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Cheap and Cheerless October 19, 2009

Posted by markswill in Media.

Of course it was a lie to claim, as I did in my penultimate blog, that I was turning my back on a glittering career in ink-on-paper. But whilst a magazine and newspaper industry that has little to offer anyone over, ooh, 45 who isn’t already a proprietor, senior executive or celebrity columnist is clearly best abandoned, I’m still scrabbling around to find some form of work which doesn’t involve tortured syntax or juggling ad/ed ratios.

In the meantime the prospect of a bit of scribbling or some management consultancy occasionally emerges from left field, faintly rebutting what was recently and bitterly described to me as “the end of freelance hackery.” Depressingly however, all such opportunities command rates far lower than they might’ve been even just a year ago, and in some cases not at all. The validation for this being either that one is lucky to be paid something rather than nothing or, in the case where it actually is nothing, at least one’s getting one’s name about and/or gaining experience which might aid future job prospects.

According to a depressing little segment on R4’s You and Yours, thousands of graduates are settling for cleaning jobs or McDonalds’ shiftwork, so working for nowt in the trade they’ve been expensively educated to excel in might make a miserable sort of sense, but not in my kitchen. However as an old friend and colleague likes to remind me whenever the moaning begins, back in the mid-eighties when I had my own publishing company for which he was then a contractor, I used the same argument for paying pittance rates to novice moguls. (Naturally my memory is rather patchy on this).

Peer group banter aside, there is a more serious consequence of the steep reduction in rates paid to publishing freelancers and its inevitable bedfellow, staff overload, and that is the equally sharp decline in the quality of content. And thus despite their ever rising cover prices, to obviate the cost of commissioning original content even national newspapers are syndicating major features from foreign media which is of questionable interest to UK readers – the Observer being a notable culprit ­– and many specialist magazines that routinely ran distinctive, well-crafted consumerist features now merely regurgitate press releases illustrated with images provided gratis to all and sundry.

Of course this is partly if not largely a consequence of a web publishing culture where minimal revenues demand cheap content and so print media managers, at last mindful that the web may be their economic enemy rather than a value-adding ally, feel obliged to follow suit. They may also be convinced that attention spans diminished by prolonged and reductive web viewership will be happy with shorter, relatively insubstantial content on the printed page. And they may be right.

This conveniently sanctions editorial staff reductions and the employment of cheap inexperience masquerading as career opportunity (or self-aggrandisement ) which, quite apart from raising stress levels of the remaining incumbents, results in poor writing and poorer subbing. In many cases the ability to churn out endless punnery is valued more highly than crafting a good editorial argument or painting an evocative pen portrait and even major players these days are minefields of typos and senseless sentences. Which as I implied above, seems not to matter to those who master our universe and at this stage of the game it is frankly not for me to know definitively whether cheaper and cheaper content is indeed the cause of lower and lower circulations – or vice versa.

But this stage of the game is not its conclusion and my cynical belief is that if the print media capitulates to reduced attention spans and the consequent diminution in content quality that this fosters if not actually demands, then sooner or later the jig will be up for all but highly specialised journals, media aimed at an older market (which is, quite literally, dying off), and a monosyballic sleb press interested only in Victoria Beckham’s bra-buying hell.

Which perhaps matters not. Perhaps future generations won’t use media as we understand it. Perhaps everything that shapes human destinies and culture will be provided by squinting at and grunting into mobile devices which, if dystopian visions of the future are your cup of conspiracy theorising, will delight the fewer and fewer giant corporations and legislative regimes which govern our lives.

And as I vexatiously attempt to reduce my entirely irrelevant free-to-view blog down to a size that can be conveniently consumed via two scrolls of an iPhone, all I can say is ‘bring it on’.

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1. Martin Craig - October 19, 2009


Eloquently put, Mark, as ever.

Never forget that your small but loyal readership want something more than the meeja are churning out. And there’s still plenty of well argued stuff in Private Eye, for example (see page 94).

Derek Sivers (who founded CDBaby & made a mint when he sold it) is raving about a book called ‘Ignore Everybody’, by Hugh Macleod. sample quotes:

“The old ways are dead. And you need people around you who concur. That means hanging out more with the creative people, the freaks, the real visionaries.”

“Avoid the folk who play it safe. They can’t help you anymore. Their stability model no longer offers that much stability. They are extinct; they are extinction.”

“The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do from what you are not.”

“It is this red line that demarcates your sovereignty; that defines your own private creative domain. What crap you are willing to take, and what crap you’re not. What you are willing to relinquish control over, and what you aren’t. What price you are willing to pay, and what price you aren’t.”

Anyway, so what happened with Posh’s bra? You never finished that bit.

2. markswill - October 20, 2009

Being ever-wary of the sort of books displayed in airport shops for consumption by lonely sales execs en route to widget conferences in Belgrade, I have not heard of the doubtless estimable Hugh McLeod, but I see what both he and you are getting at Martin.

However, what is an “old way” ? A means of removing a cylinder liner that has worked well for forty years? A short-cut in a piece of website building software that you just learnt? I find aphorisms such as “the old ways are dead” catchy and provocative alright, but ultimately meaningless unless contextualised. Mr McLeod might yet be covering his arse by his ‘red-line’ edict, but ultimately we’re all screwed!

Posh’s bra? Well we live in morbid curiosity.

3. Martin Craig - October 20, 2009

Good points. Just testing (he lied). In fact, the most irritating conference briefings always begin with, “When you go into your groups, remember, the status quo is not an option.”

Why not?

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