How academics are killing freelancers

Thou woldest han oure labour al for noght.

The hye god, that al this world hath wrough

Seith that the workman worthy is his hyre.

Geoffrey Chaucer: The Summoner’s Tale.

What fools we journalists are to study the father of English literature and not harken to his ‘little treatise.’ Now we harvest the sowings.

The journos ‘let go’ by the ABC and other media might ponder freelancing along with the 3,000 who’ve lost jobs this decade past. Can they put food in their school kids’ lunchboxes by staying with their trade? Unlikely.

How about that long-promised book? Possible if you’re M B Turnbull or M L Trump but the one I’m still hawking is knocking on the doors of deskless offices, unplugged cables dangling from ceilings.

Much of what you now read in the media is unpaid work – and that includes this rant. My excuse is that Pearls & Irritations is a not-for-profit maintained by people of repute, concerned public discourse is dominated by philistines shouting louder and reasoning less.

Some journos have survived downsizing: The smarties got out before being told, swapping newsrooms for sandstones. Respected names like Michelle Grattan and Peter Manning saw the press was facing a tsunami of change and debt, so headed to the uplands of tertiary education and the safety of stipends.

A few turned from loss to boss. After leaving the big chair at The Age in 2008, Andrew Jaspan hired sub-editors to clean and sharpen turgid academic papers for an independent non-profit free website. The Conversation was a bold idea that’s thrived, thanks to a claimed 20,000 donors.

Unfortunately, Jaspan’s gown-to-town deal is killing the hopes of those who think chasing the story to witness and tell is what our trade once did well. We’re following lamplighters and town criers into extinction.

Newspapers, the ABC and this website cherry-pick The Conversation’s Creative Commons copy from screen-bound scholars.

The Conversation is blessing many academics. Rather than being published in some obscure quarterly with a double-digit readership, they can have their work read by thousands. In the free-fire zones of academe, it’s be cited or blighted.

(After 14 years with the University of Technology Sydney, business academic Dr Lucy Zhao was fired for not meeting research publication targets. She won her unfair dismissal claim through the Fair Work Commission this year.)

The West Australian (aka Harvey Norman Times) is where I started as a cadet and left long ago. Last year it sought to republish a recent story. The features editor wrote: “I’m afraid I don’t have a budget to offer you payment!’ The exclamation mark was his.

I replied: “Journos not getting paid? We should have become plumbers.”

The tabloid is owned by Seven West Media and like other traditional media is in strife. The company’s shares are now worth 12 cents. In 2007 they traded at AUD 13.57. It’s chaired by Kerry Stokes with a reported net worth of AUD 4.7 billion.

Presumably, he pays the plumbers who unblock the toilets in his Dalkeith mansion. Cheating on tradies is an Australian cultural crime. Unfortunately, people who tap keyboards rather than pipes are excluded.

Parsimony isn’t parochial. The Diplomat is a prestigious international online current affairs magazine started in Australia, now in Washington. It’s sometimes bought my words.

Now it includes a question to contributors: Do you want to be paid? Tick ‘Yes’ and guess the result.

The ABC reportedly buys freelance copy, but don’t expect a reply to your inquiry. Likewise with The Saturday Paper, The Guardian and almost all the rest. They’ve pinched Centrelink’s ICS (Ignore Client System) minus the lie: ‘Your call is important to us’.

The Web is full of traps for the newly jobless, baited with fairytales of thousands paying to read aggregations of lifted stories peppered with the author’s thoughts, what used to be called ‘vanity publishing’. There are e-mail list platforms which claim to help freelancers thrive.

Here’s one spiel: ‘Our top writers make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by doing the work they care about most and serving their communities of readers.’ Added are examples of newsletters on parenting, music and psychedelics supposedly maintained by subs.

For narrowcasters delivering inside info, or expert at decoding government decisions on issues like superannuation, there may be a market.

If you write about alleged celebrities’ wardrobe malfunctions or gush about travel, some may contribute to what one critic called ‘digital tip-jar’ payments.

Though not for news and current affairs when there’s peak quality journalism for a pittance. Just 25 US cents a week will get the New York Times in your e-mail box. The latest Washington Post offer is $29 a year.

The average annual wage for Ozzie journos is AUD 54,000. Anyone expecting to make even a tenth freelancing is fluttering in the land where cloud cuckoos dwell. Better off finding a red-brick offering a wrench-ready STEM subject, government subsidised.

If you’ve spent your career handling leaks, then plumbing should be just right.

print

Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

Please keep your comments short and sharp and avoid entering links. For questions regarding our comment system please click here.
(Please note that we are unable to post comments on your behalf.)