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Content: King or Serf?

Ask any professional publisher what it is that makes their title special and they will always reply ‘content’. Yet, says Gill Hudson, the amount publishers pay their editorial contributors has declined so dramatically that one has to question whether they really do value content half as much as they say they do…

By Gill Hudson

Content: King or Serf?
If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

Let’s say you’re at a very senior level in the industry.

Let’s say you’re on a six-figure salary – to keep it simple we’ll assume a nice round £100,000. And lord knows you deserve it! With hours more like 5am-9pm these days and new platforms popping up before you’ve even had a chance to guesstimate the potential of the last crop, you’re feeling the pace.

And now let’s say that your boss wants to drop your salary to a not-at-all nice round £39,074.71 instead.

Well we all know where he or she can stick that one, don’t we?

Except that’s exactly the kind of deal now being offered on a regular basis to freelance writers. And it’s a deal that most of them daren’t say ‘no’ to in case their ever-diminishing trickle of paid-for work dries up completely.

Why £39,074.71? Because that’s what £100,000 was worth in 1987 – which just so happens to be when I joined my first glossy magazine, Company.

Back then, Company was paying 50p a word to contributors. Maybe that was on the slightly higher side of the going rate but it wasn’t wildly out of line (even so, I remember Germaine Greer refusing to write for us unless she got £1 for each of her perfectly chosen words. “They’d better be long ones,” I fumed.) But then we wanted good writers. Writers we could trust to spend time researching their stories, coming up with original, thought-provoking, publicity-generating ideas, tailor-made for our title and our readers. After all, if we didn’t treat them well and remunerate them fairly, they’d be off sharpening their nibs for someone else.

Taking inflation into account, the going rate for those writers should now be a shade over £1.28 a word (£2.56 for Germaine, obviously). Except it’s not. It’s nowhere near. The sad truth is that the rates we pay for content have not merely lagged behind, they have positively plummeted. A full 27 years later, 50p a word is considered to be a very good rate of pay indeed.

The slashing of editorial budgets is wreaking havoc in the freelance world.

The sad truth is that the rates we pay for content have not merely lagged behind, they have positively plummeted.

A living wage?

A journalist friend told me that, after more phone calls than the News of the World had listened in on, he’d been commissioned to write a major international story that involved travelling to the country concerned, staying at least four days to get enough in-depth material, and then producing a words and pictures package. Oh, and no expenses. That’s right. No trivial little expenses like the airfare halfway around the world and back or for somewhere to stay while he was out there. The fee was £1,400 gross. Gross indeed.

Another contact says his best year was 2006 when he billed an impressive £90,000. Last year it was just £15k. If only his mortgage payments and energy and food bills had dropped proportionately too.

In July, the NUJ condemned Quill Content (“global content creators”) for paying a pitiful £5 for 150 words. Their CEO responded by saying, “We are trying to build a financially sustainable model for producing digital content… we firmly believe that producing great content requires the best writing and editing to engage readers.” Hard to disagree with what he says – if only it were a financially sustainable model for the “best” writers and editors, too.

As another senior journalist / editor friend confirmed (in an email, tellingly, sent at 5.26am), “I’m working all hours to earn my small crust. Rates are kept low by the emergence of low-skilled but enthusiastic bloggers and part-time writers who sign up to online editorial providers, churning out SEO material for $10 per 1,000 words.” It’s affecting the quality of people available for him to commission, too. He adds: “It’s rare to find anyone who can write well enough to entrust them with complex or demanding briefs.”

Building portfolio careers

But then that’s hardly surprising when so many professional writers I can think of have responded to the dismal payment rates by building portfolio careers, restricting any writing to fast turnaround pieces requiring little research while they concentrate their considerable talents elsewhere, often outside journalism entirely. Writing reviews in exchange for a free ticket may have been fun when they first started out, but it sure doesn’t pay the bills further down the line.

Fair enough, along the way some have managed to generate new revenue streams. Peter Jukes’s crowd-sourced Twitter feed from the phone-hacking trials was a triumph. A former colleague has managed to find a reasonably generous sponsor for her blog, although she’s the first to admit that, “You could hardly call it journalism. Frankly, it’s more like marketing.” Another now gets paid by the number of eyeballs reading his stories online. Regular, if slim, pickings for him, but it drastically limits the kind of stories he can run, and does nothing to nurture a truly diverse and high-quality press.

It’s rare to find anyone who can write well enough to entrust them with complex or demanding briefs.

In-depth vs froth

I remember once spending months researching and commissioning a major campaign on women’s health. It ran across several issues and was full of cutting-edge research, practical suggestions and significant survey results. In the same issues that we launched the campaign, I also ran a tiny story about how Diana (yes, that one) was seen in the loos at Le Caprice stopping a ladder in her tights with clear nail varnish. Which story got blanket coverage – eyeballs in their millions – and which one got barely a mention? Correct. Yet behind the headlines, which one really delivered for us, with a massive and enthusiastic reader response, won us an award for campaigning journalism, identified the brand for years as a trusted source of healthcare information, and pulled in long-term advertising on the back of it? Correct again.

But then how many magazine brands have the resource to commission that kind of in-depth piece now? I asked one of my former trusty stalwarts whether she’d take on such a brief at current rates of pay. She sighed and said it would almost certainly not be worth her while. “It makes more financial sense for me to bash out 500 words on what the endlessly fascinating Pippa Middleton wore at her last outing.” Excuse me while I slump across my desk.

A recent survey by Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society revealed that, with such poor remuneration, the number of people making a living solely from writing (and they included magazine and newspaper journalists as well as authors) has dropped from 40 per cent to just 11.5 per cent. They commented: “If unchecked, this rapid decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success of our creative industries in the UK.”

Weasel words or just delusional?

This would not jam the paper in the printer quite so much if it wasn’t for the denial those creative industries appear to be in.

I looked at some of the quotes I scribbled down at this year’s PPA Re_Invented conference: “Talented people that create and curate content are at the heart of the industry”; “It’s a hard game we’re playing – you need to put everything you have into getting the best product for consumers”; “The more crowded and confusing the media market, the more important trusted brands become”; “Don’t burn the floorboards to keep warm”. The message was clear: you need a quality product if you want to survive. There was even a whole session entitled “Publishing Futures: Content is King.”

Enough of the lip service. Content? King? It’s barely even a serf.

Content has become just another commodity, where pix and words and video and blogs are all lumped together to be bought by the cubic metre and spread thinly across a variety of platforms like some sort of low-grade topsoil.

Besides, we’re all writers and photographers now, aren’t we? Hey, anyone can do this stuff. We can float our deathless prose and smartphone pix out into that great content ocean in mere moments. See? Easy! Witness the two new blogs created every second, 500 million tweets a day, 100 hours of You Tube video uploaded every minute, and something in the region of 152,000,000 blogs online.

Content has become just another commodity, where pix and words and video and blogs are all lumped together to be bought by the cubic metre.

There is another way

But how much of that brain-boggling volume of content offers something that readers and advertisers might not just skim over but actually engage with?

I clocked what Kerry Lauerman, editor in chief at until last year, wrote in a blog in 2012. “Salon (like all publications) tried to right our ship in deeply troubled recessionary waters… we laid off terrific staffers to lower our costs; we brutally pared down our expenses; we revamped staff priorities so that writers could simply produce more; we experimented in a fair amount of low-calorie aggregation… At its worst, we monitored Twitter and Google for trending topics, and dispatched an intern to cobble together our own summary.”

But then a more visionary style of management led to an entirely different approach. They slowed down, “tried to work longer on stories for greater impact, and publish fewer quick-takes that we know you can consume elsewhere… We’ve gone back to our primary mission and have been focusing on originality. And it’s working.”

In August 2010, had 5.5m uniques. By the end of the following year, that was 7m, despite publishing about a third fewer posts than before. I’ve just checked their latest stats. Over 9.6m. Well, something’s obviously still working for them, anyhow.

We’ve put the medium over the message for long enough. We can have more platforms than Clapham Junction, but if we’re not prepared to invest time and money in the kind of content that readers and advertisers will value and want to come back to, then can someone please explain to me exactly what the publishing industry is all about?