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Internet Freelance Journalism

A Bargain of Necessity?


By Iain Hepburn

February 14, 2012 | 7 min read

So, filthy assistants, here’s a confession. I don’t actually get paid for this blog. Well, not in the conventional way.

Once a month or so, the Drum’s news editor and I go to the pub and he buys me beer. For this, I write my weekly rants on here about the unending gloom facing the Scottish media sector.

Now, I’m sure some of you at home are spluttering into your morning coffee at the thought of me receiving even a pint of Guinness for my semi-literate ramblings, but the whole issue of paying for writing online is one of the big thorny debates of modern times.

Freelance journalist Mic Wright’s brace of blog posts at the weekend on the Huffington Post, which accused the AOL-owned monolith of being a ‘vast Vichy state...full of quisling editors’ caused quite the stir online, but represent only the sharpest tip of an iceberg which has been drifting through the industry.

The democratisation of online publishing has brought with it a proliferation of smaller sites with even smaller budgets, and for those publishers it’s easy to understand their desire to achieve the best content at the lowest outlay.

But in doing so it has created a mentality across the industry - from the digital empires of AOL to the hallowed halls of the Guardian - that presumes writers will be happy with the lure of ‘getting their name known’ in exchange for sharing their words.

It’s been a particular bone of contention in the games industry, where heated rows have raged across Twitter about the value of journalism - and the expectation, in some cases, of writers working for free.

“The problem is when profit-making publications ask or expect pro writers to work for free,” Fighting Spirit magazine editor Brian Elliot told me.

“That's insulting to all concerned.”

But it can be a tough choice for journalists, particularly those starting out in their careers or making the first steps into freelance. The lure of seeing your name on a well-read, high profile site like Huffington Post is strong, particularly after years of baby hacks being told to write no matter what.

The notional value of ‘getting your name known’ raises its own problems. Known by whom, exactly? The readers - or the management of the title looking for free copy? I’ve never been convinced by that argument, purely since social platforms and blogs can make it easier to get known by a core audience for your work than appearing in the pages of a supposed mainstream title.

And if it is to get known by the newsdesk or features department - what are you really getting known for: your work, or the fact you’ll write for buttons? And just how long will you remain known to them if you start asking for money for the work done?

But the thing is, for every site where there are deep pockets and short arms, there’s a dozen more who have to scrimp and save just to be able to enter the game, let alone compete. And I’m not just talking at the semi-pro end of the scale.

It’s easy to take the view that if site X is owned by a big wealthy parent company, it has money to spend on commissioning. But often, that’s not the case. I know from bitter experience how small the freelance budgets can be, even on a decent-sized national, when it comes to online.

That’s not to excuse big-name websites from forking out. If they have the resources, they absolutely should be paying writers for their work - be it video, audio or written. But if the opportunity or offer comes along for quality content for free, oftentimes that saving means slightly more in the budget for the next week.

I don’t disagree with Brian’s assertion that profit-making titles are insulting writers by not paying them. But having been on the other side of the fence, I’m also conscious that many profit-making publications don’t necessarily pass those profits down in a way that can ensure commissioners have the resources to pay for the writers they want as often as they’d like

This is where the big issue lies, really. It’s not an editorial problem. I’m sure if you ask web editors and online publishers up and down the land, the vast majority would love to be able to pay freelance rates regularly. But the drive for profits and revenue means those holding the purse strings look on editorial as purely a catalyst for generating that cash. Speculate to accumulate doesn’t figure in these cash-conscious times, and it is writers that suffer.

It’s not an issue that’s confined to publishing - how many social media events expect speakers to give up their time, effort and research for free, yet charge attendees for the privilege of hearing them? - though it’s perhaps the one with the most tangible impact.

Thing is, there’s a counter to that which is emerging, which doesn’t portray certain hacks in a particularly good light, either. It’s the ‘my words have value in any circumstance’ attitude, which you see when some particularly militant types - largely NUJ members, it has to be noted - say “I’m not going to leave a good/bad review of this product on X retail site because they aren’t paying for me to write it.”

What they think they’re saying is that their words are so valued and worthy that even putting a twenty word review on the Amazon page of something they’ve bought deserves recompense. What they’re really saying is that they’re a precious arsehole.

Presumably the same people refuse to give tips to their mates for restaurants/bars/hotels/films while chatting over a pint in the pub without their pal being forced to slip them twenty quid first.

Thankfully that group still seems to be in a minority. But it’s evidence of just how seriously some people take the issue of web payment, attaching value to words where there arguably is none.

Ultimately, it comes down to the value you place on your own work. If one free piece in the Huffington Post lands you two paid commissions down the road, does that make up for the initial financial hit? If a big-name publisher wants you to write something for them for free, are you any better off doing it for them than you are putting it on your own site or blog

Ascribing value to editorial is as much the choice of the author as it is the reader. The battle is in ensuring those who genuinely deserve recompense for their work get it.

Anyway, Mr Lepitak. It’s your round, guv...

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