of course politicians of all persuasions who have staff (including former journalists) who can write something for them. I haven’t even mentioned the public relations firms that are paid to create news-like reports which can be effortlessly eased into publications. Nick Davies was among those exposed with PRs some years back with his book, Flat Earth News.

Sadly, this model excludes people who are not of independent means – often those who are the most vulnerable in our society: the homeless; the refugees; the women; and the less educated. Once upon a time their stories were told by staff journalists who didn’t need to worry about paying the rent.

Proprietors need to be held to account, but writers also need to fight back. The appropriate professional body the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has put a lot of effort into trying to help, but writers seem unable or unwilling to organise. Some cling to their lofty ideas and align themselves to the myth of the struggling writer even though there is no nice reality in being down and out in Paris, London or Melbourne.

No one can pay the rent by writing a news story on a napkin. Others often undercut each other. For those who try to hold out to be paid for their time, their legal expertise, their equipment, their skill, there is always someone else who is willing to do it for less, or do it for free. Just like those Uber drivers.

There are a few publications that do pay well, mostly related to thriving business or sex industries. As a society we need to find a way to support journalists and publications that are not aligned to vested business interests or pornography. That means paying the online subscription to news organisations that uphold the values of independent journalism, even if you no longer hear the thud of a newspaper on the front lawn. A full list of who pays the writers in Australia is being collated on this tumblr, set up by author Jennifer Mills.

For those of us who care about journalism and its role in keeping an eye on people in power – both political and business – we need to support and donate to news organisations and cooperatives that pay the writers and maintain an independent charter. As a society we need to act more philanthropically by donating funds to those who support this kind of journalism.

Right now, our media tragic comedy ends with the spotlight firmly back on the audience. It is up to us to turn it around, for the sake of democracy. We can do it together, by paying for what we read.