Wednesday, November 11, 2009

If a rat can cook, can anyone be a writer now? Rachel Johnson is troubled by the growing necessity of writing pro bono and says that, if everyone is a

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So this is how my average weekday morning goes. Give briefing to a telly researcher on a subject I have written sum total of one article about, complete long Q&A for self-publicity purposes for a magazine (which will appear under someone else's byline), supply a written quote to help a reporter on a daily broadsheet fill space, update my website in case the one person who to my certain knowledge has checked it out ever visits it again, post blog for this magazine's Coffee House, then break for lunch, hopefully somewhere nice and near like Rowley Leigh's new Le Cafe Anglais (plug, plug), where the Parmesan custard and anchovy toast is not merely vaut le voyage, but possibly worth Eurostarring over from Paris for.

Hours worked--four, or if you subtract the hours spent drinking coffee/Facebooking/ reading the newspapers/sighing heavily, three. Words written--1,500. Pounds cascading into the coffers after this morning of industry--zip, zilch, zero.

Now I understand why James Whittaker, the former royal correspondent of the Mirror, would snap 'Am I talking in my own time?' if taking a call from a production company/ another journalist/researcher. The opportunities for providing content for nothing are apparently limitless, and at the same time the market has been saturated by a similar oversupply in content-providers. As Professor Roy Greenslade says, 'In effect, every citizen is now a journalist. Journalistic skills are not entirely wiped out in an online world, but they are eroded and, most importantly, they cannot be confined any longer to an exclusive elite group.' Aaagh! The joyful message of the cartoon movie Ratatouille is that anyone can cook, even a rat. And the sinister message of the age of Prof. Greenslade, the free newspapers and the blogosphere is that anyone can be a journalist, as well as all the rats who already are.

So this is where we are. Everyone is writing, everywhere, all the time. Which is bad news, no? If market economics suggest that four million bloggers are willing to file for free, and if commuters read pappy freesheets rather than hand out 50p for the crunchier fare of the Standard, then newspapers will be less keen to pay their staff or freelancers a living wage, and 'free speech' will come to be a euphemism for 'unpaid writers' in the New Media Age of Change.

In the hierarchy of things people don't care about--the Lib Dem leadership contest, the new Britney album, the Diana inquest--the pay-rate per word of the freelance journalist wins hands down, I know. But still, the writers' strike in Hollywood seems to signal that those who make words for a living are feeling hard done by.

There, the row is mainly over residuals--the tiny crumbs in fees that writers are paid when their work is shown again in other formats and media. The TV networks and film studios won't can their existing DVD deal, which pays the writer four cents on each $15 DVD. In fact, they want to extend this terrific deal on the same minimal terms to internet downloads and mobile phone viewing. The writers, meanwhile, want eight cents per DVD, which doesn't seem an awful lot.

Now I know that Hollywood is different and journalists don't make fortunes for their companies in the same way as, say, the writers of the Sopranos do, but publishers and distributors are under the same pressure here to push down the cost of the raw materials, which are words. According to the NUJ, 'newspaper rates haven't gone up for 20 years'. Indeed, if you want to put in a day's work at the Guardian as a sub (160 [pounds sterling] and sinking), I would steer you to the offices of the Turkish daily Hurriyet, where the day-rate is 200 [pounds sterling].

'We've seen a commodification of words and news. We say "content" instead of "stories", as if a newspaper is a vessel to be filled as cheaply as we can,' says industry guru Kim Fletcher, the presenter of Can Newspapers Survive? on BBC Radio Four. 'The willingness to pay, apart from to the big-name writers who are regarded as box office and are effectively part of the company's marketing budget, is becoming limited.'

Still, I cannot think this is all doom and gloom. The writers' strike has called attention to the fact that writers actually write, for a start. And while I think that while everyone's OK with reading nutbags in chatrooms, or Metro on the Tube, there is also the recognition that free content is often content-free. If you want rubbish, it is freely available and all around, but if you want something more and better, you will have to pay. That will not change.

So I agree with those who say that actually, it's a great time to be a journalist (though I'm not looking forward, I admit, to introducing my daughter as a 3 A.M. Girl). Frankly, there are no limits to getting your name out there. You will just have to embrace the fact that a lot of your work is going to be pro bono, like the stuff I do in the morning to 'maintain' my, er, 'brand'. It's also pretty great if you are working for a big successful juggernaut like the Sunday Times (I declare my interest here). Indeed, the only thing that a journalist needs to decide in the New Media Age of Change is how low they can go, as my colleague Toby Young points out. 'I used to say I don't get out of bed for less than $20,000, but the truth is I'll do anything for 5p. Come to think of it, $20,000 is worth about 5p these days so maybe I'll go back to saying it. Are you paying me for this quote?'

I tell him sharply 'no', then ask if he would encourage his children to pursue their careers in the craft. 'I certainly don't want my children to go into journalism,' Toby says. 'They might as well become hand-loom weavers.'

As to whether I'm being paid for this article, I am (indeed, I always make a point of demanding my full rate, even when filing for the sort of gentlemanly publication that assumes that no one actually makes a living out of work).

But the truth is--not that I would ever let on, of course--when it comes to doing this, there's still a tiny part of me that remains thrilled to be paid at all.

Rachel Johnson is a contributing editor of The Spectator.

Source Citation
Johnson, Rachel. "If a rat can cook, can anyone be a writer now? Rachel Johnson is troubled by the growing necessity of writing pro bono and says that, if everyone is a 'citizen journalist', there is no need to pay professional hacks." Spectator 17 Nov. 2007: 24. Academic OneFile. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. .

Gale Document Number:A172437408

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