I Don’t Write for Free

Writing is a wonderful profession. You have the privilege of telling stories and of looking at the world from an unusual perspective. You are a craftsman, using words to give shape to ideas and concepts. You learn about a variety of topics and meet a fascinating cross-section of people. But anyone who writes will tell you they haven’t entered the profession to get rich.

Because of the vocational nature of writing and other creative professions, it can be easy for writers to fall into the trap of working for nothing, or for very little. Yet they are as well qualified and experienced as other professionals, such as doctors or accountants, who think nothing of charging full whack for their services. And because writing is so compettiive, many writers feel that working for nothing will get them in the door.

Unfortunately, this means that the people and organisations who need the services and writers are less likely to put value on the work that writers do. They’ll cut corners and get their cousin Freddie to do the writing for them, even though Freddie has not yet learned how to use the apostrophe. Or they think that writing is something they can easily do themselves, only to find that somehow the time isn’t available.

Media organisations are now also cutting corners when it comes to paying journalists. Some charge as little as 5c a word. The situation is not helped by the fact that in Ireland, the Competition Authority does not allow freelance writers to set their own rates, in case it creates a cartel situation. The trend for outsourcing writing services to India is also a scourge. Not only does it undercut writers in the West who need to make a living, but the low rates also exploit the Indian copywriters, who deserve a fair wage for their efforts.

This all means that the price writers charge for their work is constantly being undermined. And it also compromises the quality of writing. It doesn’t pay writers to invest time in producing fresh, original work. Because the organisations can get away with paying very little for writing, they place no value on it.

Writers need to recognise their own worth and be unafraid to state that worth to the people and organisations that employ them. I find dealing with money toe-curlingly embarrassing. But if I bury my head in the sand, I’ll be eroding my own worth.

Since I started my business, I’ve been doing a lot of digging around to find out what rates are considered acceptable. I’ve taken the plunge and consulted with my competitors. I’ve also used the British NUJ rates as a guide. From my research, I’ve found that calculating my rate by the hour rather than the word is a good yardstick and ensures I’ll get a fair rate for the labour I put in. I’ve also discovered the wisdom of quoting a slightly higher rate and bargaining down to the rate I initially envisages.

And over the past couple of years, I’ve quietly decided I won’t do any more freebies, unless the cause is dear to my heart or the article is for an organisation where nobody is paid. There is a lot of pressure on business people to give freebies and discounts during the recession, but a writer doesn’t need to do that to offer value for money. Many can charge a fair price anyway because they have few overheads.

Once a writer establishes their worth in their own eyes, the organisations they work with will recognise it too. They can weed out organisations which exploit them and only work with ones that recognise the value of what they do. Though this may mean a reduction of clients for a while, they’ll end up with a portfolio of clients who will offer them well-paid, regular work. This applies to other creative discipliens too. Writing brings rich rewards. It’s about time those rewards were financial as well as creative.

Citizen Journalism: The Role of the Public in the Media

A sick Nigerian child no longer risks being deported. Encyclopedia Britannia has been forced to admit to an error in its Irish entry. The Government is seriously considering a vote on legislation to ban head shops, shops which sell legal highs. All thanks to callers to Liveline.

Liveline, the lunchtime radio call-in show hosted by Joe Duffy, is now becoming the place where stories are broken. Whether you consider it a whinge-fest or a barometer of the country’s mood, there’s no denying that it’s a powerful platform for the public. It’s indicative of a trend that’s crept into all aspects of the media, where the public play as much of a part in driving the news agenda as the journalists themselves.

There has been a lot of talk about citizen journalism; public accounts of major events on the web. Magazines also often feature true-life stories from their readers. But ti’s on radio that this trend is most apparent. Huge chunks of talk radio shows are now devoted to readers’ texts, from the Fixit Friday remedy slot on the Ray D’Arcy show to the humorous musings of Pope Marmalade the Third on Newstalk’s Moncrieff show. Even Morning Ireland, that bastion of impartiality, is encouraging people to contribute to their website.

This has led to a democratisation of the media. People have a chance to address  issues that are of most concern to them. Often, they have perspectives that the media would otherwise not be aware of. For example, nobody would have  known about the Third-World conditions that cystic fibrosis patients are forced to endure were it not for the eloquent polemics from Orla Tinsley, who has first-hand experience of the effects of these condition.

Media organisations no longer have the same level of budget to invest in front-line journalism, so stories from the public are now used to close the gap. On the flipside, this means that these organisations now have a scapegoat for not investing proper money in true investigative journalism. Reliance on the public for stories also removes the veil of impartiality and allows mass hysteria to build up, without the counterweight of expert opinion to bring balance. For example, the newspapers are filled with first person accounts of crimes. While the crime rate is definitely on the rise, statistics consistently show that the Irish crime rate is lower than that of our British and European neighbours. But because of these hysterical public accounts, people think it is higher than it actually is.

The public role in the media is now permanent. To make the most of it, an integrated approach is required, a mix of public and expert opinion. A typical example is in health articles, where the expertise of doctors is interspersed with a first-hand account from a person affected by an illness or condition. Public involvement gives life to tired stories, but the overarching views of experts deepens our understanding of an issue and helps us to form a balanced view. Used wisely, public inolvement in the media gives all of us a chance to let our voices to be heard.