Tagged: mUmBRELLA

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum: three cheers for Crikey

Dear Crikey,

First, I’m sorry for all this fuss. I wasn’t talking about a revolution; I just wanted to get paid, and you picked the wrong guy at the wrong time to ask for a charity donation. I’ve had one foot in and the other foot out of journalism all year, partially as a result of the prevalence of this kind of malarkey. People who don’t feel they’ve got a lot to lose are dangerous. And what am I losing? The opportunity to write for you for nix? Woe!

I couldn’t have anticipated, though, that my screed on The Daily Review asking me to write for free would attract such attention. All it took was an entry on a blog that hadn’t seen much action lately, a reprint on mUmBRELLA and a mere 380 Twitter followers. It hasn’t resulted in any more food on the table, or enabled me to quit my night job, but it did start a conversation about for-profit media organisations exploiting writers – especially arts writers – desperate to get their names out there any way they can.

That’s a conversation writers and editors have needed to have for a bloody long time, so props to you for eventually responding to the fracas in your editorial on Friday. It’s good to hear you “highly value all [your] writers’ work”, that you’re “talking to people about the conditions under which they contribute” and especially your admission that you would, in fact, be nothing without them.

But there’s no need to apologise for not being open and honest enough about payment and copy-sharing – at least, not to me. Ray Gill could hardly have been more up-front about the payment on offer (zero) for the privilege of writing for The Daily Review. I know your CEO doesn’t actually believe I had this conversation, but the emails say I tried my best to negotiate with him. Sadly for me, no matter what tack I tried, the answer remained the same.

With that in mind, I admit to being flummoxed by the following statement: “Daily Review has a limited contributors’ budget at the moment, and that’s directed towards pieces we think are core to the site’s mission. We prioritise payment for commissioning stories from professional writers.” Does this mean the budget has suddenly gone from zero to “limited”? Or is music coverage not part of the mission of a new digital arts weekly? That’s an odd strategy.

And I’m frankly a bit miffed to hear you say that you “prioritise payments for professional writers”. I’d really like to know how you define professional, because after 20 years in the business, during which time I’ve produced an award-shortlisted book and written for most of our major mastheads, I’m not sure what that makes me in your eyes.

You give three cheers to your “talented” and “generous” and “phenomenally dedicated” bloggers. For those who have been writing for you for years, unpaid, and who now find themselves seemingly entirely unrewarded by this new venture, those three cheers might translate more ruefully: yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. The invocation of piracy is deliberate.

The especially galling thing is your surely indefensible admission, in your response to my original blog on mUmBRELLA, that you are indeed trying to grow your enterprise on the back of free labour, taking on no financial risk yourself, secure in the knowledge that there are reserves of talented, generous and phenomenally dedicated writers out there for you to call on, all the while crowing: “We reckon this is fertile advertising ground.”

How fertile, exactly? Because it seems pretty obvious that Crikey writers (without whom, remember, you’d be nothing) are entitled to a more equitable share of the revenues they generate – via advertising, subscriptions and merchandise – that contribute to Private Media’s bottom line.

Crikey’s advertising portal appears to be down at the moment, so unfortunately we don’t have any immediate way of knowing. But Googling “Crikey advertising rates” produced this cute little First Dog-illustrated rate card from 2009 which, despite being four years old, at least gives us some clues about what kind of readers you attract – and what sort of cashola (as opposed to exposure), it takes to reach them.

First, we know your readership boasts a high proportion of those elusive As and Bs that advertisers adore. As of 2009, 18 percent were CEOs, CFOs, senior executives or owner/proprietor types. You also seem to appeal to a high number of retirees, general, departmental or divisional managers, and media professionals (sorta sad to realise I’m not one of them). Forty-one percent had postgraduate tertiary qualifications.

Not surprisingly, the card goes on to tell prospective advertisers that they have the opportunity to “market to an audience with real wealth”: 55 percent of survey respondents reported an income above $80,000 per annum, with 39 percent exceeding $100,000. Sixty percent owned shares in a publicly listed company, with 38 percent of those holding portfolios worth a whopping $100,000 or more.

Your website scored 1.5 million hits a month from 175,000 unique browsers, including a subscriber base of 15,000, 95 percent of whom read the daily email circular either every day or most days. Again, I have to acknowledge this information is four years old. But given you brag of hiring journalists while the rest of the industry is laying them off, I’m guessing things at least aren’t going too terribly for you.

Finally, there are the ads themselves. The weekly rate for a 300 x 250 pixel ad was $4900. A 160 x 90 ad, $1900. And the best bit; a 100 word advertorial was $900, when 900 words would be lucky to net a contributor much more than $100 now. It reminds me of the cynical journalistic aphorism about the words existing to fit around the ads, rather than the other way around.

So, let’s call a spade a shovel here. You guys sat around in a room and cooked up the idea for a fancy new way to sell advertising, without budgeting for the contributors who would provide the bulk of the content, because you assumed that there would be no shortage of desperadoes and fools all too willing to provide it for nothing.

Finally, it seems to me that a big part of the backlash you’ve suffered this week comes from those who thought better of you. Crikey derives a fair bit of its reputation from its iconoclasm, its scepticism, and for not running with the mainstream media herd. But, as a friend of mine put it to me last week, you can’t be the edgy new guy on the block and expect to remain above the fray when you pull this sort of shit.

I’m as disappointed as anybody.

Andrew

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).

Bayoneting the wounded

In her classic long-form essay The Journalist And The Murderer, American writer Janet Malcolm used an opening gambit that immortalised herself while throwing a bucket of corrosive acid over her profession. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she declared. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse…

“Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and the public’s ‘right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

After one of the most traumatic weeks in the history of Australian media, perhaps now is not the kindest time to be quoting Malcolm. But I was reminded of her words last Thursday, when a nasty spat broke out over at Media and Marketing website Mumbrella after Tina Alldis, head of PR agency Mango in Sydney, penned an opinion piece for the website that seemed to do a tap-dance at the prospect of thousands of people about to hit the dole queues.

Alldis (who seems very young, if the photo accompanying her byline is any guide) argued that the restructures taking place at Fairfax and News Ltd were “great news for our clients”, saying that the soon to be diminished number of journalists “that we harass daily” would result in an increased reliance on wire services and other content that could be syndicated across networks, “with stories running across multiple platforms and extending out into social media”.

If that wasn’t enough, Alldis concluded that “with a significant number of Fairfax Media and News Limited employees likely to be on the hunt for new roles, it would be remiss not to expect that there will be an increasing number of former journos joining the ‘dark side’ of publicity. All in all, it’s an exciting time to be in PR.”

Bayoneting the wounded, as one commenter put it.

Alldis’ piece was widely tweeted and retweeted for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps her position will be among those being eyed off; in the meantime those who manage to keep their jobs will just hang up the phone the next time anyone at Mango comes calling. The company’s MD Simone Drewery hastily issued a statement (now printed below Alldis’ story) apologising for the presumably unauthorised spiel – “We have friends and peers who are impacted by the recent changes at Fairfax and News Ltd and we do not want to profit from the distress caused to them and their families” – and Alldis herself invited anyone whom she had offended to email her so she could apologise personally.

So it’s hardly necessary to castigate her further. I’m sure she’s had a pretty rough weekend, and most journalists with a modicum of self-awareness have written some things they wish they hadn’t. For me, the more pertinent question is why Mumbrella editor Tim Burrowes decided to publish Alldis’ screed in the first place: sure, it’s not his job to save errant PR flaks from themselves, but editors are quality controllers, and apart from driving traffic to the website it’s hard to see the value in handing a rope to someone about to attempt career suicide.

What really caught my eye in the ensuing discussion, though, was the following: “Why do journalists think they are better than PR professionals? You certainly love us when we give you an exclusive on topics that meet your approval. As journalists you get people to trust you so that one day you can betray them and yourself. Tina you came across as a bottom feeder, but so too do many journalists, many days of the week.”

The comment illustrates the nasty corollary to the often uneasy ethical relationship between journalists and their subjects exposed by Malcolm: the equally awkward embrace of the journalism and publicity industries. Central to this is the modus operandi of PR itself: it exists to create content favourable to the client, whether the client is a pop star, a politician or a corporate entity. And Alldis actually has a point: with fewer journalists attempting to feed a hungry 24/7 beast, there is a real danger of an increasing reliance on spin in place of real original content.

When an approved journalist from an approved organisation is fed an “exclusive” (or, in political reportage, a leak) it’s invariably to serve the purposes of those granting it. A journalist perceived to be sympathetic to the client’s interests is targeted. By being brought inside the tent, they are made to feel important, and the splash they make with their feature wins them the additional favour of their editors as a news-breaker, kudos from readers, and possible promotion up the food chain.

Rare is the journalist that spits in the eye of apparent good fortune. One fine example is Jack Marx, famously courted by actor Russell Crowe. Crowe needed a booster for his feeble attempts at rock stardom and targeted Marx, who went along for the ride, then won a Walkley Award for ruthlessly exposing Crowe’s brazen attempts to curry his favour. Perhaps, in a way, it was a betrayal of his subject – Marx could have just told Crowe he wasn’t interested from the outset – but it was a blow for journalistic integrity in the face of a star’s glad-handing.

On the front page of The Australian today is a different kind of exclusive. Reporters Michael Owen and Rebecca Puddy have been granted access to the submission by the Northern Territory Police Association into the death in custody of a 27-year-old Aboriginal man Kwementyaye Briscoe, who died in the Alice Springs watchhouse on 4 January after being put in protective custody. He was heavily intoxicated, with a blood alcohol concentration of seven times the legal driving limit.

“Grog-fuelled violence swamping police,” reads the headline (probably not written by Owen or Puddy). The story praises the submission as “powerful”, describing a police force that is buckling under the strain of incarcerating drunk people, work that is apparently so “mind-numbing, desensitising and soul destroying as to be heroic”, highlighting “the extreme difficulties police [are] faced with daily in dealing with a problem others had washed their hands of”. It’s a story clearly sympathetic to the interests of the Police Association.

I don’t doubt the severe duress that police working in disadvantaged Aboriginal communities are under – read, for example, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man for a beautifully balanced dissection of what it did to the Kurtz-like figure of Christopher Hurley, charged and later acquitted of the manslaughter of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004. But what Owen and Puddy’s story fails to mention at all is the fact that, at the time Briscoe died, probationary constable David O’Keefe was listening to his iPod and surfing the net. Repeated distress calls from other prisoners couldn’t get him to budge from his desk.

“I was distracted by other things,” he told the inquest, admitting he didn’t do a single check on Briscoe on his watch. “I was lazy, I guess.”

Trust has always been the cornerstone of reporting. What makes the travails of the heritage media in the digital age so acute is that it coincides with a collapse in trust in the Australian polity generally. An Essential poll on 12 June showed a collapse of our trust in federal parliament (from 55 percent last year down to 22 percent this year, a staggering fall). Trade unions were also down to 22 percent, from 39. Business groups fared no better, from 38 down to, you guessed it, 22. And on it goes.

The news media fared especially poorly. Print media rated just 26 percent for trustworthiness. TV and online news was even worse. The only institution to lift its trustworthiness in the eyes of consumers was the ABC (so often attacked for alleged bias), from 46 to 54 percent.

There’s a lesson in all that, not only for editors but for media investors and would-be owners, too. If we want readers to pay for quality journalism online, winning back their trust will be the first order of business. And to do that, journalism’s relationship with the various hands that feed it needs re-examination. Because readers aren’t stupid. They’re awake to partisanship (even though, paradoxically, they may also seek it out to serve their own pre-existing biases). They’re awake to fluff padding out quality (even as they devour “news” on reality-show winners). They’re awake to spin.

I’m not seeing such self-awareness in too many journalists. A re-read of Malcolm might be in order. In the meantime, mostly they’re just turning their bayonets on themselves.