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):
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).