Publications should not profit from scribes willing to work for nothing

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— This piece originally appeared as an op ed in The Sunday Age

There had been whispers among my writer friends that Private Media, publisher of Crikey, was launching a new arts and culture website. It was the usual freelance gossip at book parties over plastic cups of wine, but the first concrete knowledge I had of the reality of The Daily Review was writers asking me for advice.

The Daily Review, it was made clear to the writers approached, would be unable to pay freelance contributors for their work. So, for the past fortnight, writers I knew barely at all and those I knew well contacted me privately all asking the same thing: should I write for The Daily Review for no pay? This is a difficult conversation for writers. But it is a debate that is important for readers who value arts writing and criticism too.

On Monday, when The Daily Review was launched (its editor is former Fairfax writer Ray Gill), fellow Crikey arts bloggers Byron Bache, Laurence Barber and myself published an open letter encouraging writers not to provide free content to this publication, and explaining why we wouldn’t be doing so ourselves.

The letter was, for me, a public answer to the many who had contacted me asking what to do. In the end, I couldn’t in all conscience support a for-profit site that I knew wouldn’t pay other writers. We felt we were in a unique position to take a stand for other freelancers. Conversely, to do nothing meant that our work would be syndicated on the site, legitimatising a masthead that expected writers to provide content without pay.

There is not a freelancer in existence who has not, at some point, done unpaid work. At the beginning of our careers, this system is flawed but understandable – writers need a place to hone their style, knowledge and skills. Publications such as student newspapers, street press and emerging journals are places to experiment and learn; where, if you fail, you do so safely, away from the critical eye of a large audience.

Yet as writers progress, the issue of payment is often veiled in secrecy by publications not wanting to reveal their rates, which are frequently sliding scales based on the profile of the writer. A high-profile name can command triple what an emerging writer can. For this reason, writers themselves are often embarrassed to admit how much they earn. And so a complicit silence from both sides continues.

Recently, the silence has lessened. Indeed, in some quarters it is turning into a din. Local sites such as Pay The Writers have gone some way to providing greater transparency around payment rates, and education for freelancers.

Arts criticism, however, holds a peculiar position in the writing debate as a practice worthy in and of itself (”art for art’s sake”) and therefore not one that should seek financial reward. This stigma doesn’t appear to be as much of an issue in politics or business journalism, where there is a greater expectation of payment for labour. Yet for arts writers to continually accept this lack of payment can only further a cycle that perpetuates itself.

The publishing industry is going through a period of upheaval. Things have fallen apart in print models, but the centre can indeed hold – readers who want quality writing, whether in print or online, will continue to exist.

It’s difficult for writers to say no to work, to a venture we believe in and which our own arts writing at Crikey helped create an audience for. It is deeply troubling personally to criticise a company we have been incredibly proud to write for.

But this is a conversation that needs to be had publicly, and it is of importance to readers, too. It raises questions around the value of arts writing, and the ethics of beginning a commercial for-profit venture with no intention of paying freelance contributors for a significant amount of weekly content. Commercial ventures such as The Daily Review are not places for emerging writers to fail safely.

Since we published the letter, Private Media responded to the issue in a Crikey editorial on Friday, assuring writers that they highly value their work, that they try to do the right thing in terms of payment, and that they are ”looking at our budgets to see what we can do”. If this has meant that writers are now in a position to negotiate for payment, and freelance contributors to the site are to be paid, then Crikey’s response should be celebrated.

You don’t get into writing for the money, you’ll often hear writers joke, or you can’t ask your landlord to pay that month’s rent in accumulated ”exposure”. But the jokes don’t seem that funny any more. Arts writing is important and of value. Until writers keep working to make publications realise this, little will change.

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