Friday, 24 October 2014

On Not Being Paid - Jo Carroll

My first degree is in history and politics - and I dreamed of
Authors Electric Jo Carroll
becoming a journalist. That would be me, I thought, rubbing shoulders with the great and the greedy in the House of Commons and sitting in a garret writing about them.

Except I failed the interview. This was in the early 1970s, when there was no training for interviews, and no post mortem, so I've no idea why. I was certainly a bit shaken - there was almost full employment for graduates at the time and it was hard to turn my attention elsewhere. But events took over, as they do, and I drifted into social work and child protection - and am proud of everything I achieved so cannot suggest those years were anything other than satisfying.

But now our local online newspaper has asked me to be a columnist!

Oh what fun it is! All that adolescent enthusiasm is still there. I know, it's the council and not the MPs I'm having a pop at. And I've got a real house and not a garret. But the feelers for stories are out. No longer can I simply whinge over coffee about the infantile behaviour of our town councillors - I can write about them. No more will I grumble about the lack of opportunity for young people in the town (dominated, as it is, by perms and cardigans) - I can write about it. I know it won't change the world, but it might just tweak a corner of it.

Does it feel like turning the clock back? I suppose so, just a little. More than that, it feels like coming full circle. Because now I draw on my determination to make life better for young people, and my research skills - once used for ferreting out the truth about abuse. 

And no, I'm not paid. 

That's where I hear a collective intake of breath. Writing for free - surely that's against our mutual understanding about valuing our writing. We matter. Our writing matters. We should be paid for it.

Before you gang up and beat me with birch twigs, I'll tell you why I've agreed to do it.

Nobody working on the newspaper is paid. Not the editor, not the news reporters, not the sports reporters, not the columnists. It's a community project, undertaken for the benefit of the town. We make money from advertisers, which pays for the upkeep of the site; any that is left over goes into local projects such as the food bank and support for young families. 

I'm retired. I have a pension - enough to live on. And I'm healthy. I am in a position to 'give back.' But I can't face working in a charity shop or helping with meals-on-wheels. I felt I was underpaid for my skills when I was working and am not going to give them away for free now. But this - I can do this; it is my small contribution to the town that has contained me and my family for so long.

So - in my shoes, would you have agreed to write a column, or would you stick to your writerly guns and refused to work for free?


Lee said...

I may be the lone voice here, and have been told that I'm a touch naive, but I value my independence above almost all things -- and certainly above the few pence selling my writing would bring.

Bill Kirton said...

I don't want to sound pious, Jo (although I probably will), but it seems to me that contributing in the way you're doing and, I hope, seeing positive results from it, is pretty rewarding in itself.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I'm very keen on getting paid - and increasingly so - but not for community projects. If nobody is getting paid and expenses are being covered, I'd do it too. I occasionally write for an online magazine for much the same reason. (But if it was turned into a money making outfit, I'd withdraw my services pronto!) I do freebies for small local book groups and so on - but I won't work for big commercial organisations for nothing. Especially those where they tell you that there's 'no money in the budget to pay the writer' but plenty in the budget to pay the mega stars. I don't even think writers should be working in schools for nothing. In that case, I tend to agree with Harlan Ellison! Horses for courses. Your community newspaper sounds excellent.

Dennis Hamley said...

Everybody is right here. I'd do it too, Jo, so good on you.

Lee said...

Catherine, if we agree that stories are important to mutual understanding, and I think we do, then surely they could also be viewed in the context of a community project.

(Of course, I don't mean to imply that anything I write is of greater social benefit than a food bank, say, or work with emigrants.)

All my admiration, Jo!

Chris Longmuir said...

We share a common background Jo. I've been through the social work/criminal justice/child protection mill, although I ended up in fostering and adoption. I think what you are doing is admirable, and we all do free stints at various times, although not all of them are community based. I do talks etc to various groups and if I do get paid for some of them, I look on that as a bonus. I also go to Crimefest every year and there is no payment for sitting on panels etc, but I look at that as promotion and an aid to selling books. However, I'm still waiting for payment from Foyles for this year's supply of books and that has got right up my nose. Next year I'll be carting them myself and if I get a Foyle's order they can whistle for the books! In the meantime I'm thinking - small claims court - why should such a big bookseller get off with it when I have no problem with smaller book shops! - Gripe finished!

Lydia Bennet said...

you don't mention the name of the newspaper Jo or give a link - perhaps you could give them a plug!

I'd do what you are doing, it's a community project and I often work for nothing in various ways for libraries, small reading groups, charities, etc, though if the events/commissions are funded, and everyone else is being paid, and tickets are being sold, then I'd expect to be paid too.
Chris, I've heard that some bookshops will 'delay' payments for a long time, no doubt to make their cash flow look better, I suggest a solicitor's letter referring to small claims court might hurry them up! Festival bookshops are often a vexed question and weird things can happen to your books...

Nick Green said...

No-one can ever insist on being paid, for anything. But if the market dynamics are such that people can't get what they need without paying for it, they will be forced by circumstance to pay.

Community work is in any case a separate issue, as it comes under charitable giving.

Reb MacRath said...

Do it, for a while at least, as a form of Paying it Forward. And keep at it for as long as the feeling is there. It may lead eventually to a paid position elsewhere. But, from what you've written, that's not your main motivation right now. Cheers and admiration.

Lee said...

Nick, precisely. Writing for others can also be charitable giving. Or simply giving, which is good enough for me.

'Forced by circumstances to pay' may not always be the best way for a society to function. Taking a cue from philosopher Michael Sandel, I tend to agree that there are moral limits to markets. To use his terminology, is art one of those aspects of life where nonmarket norms should apply?

This is the sort of question I ask myself when I read Reb's comment about 'pay it forward'. Not everything we do has be to commodified.

Reb MacRath said...

Lee, what does paying it forward have to do with commodification? I run two blogs and write for this one without a thought in my head about filthy lucre. My knickers, I assure you, are just as clean as yours. Peace.

JO said...

Thank you all for your support - I'd expected more antagonism.

And the site is Marlborough News Online: and if you scroll down the 'columnists' you'll find my opinions on Wiltshire's 'Older People's Fun Day!'

Lee said...

Reb, paying it forward implies thinking in market terms.

There's really no need for a defensive reaction. I feel it's important to question and discuss underlying assumptions, my own included.

(And in case, how do you know that my knickers are clean? The most successful secret life is the one that is -- well, secret!)