Speaker by Various Artists

Vive la Revolucion!

by Deborah Hill Cone

Okay, as equal rights movements go it’s not exactly suffragettes chaining themselves to Downing Street or civil rights campaigners risking their lives in Mississippi. But get 170 bolshie freelance journalists in Auckland’s Hyatt Ballroom and you get the distinct feeling something is brewing.

There was certainly a whiff of ferment in the air at the first ever Freelance Marketplace conference held in Auckland earlier this month – freelancers are mobilising against being second class journos.

The conference was a labour of love for its organiser, Wellington science journalist Kim Griggs, who managed to do the seemingly impossible and get both the union (the EPMU) and the publishers (APN Print) to sponsor it. Jim Tucker from the Journalists Training Organisation (JTO) kindly helped organise it and channel the rabble rousing.

Whether the publishers would have been quite so supportive if they had heard the tone of some of the presentations is another matter. Who knows? They were invited to take part in a debate about rates but made a group decision not to turn up.

The conference obviously tapped into some need among the freelance community – with 170 people it was way oversubscribed - including useful sessions about what editors want, briefings on technology, copyright and contracts.

Now departed Listener deputy editor Tim Watkin didn’t make any new fans by telling freelancers he had no time for rough outlines in pitches, he didn’t expect to have to do rewrites and they should accept the going word rate of 40c a word.

But the mood started getting really heated in the final session – a debate about pay rates featuring the conference organiser Kim Griggs, former Herald columnist Philippa Stevenson and myself – and continued over drinks at the Northern Club. (That was my contribution to organising the conference – I hustled some lovely sponsorship for the cocktail function including a delightful drop from media-friendly Brown Bros wine – and schmoozed us into the not-so-staid Northern Club: “I’ll put you in Bankside where you don’t have to wear ties,” the nice lady, who obviously understood hacks, said. Note to self: I’m still keen to get some kind of press club happening there as they don’t seem to mind rambunctious journos.)

The final session was intended to be a discussion with publishers where we could get their side of the story, but in the event, no-one from mahogany row would front. But I suspect the “We’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore” message will be filtering through.

So why are freelancers so stroppy ?

You be the judge.

At the going rate of 40c/word, in order to earn the average wage ($42K) and cover your overheads you need to write about 3800 words a week – the equivalent of a cover story in the Listener, researched, interviewed, written and edited in a week. This might be possible as a freakish one-off where you live on black coffee but is simply not do-able week after week if you want to retain your relationship and your sanity.

If you write a more realistic 2500 words a week – still about five news stories - you will earn about $35K. If you take off expenses and superannuation you are left with $23K. Hang on, even teenagers don’t want to work for that.

Even at 50c a word, after childcare costs, you are barely keeping your head above water.

Conference organiser Kim Griggs last year did a survey of freelance rates which confirmed rates were depressingly low and in a depressingly narrow range. They compare to the going rate in Australia of at least A70c word – and $1 for a lot of business feature writing.

It certainly didn’t take me long to become frustrated with the pay as a freelancer.

I was a staff journalist on the NBR for almost 11 years and even by non-journalistic terms, well-paid. Although I’d been news editor for a few years it was turning me into a stressbucket so I chose to return to writing and by the time I left, I was probably earning the equivalent of $1.20 per word.

When I left to have a baby and didn't want to go back to work in the office full time, I chose to freelance.

Although I was writing what I thought was quite good stuff, I got very frustrated to find I was now getting paid at most 50c/word. This was considered top dollar by freelance standards. As a freelancer I have written for a variety of publications but the situation was pretty much the same with all of them.

This seemed counter-intuitive. When I was taking up a desk in prime Shortland Street real estate I got paid more than double what I was paid when I was covering my own overheads, but producing the same work. Go figure.

I didn't really understand:

- why I was getting paid at the same rate as a beginning journalist straight out of tech although I have won five Qantas awards and both the top financial journalism awards;

- why there was so little negotiation of the rate;

- why I would get paid the same rate for a short piece that required a huge amount of research as I did for a long piece that was relatively easy to write;

- why publishers were boasting on one hand they were making record profits and on the other telling me they couldn’t afford to pay enough for me to make the average wage;

- why newspapers and magazines buying my work seemed to think they could pressure me not to work for the competition although they weren't prepared to pay me any more in compensation;

- why I was inundated with more work than I could do – challenging, interesting work - but the price I was worth didn't go up (even though I can be quite stroppy when necessary and have been on negotiation courses per kind favour of NBR)

So much for market forces, eh!

No wonder journalists are renowned for being leftwing and anti-the market when this is their experience of how a free market operates.

This dismal pay situation meant I have chosen only to do work which I find interesting – which is fine up to a point – although people like me who work to earn a second income undermine the bargaining power of other freelance journalists. And I don’t want to be the journalistic equivalent of a bored housewife running a suburban dress shop. I take my work seriously – even obsessively. But there is little incentive to do so when the publications apparently consider what I am producing as a buy-by-the-yard commodity. An economist might say the pricing has little, if any, sensitivity to quality.

I took this conundrum to a couple of economists to find out why. Is it just because New Zealand is too small to function as a proper market? I know the Business Roundtable, for one, reject this view when it comes to the telco market. So why is it true for journalism?

And do experienced journalists add more value than beginning journalists?

If they do, are the profits they generate being funnelled offshore to prop up newspaper proprietors other failing investments, such as the Herald's subsidisation of the UK Independent, which made a big loss last year?

Why are all freelance journalists paid the same? More and more journalists now operate on a freelance or contract basis rather than being on the staff of a media organisation – freelancers are no longer the people who can’t get a fulltime job on a paper. Surely using freelancers is cheaper for the organisation. So why are they paid so much less than staff writers? Do media proprietors pay a premium for the satisfaction of seeing their staff sitting at their desks?

Economist Brent Wheeler said:

The business model for publications where revenue comes primarily from advertising, and less from subscriptions means in economic terms it matters not a whit what stories are about, their quality, who writes them, the quality of the person writing, their experience or anything else UNLESS it affects advertising/subs or both in a material or ongoing way

For these reasons a photo shot of Rachel Hunter in New Idea is as good or better a money earner as the original story on Watergate.

In short, the demand for actual news stories of what we might term serious quality is tiny.

In-house journalists are paid more because they are not paid for writing to a high standard at all, but instead being reliable, being there every day, writing something, no matter what, being a model employee that makes other journos do these things – none of which are journalistic skills but help the paper make money from advertisers and subs – this explains why some useless journos are kept on and on for years at papers when their skills are palpably terrible or out of date etc

As a freelancer are now selling just words, not the whole suite of skills and assets.

I don’t think the market is inefficient, it’s just that the market you are in is the impermanent

“I-just-want-to-fill-a-gap” market for words and the price is horrible. Naked words don’t sell well on their own.

Roger Kerr of the Business Roundtable said:

In response to why journalists are not well paid, beginning journalists get paid about the same as teachers and nurses etc, which is what you would expect.

As to freelancers, this is a different labour market from inhouse journalists. In-house journalists are paid for different services – covering rounds on a day to day basis. Freelancers are sometimes competing with others who write articles for free (eg himself) or foreign writers whose work can be obtained cheaply.

All New Zealand incomes are lower than we’d like them to be. We need more growth, more income for everyone, including journalists. Lower taxes would help (the usual Business Roundtable salve for every ill.)

I might agree with Roger about taxes, but I still didn’t feel like either of those answers really solved the particular freelance conundrum.

I suspect other small markets (Ireland? Holland?) have a dynamic freelance sector where good journalists are paid more than crap ones.

The best answer yet came from the mind-like-a-steel-trap of freelance financial journalist Jenny Ruth after a few wines: the duopoloy between the two major publishing groups depresses the price for freelance work.

And despite all the hype about the decline of the MSM, publishers of any stripe are still going to need content.

“Talent is the new limited resource,” as media mogul Barry Diller, who has thrown his lot in with new media, put it.

Presumably in the recently buoyant advertising market, publishers can afford to pay a bit more if they had to: the Herald’s owner APN had record after tax profits in 2005 of almost $150 million while Fairfax made $93.5 million here in six months and ACP magazines made more than $140 million.

I’d love to know whether the publishers here fight the good fight with their offshore head offices over the proportion of profits which are channelled back into the local investment. You can’t tell me journalists on the Independent in London are expected to write for 13p a word.

So what was the outcome of the conference? Judging by comments on the journalists’ website Journz, more freelancers are learning to say “No” to rates which make no sense. There is a movement to set up a new freelance journalists ‘ organisation to lobby for higher rates. And freelancers are connecting into networks to support each other – at least I have made some great new contacts with kick-arse journos working in other parts of the country, like Tauranga’s Wordwitches.

Because as the suffragettes or civil rights campaigners would tell us, united we stand and all that. But no, I’m not joining the union. Yet.