Sticking a label on something can work if the organisation that grants the right to use the mark possesses a strong reputation for ethical behaviour. This is the logic behind how the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the journalists' union, has recently begun to offer freelance journalists a type of accreditation as to ethical standards of conduct. To gain access to the mark, which can be placed, for example, on a website or business card, the journalist has to demonstrate an understanding of certain principles that, the MEAA argues, go to the heart of the profession. There is also training involved.
Recent cutbacks in staffing levels at large metropolitan mastheads in Australia have meant more journalists potentially looking to work as freelancers. This new reality has prompted the MEAA's move. But freelancers have always been involved with the MEAA, which also publishes a table of recommended pay rates that are supposed to enable freelancers to earn at the same level as journalists who are employed at the large companies. So the rates are set at a certain level and are reviewed periodically to allow for inflation. From recollection, the per-word rate published by the MEAA is around 90 cents per word.
But freelance journalists will rarely reach that target in their negotiations with publishers. The closest I ever got to that rate was for a story I had commissioned with an industry magazine, which was a type of PR, and it earned me 70 cents per word. Most of my work paid much less than that. When I started out I worked for free. A lot of journalists do this in order to gain momentum and to establish a reputation. I gave it up when I started to feel exploited. But I kept on taking 50 cents per word or even less, from reputable magazines, because it was regular work. In the end the failure of my journalistic practice to adequately compensate me for doing what I loved to do contributed to my ultimate failure: I stopped pitching story ideas to magazine editors and turned to blogging.
Many freelance journalists compensate for low rates by taking work other than magazine commissions, for example through teaching, media relations training, ghost-writing, or public relations work. But this is not what they would prefer to do. What they want to do is to establish solid relationships with editors and write excellent stories that will make a real difference in the world. This attitude should be acknowledged in the community. To reward freelancers a fair rate label could be set up by the MEAA that conforming publishers would be allowed to display on their websites. The label would show readers that commissioned stories were compensated adequately, according to MEAA recommendations. In this way, as well as asking freelancers to demonstrate that they can conduct themselves in an ethical manner, the union can ask publishers to operate fairly and ethically. Readers would reward them with their patronage, just as they reward retailers by buying premium-price fair trade coffee or non-polluting laundry detergent.