Occasionally an email arrives, offering some work. Sometimes it’s a one-off piece, sometimes it’s a book (out now in all good bookshops, well, some bookshops, possibly). Sometimes it’s someone asking me to work for free. You can probably guess which I prefer.
Often I’m asked to contribute a paragraph for use in a wider piece – or interviewed on the subject for the same reason – on the basis that I’m quoted as an expert of some sort, or a chump who happens to be both available and able to feign wisdom. I’ve been on the radio talking about cars, cricket, beer, Liverpool – and quite a few other things (most recently how social media has affected my sex life). Examples of the former include a piece in the Guardian by Jon Henley about Twitter and a radio interview I recently did from the toilets of the Royal Court Theatre.
I don’t expect payment for these things – they take five minutes and don’t really require any effort on my part. I can talk off the top of my head and am not served content guidelines nor deadlines. So when, on a Sunday night at 10.30pm and neck-deep in work, I get an email from a guy at the London Evening Standard asking me for 200 words on the Christmas John Lewis advert by 9am the following day, the first question I’m likely to ask is ‘how much’?
At the time I queried whether he was after quote fodder or commissioning me to write an article, pointing out that while I blog, I work as a journalist. The intended implication being that I wouldn’t be writing anything for free.
Josh, for that is his name, replied that he wasn’t in search of a ‘piece’ – just a ‘comment’. In fairness he apologised for approaching me, having assumed I work in advertising. Though he went on to say that he was still keen to hear my views. Noting that Josh had mentioned on his initial email that he was writing “from Letters at the Evening Standard” I sought more clarification – was he basically asking me to write an article for no fee that would appear on the letters page, as if I’d penned an Annoyed Of Hartlepool missive?
Yes, came the reply from Josh, who went on to add that a variety of celebrities, including Myleene Klass, had contributed letter in the past. “No thanks Josh,” I replied, assuming he’d move on to another blogger. I was a non-plussed but would have left it there, were it not for his reply:
“Okay, sorry we’re not good enough!”
This annoyed me. The implication was, surely, that I was getting a bit above my station to refuse to write an article for free when such luminaries as Myleene had consented. So I sent this back:
I’m not being funny Josh but that’s quite a strange passive-aggressive little snark considering you just asked a journalist to write you an article for nothing. You might not have known that initially, which is fair enough, but you did after my first reply.
Those people you listed are not journalists and even if they do make their living from writing I don’t suppose that Myleene Klass or Nick Hornby are knocking out 800 words on cars for fleet managers as we speak. Simply put they probably don’t need the money. Had you asked Myleene to come and do a little solo gig in the office, free of charge, and had she consented I might have seen the relevance.
I Googled Josh. There are about half a dozen blogs floating about detailing varying degree and forms of annoyance with the way he approached them. Six months ago, Josh accidentally asked a respected Australian film critic to write a letter for him.
The critic, Lynden Barber, took the story to his newspaper, The Australian, who wrote it up in the media section, detailing an exchange that seemed to get pretty snippy and including Barber’s thoughts on the affair. Josh subsequently sent an apology to Barber and the media correspondent, which included the following line:
[A]s an occasional writer myself I understand the irritation felt by freelancers when asked to contribute articles for free.
The notion of proactively seeking content from non-professionals – and clearly professionals from time-to-time – seems fairly dubious on a few levels to me. That they’re presented as letters, thereby invoking some idea of amateurism and presumably a desire to contribute without expectation of recompense, doesn’t really cut it with me.
If I wanted to write a letter to the Evening Standard I wouldn’t wait for an invitation, set of writer’s guidelines and a deadline to adhere to. If they’re not receiving sufficient letters to pan out a letters page, I’d suggest they don’t have a letters page. Why not replace it with a DPS sourcing some decent writing from good bloggers? Making profits of a million quid or so a year and owned by a billionaire I’m sure they’ve got a few spare pennies knocking around.
Either way, if you’re soliciting for informed, authoritative, well-written content within editorial parameters it’s work that could – and should – be done by journalists.
Josh – if you’re reading – I’ll happily write you 200 words on the subject, for publication in the Standard. At my usual rate. In the meantime, consider this an open letter you can have for nothing.