A grumbling storm about the value of words – and wordsmiths – hit a touchstone this week when a blog by an American veteran writer sparked a heated, emotional online debate.
Traditional journalists, modern-day bloggers and apprehensive students exchanged ideas and insults over how the industry should work, how work should be compensated – when, why and by whom – and where the future for the industry lies.
Much of the anguish is an outpouring of grief from those who remember "the good old days" and are underwhelmed by the new world order. Others embrace the future, but describe it as an alien land that some find shallow and crude.
While journalists have never enjoyed a rock and roll lifestyle, up until the 1990s life was fairly sweet and secure in the publishing industry.
Then the internet came to town and every man and his blog decided this was a game anyone could play.
Newspaper sales were decimated, newsrooms are working with a fraction of previous staff levels, sub editing has been contracted out – sometimes to overseas factory farms – and one-size-fits-all copy is syndicated across towns, states, even countries.
Freelancers are in an even more complex situation, trying to find a point of difference in ever-competitive markets chasing shrinking newspaper and magazine space and the ongoing challenge to make money online.
Flashing or exposure?
The most recent catalyst for debate was a blog post by veteran American foreign correspondent Nate Thayer, who uploaded an email conversation he'd had with the (apparently inexperienced) global editor of Atlantic Magazine in which she approaches him wanting to reproduce an article he'd written for the Korean-based publication NKnews.org.
All fine and polite until she admits she cannot pay him for its use (they only ever pay US$100 per ORIGINAL story and she'd already used up her presumably small budget for the current month) but she hopes he'll be happy to benefit from the 'exposure' this will bring him.
Now the poor girl should not be made the scapegoat in this issue – assuming she doesn't choose her budget, just has to work within it – but it would be interesting to know if she approached Thayer because he was a 'name', or if she had no idea who he was. Personally I think you'd have to be fairly daft to expect a freebie from someone of his calibre – he scored the world's first interview with Pol Pot and has won dozens of awards for his reporting from Thailand and Cambodia, for starters. However others recognised the approach – re-using second-hand work from quality writers – as a regular ploy for obtaining cheap copy.
Most of the comments responding to Thayer's understandably indignant blog were sympathetic and many cited simlilar experiences of being asked to write for free.
Not a few despondent journalism students expressed frustration at the industry they'd hope to join.
But a surprising number took the view that Thayer was not only 'agitated', 'whining' and unprofessional by publishing a private conversation (possibly a fair comment), but that he was out of touch with the ways of the publishing world.
"Nate Thayer’s agitated response clearly shows that he does not know about the difference between the print version of a news publication and its website," wrote one Sevket Zaimoglu. "Due to the way internet has evolved, newspapers and magazines were mostly forced to offer their “products” for free on the internet."
Notwithstanding that Thayer was presumably paid for the original article, which appeared on a website, is it now accepted practice to expect online copy to be free?
And, bearing in mind that the Atlantic's editor proudly announces her publication reaches 13 million readers a month, surely they are badly mismanaging their product and market if they can't raise enough revenue from that to afford to pay freelancers more than $100 a story.
'You journalists are ridiculous'
One particularly harsh comment came from John, who later admitted to being a copywriter, proud that his words brough direct profit/benefit to his bosses.
"You journalists are ridiculous," he says.
"No one is obligated to pay you a single penny. Your rates are determined by the ROI [return on interest] that you produce. Anything beyond that is wasteful. Profit is the name of the game. If you want to get paid more, then find ways to generate more profit for the companies you work for.
"If you don’t like this idea of working to generate more profit, move to a country with a socialist government."
While less harsh in his criticism, another copywriter, Nick, agreed: "I freelance copy write now for money and I write food and travel articles on the side for websites and some magazines. I don’t get paid for the latter but I get free food and travel and see the world in some style.
"Tell me why I should stop? Because ‘professional freelance journalists’ are losing money? Sorry but that isn’t my problem, it’s theirs. The world has changed and the genie is not going back into the bottle. I don’t want to sound as harsh as John, but the message here really is ‘tough luck’."
My answer to that is that many website owners already recognise the value a story can bring its site, and measure it in terms of clicks per page; journalists are paid according to the amount of traffic they bring to the site – and its advertisers. Others offer bonuses if writers manage to organise a link from another site, which naturally brings more traffic again. Both expect the writers to provide the copy virtually free upfront, though, with the expectation that the 'clicks' will determine your pay.
Fine if writing is a hobby; a bit harder for those who hope to make writing your main income stream, but it's certainly an 'open market' solution.
Countless shades of grey
Having said that, I'm also guilty of doing some writing for free, but nearly all of it is for not-for-profit groups.
The only exception is the occasional review I do for Australian Stage website, which is gradually building its presence in the industry and may one day be profitable, but is really more of a service to the arts at the moment; I'm happy to get free tickets to shows I would not otherwise see for the small price of 1-2 hours' work writing a review on it afterwards.
Another grey area is writing travel pieces on trips where I have paid my own way; I recover some of my costs from selling articles afterwards (most of the time; not every idea sells) and I try not to incur extra costs on top of what I would spend on the trip anyway, although I do spend extra time researching aspects I might not otherwise have bothered with.
However, as a freelancer, I see this as me finding a business model that suits me, and that model will be different for virtually every freelance writer there is.
Nearly everyone I've spoken to finds some sort of 'bread and butter' income, often from a job that may not be super-interesting, in order to pay the bills and earn the time and luxury to write on more interesting subjects; many admit to getting paid considerably less for the 'good' stuff.
Shrinking markets, but people still read
However, finding places to sell even a bit of the 'good' stuff is getting harder.
In Australia alone, more than 1000 journalists were made redundant last year, mostly from the leading metro dailies, so that's a lot of extra people out there trying to make a living by their writing wits.
Combine this with the two Fairfax dailies The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald going tabloid (sorry - compact) and having their freelance budgets severely hacked, and there are fewer options around, too.
Magazines are experiencing their own issues, with increasingly niche markets appearing; sales overall may be constant, or even growing in some areas, but the numbers are now shared between an increasing number of titles. Long gone are the days when even leading women's magazines sold one million or more per issue; in 2012 Women's Day dropped 6.5% to 360,409 with New Idea fell 1.6% to 303,264.
The response of the bewildered publishers has been to try and squeeze more for less from their contributors. While few have many in-house staff, they still want a staff-level of dedication and flexibility from freelancers.
So instead of freelancers owning their copyright and getting paid per use, many publishers are now asking writers to sign contracts handing over all rights to their material, so it can be published as many times as liked, on as many platforms as needed, for no extra cost. Some insist freelancers not contribute to a long list of 'rival' publications (which sometimes includes anything not owned by them), and many will only accept photos/words from freelancers who provide their own public liability and professional indemnity insurance, instead of taking responsibility for whatever they publish.
The jury is out on whether this is a free market between supply and demand or simply large corporations bullying sole traders.
Sign of the Times
It's safe to say that the transition to new media has not been publishers' finest hour. Many were caught napping, some refused to accept any change was needed, and others made half-hearted changes that left them in a nether world between print and online, without addressing either particularly well.
Now the dust is starting to settle and a clearer picture of different landscapes has emerged, although publishers and creatives alike are still very much at the mercy of two uncontrollable forces: new technology and The Reading Public.
In his review of this whole Nate Thayer discussion, Paul Carr of PandoDaily (part of NSFWCorp = Not Safe For Work Corp) believes publisher have two future choices:
- One is to follow the Atlantic route, which he describes as a content farm: going for the high SEO, high traffic levels and earning most of its living from advertising. He believes the survivors will earn lots but be hellish places to work.
- The other option is to go for quality over quantity, which means paying journalists, providing a supportive work environment, and hoping its value is rewarded with a solid subscription income.
The former, Carr says, will earn mega-bucks for some but be a hellish place to work.
Naturally the latter is a more attractive option for journalists, but will the market support it?
Carr explains his simple logic for paying writers well: "We do this not because we’re benevolent, but because we’re selfish. I want our writers spending all of their time writing for us. When they get a scoop, I want it on our pages. Paying good salaries goes a good way towards ensuring that."
However, it comes with a caveat that this model has yet to prove itself.
"None of this guarantees success," Carr writes.
"After we announced the Print Edition, lots of usually cynical editors and journalists Tweeted us as an example of a business that’s “proving” you can pay for great journalism and make money. We haven’t proved a damn thing. Between now and the end of the year, a thousand things could go wrong. Our print edition could flop, our digital subscriptions could tank, our writers could all flee for some even better funded startup. We could get sued into oblivion. For NSFWCORP to be a sustainable business, protected against all of those risk factors, we need to be generating at least a million dollars in revenue a year. Then we’ll have proved something."
A couple of titles are showing early signs of success.
One is the New York Times, which, led by its interactive editor Aron Pilhofer, has recognised the need to include IT nerds in its editorial team, has a user-friendly web layout, and makes the most of technology by offering readers interactive feedback, setting new world standards for breaking news such as election coverage (a model they have sold as a franchise overseas), and offering innovative approaches to journalism, for example running a project to measure the impact of news online.
As a result, its digital readership last year tripled to 380,000 and, after launching a 'soft' paywall in March 2011, was on its way in late 2012 to achieving the unthinkable – of earning more from subscriptions than advertising.
Readers can still access 10 articles a month for free before being asked to subscribe, and free links can still be made to articles via Facebook and Twitter.
Can you dig it?
In 2012 UK gardening magazine Gardeners World also saw its website go into the black for the first time, covering its costs through a mixture of advertising, merchandise sales and by offering its magazine subscribers extra value, which has increased subscriptions and made the printing process more profitable (print runs can be predicted more accurately, reducing waste, and most copies are thus paid for in advance).
Both offer hope for the future and most believe journalism will survive in some shape or form – but how long will it take the market settle to down, and, most importantly will there be enough experienced journalists left to guide the way for the new generation when it does?