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Paid Less, But Published More: On Paying the Writers

Read Monday, 11 Aug 2014

Film and television journalist Anthony Morris looks at how the internet (and before that, the street press) has changed the landscape for writers – and asks whether we’d really want to turn back the clock. There may be less writing jobs these days, he says, but there are more working writers … and there’s more choice about what they write about.

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Image by Choo Chin Nian, Flickr.

If you’re a writer and you can get your work published, you deserve to get paid for that work. No one’s going to argue with that – well, plenty of people are going to argue with that, but they’re usually people making money off the work of unpaid writers so their opinions are roughly on par with a burglar’s opinion as to whether you should lock your doors. But there’s a part of the equation that’s rarely considered these days: the getting published part.

Back in the early 90s (when I left university), the path to becoming a published writer was both straightforward and dull: you either studied journalism at university, then did a one-year cadetship at a newspaper, or you went straight to a newspaper and got a three-year cadetship there. And by ‘writer’, read ‘news journalist’ – you might have wanted to be a restaurant critic or a sports reporter, but that wasn’t your call to make.

Instead, your bosses at the newspaper decided where you’d be working, and if they felt your talents lay in covering finance (or the tide times), that was the kind of writing you’d be doing until you persuaded them otherwise. If you wanted to be an opinion writer, good luck: newspaper columnists were largely professional journalists and if newspapers wanted opinions they sent their writers out to talk to people who had them. Television recaps? Listicles? Much of the writing we see today on the internet simply didn’t exist.

If that sounds a bit grim, it was: my journalism teachers said the typical career path was to rise through the ranks until your late twenties, then quit and go get a much better job (more money, no shift work) working for a politician or in public relations. Fortunately when I graduated it was the middle of a recession and no one was hiring, so I couldn’t even get that far: I ended up working for Forte, a street paper that had just started up in Geelong.

Back then street papers like Melbourne’s Beat or Sydney’s The Drum were still relatively new. Their business model was basically the internet before the internet: they were given away for free, writers were paid nothing (or next to nothing) but worked for ‘the exposure’, and the owners raked in a fortune from advertising – okay, maybe that part isn’t like the internet.

But if you were a writer starting out who wanted to cover the arts, suddenly the barrier to getting published was extremely low. Street papers didn’t really care what filled the gaps between ads – well, aside from the stories they ran that were directly tied to the ads (for example, if you took out a full-page ad for your tour, the paper would run an interview with the band; yesterday’s advertorial is today’s sponsored post). They had loads of space to fill every week, so suddenly pretty much anyone who wanted to start out writing about music or the arts had a place to go where people would see their work. They were now published writers; unfortunately the well-paid jobs were now even further out of reach.

By being cheaper to run than the regular music press, the street press killed off traditional Australian music magazines. Through the 80s, Australia had two music newspapers, the Sydney-based fortnightly RAM and Melbourne’s weekly Juke; by the early 90s they were both gone. Australian Rolling Stone was largely reprints from the US version; rival Juice magazine was not a long-term success. There were loads more entry-level positions, but everything beyond that – anything that paid a living wage — was basically gone. The street press wasn’t a way to get a step up on the ladder and it didn’t make the ladder easier to climb, it just extended the ladder a few rungs further down.

Today the online journalism model is the street press model. There are loads more jobs out there; there just aren’t many well-paid ones. Street papers were full of band interviews and gig reviews because fans would write them for free; the internet is full of reviews and opinion pieces for much the same reason. Meanwhile, the kind of writing that was a paid job has largely vanished: it’s a lot easier to justify low (or no) pay when you publish listicles and television recaps than it is if you publish investigative journalism or crime reporting.

The internet hasn’t killed off the street press, though it’s hardly thriving; a lot of the smaller papers have folded, and Drum Media recently merged its Sydney and Melbourne publications into one syndicated magazine. Like a lot of ‘old’ media, they never quite managed the shift online; even without paying writers it’s hard to make money there.

More people than ever can legitimately call themselves writers, even as it’s increasingly difficult to make anything even close to a living wage from doing it. The question is, if it was possible to go back, would we want to? The old model might have had a higher percentage of well-paying jobs, but they were jobs with long hours, low pay (comparatively), and a fairly limited range of subjects available to writers.

Plus it was a lot more work. Journalists were paid largely to gather news, and before the internet that involved a lot more time on the phones and on the street. In some ways the better pay reflected the higher level of experience required; in a world without Google, writers were expected to know their field intimately (or at least, know how to find people who did).

If we could somehow turn back the clock and say ‘okay, there’s only going to be a quarter of the writing jobs, but those jobs will be paid four times as much,’ would writers want to take that risk?

Probably. Because we’d all think we’d be the ones who’d still have jobs.

Anthony Morris is DVD editor of the Big Issue. He writes about film and television for various publications, including Geelong street paper Forte and Empire magazine.

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