Monday, 11 November 2013

Join the dance

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There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle – will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?

the Mock Turtle Song by Lewis Carroll

The free content debate flared up again today when some of the Crikey bloggers took a public stand against Crikey’s new arts blog, The Daily Review, having no contributor budget.

This debate, however, needs to be much wider than just one publisher. Crikey and The Daily Review are not the problem, the underlying assumption that writing is not valuable is the problem, and that is far bigger than any one outlet.

It’s a complicated debate for the Tribune to jump into, it could look like we’re jumping on a bandwagon full of folk throwing rocks at the competition. But we’re not. As we’ve said before, the independent media sites are not competition, they’re allies. They all work on slightly different models, offer slightly different things, a slightly different publishing perspective that appeals to different sections of the market. But as a collective, they prove to Australian media consumers that there are valuable alternatives to mainstream media. We are allies. 

Crikey is the flagship of Australian independent media. They’re the biggest, arguably the most successful, and they were the ones that proved it could be done here. All of us who followed after them owe something to Crikey for breaking that ground.

And, perhaps unfairly, this means that we hold them to a higher standard.

The truth is The Daily Review are doing what most outlets (includingThe  King's Tribune) did when we started. We relied on unpaid content, because we used to think that was the only way to build an audience and a business.

But we got that wrong. Very Wrong. It based all our businesses on the idea that written content on the internet is not valuable - a self-defeating proposition for a business selling written content online.

All media outlets still use some level of free content. Let’s not kid ourselves. The big ones like News Corp and Fairfax do it, the ABC does it and the smaller sites do it too.

But it’s not a business plan. It can’t be sustained long term.

Writers who aren’t paid to write need to sell their time in other ways to pay their rent. So their writing suffers, the quality of content publishers offer their readers deteriorates, the value of that content to the readers is diminished and the outlet’s ability to convince readers to pay for content is damaged.

Failing to pay writers devalues everything online publishers are trying to sell.

This is the house that Jack built.

BUT, the only way writers get paid is if publishers have a source of income with which to pay them. There’s only a very few ways to get that – advertising revenue, government grants, private donations or reader subscriptions.

Advertising revenue is time-consuming to generate, can play merry hell with your editorial policies and isn’t very lucrative. Government grants are few and far between, and usually have their own strings attached. Private donations are even rarer and are unlikely to be something any publication could rely on for the long term. Reader subscriptions put publishers on the merry-go-round of asking readers to pay for content they are used to getting for nothing, educating them about the costs involved in providing that content and building an audience for high quality content before you have the income to buy it.

It’s a problem that every media outlet in the world is trying to solve, with varying degrees of success.

If (and it’s still a big “if”) online publishing is going to be a successful business, everyone involved needs to understand that it is not free. This is not only about publishers committing to pay all their writers – although that would be an excellent start.

It’s also about writers committing to requiring payment for their services and understanding what they need to do to make that service valuable.

It’s about audiences committing to pay (either in cash or in supporting the advertised products on their favourite sites) for the content they consume. They are the only real source of income publishers have, without their support, no-one is ever going to be able to make online publishing work. 

I admire the Crikey bloggers for the action they’ve taken. I hope it works in the wider sense, not just in encouraging the publishing outlets to pay their writers, but in raising the debate about who pays for content, how they do it and how the readers value it.

I hope the debate reaches the audience for alternative media, because they need to know that we can't exist without them. 

And I hope all the publishing outlets support them, because doing so is good for all of us in the long run.

Everybody has to join the dance.


Note: The King’s Tribune budgets for payment to all our writers (our minimum rate is $100 for unpublished writers and unsolicited pieces; experienced writers, longer pieces and commissioned pieces get more).

Sometimes writers will offer us content for nothing. When that happens, we gratefully accept it as a donation. However, we always assume that payment will be offered and accepted.

The only Tribune contributors who are not offered payment are the editors.


Jane Gilmore

Jane Gilmore is the editor of The King's Tribune.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @JaneTribune