15 January 2010

Journalists wanted: no pay (special guest: Harlan Ellison)

I saw this job advert earlier today. Well, I say "job"…

Mizz, Unpaid Feature Writers
Date posted: Tuesday, 12th January 2010
Date ending: Thursday, 11th February 2010

Mizz are currently looking for unpaid contributors to write features
for the magazine – if you are looking for features or a byline please
contact lsaxton@panini.co.uk

That a magazine is asking freelancer journalist to work for free isn't a shock: it's understandable. That the magazine is widely advertising its request is.

Across the industry magazines are struggling as advertising income falls (the same applies in newspapers). This means production budgets - the money given to editors to get words on the page - are reduced, limiting how much can be paid out to freelance journalists. So having some write articles for nothing but a byline is an attractive one to some editors.

Of course this has been going on for years, as part of a journalist's training is taking on a work experience placement or an internship. And this real-world experience is vital, as the nuances of a journalist's trade has to be learnt on the job through mentoring (officially or unofficially) from old hands on the publications. But asking a freelancer to write a feature article for free isn't preparing someone to work as a reporter or a journalist. What it is doing is providing copy for a magazine for nothing.

Added to this are the serious consequences for the print industry and its readers that could follow if this practice becomes acceptable.

The use of "unpaid contributors" undercuts professional freelancers. If other companies follow Mizz, full-time freelancers could see their income dramatically drop, as they're forced to compete with writers who don't even have to submit an invoice. And this would lead to more journalists leaving the profession.

The other problem is one of quality. Writers willing to work for free will likely be starting out as (or are training to become) journalists in need of bylines that lead to paid work; or they'll be amateurs who call themselves "journalists", but who lack the skills and experience of professional writers.

The widespread use of articles from these people would mean badly written articles would begin to filter through into the magazines, making it a poor-value publication. If that happens, readership will fall, which will follow with a fall in revenue for the publisher. This will lead to magazines having their budgets cut, which would lead to more unpaid contributors to be used, and a self-destructive cycle would be completed.

Ultimately it will mean shelves filled with badly written magazines. And those will be the ones that survive. Most will close down, because keeping a magazine which is unable to make a profit open is just bad business.

This may sound like a nightmare scenario, but it could easily come about. The fact is that a freelance journalist is self-employed, and so can charge whatever fee for their services they like - including waiving them. And, unlike the in-house staff on magazines, the UK's National Minimum Wage legislation does not apply to them.

It is likely that there's little anyone can do to stop Mizz using unpaid contributors under labour law. However, as you can see there are plenty of reasons why Mizz - and every other magazine - should stop expecting writers working for free.

And it's not just me who thinks so:

(Clip from Dreams With Sharp Teeth. Dir: Erik Nelson. Creative Differences. Buy the DVD.)

There is another industry where working for no pay is expected - the UK's film industry. But with a recent tribunal ruling has the potential to stop this practice. If the ruling is made into law.

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