Speaker by Various Artists

Premium Mushrooms?

by Herald columnists

The following is a statement and backgrounder released by 14 New Zealand Herald columnists whose work was placed behind the "premium content" paywall on the newspaper's website in September. They have been negotiating with APN management, initially for the columns to return to free access and subsequently for a share of the additional revenue reaped by the Herald from their work and/or new contracts in which the copyright of their work would rest with them. They have had no success in those talks and have chosen to release the statement to explain their position - RB.


The 14 contributing columnists ambushed by the introduction of the NZ Herald website premium content section are Brian Gaynor, Garth George, Peter Griffin, Jim Hopkins, Colin James, Andrew Lumsden (Te Radar), Tapu Misa, Graham Reid, Jenny Ruth, Ana Samways (Sideswipe), Philippa Stevenson, Paul Thomas, Willy Trolove and Kerre Woodham.

The history:

Unannounced and without any reference to us, around September 21 the Herald introduced a pay-to-view section on its website which it called Premium Content.

All our columns were corralled in the section, inaccessible even to us unless we wanted to pay to see our own work.

All of a sudden we'd been dubbed premium writers but we felt like premium mushrooms - kept in the dark but not even fed any bullshit. We were told nothing.

The Herald website before this change and since its inception, like most other newspaper websites in the world, has been open access. We understand the Herald website was already turning a profit from advertising.

Now subscribers are asked to pay double the weekday Herald cover price - $3 - for one day's access to all website content. Casual buyers of the paper pay just $1.50.

The effect on us was immediate and obvious: our feedback and our much-valued conversation with our readers dried up immediately. Though some of our departing readers did let us know that they wouldn't be paying to read us online and unfortunately some seemed to think the paywall was our idea. They indicated that we were money-grubbing prima donnas. In fact, we are victims of such types.

Ironically, some readers tell us they have since done the numbers and have realised that it is a lot cheaper to dump the print edition of the paper and just get their news online. A year's online subscription is $99, whereas a year's sub to the print edition is more than $500. (Six months online $60 v print $252.20).

It seems a strange move to us to sacrifice or cannibalise the print edition for the online edition in this way.

What we've done:

After the paywall was introduced we initiated talks with the Herald and have been trying ever since to get changes made. Our first plea, naturally, was to return to free access but we quickly got a flat no to that.

They've apologised for not letting us know about the paywall's introduction but that's the only concession they've made.

Though they did make what they called a gesture of goodwill. That was to provide us with free access to the website. Great! We had free access to our own work and a resource we use to research our columns. Some goodwill!

It bugs us that the Herald is double dipping. Most of us signed on when the website was a small cousin, a sort of lowly add-on to the Herald. The main publication - really the only publication - was the print edition. Our freelance journalist pay rates - which haven't changed in years - reflect the days when there was only a paper, and the Herald only made money from the paper.

Now, not only is one of their major outlets the already profitable website but they are now charging readers double the weekday cover price to read our columns online and they have not offered us another cent.
Unfortunately, may of us signed contacts allowing our columns to be used on the old, free website. We argue that the Herald has made a major material and unilateral change to our contracts by charging for website access but they deny this.

In one message to us they said, "your primary constituency remains with the print edition."

Well, they may conveniently think so but our readers say different. How come our feedback has dried up since people had to pay to read us online? It does rather suggest we've got a very big online readership.
Apparently, we're supposed to be happy with a pay rate dating from print-only days because, according to one argument they put to us, we get "intangibles" such as the exposure of a regular column in the Herald.
Well, you can't buy bread with intangibles. And none of our contracts say that part of our reward for writing for the Herald is these unquantified intangibles.

What we've asked for:

We've asked for more money to reflect the additional profit-making use of our work and been told no.

It seems particularly mean because we might be premium writers but by golly our rates are bargain basement. A Herald staff feature writer earns $60,000 a year or more. At our pay rates of between 30c and 40c/word if we turned out the same amount of copy per week as the average feature writer we'd earn the equivalent of $16,000 to $22,000 a year. (We're mostly paid per column so the word rate varies depending on the words published.)

We could be contrasted, too, with staff columnists who are on similarly high salaries complete with sick pay, holiday pay and super schemes and who get offices, computers and other resources supplied.

We've asked for new, more comprehensive contracts that reflect the new era of multiple use of stories including internet publishing.

We want to retain the copyright to our stories so we have the right to do whatever we want with them after the Herald has published them. Employers automatically own the copyright of works created by their staff but independent contractors retain copyright unless they sign it away. Unfortunately, and in ignorance of copyright law, most of us signed away our copyright. That means the Herald pays us a meagre sum just once but can use our work in as many ways as it wants, as often as it wants, and well into the future.

We think it only fair that if the Herald wants to pay us rates born in the print-only era that they should not also insist on owning the copyright. That stops us from selling our stories elsewhere - overseas, in book form or just simply putting them on our own websites. They can't have it all ways.