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.