Earlier this week I was contacted by the new editor of a magazine I’ve done a lot of work for. It was one of those emails freelancers enjoy getting because the site had been on hiatus for a while and is getting ready to relaunch. I love writing for these folks so seeing that come up in my inbox was a nice surprise. Especially as, it turns out, I have some pieces in the hopper with them and the new editor was reaching out to check that I was still happy for them to be published.
That’s a level of care and professionalism that’s so rare you sort of want to hang a neon arrow pointing to its left with HEY! EVERYONE! DO THIS! written on it. I’m not saying other people get in your way on purpose, most of the time they don’t. But there’s always a variable degree of professionalism in this industry that you have to work around. Plus this is a tough game, magazines and sites die all the time.
So I was really pleased to get that email and I wrote back. The reply was three lines long. It took three drafts. Because the last line was me asking if their pay rates had changed.
It took two drafts to work up the courage to put that down in writing.
Then, yesterday, Stephen Hull, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed’s better dressed older brother, The Huffington Post UK, said this on Radio 4’s media show:
“If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”
A few hours later, presumably when he regained consciousness and realized what he’d said, he tried rowing back from this on Twitter. Apparently they do employ a core team of paid journalists. They only don’t pay for voluntary blog contributions. In fact, hilariously the organization doubled down later in the day;
“Our bloggers are happy with this arrangement, and happy to access the platform and the huge audience it brings, without having to build, pay for, edit, moderate or maintain that platform,” the statement read. “Indeed, we are inundated with requests from people who want to blog. The proof is in the pudding: People are looking to join the party, not go home early.”
Or to put it another way, writers are underpaid and undervalued. Publications like the HuffPo know that. It’s emboldened them. And hurt all of us.
Writers, artists, inkers, letterers, colourists, you name a creative profession and odds are they’re not only horrifically underpaid but are so used to it that they just bull through. That persistence is both a vital survival tool and the yoke we all tie ourselves to because it’s the only thing we know. We take work for minimal or no pay, we take work for exposure and we bite and scrabble and kick our way to those slots because we know there are thousands of other people trying for the same place.
We don’t value ourselves. Because so many of our employers don’t value us. And because we don’t value ourselves, they have no reason to change.
The belief that blogging is somehow a lesser form of writing is like saying journalism died the moment we moved away from smoke-filled bullpens and typewriters. The idea that a billion dollar enterprise can even accept voluntary contributors without soiling themselves in shame should be offensive to the point of blasphemy. Instead, it’s standard operating procedure.
They don’t even have to hurt us anymore. We do it to ourselves. And it has to stop. Here’s how:
Work with people who appreciate you and pay you what you are worth. That’s difficult. Refuse to work with people who don’t pay you, or string you along with vague promises. That’s almost impossible. This is an industry built on panic and it’s desperately easy to grab what’s right now, not what’s right.
But there is one thing you can do: stop feeling guilty about asking for money. If you do work, you should be paid for that work. Anyone who says different is either poorer than you (Possible, this is publishing) or someone who thinks paying a professional makes their work less ‘real’.
Ask for what you’re worth.
Stop apologizing for wanting to be fairly compensated for your skill, your training, your time and your effort.
Send the damn email.