Friday, 6 December 2013

Journo's Journal: The Value of Words

Words: Graeme Roberts

On 1st October 2013 I started my career as a journalist with Basketball Magazine, a monthly print publication reporting on basketball in Britain. These posts are supposed to capture my personal thoughts as I enter the world of journalism.

As a new magazine, our team is small and for my job I have to do more than merely provide content. The biggest challenge for me is not composing articles and features, but driving interest in the work I help to produce.

The task is not helped by what I consider to be a devaluation of the media, due in no small part to the plethora of websites allowing free access to it. Fear not, the irony of this article appearing on a free blog is not lost on me. 

Am I suggesting that websites should not provide intellectual material without a financial transaction having taken place? No. But I am saying that the existence of these websites has been a major contributor to the decline of print media and it means that fewer writers are able to make a decent living from their craft.

It could be blamed on market forces, with technology a helpless accomplice, whereby consumers choose to read free material because it is free. And why wouldn't they? Who on earth chooses to pay for something when they can get the same thing free elsewhere?

The problem is, it is often not the same thing. Material that appears on a free website is free for one of two reasons: the hosting website earns a reasonable amount of revenue from advertising or other avenues, or the material is not good enough for people to consider it worth buying.

It is hard to imagine that newspapers generate more revenue this way than they did when their publications were only available in print. How else do we explain the likes of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation fighting back and charging consumers to read their digital content?

The emergence of televised news has hurt newspapers much more than magazines as there is a greater overlap of content.  But newspapers still have their place as providers of in-depth news coverage and as vehicles for the expression of expert opinion, amongst other advantages. 

I will admit that before I started my job as a journalist I thought that newspapers charging for digital content was a bad thing, idealistically believing that the media should be free and that corporate greed was the driving factor behind this move.  But as a writer, I recognise that my work has value and should not be freely available unless I choose to make it so.

As a rookie journalist, I am providing some work to a small selection of freelance clients for little or no charge. For one client, a charitable organisation, I provide free material because I support their work and have done in other capacities for a number of years.  In the case of other clients, I am prepared to take a financial hit in order to help to establish myself as a reputable writer. 

I would rather have my work out there than not, but then again I would rather be paid than not. As it stands, I am fortunate enough to be getting paid to write for a living, but professions like mine will only continue if enough people acknowledge that high quality writing - like any good art, service or product - has value and ought to be paid for.

I am not saying my work is perfect or grossly superior to the next writer, but it is of a standard which reflects the completion of a first-class honours degree in English and Creative Writing and years spent honing the craft to a professional level.

My work has only recently started to be published in print for the magazine and digitally for one of Britain's biggest local newspapers, the Manchester Evening News.  I have already had to take steps to prevent others plagiarising the work which has been published digitally.  While this may not itself be the firmest indicator of quality, it does hammer home the dangers of material being free to access for anyone with an internet connection.

We have seen the same issue arise with music and films. There was the famous Napster case spearheaded by rock band Metallica, which lost them some fans but helped to preserve a lot of musicians' incomes. There is also the more recent enforcement of laws which protect intellectual property by shutting down and blocking access to torrent sites. 

Such measures are necessary if we as a society truly value the work of our artists.  And for me, we should value our artists, because if we don't, we risk losing many of our finest minds to other fields. 

If that happens, the world will be a much duller place, but I am confident that it will not happen. The internet is still fairly young and its creases are in the process of being ironed out. 

You could argue that the emergence of digital media gives more writers an unprecedented opportunity to present their work to the world, but the drawbacks are manifold.  Such writers are likely to earn little or no money from their work, especially if the website hosting it is free to access.

Thankfully, in our Wikipedia age, businesses and consumers alike are growing increasingly aware that free art - be it music, film, writing or any other art form - is less likely to be good art.        


  1. Have to disagree. Anyone doing anything has got to be pretty good to get anyone else to appreciate their work........irrespective of whether of whether it's been paid for.......accept that paying customers will be much more demanding for value for their money.

    At the other extreme there are the absolute fortunes (largely untaxed) that high profile celebrity authors, artists and musicians get. Then there's the murdoch and daily mail type press - written by journalists with solely their own, their proprietors, and the Tories interests, in mind...... and heart.

  2. I understand why you make the argument you do, but I disagree with it and I think it's largely driven by wishful thinking on your part. Newspapers, magazines and blogs have been offering high quality writing for free for too long, the audience expect not to pay and it's near impossible for them to change their view. You didn't acknowledge so called 'Rupert Murdoch fightback' has been a failure because you can get a similar quality of articles on other newspaper websites for free.

    The general public is longer willing to pay, moving forward I think revenues are going to have to be generated through online advertising and other revenue streams that allow readers to access the site without paying. That said I think there might still be a market to sell niche publications, where no free to read alternative exists: perhaps Basketball Magazine is an example of this?

    I don't think being able to access content for free necessarily means not paying writers, writers deserve to be paid, especially as any content they write for a website will generate revenue for that website through advertisements. There are problems with websites exploiting writers for free labour which can only be countered if writers refuse to accept that their work has no value/ the 'it'll improve your portfolio' lie and demand payment (I don't think there's an chance of this happening but it'd be nice if it did).

    On the general point of art/words being better if you pay for it. What did you pay the last time you went to a gallery? What did you last pay the last time you read and article on the Guardian website or Vice or a Wikipedia article?

    1. If the Murdoch paywall has been a failure, why do the Times & Sunday Times websites have over 250 000 subscribers?

      On the final point, UK art galleries are a crude example as they are subsidised by the tax payer, so as a tax payer I did in fact pay something. I also paid last time I went to the cinema, a music concert, the theatre, bought a book etc ad nauseam. Did you not?

      As for Wikipedia, that's the ultimate example of why freely available material is dangerous, because it is open to abuse & can be edited by anybody. I'd rather pay a few pounds for reliable information than take dubious content for free.

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    3. The Times' readership has sharply decreased as a result of the paywall, and there hasn't been a huge financial pay-off. I think the paywall has been in effect for long enough for it to be termed a failure.

      I think art galleries draw a good parallel with journalism: the public has an expectation that they shouldn't have to pay to see art and it's therefore hard to get them to pay. The quality of art in a private gallery is more than likely going to be of a similar level to that of in a public gallery, so personally faced with a choice between what gallery to visit- besides for reasons of taste- I and almost everybody else would rather take the free option.

      Journalism is different to film, theatre and concerts in that it's not a collaborative medium that requires weeks of time, money, space and equipment to produce. The quality of an article is reliant almost entirely on the writer, therefore it's possible for writers to produce good-quality articles cheaply, and if they're willing to distribute them for free then it devalues everybody else.

      Wikipedia isn't dubious, it's systems of editing and moderation are reliable and because it's fee it contains more information than comparable encyclopaedia. Paying for something doesn't necessarily make it more reliable (see the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica vs Wikipedia experiment).

  3. Here's another view:

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