Update: in writing this post I’ve come up with the idea of a subs’ workshop in digital skills – if you’re familiar with the rates argument, skip to the end of the post to find out more and let me know what you think of this potential skill-sharing idea.
Today on a London freelance subs group/forum I belong to, a row broke out about sub-editor day rates. A well-known music magazine posted a temporary contract, offering a rate of £110 a day. This was followed by general admonishment as the standard day rate is around £130 (and has been unhappily stuck at this level for about a decade).
Unusually, no one spoke up in favour of the contract/rate – normally there is at least one person arguing the defence.
The outraged subs, quite rightly, made sure not to blame the poster but wanted him to communicate that the rate was unacceptably low and suggested that their response be passed up the line to the budget-holders. They also called out for other subs in the group not to accept the rate.
But it is a slim hope.
There is no longer a strong union in journalism and there is no real solidarity over freelance rates.
The bottom line is that some out-of-work freelancer probably snapped up the low-paid contract soon after posting. After all, some work is better than none at all. Food on the table over morals, and all that.
The standard response to these low-rate employment deals is: ‘If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.’ Which is probably true although it’s cold comfort in a self-employed world.
Perhaps media companies are cynically testing the water with lower rates – after all, they are not in business to play fair. Or perhaps they are dealing their own budget pressures – a classic print music magazine is surely facing both falling circulation and shrinking ad revenues.
I’m not trying to sort out the rights and wrongs of today’s rates storm. I’m just wondering where it is all leading. I find myself asking:
Do the rules of supply and demand apply anymore in a world which is undergoing a publishing revolution and a “mass-amateurisation of everything” (Shirky). And is it ultimately inevitable that there is a downward price pressure on print subs’ day rates?
Like rising and falling share prices, there seems to be an upper and lower resistance level to subbing day rates. Today the lower level was breached at £110. But like falling shares in a financial crisis, I worry that this resistance may give way to further falls. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
I don’t know the answers.
Two of the reasons I moved into web editing from sub-editing were the slump in demand for freelance print subs circa 2008 and a rise in the number of awkward situations where I was competing with my long-time subbing friends for work.
I’m happy that traditional market forces are in play for digital content work. There are currently not enough skilled people to service the new world in which everyone is a publisher. (More on that in a post I edited for a content recruiter’s blog on content growth areas and talent shortages: Europe in crisis but digital jobs remain a bright spot.)
All I know is that, when I started freelance subbing in 1989, the rate on my local paper was £65 a day. This jumped up to £110 for consumer mags in 1992, and then plateaued for many years, before rising to £130 around 2000. It’s been stuck there as a base rate ever since.
And this is a freelance rate – with no employee benefits or holiday pay (unless you’re booked on a long contract).
It’s no wonder experienced subs are leaving the profession or are desperate to re-skill and find work in the digital arena.
To this end, I’ve been thinking that there is a workshop in this that I could run to help other freelance subs make the transition. I’ve been working in digital since 2000 and went full-time in 2009. To keep up with the skills, I now train myself each week (using cake – but that’s another story).
I’m also thinking long-term how great would it be to recreate the freelance subs’ community with a connected team of skilled, reliable and readily available freelance digital editors.
If we can find a venue in London (available on a weekend as I live outside of London), and can get a group of up to five subs together, would anyone be interested in attending a low-cost half-day digital skills workshop?
What would you like to know? What are your questions? [Please email me at fionacullinan at hotmail dot com with your details so I can start a list of interested people and find out what they want to learn about.]
It would be great to hear your thoughts.