You can’t have me: why I said no to Crikey

Nearly 20 years ago, my first piece of journalism was published. For a music fan, it was an auspicious beginning: I saw a young You Am I supporting rock behemoths the Beasts of Bourbon at the Mansfield Tavern, one of those great suburban beer barns that gave up on live music long ago. One band was at its peak; the other scaling theirs. My review appeared in a Brisbane street paper, and I was paid $35.

My path was set. Before the cheque had cleared I had spent it, down to the last cent, on an anthology of rock & roll writing. In it, I was introduced to all the greats of the genre: Nick Kent, Lester Bangs, Deborah Frost, Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus and the godfather of music criticism, Crawdaddy! founder Paul Williams, who had a significant personal impact on me. Collectively, these writers taught me everything I knew.

I could always string a decent sentence together, but it still took me years to find my own voice. Like most writers, musicians and artists, I derive little enjoyment from looking back at early work. There can’t be too many rawer forms of growing up in public, and while I still enjoy writing about music, it’s not often these days that I write straight reviews of records or shows, as I did with this piece on Television.

I was pleased with the piece and sent it to The Monthly, who knocked it back on the perfectly reasonable grounds that they already had a music writer. Undaunted, I then offered it to Crikey’s Weekender section. It wasn’t right for that, either, but encouragingly, they handballed it to the just-appointed editor of The Daily Review, Crikey’s newest forthcoming offshoot.

On the same day, a piece written by Tim Kreider for the New York Times appeared on my Facebook feed. I read it with interest. His story was depressingly familiar. “I now contribute to some of the most prestigious publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989,” he said.

Readers of this blog will know that additions have become rarer in recent times. That’s because it’s almost always unpaid work. When I do get paid, it’s because a piece has been picked up and run elsewhere. Others are sad orphans, rejected by all and sundry, with nowhere else to go. Occasionally, I write something purely for its own sake, but not too often. There is too much other work to be done.

The other reason new entries have been sparse is more personal. For the first half of this year I was caught up in another one of those annoying battles with depression that flatten me from time to time. And a big part of that malaise was the dire state of my industry. I was 42, about to get married (my partner and I accomplished this milestone three weeks ago), and still driving a cab two nights a week to keep going.

The editor of The Daily Review contacted me with what appeared on the face of it to be a plum gig. Writing like mine, he said, was exactly what he wanted to publish. He’d seen the Television piece, and knew of my book. Would I like to be the website’s music writer, covering everything from big stadium events to smaller shows that might be worthy of wider exposure? Jobs such as this are rare indeed.

What’s more, I adore Crikey. A day is not complete without a good laugh (or occasional cry) at cartoonist First Dog on the Moon and a hot, caffeinated shot of federal politics from Bernard Keane. It’s smart, acerbic, funny, and asks questions the old media often won’t, or has forgotten how to. And Eric Beecher, the chair of Private Media, is one of the smartest media minds in the country, as well as a deadly earnest chronicler of journalism’s decline.

What’s coming will probably surprise no one. The Daily Review had no budget for contributors. Submissions would be accepted on a copy-share basis, so that anything published on the site would also appear here on Friction. There was the vaguely hopeful prospect, but not a promise, that I might be paid “something at least” when advertising increased at some time in the undetermined future. I’ve heard that one before.

Twenty years, I thought, and my asking rate has gone from $35 to zero.

Do I need to add it would be great exposure? I have no doubt plenty of eyeballs would have been drawn to this blog that weren’t looking before. And of course, there were all the free gigs I could handle, which actually was reasonably enticing, what with Leonard Cohen touring and the summer festival season at hand. But I have been doing this too long to be in it for the tickets.

What was implied, but unsaid, was that I would also attract eyeballs, and advertising, to The Daily Review. Is it arrogant to point out that I have 20 years’ experience, and have built a reasonable reputation within my field? Isn’t that what normal people do when they fill in selection criteria, submit resumes, and attend interviews? In this case, there was no need: for the first time in my working life, I’d been headhunted.

The sealer was this: the editor (a decent fellow who’d been around the traps for long enough himself; none of this epic complaint letter is directed at him) had sent out a plea on Twitter for a Brisbane-based music writer, and received many enthusiastic replies from people who frankly sounded a lot like me 20 years ago. But that wasn’t what he was after: he wanted “a Crikey-quality writer/reviewer”. And apparently I was the man.

I spoke to him on the phone the next day – after less than a full night’s sleep, having already changed my mind half a dozen times – and told him as politely as I could that if that was the case, then it was reasonable to ask for Crikey-quality rates. These are, by industry standards, rather low, but I said that would be OK, because I respected and believed in the publication, and loved the idea of writing for it regularly.

The editor understood, but there was nothing he could do, other than suggest that if content also suited the main Crikey site, I could be published on that as well, and thus be paid for those pieces. That amounted to the status quo. I suggested a three-month trial – doesn’t everything have a free trial period these days? Again, the spreadsheet said no. I didn’t want to waste any more of his time, or mine, so we paid our regrets, and left it at that.

I’d like to say this was an easy call. It wasn’t. After a while, one gets desperate for the smallest morsel of validation; even the most opaque promises of future reward can make the pot of gold seem close at hand. The desperate are just as easily exploited as the young and keen. But I have spent enough time in my life chasing rainbows. Besides, how would I justify working for free, at my age, to my newly betrothed?

I also thought of my peers, friends and colleagues. If I took the job, I would become complicit in undermining their careers, as well as mine. It felt like providing scab labour, just when so-called content creators were beginning to man the picket lines. I accept that, in writing this, I’m unlikely to get too many more offers from Crikey, but it feels more important to join the chorus of voices saying enough is enough.

I don’t know anything about the business models or balance sheets of Private Media, who publish Crikey. But I think it’s fair to assume that at some point, its principals, Beecher included, sat down in a room together, made a conscious decision to expand their arts and culture coverage, and sallied forth on this new adventure with no budget to remunerate the people best qualified to do the job. This is journalism on credit.

I fail to see how such a strategy does not leave Private Media in the same murky territory as, say, Mia Freedman’s Mamamia (see note and clarification below). Freedman (whom, incidentally, Keane never misses a chance to give a good kicking on Twitter) has done extremely well out of creating the sort of personal cult around herself that her followers are sadly only too honoured to pay homage to in the form of free content.

Unfortunately, I am sure The Daily Review will have no trouble attracting some bright young thing to do the job. There is always someone out there talented and enthusiastic enough, possibly still living at home, unburdened by the responsibilities of adult life. I’ve been watching them skate past me for years. But, while I can’t eat integrity, I couldn’t swallow what was being served up here, either.

(Update: this piece has been reprinted by mUmBRELLA, where Crikey editor Jason Whittaker has left a response.)

(Update #2: this piece has also been reprinted by Collapse Board.)

(Update #3: Mia Freedman has left the following response on mUmBRELLA):

“Hi Andrew,

I agree with Tim: don’t do anything for free if you don’t see a mutual benefit.

However you are incorrect in stating that Mamamia does not pay for content. We do and have been for some time now.

Mamamia and ivillage also employ 10 full time journalists, 8 part-time journalists and a growing number of regular columnists.

We are in the process of hiring more journos at a time when most major media organisations are making them redundant.

Would appreciate you correcting that.”

Apologies to Mia: I missed the news last July that, following prolonged criticism, Mamamia would begin paying its contributors a flat $50 fee for articles. However, as someone who was paid exactly ten times that amount – in 1995! – for my first op-ed column in a newspaper, and never less than $350 since, I have to say (as many others have already) that Mia’s insistence that “newspapers and magazines have traditionally not paid writers of opinion content” is simply not true. I find that a baffling assertion from a professional with so many years in the industry. I’m also sceptical that a profitable and exceptionally popular website that employs 18 journalists is somehow absolved from paying its contributors a fairer rate because it is “not a big media corporation”. Less than 12 months ago, Freedman defended not paying her contributors on the grounds that they were instead receiving, you guessed it, valuable “exposure”. Unfortunately, judging by the comments stream, many of Mamamia‘s fans still consider it an honour to write for the site for nix. So I’m letting that second-last paragraph stand, with a direction to this clarification…

(Update #4: A group of long-serving Crikey bloggers have penned an open letter to freelance writers, imploring them NOT to contribute to The Daily Review. One of the bloggers, Bethanie Blanchard – founder of Liticism – has had a planned paid piece on writer Christos Tsiolkos spiked by Crikey, although Crikey claims this is coincidental. The story has also been reported by The Australian (paywalled).

27 comments

  1. STEVEN HERRICK

    Andrew, with respect, can I offer an alternative view?
    While we all agree that media outlets should pay appropriate rates, the fact is they don’t. And we have all been ‘scabbing’ for the past twenty years by accepting rates lower than the Union standard.
    I object to your last paragraph where you say that a ‘bright young thing… who is talented and enthusiastic enough, possibly still living at home, unburdened by the responsibilities of adult life’ may accept the job. That ‘bright, young thing’ may well say back to you, Andrew, ‘welcome to my world’.
    For what have we baby-boomers left young people but a ‘casualisation’ of the workforce where their labour is exploited at every opportunity. This is the reality they face in every field of endeavour, not just the arts.
    Yet when it happens to us, we bleat long and loud.
    And, if we should all refuse to work for Crikey and their ilk for lower (or non-existent) wages, until they start to pay appropriate wages, then who will benefit? Not the bright, young thing but the baby-boomers like me and you, Andrew, who’ve had 20 years to build a reputation and standing.
    Why weren’t we manning the barricades twenty years ago to demand a proper wage and to set in place opportunities for our children to grow into a world where their work was valued rather than exploited.
    I got paid to go to University. My sons are left with a tax bill for years to come for their education. So, don’t dismiss ‘bright young things’ with condescending lines about ‘living at home’ and ‘responsibility for adult life’ – they have to put up with much more shit than you and I have ever had to deal with.
    And, the ‘bright young thing’ may also say, that if you’re still working for a pittance and have been for most of your life, then why are you still doing the same job? No, I’m not preaching economic rationalism, but it’s only we artists who seem to think that we’re owed a living. If your art doesn’t pay, maybe it’s not good enough?
    I started out twenty-five years ago, writing for ‘on the street’ and other mags (yes, for $20 an article), but I knew that if I wanted to make a living from writing, I’d have to diversify and be imaginative. That’s what I’ve done. I’ve always been a member of the relevant writer’s unions/associations.
    One day, I’m sure I’ll be forced out of my beloved industry by a ‘bright young thing’ – I hope I’ll be humble enough to realise that I had a good long run at things and to also realise that they deserve their chance, much more than me.
    Congratulations on your recent wedding and best of luck with your future career.

    • Andrew Stafford

      Hi Steven. Firstly I’m not a baby boomer. I said in the blog I was 42: born in 1971, not 1958, like yourself. I entered the workforce in 1993. I have a HECS debt! Your experience as described was not mine.

      Secondly, you make some untenable assumptions. If you don’t think I’ve diversified over the years you clearly aren’t familiar with my work. I’ll leave it to you to do some digging if you’re interested.

      Third: No one owes me anything, or vice versa. I’ve never been on the dole, work two jobs and, believe it or not, get by OK, sometimes to my own surprise. It’s a battle at times, like it is for everyone.

      Your letter doesn’t address the substantive point: a for-profit, and successful entity wanting to build its business on the back of free labour. It pays everyone else. It assumes it can get away without paying writers. Since you are one yourself I’m surprised you seem accepting of this.

      Your congratulations and well wishes ring pretty hollow, I’m sorry to say.

  2. John Durr

    You are writing a review on the band Television? That is like submitting a piece on Al Jolson in 1964 when the Beatles were in full swing. If you were wearing out shoe leather and writing about something interesting of today, well OK.

  3. MEWriter

    Well said Andrew. It is not a good feeling to end a good day’s work feeling no closer to paying your bills. When is one supposed to fit in the paid work around the free work?

    I spend some of my hard-earned dollars supporting independent journalism outlets including Crikey but this makes me want to review that.

    I wrote a post last year about the shrinking viability of journalism. http://theparadigmshuffle.wordpress.com/the-paradigm-shuffle/

  4. Shauna Maguire

    Thanks for your honesty Andrew. I’m a fledgling freelance copywriter doing an unfortunate crash course in how to deal with a world that doesn’t value well put together words. Your post was timely given an experience I had last week with an extremely tight potential client who expected an entire website re-write for $10/$15 a page. Ironic given the industry they’re in most likely sees them clear a tidy 500k+ per year. So unfortunately the problem isn’t restricted to print or online journalism. As someone who has struggled to decide whether a job is worth doing even for a small amount of money, I salute your stand. It’s a lesson to us all.

  5. yourtopgun

    Hi Andrew,

    What would be a good email to reach you on? I’d like to discuss with you a similar story (but personally, without details plastered in public). Thanks

    • Andrew Stafford

      Best follow me on twitter (if you’re already doing that and I’m not following you back, let me know) and send me a direct message so I can let you know that way, since I’m not keen to have my personal email address plastered here either! Thanks

  6. Unknown

    Musicians can at least fall back on live performance. Print journalism is in deep trouble. I feel bad for y’all out there struggling in a shrinking private sector print media, but the business model for such things is very much in flux, and where it ends, nobody really knows. In the meantime, maybe you need a different trade. At least you live in a first world country where “unskilled” labour is well paid. If I were you, I’d be looking for a job as a chicken sexer. Or maybe an air traffic controller.

  7. Jen Jewel Brown

    Brave stand and the right one.I particularly liked that you thought of your colleagues and contemporaries, and the example you’d be setting as an established author and journo offering your work regularly for free. The world of the media is is a weird tumble dryer at the moment. When the free street press came out it led to the death of RAM, a once prosperous national colour magazine-newspaper which ran plenty of original in depth feature stories from Australian writers as well as stories from New Musical Express and Melody Maker. And other mags that paid good writers not a premium, but at least more than $35. One of the reasons paper sales are falling is that there is a public expectation of receiving everything – news, music, movies – for free. It deeply, deeply sucks. But the industries involved have fed that expectation by failing to enable cheap paid downloading in a timely manner. The rot quickly set in. The other sad thing is that there is so little researched, thoughtful, in depth work being published because editors are not backing that gamble. And the shallower everything gets, the less its worth, the less people will miss it if or when it goes. Well fuck it, let’s just keep writing, and do our best to find new ways of making it work. We’ll have to find second strings to our bows, probably, but for me, not much has changed in that area. I imagine it’s the same for so many of the musos, novelists, poets and painters out there. Alas! But it is better than working in a box factory! And I so much enjoy the cab stories!!! Best, Jen

  8. Words Have Wings

    Hey Andrew,
    I’m sorry to hear of your tussle with depression and hope you are feeling better. Congratulations on your marriage, and big fat cheers for taking a stance against the exploitation of writers – you are championing the cause of good writers everywhere. I love Crikey too, but they can eat my hat. They, of all publications, should be paying contributors – and if they can’t afford to, then they shouldn’t be headhunting someone like you, acting like it would be an honour to work for them.
    Meanwhile, may you pick up some big, easy fares with fat tips in the cab and be inspired to keep writing. Love your work, Tracy x

  9. jodi adams

    Oh Andrew I am so proud of you and so glad that you are one of us crew who have turned down work because of having principles (I count Rolling Stone and Smash Hits – who at least were offering to PAY me – amongst mags I turned down in my writing days. No regrets now but I certainly could have used the money!)

    And I am so proud of you about being honest about your episodes of depression…a huge illness in the writing community (been there, done that and still have the daily Efexor tablet to prove it!)

    Of course having principles and doing the right thing doesn’t pay the bills….I once wrote a feature called “Telstra Don’t Take Brownie Points” about exactly this problem.

    Carers are that huge hidden community of Australians who are paid a pittance while told they are “the hardest working people in the country” and are “earning Brownie points for your wonderful commitment”. But they can’t pay bills with praise!

    It is so ironic that journalists fought for at least a century to provide a decent wage and working conditions for their industry. Don’t get me started (again) about how their union management under the AJA and particularly now under the MEAAA let their members down.

    What’s next? Pay for publishing, like in the academic world? You pay – we publish?

  10. AMS

    As a journalist with the word ‘editor’ on mastheads in 3 continents – I was offered the phenomenal rate of 12c a word for the hugely circulating digital tome Broadsheet that encompassed the accompanying print version. It was impossible to repress the guffaw that ensued …. good piece, & well said. thank you!!

  11. Jen Cook

    This is just so disappointing from Crikey! How do they square up not having a budget to pay their writers with their journalistic standards? And yes, a very tough decision for you but one, as a fellow journalist, I have so much respect for you making. Here’s hoping respect transfers to your bank balance in the very near future.

    • Andrew Stafford

      I’ve been wondering if you’re the same Jen Cook who was a student in my feature writing classes way back when! Either way, thanks for this, I appreciate it.