Lead me to the barricades; I seem to have roused some rabble with my guest post reporting from the Freelance Marketplace conference.
Former Listener editor Finlay Macdonald, now books editor at the Sunday Star Times:
Good blog Deborah, and something I've grappled with from both sides of the editorial barricade. At the Listener I instigated an informal system whereby I negotiated a fair price for each contributed article, depending on the work involved, the experience of the writer, the length and so on. So for much of the feature section we never did the cents-per-word calculation, we looked at a story and said, is it worth $1000, $1500 etc? It was much better and fairer, and it meant you used fewer, better freelancers (Kim Griggs was one of them, actually).
Of course, that was with a magazine, which you could manipulate to fit fewer (better) stories into more pages and so on, so that the demand for content was not overwhelming. With papers I guess it is harder to play that game.
From one provincial journalist:
I hope you lot with identifiable names kick up a bit of noise at least. I am on National Super, with about another $100 in a good week. In a checkered career I spent about 10 years as a reporter for the Kaikohe Northern News when it was winning national awards. Jim Eagles built a national identity from there. Now I do a fortnightly column for less than I am prepared to admit. The management of the paper do not have any interest in the quality of writing. Give them hell. It is a great cause.”
Former AA Directions editor John Cranna said one of the first things he did when taking over the editor’s chair at the country’s biggest circulation magazine had been to put the freelance rate at the magazine up from 30 to 54 cents per word. This meant he had to overspend his budget.
The ad revenues shot up partly because we were publishing much better writing and more than covered the deficit. But there was blood on the floor, even though our ad revenues nearly doubled. There is huge corporate resistance to paying writers what they are worth.
Media commentator David Cohen:
I disagree with the Wheeler's ridiculous comment about Watergate vs Rachel Hunter. Anyone who's spent a few days in Washington would appreciate the singular ubiquity of the advertisement-fat WaPo in that city: In his 'America: A User¹s Guide,' Simon Hoggart says that it's for this reason that DC may be the last place on earth where hometown journalists are practically revered.
Well, how did that happen? Through Watergate, of course, which in raising the profile of the paper like never before helped raise its sales, which in turn raised its earnings. What did Rachel Hunter ever do for the Washington Post? Incidentally, the highly profitable WaPo like the NYTimes, invests most of its profits straight back into the editorial side of the operation.
So clearly the respective families who run these papers must see a direct relationship between calibre of journalistic product and profits.By the by, it would be interesting to get one of these economist johnnies to tell us what the purchasing power of NZ40c is when taken across the 15-odd years the NZ Listener has paid it. As far as I can see, an average annual cost of living increase of 2.5% would chip about a cent off that figure each year; meaning that today's 40c is worth around 25c in 1991 terms.
There were several correspondents who, like me, felt unappreciated:
40c a word is pathetic. No, appalling. But it's obvious that quality journalism in NZ is not especially valued, either by editors in print and TV media, or the public. We get shit mostly. I guess that's used as the measure for paying all journalists. In any industry if crap work is able to be tolerated then the lowest paid worker will be used.
I guess that's why 40 year old librarians get paid less than 20 year old policemen and freelance journos get less than freelance IT workers.”
And for some journalists it wasn’t just the money, but a lack of respect.
What can never be said of course (on peril of losing even the most modest modicum of work) is how useless some of the editors are re returning calls/e-mails/actually committing to a decision and so on. I can live (just) with the money sometimes, but the utter discourtesy and unprofessionalism that some show astonishes me.
I am prepared to wait in a queue like everyone else, but it does seem to me that if I am putting a story idea before someone that i am doing it with 20 years experience behind me and am not going to waste their time or mine.
But e-mails go into the ether, PAs act as buffers and decisions go unmade so a story which is politically or socially timely just withers, or runs far too late to be relevant.
IT writer Juha Saarinen:
I think you're spot on when you point out the lack of competition here as the major reason why rates are so low. Some people would say that the work is of lower standard here than elsewhere, but I think that's directly related to the poor rates. Going back to the lack of competition, it's something that seems endemic here. Haven't figured out why it is, but it is rather strange that many markets are uncontested in New Zealand. Well, stitched up would be the better term.
Former Listener deputy editor Tim Watkin also contacted me from offshore to correct what he had said in the What Editors Want session.
Fair comment that I might not have charmed the audience, but at least be accurate as to why I wasn't winning friends. Like the other two panellists, I certainly said vague outlines were of no appeal (in the midst of trying to get out a weekly mag) and that I expected clean, compelling copy, not pieces that were wrong, slapdash or that I had to extensively re-write.
Those are professional standards many freelancers aren't meeting. But by no means did I say that freelancers had to accept the going rate. In fact I specifically said I was sympathetic with their campaign. What I went on to say was that given the tight market this year; the growing numbers of adequate, if not exciting, freelancers; and the fact budgets are set (and cut) above most editors' heads, an increase in the 40c/word rate was going to be a huge battle, and I didn't hold out much hope in the short term. As you point out, the print media duopoly will be hard to crack. To force the rate up, I said, freelancers would need to improve professional standards and keep campaigning.
So there were plenty of things I said that might have annoyed people; just not what you reported.
I have to admit I was not at Tim’s session – childcare issues – so I was going on the response to his speech as everyone was bristling about it over sandwiches at lunch.
There you go Tim: consider the record put straight.
Of course journalists are a cynical bunch as a longtime journalist who wanted to remain anonymous said:
The hacks will never organise, you know - despite the fact that in the age of the "content provider" they wield a lot of theoretical power. But they are largely a forlorn lot, cheap and disloyal, and are thus highly exploitable by proprietors.
Another interesting piece of information which came out of the woodwork: APN has 520 freelance journalists on its payroll. Could this forlorn lot prove the cynics wrong?