There has been a lot of discussion online this week about the fact that Mamamia, the popular Australian “mummy blog” owned by former Cosmopolitan editor Mia Freedman, doesn’t pay its contributors.
Freedman isn’t alone in this – the News Ltd/Rupert Murdoch-owned The Punch does the same, and countless other websites operate on a payment-if-we-commission-you-slash-if-you-ask-for-it-no-payment-if-you-don’t-ask basis to keep their budgets down. Still, as part of a broader pattern of non-payment, it’s disappointing: contributing to a culture of devalued writing and lower quality media.
I’ve been vocal on this blog and elsewhere about the importance of writers getting paid – and getting paid in a manner that will allow them to pay their rent (and more importantly do their research and analysis properly), which is not $50 or even $150 per article – especially when working for profitable, non-struggling media companies like Mamamia and News Ltd.
It’s something I have a vested interest in, obviously, as someone who makes a living from writing, although it’s not something that affects me directly: the vast majority of publications I work for pay properly. Not as much as I would earn as a full time staffer, but enough to sustain me working as a full-time writer for the past 2.5 years (and as a part-time writer for six years before that).
But it is something that affects younger and less seasoned writers, who are looking for a break or “exposure”, and often find that the only places that will publish them are those that pay little or nothing at all.
Writing for free isn’t always a bad thing. As Clementine Ford wrote on Twitter earlier this week (and I agree), it’s good practice: a way to hone your craft and find your voice. Back in the mid-2000s, I used to edit a website that didn’t pay its contributors (it didn’t pay me, either), and most of said contributors are now professional writers in one form or another. Hey, I’m writing for free right now.
But I’m sceptical of claims that the “exposure” you get writing for free will lead to paid work. It might, if you go above and beyond, and the work you produce is of “payable” quality, but most unpaid publications aren’t full of work of “payable” quality. When you don’t pay your contributors, the people who can get paid for their work go elsewhere. And if they don’t go elsewhere, they’re still unlikely to put in the same time and effort they would if you did pay them. (Weirdly, this principle doesn’t apply so much to the blogosphere, which is full of interesting unpaid work, but it does seem to apply to curated websites, unless they position themselves as “prestige” literary brands. Pay peanuts, get monkeys.)
Which is actually my main issue with sites like Mamamia not paying: I don’t think it leads to good content. And as an avid reader of online content, I like to have interesting, meaty, thought-provoking writing to read. But, of course, not everyone has the same taste in “interesting, meaty, thought-provoking writing.”
At first, I figured Mia didn’t pay because she doesn’t have to. She’s got people lining up around the block to contribute to Mamamia for free, and an audience that keeps on growing. Why pay for what media types consider to be “good content,” when that’s not what the audience want?
But then I got thinking more, and thought that maybe the content isn’t the point at all. It isn’t for me, when I visit Mamamia. I don’t go to Mamamia for the articles, which usually don’t tell me anything I haven’t already read somewhere else. I go for the comments; the hundreds of alternatively fascinating and infuriating micro-insights into the mind of Middle Australia. I go to Mamamia to find out what people think – or as the site’s strapline says, “what everyone’s talking about.”
Rather that viewing Mamamia as a conventional publication, it might be better viewed as an online community; a place where people don’t go for a good read, so much as they go for a good talk. The articles are just the stimulus. And rather than viewing Freedman as a conventional publisher, she might be better positioned as a facilitator.
It also puts a different spin on the notion of “exposure” that Mia refers to. Mamamia’s contributors might not be likely to launch writing careers from their work on the site (unless, as before, they are exceptions), but if you’re already an active participant in the community, there is a thrill in sharing your experiences with it; in being the person to lead the “dinner party conversation”.
None of this automatically means that Mamamia contributors shouldn’t be paid (see this article on paying citizen journalists), but it does provide a different spin on the service the website provides. It positions Freedman not as an exploitative publisher seeking out labour she doesn’t pay for, but as a facilitator providing a for-profit platform for a community to interact with one another.