A write-off

Emerging Writers' Festival anthology

THREE make-up artists. Four producers clutching clipboards. Five cameramen. I’m sitting in the studio of SBS quiz show Letters and Numbers, trying to count how many people are working behind the scenes. The glare from the coloured stage lights casts everything in magenta and cyan shadows, like a 3D image before you put the glasses on. It’s hard to see, but I can spot at least 15 crew members.

When the episode goes to air, viewers will see only five people. They’ll be seated around a semi-circular desk against a blue background. One of the regular panellists will be David Astle, playwright, novelist and long-time freelance journo. Right now the cameras are rolling and he’s flicking through a massive Macquarie Dictionary propped up in front of him. He’s my first profile subject.

‘Borzoi,’ he says. ‘A Russian Wolfhound. Very tall, long nose, extremely quick.’ Remove the Russian reference and Astle could be describing himself. Lean and lofty, he has shaggy, salt-and-pepper hair, a rapid-fire wit and a dominant proboscis. In this, I’m sure he can weather the insult. This is a man who once described an Italian chef as ‘built like a gnocchi ball’.

Back in his dressing room, Astle tells me a lot of ‘unseen labour’ goes into making each episode. ‘People see 25 minutes of slick entertainment, but that’s at least an hour on the floor getting everything right, and Lord knows how many hours spent rehearsing.’ It’s like feature writing, I say. Most of the hard work goes on behind the scenes. ‘Certainly there are echoes between the two trades,’ he answers.

For this article, I’ve decided to put that hidden labour in plain view. I’m going to investigate the financial pitfalls of freelance journalism while jotting down expenses incurred along the way. Like the SBS show, it’s an exercise in both letters and numbers. On the return trip from the Elsternwick studio I clock up my first figure.

Train ticket: $7.40

Next stop? Profile subject number two: Claire Halliday. We plan to meet at Glenfern Writers’ Studio near Balaclava station in Melbourne’s south-east.

Train ticket: $3.70

Lunch on the run (fries): $3.95

But when I arrive, she’s a no-show. I call her mobile.

Phone call: $3.06

‘I’m so sorry,’ she says, her voice distorted through the shitty speakers of my second-hand Vodafone. ‘There’s been an accident. There was a garbage truck. And a dog. I think I’ve broken my toe.’ I trudge back to the station.

Train ticket: $3.70

And return the next week.

Train ticket: $3.70

This time the interview goes off without a hitch.

In case you’re wondering, here are Halliday’s relevant numbers: 2:30, 13, 50, 800, 400. The first is the time she went to bed last night – 2:30am. It’s now nine in the morning and she’s sipping a latte, feeling frazzled. The second is how long she’s been freelancing – 13 years and counting. The third is what she got from The Sunday Age when she started – 50c a word. She says the rate hasn’t changed, which brings us to the fourth and fifth numbers. She has an 800-word news story out this weekend. ‘I’ll get paid $400 for that,’ she says. ‘I would have gotten paid $400 for it 13 years ago.’

Thirteen years. That’s an awful lot of Sundays. At the risk of sounding like an Economist article, over that time inflation has increased the cost of goods and services by about 40 percent. To keep up, Halliday’s $400 fee in 1997 should have become about $560 in 2010. But it’s stayed the same, so in real terms she’s taken a massive pay cut.

But enough with the stats. We’re word people, right? And Halliday has the perfect four-letter response to online editors who offer payment in exposure: ‘Fuck!’ She looks exasperated. ‘I’m 41 years old. I’m not a work experience kid. I don’t need a link to my website. I want you to pay me for my words.’

The problem is that even if she does get paid fairly for her words, editors are buying them in smaller increments. Astle says Fairfax’s glossy insert Sunday Life used to commission 3000-word stories, but 1500 is now the norm. Halliday also wrote for Sunday Life and has some interesting things to say on the subject. But I’ve only got 1500 words myself, so her quotes have become another casualty of downsizing. Such is journalism in the era of short attention spans.

On to profile subject number three: Meg Mundell.

Phone call: $2.76

I arrange to meet Mundell outside the TAB near her apartment. This time I’m the one who’s running late, so I call to make sure she’s still available.

Phone call: $2.17

She comes bounding down the street, a slim woman in tight black jeans and a red woollen jumper, her wavy blonde hair catching the sun. She’s been cooped up all day, so we do the interview sitting on the wooden decking outside her flat. I ask how long she’s been freelancing.

‘I’m no good at numbers,’ she says. ‘But it was roughly after I’d come to Australia.’ Originally from New Zealand, Mundell has lived in Oz for about 12 years, giving her a half-ocker, half-Kiwi twang. I’m tempted to trick her into saying ‘666’ just to see which accent wins out. But we’ve agreed to forgo the figures – including devilish word rates – so we move onto the subject of stories.

Mundell would like to do more social justice investigative journalism but doesn’t think it’s viable at current pay levels. As rates have remained unchanged, she’s resorted to other forms of writing to cover the rent. ‘I’ve had to do more arts-based stories like previews, pick up copywriting work, speechwriting, a ghostwriting job,’ she says, rolling her eyes.

Mundell blames the moribund print media for stagnating word rates. But there might be another cause too. ‘Freelancers are a kind of splinter group,’ she explains. ‘Lots of us are buddies, but we don’t have a strong collective voice to argue for fair rates.’

It’s a key point. Freelancers can’t do much about the slow rot of print journalism, but they can band together for better conditions. And, for the first time, they can take collective action. In May 2010, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) authorised the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) to negotiate with selected publishers on behalf of freelancers. Previously, such a collective negotiation could have breached competitive provisions in the Trade Practices Act. MEAA is now seeking to negotiate ‘reasonable terms’ with News Ltd, Fairfax Media, ACP and Pacific Magazines.

I call author, academic and fellow freelancer Margaret Simons to find out what it all means.

Phone call: $5.11

I resort to a cliché (I am a journalist, after all). With few freelance members on the books, I ask, is MEAA a ‘toothless tiger’?

Simons explains that the union represents not only freelancers, but also the editors who commission them. ‘There is the potential for some negotiating muscle,’ she says. ‘If you had a large group of the country’s best freelancers taking a united stand, then you are going to find the publishers struggling for copy – quite quickly I think.’

What’s dangerous, she argues, is young journalists who write for free on a regular basis. Over the long term, giving content away could undermine the whole profession. ‘It really makes it unsustainable,’ she says.

I hang up, throbbing with guilt. I’ve written for free – once because I thought the column paid, and a few other times because I was desperate for a byline. And I’m only getting $75 for this article. After expenses, I’m practically doing it free. So why bother?

Quiz mastermind Astle has the answer. One of the games on the SBS show involves making a word from nine random letters. FREELANCE has nine letters. Can Astle rearrange them into a phrase that sums up the profession?

‘A “LEAN FARCE” would be nice,’ he says. ‘It does feel like that sometimes.’

Later, a word with different letters comes to Astle’s mind. Freelancing, he says, is about OPPORTUNITY. ‘Opportunity to meet remarkable people. Opportunity to do extraordinary things. Opportunity to articulate the stories of people who entrusted their tales to you.’

Although freelancing doesn’t always pay well, it offers other rewards. In Astle’s case, freelancing has taken him to a TV job. ‘The dough is part of the equation, and a very important part. But don’t forget all the other pronumerals when you come to the final total.’

Thanks for the cue.

Other train trips and phone calls: $12.60

Article fee $75.00
Printing $9.23
Transport $29.60
Phone calls $14.60
Food $3.95
Profit $17.62

Word rate (if I’d written this article without trains, phones and paper): $0.05

Word rate (in the real world): $0.01175

1.1 cents per word. Looks like I missed the jackpot this round. But don’t worry, folks. No freelancer goes home empty-handed. Tonight’s consolation prize is a grab bag of novel experiences. And for this writer at least, that’s reason enough to play the game.

Roll credits.

This article appears in The Reader, out now.