I wanted to write about why I’m sometimes willing to write for free, even though writing is how I make a living. I wanted to, but no one wanted to pay me for it. Badum-ching.
The first editor I pitched the idea to never replied. Perhaps she thought nobody would want to read the article, or maybe she was too busy to say no to yet another freelancer begging in her mailbox for the dregs of her discretionary budget. Whatever the reason, I was grateful she invoked the editor’s right to remain silent instead of how the next editor replied. Us freelancers are more familiar with the silence than the hostility of editor numero due.
“If you are willing to write for free,” he wrote, “why should I pay you?”
That was it. One line. No salutation. No kind regards. The “I” in italics. It bristled with such voluble annoyance that I cried mercy on behalf of the keyboard he punched the reply into.
“Because,” I wrote back, “it’ll be mirthful and funny and brimming with irony and gravitas, like this pitch. But on a serious note, I don’t always write for free. Only on occasions that warrant it. This isn’t one of those occasions.”
He too invoked the hallowed editor’s silence after that. No doubt he was in a huff because people like me, professional or otherwise writers who write for free, stand accused of attempted murder by our peers.
The media industry. The livelihoods of every professional writer out there. The education of little Timmy, whose Papa has been forced to take a second job serving pineapple Frios at the Vida after his employer cut his hours and plugged the content hole with a pack of young writers so hungry for a foot in the door that they’re willing to forego getting paid.
Of course in hindsight I realise now that I should have started here, at The Media Online. This was among the first publications to carry anything I’d ever written. This venerable publication paid for that honour, as it has this time around. Badum-ching?
So, yes, I started writing professionally with little experience and no formal qualifications, yet commanded a respectable rate based on being recommended by the right people (thanks, Raymond) and my incredible ability to bullshit, which in some circles is called marketing. Since then finding a market for the things I want to write about, once I figured out what those things were, has proven a mission.
Cue the Ms World pageant music if you must, but gee golly, nothing gets my neurons firing and my keyboard humming quite like writing about something I care about. And the things I care about might not always draw a crowd because they don’t easily led themselves to levity as they often involve aspects of our society that we’d rather not speak about, let alone pay to read about.
The other day I wanted to write about civic responsibility and how it came to be that an unjust law entered the statute books on our watch. That law restricted the ability of an elderly, poor, blind guitarist to earn his living by telling him he could only busk at his usual corner for a maximum of 75 minutes a day. Because of that law, the guitarist, Lunga Nono, was assaulted by Cape Town law enforcement after he rightly refused to abide by its unjust provisions.
However, as editorial budgets are tight and the story didn’t fit the content style of any publication I could think of, I wrote it anyway, with no expectation of being paid. Because I care, damnit.
In my research I discovered that the said law didn’t actually exist. The hours had come from a 1993 Cape Town council policy document, which, according to experts I spoke to, was not legally enforcible. Yet the City had enforced it nonetheless and assaulted an elderly blind guy in the process.
I posted the article on my personal blog and my blog on Mail & Guardian Thought Leader. A timely initiative called Local Government Action, which provides resources to help communities and organisations make local government work for them, asked to republish it on their blog, as did the brilliant new fact-checking website Africa Check. I would have let them republish it for free, but Africa Check offered to pay me and I gratefully accepted. It wasn’t much, but it was way more than the grand sum of zero rand and zero cents I expected to earn from the hours I’d spent researching, running around and writing the piece.
Bloody Norah, you’re probably thinking, he’s pulling a humblebrag on us!
Well…I am. But it’s a humblebrag for cause. Allow.
Because amid the grieving over shrinking editorial budgets, plummeting ad revenue and the murderous rampage of writers who write for free, something more insidious is destroying the media industry. Worse still is that it is doing so unbeknown to many.
Some of the stories and ideas we should be reading about, the ones that shake us to the core and drive us to action, hopefully for the betterment of our society, are going unwritten. Short attention spans and comfort zones mean that no significant market exists for them. Editors are unwilling to commission them and the self-respecting writers who could write them well, the ones who refuse to get out of bed for anything less than X rand per word, won’t write them.
I get the issues. I really do. It’s 2013, we can control rats with our minds and complexity is a thing. If I had a choice, I too would holster my keyboard until someone was willing to meet my get-out-of-bed price. But that would mean holstering too all the things that got me started and keep me writing.
Osiame Molefe is a freelance writer working in Cape Town. Follow him on Twitter @TOMolefe.