Journalism’s last stand

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Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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I've written regularly here about the 'acting for free' (or very low, profit-share) model that sustains a lot of so-called professional theatre. And just the other day I mentioned an album that many musical performers appeared on that also did so for free (and were then asked to buy tickets to support the concert that resulted – unless they were actually appearing in it, which may or may not have been for free).

But just so you don't feel so alone, that seems to be a model everywhere now. Michael Riedel recently reported running into his old pal Broadway actress Jackie Hoffman on the subway, and they exchanged pleasantries.

“I’ve just come from my swim,” I say, arching an eyebrow, Roger Moore-like.

“I’ve just come from my MRI,” she deadpans.

“Are you going to an audition?” I ask.

“Are there any auditions anymore?”

Not like the old days, I say, when Times Square was full of actors making the rounds.

“Yes. Now we make the rounds to do podcasts. In fact, I’m off to do yet another free podcast! Bye!”

And it's the same thing with a lot of journalism about the arts in turn (but not, I hasten to add, here on The Stage, where I am paid to write this!). The entire Huffington Post business model is based on the fact that writers will forgo a fee for a column for the visibility that it seemingly affords to their work.

While the actors giving away their talent for free to CD producers do so to altruistically support new writing but also promote their own visibility, I suppose free journalism is the same. That's all very well, but visibility doesn't help pay the bills. So I was distressed when another friend – a former London arts reporter who is now based in New York – recently capitulated and started writing free blogs for the HuffPo.  (His reply to me was 'Who pays you to tweet?" But in that case, it only increases my personal visibility, and I'm not directly helping anyone to make money in return for my efforts).

HuffPo seems to win either way; its generating of original content like his is entirely gratis. But meanwhile, the site – which earned its founder a whopping $315m when it was bought by AOL – has long been in the business of something else: aggregating other people's content. (This column often does so, too, of course, as I'm doing right now, but I try to also provide my own take on it in turn).

Bill Keller of the New York Times recently wrote a brilliant feature on the whole aggregation business, and said:

"Aggregation” can mean smart people sharing their reading lists, plugging one another into the bounty of the information universe. It kind of describes what I do as an editor. But too often it amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.

The queen of aggregation is, of course, Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.

Referring to the sale of the site to AOL, he went on to say,

It was portrayed as a sign that AOL is moving into the business of creating stuff — what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call “content.” Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company’s announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.

But if everybody is an aggregator, nobody will be left to make real stuff to aggregate. Huffington has therefore hired a small stable of experienced journalists, including a few from here, to produce original journalism about business and politics.

That's a step in the right direction; but as Keller also points out,

I can’t decide whether serious journalism is the kind of thing that lures an audience to a site like The Huffington Post, or if that’s like hiring a top chef to fancy up the menu at Hooters. But if serious journalism is about to enjoy a renaissance, I can only rejoice. Gee, maybe we can even get people to pay for it.

I'm probably trying to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted, but I wish respected journalists wouldn't give their work away free for other people to make money with. If you're going to work for free, rather work for yourself via your own personal website. Who knows, they may even start making money one day. Or AOL might buy you, too.

And it requires journalists to make a stand for themselves when they are asked to work for free. Just the other day, a friend linked me to a blog by another freelance journalist Nate Thayer, writing about an exchange he'd had with the global editor of the respected Atlantic Magazine, asking to "repurpose" one of his articles on their website.

He asks after word length, deadlines and fees. He's told:

"Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month."

As he replies,

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts… Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them.

The rest of the exchange is even more compelling about the ongoing challenges writers like Nate face.

7 Comments

  1. The £18m Summly sale is another sign that aggregating the content is where the money is at. But what happens when the content is so poorly financed it’s no longer worth aggregating?

  2. Mark this is a really interesting piece and you are not flogging a dead horse, what you are doing is noticing the very much alive horse in the stable and thinking of shutting the door before it bolts.

    The thing is, how is it I can read this column for free via a link on Twitter? As a long-time employee of The Times, I admit to trepidation when we first introduced a pay wall. Now the Tel has followed suit, though mistakenly in my view left the blogs outside.
    Our pay wall works, as does that on the FT and as do, spectacularly, the invitation only subscription blogs at Reuters. I can read you for nothing here at the Stage and the Express. How can employers pay people if their work is being given away for free? It is astounding, the assumption that professional standard work such as yours on the Internet should be available for free.

    I will tell you a little of my interest in theatre. Until our son decided he wanted to act and sing and dance before all else, before even sleep and his beloved computer games, I knew precious little about theatre. All on his own, with no help from us, he found himself his ideal school, Sylvia Young, by talking to his peer group. He has been in two productions already at 11, Dolls House and Mister Tom, both up for Oliviers, and has just been cast in a third equally eminent, casting to be announced soon. These auditions, hours in front of acute eyed and sharp eared panels, he did all on his own. He tells us as little as possible of his professional life. As a journalist, I am dying of curiosity of course. So where do I turn to to find out more about this amazing world of dreams and magic that he as made his own? To The Stage of course, and Spotlight, and all the other wonderfully free websites. I believe I am one of thousand of not-pushy parents in the UK with kids like ours, kids making it of their own will, who would happily subscribe to specialist publications such as The Stage if there was an all in one app or something similar to The Times, which still included my beloved print of course. That might exist, but why should I seek it out when I can get most of what I need for free!

    The Telegraph has finally woken up. The Stage and Spotlight and Screenterrier and the like are sitting on subscription goldmines. I admit it is a bit harder for the Express in terms of charging for news, but I believe courage is needed and that people will pay for quality material. Our experience at The Times proves that. Today I pledge to go out and purchase a print subscription to The Stage, to show willing, and look forward to the day when that will also grant me exclusive, pay walled online access with nothing beyond a few teasers and selected articles outside the wall.

  3. Mark,

    you’re not flogging a dead horse, rather ringing the alarm bells, hopefully some will listen. In a previous article of yours I decided to not go down route of writing for free for others – rather to continue writing my own blog and building that up. As at least that is “mine” and that has been the best decision I’ve made as I’ve had opportunities open up I doubt would have occurred if I’d been wasting my time writing under someone elses banner for free.

    As you say;
    “If you’re going to work for free, rather work for yourself via your own personal website. Who knows, they may even start making money one day. Or AOL might buy you, too.”

    If AOL buy me out I’ll give you some commission :)

  4. You miss a key point – where do all these people writing for their own websites find readers? Blogs are like a***holes everyone has one, but who reads em and how many are any good at attracting a readership broader than the writer’s own mates and wider circle. It’s like saying self publishing will wipe out book publishers, it won’t. Publishers provide a much needed filter against avalanches of content.

    I agree that (richer) people will always pay for quality content so the high end publications will thrive inside a paywall, and they already are, but what about the future of more generalist newspapers and magazines? Also, dare I say it, how much of the content of current UK newspapers is worth paying for in the first place? Very little. And if you talk to folk in their 20s I’m afraid the horse has already bolted a long time ago. They wouldn’t dream of paying for “content” and laugh at me for buying dead trees.

    Newspapers and tv are behind the curve in developing business models that will keep them from extinction. The music biz nearly disappeared until they realised they had to convince people to pay for downloads and they’ve only convinced the law abiding oldies. Again though, lots and lots of young people don’t “get” that concept either.

    HuffPo will get away with it as long as people give them their content for free but I think what’s more likely to happen is that the only stuff worth reading will end up behind paywalls in any case. Good writing like yours isn’t finished yet.

  5. A respected journalist friend of mine, when asked if he’ll write for free, always tells the editor “I’ll do my job for free if you do yours” which tends to settle the matter.

    As a theatre maker I must confess that I often work for free. It’s the only way I can get the chance to direct the plays I’m passionate about with actors who excite me. I subsidise this by directing much less enriching projects which pay well. Alas, if I didn’t direct plays like Measure for Measure for free I doubt a paid opportunity to do so would arise.

  6. We’re handloom weavers in the 19th Century! Will need another career within a decade. Sigh..

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