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A difficult, necessary conversation

By now, you’ve probably seen the debate happening over Crikey’s new venture into arts coverage, the Daily Review. Due to launch on Monday (it’s here, but without the expected fanfare), the Daily Review is essentially a two-person operation: full time editor and former Age journalist, Ray Gill, and a junior journalist recruited only in the last fortnight. The model is such that the existing arts bloggers on Crikey – who are paid on a sliding scale according to the pageviews they generate – would be syndicated to the new portal with no corresponding increase in fees. This, along with the news that the suite of bloggers that would provide the majority of the site’s content would consist of unpaid volunteers, prompted three of those bloggers – Byron Bache, Laurence Barber and Bethanie Blanchard – to write an open letter to past, current and prospective contributors to Crikey, urging a moratorium on contributing to the site for free.

Given the dearth of writing jobs with even moderately decent pay, a full-time salaried junior journalist role is not only a rare opportunity but a good one. Let me be clear: if I had been offered that job, I would have been excited to take it, and I think it’s very important that none of this be perceived as a reflection on the qualifications, talent or capacity of the lucky person now working in that role. It’s a fantastic opportunity, and I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that working as an arts journalist for a site like Crikey is a hella enviable position to be in.

In the further interests of full disclosure, I’ve been published (and paid) by Private Media’s Women’s Agenda, and found it a thoroughly pleasant and professional experience – more so, given that my article was a critical response to Georgie Dent, the editor who agreed to its publication. I’ve shared a Wheeler Centre panel with Crikey editor Jason Whittaker, pitched articles to him, and he has considered employing me.

These personal complications are precisely what makes the issue a difficult one to negotiate – indeed, a difficult one for me to write about – but they also make an open dialogue all the more important.

Because the arts industry in Australia is small. Spend a couple of weeks sampling the bubbly in theatre foyers or the red wine at book launches, and you’ll notice the same faces showing up, again and again. In one respect, this is a reflection of a passionate core of arts practitioners and supporters who work long hours supporting forms that they care about deeply. In another, it’s because there are more people in Shanghai alone than there are in the entirety of Australia, and not all of them are going to want to read the latest in short fiction.

The arts criticism world is even smaller. Writers and editors all know each other, as they also know the practitioners of theatre, publishers of literature, directors of galleries, promoters of music and creators of television. None of the work has ever paid very much, except perhaps for those on the very high end (and those who work in TV), and the situation’s certainly not improving. Full-time trade journalism gigs are going the way of the black rhino, and freelance pay rates are spectacularly low. Those who make a living from their writing are few and far between, and the majority of writers – arts enthusiasts or otherwise – have to supplement their income with a day job to make ends meet.

But Private Media is precisely that: a privately owned company, an organisation with the objective of making profit. Its willingness to offer critical journalistic coverage on corporations, politics, and international issues where the major papers often seem to simply slap together the same old party lines is why people continue to read and subscribe to it. Its arts section was never its focus, but recently the lens has adjusted a bit. The bloggers who write on culture have started to have a more significant impact on the scene, and, they argue, have been critical in shaping the brand that’s now being leveraged to generate traffic for the Daily Review.

‘If Crikey is known for its arts coverage,’ says Bache, ‘It’s because of us. That brand was built by us, by its contributors.’

Responses to the open letter have ranged from ‘Solidarity!’ to ‘Quit hating and write something worth paying for!’ But the Daily Review boycott is interesting because it contradicts the very structure of the freelance model. Freelance writers are sole traders, quite literally in competition with each other for editorial attention, page space and the crumbs that comprise contributor budgets. We’re also often in competition with ourselves: if we write for one publication, depending on the critical attitude we adopt, the style of our writing or (dare I say) our politics, we may well be prevented from writing for another. Taking a stand on a labour issue is complicated, not only because there are no safeguards against dismissal (or having our pitches rejected industry-wide) as there would be in a permanent role, but because the network is so small. For the same reason people are often wary of writing a negative book review – everyone knows everyone else, and even the smallest slight can become a decade-long feud – the editor and publication we’re rejecting is often a well-known quantity: people we’ll see next week at an event; someone to whom we’ll end up sitting next to at a dinner party; the partner of the artist whose work we have to review next week.

In taking on a publication, we are often taking on our friends, and this can stifle our ability to act on our own behalf, as well as have personal and social implications.

‘We made it clear how proud we are to write for Crikey,’ wrote Blanchard. ‘[But] if we didn’t say something then it’s like we’re complicit.’

A lot of solutions to the problem of remuneration for writers have been thrown around in the last few days, some more helpful than others. The answer to the lack of contributor budgets, for example, should not be a blanket ‘write less’ – serious advocacy of a lower level of literacy and literary practice should set alarm bells ringing, as should anyone pushing the belief that the voice of someone without a public profile shouldn’t matter. (And if we believe that art and arts criticism is inherently worthy – meaningful outside of its existence in this case as labour – then we should practice it for its own sake. As most of us do, to some degree.) Neither is it to pay emerging writers less than established ones on principle. Quite apart from suggesting a meritocracy that simply doesn’t exist, how do we measure ‘emerging’? Number of articles published? Number of readers? Some vague assessment of the quality of their prose measured against the level of their output?

Furthermore, it’s specious to argue that ‘nobody is entitled to earn their living from writing.’ If you are reproducing the product of a person’s labour for your own profit then the labourer has a right to be paid. Even if it’s art. Even if it’s someone’s opinion on art. There are journals and publications that run on the smell of an oily rag and are not-for-profit, in the same way independent theatre and art collectives exist, and any funds collected in excess of expenditure goes back into the production of the form. In those situations, the terrain is a bit trickier, and will often depend on the individual circumstances of the writer, the product, and the task they are being asked to perform. The elision of the poetry of the art with the labour of the craft – like the rise of the happily-ever-after romance narrative even as real-world marriage rates rapidly decline – is often how we justify to ourselves that it’s OK to write for free. The marriage analogy doesn’t quite work: I believe writing – unlike marriage – is valuable outside of financial terms; it’s valuable in and of itself. But for the purposes of this conversation, the romance of writing, the art of it, is rather beside the point.

This situation with the Daily Review is about a labour contract for a company. It’s about business. And in spite of the status of writers as competitors in a marketplace, Bache, Barber and Blanchard have called for collective action. As complicated and personally difficult as it might be, we should support that call.

Stephanie Convery is a writer and arts worker in Melbourne. She writes fiction, non-fiction, criticism, commentary and review. She is a regular contributor to Overland online and keeps her own blog at http://gingerandhoney.com. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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Comments

  1. Very well put Steph. An excellent articulation of the subtleties at play.

    I’d like to add a comment regarding a certain vagueness in our identity as freelancers. There’s a bit of confusion as to whether freelancers are businesses or workers. Of course, we are doing work, and we don’t own the publications we write for. But being able to be registered as a sole trader has broken down the old categories, the old class loyalty. Which is probably one of the reasons the Howard government introduced ABNs along with the GST back in 2000. Becoming a sole trader has many advantages, but it is also an attempt to impose a profit orientation on a human individual.

    Many other trades have seen this same confusion and resulting de-unionisation, and I think it’s part of a deliberate dismantling of old class interests through structural precarity. So an action like this is a very interesting test of whether labour power is still a force to be reckoned with, despite that precarity.

    Of course, art is neither wholly a business nor wholly work, so that adds another layer of meaning entirely.

  2. Years ago I helped build up a blog for a left-leaning literary magazine, writing copious amounts for free. The publication always claimed they didn’t have funds to pay bloggers, but when they upgraded their blog and received funds, they dumped most of us who had written for free in favour of employing others they’d selected. They claimed the site was going in a ‘different direction.’ It really bothered me at the time, and I’d completely forgotten about it and gotten over it, until I started reading this article. Then my blood started boiling all over again. You’re right. It is an appalling way to treat the very people who have been part of making the publication what it is.

  3. I am really really upset reading this post. I do not understand how Overland can publish this piece after what they did to their own writers a few years back(me being one of them). Really, really sad. Exactly the same situation. Apparently I got shuffled out because I couldn’t write. That’s what Jeff wrote on my blog when I wrote an article in response. What bothered me the most was that despite the discussion taking place on my blog about the issue, no formal apology or acknowledgement was made on their blog about what happened. Despite what Overland did, I still believe Overland is necessary and important to the literary dialogue in Australia and will continue to support Overland. But it still hurts.

    • Actually Koraly, I don’t think it’s the same situation at all. Overland is a registered not-for-profit. The money it has goes into and has always gone into paying its tiny editorial staff an producing the magazine. When it finally got money to pay bloggers it had to regulate the number of people it could publish. You’ve always had the opportunity to contribute and even in the short time there it had official online columnists there was always an outlet for others to write online – and be paid – via the loudspeaker model.

      Private Media, on the other hand, is a company. It exists to make money. There’s a big, big difference.

  4. Hi Stephanie, I don’t agree at all, but I have wasted a lot of my energy arguing this point and I don’t want to waste any more of it. I stick to my argument, it is very much the same thing. I was one of the original bloggers before Overland decided to take on heaps more bloggers. I contributed to building up the blog. This fact should have been respected. It was not. Instead I was asked nicely to move on after they received funding for the blog. Because I wasn’t white and I didn’t have a phd. I am done with sugar coating. That’s how I felt and I am never going to get over it.

  5. I think you are holding a completely unwarranted grudge, Koraly. Your accusation of racism is completely bizarre given the wide mix of people who contribute to the magazine and, indeed, to the website (which the editors rightly, IMO, consider an extension of the magazine, and now edit in a similar manner, which they never did in it’s early stages) and ditto with this PhD thing. Moreover, given issue was years ago, and OL now pay every single person who contributes to the magazine – including you, if and when you contribute – I really don’t understand why you continue to bring it up like it’s a live problem that requires action.

  6. I don’t think it’s a live problem. I am just saying how can they criticise crikey when they did a similar thing? It doesn’t make sense to me and it actually re-ignites my past frustration. And regarding the racism/phd thing, I don’t think its Overland specific. I think it is Australian literary landscape specific. But if I did a study on the contributors of Overland over the years, it would be interesting to see how many are white, and if they are not white, I am guessing they hold a phd because they have assimilated and “studied” at university “how to write like us”. Like I said, I believe Overland is important to the dialogue in Australia but you got to practice what your preach, seriously!

  7. Given *I* wrote the article, not Jeff or Jacinda, and it’s my view that was published – in spite of the fact that Jeff and Jac, incidentally, DO practice what they believe in, eg *they pay all OL writers* – asking them to practice what they preach seems kind of redundant, no? I have a perfect right to have an opinion on the issue, being a writer, and given OL has been hauled through the ringer on this more than once (rather harshly, in my opinion, but with an outcome that actually benefits everyone, including you) don’t you think it’s time you gave it a rest?

  8. Yes, they do practice what they preach NOW. But they have never acknowledged that they did NOT in the past. I have not re-raised this issue on my blog. Overland have raised it on THEIR blog and I am responding as reader of the blog and engaging in a conversation which is what Overland encourages, and that it is why Overland IS important, because it encourages literary dialogue. I am adding MY opinion to this conversation, also valid like yours. Radical culture is their slogan. Would they prefer that readers were not open and honest in literary discussions? Would Overland prefer eyes were kept shut? I didn’t think that was what Overland was about. I know that is not what Overland about. So instead of pretending like it didn’t happen, maybe Overland should just admit their wrong-doing and maybe then there can be forgiveness and we can all move on from this. But when articles like this pop up with no acknowledgement of their own past, that makes my blood boil.

  9. And my opinion on the crikey issue is that it happens all the time in this industry. It’s sad but true. It happened to me. Accept it, deal with it, move on. Yes, it sucks. This is the industry we work in.

  10. On the original post: given that the MEAA has a membership category especially for freelancers, could this be a question of critical mass? If the union stipulates no free work for for-profit organisations, then any for-profit media outlet trying to obtain work for ‘exposure’ would have to rely on scab labour. Whether or not that matters depends on how many writers are members of the union – and more importantly how many writers of a high calibre. The only thing bosses understand is when you hit them in the pocket. Denying them quality writing will destroy their publication.

    On the comments thread: Koraly, I also used to blog unpaid for Overland before they changed policy; I don’t have a PhD, either; and like you I’m mixed race. I was a little sad at the changes, too. But you’ve lost all sense of perspective. Throwing around accusations of racism and elitism is not just unwarranted, but a graceless exhibition of entitlement. I’d advise you to pick your battles, and show a little dignity.

  11. ‘Throwing around accusations of racism and elitism is not just unwarranted, but a graceless exhibition of entitlement’ Josh, we must be living in different countries….all you have to do is turn your television on. And because I am voicing an opinion suddenly I am ‘undignified’ and I need to ‘pick my battles’? To me it seems that as soon as someone talks race here in Australian all of a sudden the debate becomes personal. No surprises there. You either have to ‘join the club’ or ‘endorse’ the club (as you have so clearly done here) or else you are undignified? Wow. Well I am not going to shovel my opinions under the carpet in ‘the hope’ that I will get published. That boat has long sailed.

    • LOL – of course there is racism in Australia. I was (of course) referring to this OL blog policy storm-in-a-teacup. It’s not you’re voicing an opinion that’s compromising your dignity. It’s your inability to get over this absurd grievance.

  12. And Josh, if I am not mistaken, you were not one of the original bloggers. You came on board when Overland called out for new bloggers and increased it’s blogger pool from about 8 people to about 50. I was one of the eight.

  13. This is the last I’ll say in response to Koraly’s posts, which I think are unwarranted, presumptuous and just plain unfair.

    I’m not on the editorial staff at Overland so I am not speaking on their behalf. But I have been writing for this mag since that first shift in the site direction and call-out for bloggers in late 2009/early 2010, and watched all these debates unfold, and there are a couple of things I think should be made clear about the history of this.

    When OL first opened up a call-out for unpaid bloggers in 2010, they caught a lot of heat, partly as a result of the ABC coming under fire for a similar thing. Jeff responded to that issue straight away by opening up genuine discussion about it in a post published on the blog itself. As a result of that discussion, and others happening the industry at the time, they revised their call-out, saying:

    Given that we’re asking people to blog without payment, we accept that it’s not reasonable to insist on participants posting once a week. We will be content if bloggers send us material at their own pace, whether that’s weekly, monthly or simply whenever they feel they have something to say.

    Furthermore, in response to the arguments about the legitimacy of blogging as a genre in its own right, we want to integrate the blog more closely into the Overland project. That means we will be devoting some editorial time to blog posts, in the same way as we would to other content. [italics mine]

    They were also shifting model: copyediting and proofing content like they would with the magazine proper, rather than allowing a small group of people to log in and post whatever they liked on the site.

    A very large pool of bloggers brought on at that time — as I presume there needs to be if you want a vibrant website with high traffic but have no idea how much content you’re going to get from anyone and when it’s going to come.

    When, in early 2012, they received some money that enabled them to afford to pay for a certain amount of online content, rather than pay some people and not others, they opted for restructuring the website (another stage of the print/online integration), taking on a smaller pool of regular writers and designated reviewers, many of whom (like me) were part of the larger blogging pool, (who were, by the way, from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds) but also including the Loudspeaker, which was a space reserved for those people who weren’t regulars. All of whom would be paid per piece. Including anyone who had written for the old blog and wanted to submit. Just in case I haven’t made that clear, nobody, but nobody, was told “you can’t write for OL anymore”. (And, I might add, even the regulars went through the copyediting and revision process.)

    As you may have noticed, the blog has become further and further integrated with OL the print journal — which the editors said right back in January 2010 that they were going to do, in response from the pressure from these very same writers — to the point where it is now an online magazine, with similar editorial standards, and pieces sometimes undergo massive amounts of copyediting and proofing before the “publish” button is pushed.

    Yes, this is different to allowing bloggers to log themselves in and publish whatever they like when they like. But it’s also respecting online publishing and the website’s links with the print journal. It’s better for readers and for writers. And it’s a model that allows OL to pay everyone they publish.

    So it makes me angry that this continues to be raised as if OL have somehow been deliberately exploitative or if they haven’t “respected” those first eight bloggers who did what they liked on the site. As I see it, OL’s done their best — better, IMO, than most — in navigating the challenges of new media, while simultaneously giving as many opportunities to writers as they can. They’re not the enemy. Quit treating them like they are.

  14. On 9 March 2012 17:36, Jacinda Woodhead wrote:
    Dear Koraly

    After much consternation, Jeff and I have decided to close the Overland group blog. We feel it was great while it lasted, but it’s a hard beast to keep going, and with the number of bloggers we’ve taken on, it’s become a little unwieldy. In many ways, it feels like a separate publication to our print journal and we’ve been looking for ways to resolve that.

    We have greatly appreciated your efforts on the blog over the past couple of years. As a small token of our gratitude, we’d like to offer you a complimentary year’s subscription to Overland.

    We are going to be relaunching a new Overland site in the next few weeks. We’re aiming to make our online presence more professional, and more politically and aesthetically aligned with the journal. We received a small amount of funding from Arts Vic to hire four ongoing reviewers (Poetry: Alison Croggon and Ali Alizadeh; Fiction: Tony Birch and Jennifer Mills), and we are recruiting seven political bloggers.

    With respect
    Jacinda

    Jacinda Woodhead
    Deputy editor
    Overland magazine

    jacinda@overland.org.au

    • None of that contradicts anything I’ve said, Koraly. Please consider giving this up. I don’t see what anyone has to gain from your continued efforts to rub dirt in all our faces.

  15. Josh – I am not mixed race. Both my parents are Cypriot. Stephanie, by posting this hypocritical article you are rubbing dirt in MY face. If OL are going to put up hypocritical blog posts they cannot expect people to SHUT UP as you are so clearly demanding here. Nevertheless, I know where my place is, I will go back it, don’t worry.

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