And still they come – stories of ridiculously tiny fees being offered by big companies to established and valued professionals.

Here is one sent to me just last week, from ace photographer Ian Bradshaw, now living in Pennyslvania. Bradders was contacted by Getty Images, a large photographic agency, in relation to a job for the Mail on Sunday’s YOU magazine. The job was in Pittsburgh, a round trip of more than 400 miles and Bradders was asked to add up his expenses for undertaking this assignment. Bradders worked out that petrol (gas) and other essential expenses would come to a minimum of $328.24, and relayed this information to Getty.

He takes up the story:

Nothing was heard until a phone call at 7am one morning from a lad in the London office: ‘Now about this job for YOU magazine that you are doing tomorrow…’

I asked what the fees were. ‘Oh we’ve negotiated a good fee from YOU, $455 all in.’ 

‘So this means the Mail on Sunday is paying $126.16 for a day’s shoot and over 400 mile drive [London to Edinburgh]?’ I enquired.

‘Yes isn’t it great?’ came the enthusiastic reply.

‘They were my big clients in the UK’ I observed.

‘So what time can we expect the pictures?’ asked the lad.

Guess what the answer was, readers. 

Yes that’s right. ‘I don’t get out of bed for that sort of money son, now fuck off!’

And if you convert those dollars into sterling - $1 currently equals £0.65 - you will discover that the actual fee offered by the Mail on Sunday –a big, popular newspaper and generally considered one of the better payers – comes to just £82, according to my trusty currency converter. And this is less than an electrician’s apprentice would charge for a day’s work.

Can it be true? Apparently so.   And this is not an isolated example, far from it.

Here’s another, from travel writer David Baird:

Anything is worth a try to help freelancers earn a crust. Even so, a one-day strike?

I can almost hear the fat cats chuckling in their boardrooms or over their expense-account lunches.

They know there is an abysmal lack of solidarity among hacks.

That came home to me when, for a while, I was a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. It’s a useful institution with some good friends and fine journalists among its members. But, perhaps inevitably, it also attracts a number of shameless freeloaders who have no compunction in undermining their colleagues. They call themselves travel writers but, in fact, are press trip junkies. They must have income from other sources as they take advantage of whatever travel freebies are available and in return churn out articles without requiring payment. In this situation, what hope do bona fide writers have of earning a decent living?

A decent living? Ho, ho, ho! Now based in Spain, I was recently offered the princely sum of 30 euros for a story by one of the freebie publications on the Costas. They were quite offended when I suggested that this was a bad joke. But then there are always a bunch of "freelances" around who will accept any terms just to get their names in print — and editors who will take advantage.

And another, this time anonymous: 

We’re all doomed. I’m working at the moment in a local newspaper group with four very bright kiddie-reporters who work for next to nothing (less than the secretary) but still believe in journalism. I tell them to get out before it’s too late but they won’t listen and complain that I take the wind out of their sails. The fact is, I’m right, unfortunately. My national-paper subbing shifts pay less than they did 20 years ago, probably because the suits have been convinced (by whom?) that subs are unnecessary and should be wiped out ASAP… and it’s happening. This makes the idea of a strike a very bad joke, as you say. Nobody is fighting for us and even if they were, the publishers wouldn’t give a toss.

Meanwhile, as the word spreads, I keep being asked: but haven’t freelance contributors always been treated badly? What’s new?

Well, yes. Horrific stories of late payment, no payment or being completely ignored or shamelessly ripped off by editors and publishers probably go back 200 years or more.  Any glamour business exploits eager hopefuls, and attracts shysters and charlatans, as well as the talented and the visionaries who genuinely want to make a difference.  It’s a murky old world with many traps for the unwary, and that is the name of the game. Plus, it has never been easy to forge a living in the essentially rough and tumble world of journalism, as those of us who have tried to survive in it know only too well.

But two aspects are new: one is that rates and fees are being systematically slashed, across the board, and for all comers included seasoned and valued professionals; and the other is the massive salaries now being paid to those at the top.  Although publishing companies cite falling circulations and declining advertising revenue to justify their constant rate-cutting, the fact that so many editors and CEOs now earn over £1 million a year means that money is still being made somewhere.

The difference between the salaries of those at the top and the poor sods at entry level has never been greater.  

We know that circulations are falling, so why is this? My own explanation is that there is now a serious mismatch between appearance and content. Thanks to computer technology, images are sharper and newspapers and magazines now look better than ever. Layouts are more eye-catching and publications appear colourful, professional, slick and inviting.

If you compare this with 1970s publications, you’ll see what I mean.

But peer a little closer and you realize it’s all cosmetic surgery. Because fees and staffing levels are being ruthlessly cut all the time, there is hardly anything worth reading. Ever more publications now try to secure free, or very cheap, content, with the result that we see exactly the same celebrity pictures and read exactly the same stories everywhere.  

This downward trend will continue until publishing conglomerates understand two simple truths:

  1. Publications which have to keep cutting costs don’t deserve to survive;
  2. Blogging and online mouthing off by amateurs is NOT journalism. Real journalism takes talent, skill, perseverance, courage, guts, practice and passion. These are qualities which should be prized and encouraged, and they don’t come cheap.
Gentlemen Ranters web site