When I finished journalism school in 2013 I was advised by the program coordinator to freelance. I’d always liked the idea of working like this. You come up with an interesting idea, pitch it and after that your ideas are delivered to the world. Of course becoming a freelancer wasn’t that easy. You need to pay your dues. That’s a euphemism that means work for little to no money.
So I submitted my work to different online publications and most of the time they were happy to publish me. Twice my work went up before I was advised about it. I wasn’t paid but I was getting the ‘exposure’ that ‘emerging writers’ need. So many articles have been written on how exposure doesn’t pay the bills. You need money for that. And so, broke and starving, I cooked up a plan that I thought would get me paid.
Photo by Alex Minchin
James was a cute guy I knew who was also an aspiring actor. He’d just had a guest part the successful web series Whatever This Is and was ripe for some exposure of his own. I’d interviewed James for another publication but they’d surreptitiously rejected the video on the basis that he was either too funny or not self-consciously cool enough #NewYork. Determined, I approached him to see if he’d be interested in being interviewed for the Sydney gay beach android publication DNA Magazine. He was down.
Now I had my subject all I needed to do was sell it. Within a day DNA Magazine editor Andrew Creagh identified James as a sellable piece of twink meat and accepted my pitch. The format of the DNA Magazine interview is a standard Q&A that leaves no room for insight about the subject. Creagh suggested inane questions such as do you wear boxers or briefs and who is your celebrity crush? James and I workshopped what would be appropriate for the interview and after some editing we I a slab of text we were happy with.
I sent it to Andrew and he responded immediately. I’d delivered what he wanted. I was happy. DNA Magazine has a massive circulation. This meant not only would people see my work but also I’d have some cash in my pocket to pay bills and eat for the month. I replied immediately thanking the editor and asking him to advise me when it would run and what the invoicing procedure was. I received no reply.
Two weeks later James checked in to see when the interview was going to run. I wrote to Andrew again and received no reply, again. I sought advice only to discover that this is what editors do. They ignore you because they have a million better things to do. It’s not unexpected but still I had a weird feeling. I referred it to the women who taught my course, and they humoured me with advice about how to horse whisper an editor.
I wrote to Andrew again about a month after our previous correspondence asking if they were still going to run the piece, otherwise I would shop it to another publication. I received an immediate response that he was keen to run it and that the issue had gone to the printers. That was some consolation.
However, I couldn’t help but think of the false economy of my situation. I’d provided a service that’s going to contribute to the publication’s revenue, yet my remuneration still hadn’t been addressed. I’d submitted to a high circulation magazine because I am a professional who should be paid accordingly, right?
Days later I wandered into a newsagent to take another look at DNA Magazine. Flipping through it I came across a 1-page ad calling for submissions from the general public. There were four outlines detailing the kind of submissions DNA Magazine wanted to receive and down the bottom of the page the fine print that read ‘submissions will not be paid.’
I recognise that a website with limited budgets may not be in a position to pay contributors. However when a publication with a global circulation decides to cash in on the availability of free content by deciding to employ the tactic, without disclosure, that’s theft. Not to mention that the quality of a publication created entirely unpaid amateurs is bound to be low, and ergo yet another factor that’s undermining journalism as a whole.
According to acclaimed contentious freelance journalist Clem Bastow, only non profit publications can legitimately expect to not pay their contributors, but that’s an ethical paradigm that corporate players like DNA Magazine don’t always uphold. “It’s becoming more prevalent given there’s an eager workforce who’ll undercut the market if it means they’ll get the gig,” she says.
Effectively DNA Magazine is taking advantage of this surplus by exploiting contributors to secure advertising revenue. The publication expects professionals to supply words to print purely for the honour of being featured in DNA Magazine and then leaves them to survive on food stamps.
It’s a model that reflects a disturbing trend. When glossies decide to source free content from anyone who cares to submit, it begs the question what the consumer is paying for, and if it’s worth it. In light of all the free content that’s available online, print publications should be supplying quality in order to remain competitive instead of squeezing whoever is prepared to give up their work for free.
The takeaway is freelance writers need to request the terms of service in writing prior to submitting their work. Ensure that communications are succinct throughout the transaction and if they aren’t, take your work and shop it elsewhere. Don’t assume that corporate media entities will be ethical or transparent because it’s the reputable thing to do because those values aren’t necessarily at play anymore.
Finally, boycott any publication that doesn’t pay their contributors, such as DNA Magazine or Huffington Post. These outlets are perpetuating the problem by running a business model at the expense of professional writers. If they don’t value their content, then why should you?
Disclaimer: James Bailey Fletcher did not collaborate on this post and it does not reflect his views on being published in DNA magazine.