Going round and coming round

My fond hope as a newspaperman was always that I and my colleagues might find time to engage in ‘proper’ writing – novels, poetry, plays and the like.

The idea that journalists are artists-in-waiting and wedded to hack work in order simply to stay alive is, of course, part-myth. There have always been astronomically more writers who regard journalism as their main and honourable activity and the midnight-oil-fired stuff of their own choosing rarely comes into it.

At risk of suggesting to my editors and elevated line managers that my interest in ‘other writing’ was distracting me from my paid-for labours (always a possibility in a cynical profession) I was forever sending ‘literary’ work to magazines of dim and solemn provenance. One didn’t expect to get paid: publication, or being plucked from a weekly cataract of submissions, was all. I mean, it wasn’t journalism.

Unless the magazine, however small its readership, boasted influence and renown, there were few advantages in being published other than to be able to enlarge one’s CV for a book publisher. A book was the goal. In those days, books were bound, card-and-paper objects and book publishing a shop closed to all but the meritorious. Thousands of hopefuls milled about the entrance to the premises but few were admitted.

Journalism in many ways resembled it. Far from offering a plurality of views it gave, relatively speaking, a restricted one. Only full-time professionals had access to print. I supported the NUJ’s objection to non-union labour and on the hiring of ‘butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers’ as part-time – and untrained – reporters.

But the stance was uncomfortable. Some god-awful newspaper drama critic was often the sole voice in a circulation area that must have included at least a hundred people more capable of saying something intelligent on the subject. Journalists express anger and resentment but are deaf to laughter heading in their direction. If only we’d known what was coming, for the joke is still on us.

What was coming was plurality run amok. Acceptances and rejections from print magazines still arrive in equal quantities but increasing numbers of those magazines have web versions and may soon ditch their print personae in favour of digital ones.

On the tide is riding a multitude of websites that have never known a print manifestation and with it a populous swarm of contributors ranging from the semi-literate to the over-qualified. Most of these sites don’t pay for contributions and rely on contributors who don’t want to be paid if it’s a choice between that and the kudos of being able to be read by the rest of the world instantly.

However, many are literate and informative and this applies to those old obscure journals as well as modern newspapers and magazines. Who would not welcome them? Newspapers can no longer claim to be employing experts as of right because sites with more entertaining and better-written contributions are competing with them. The circulation wars are really history and with their passing will hopefully go the dead-hand of so much that was backward about print journalism. Reporting at a national and international level will still be a full-time activity but lower down the scale it will be done as a hobby for no pay by intelligent people who can write.

Even book-publishing is easier – if the author is prepared to work at promoting and selling as unpaid labour. So-called ‘vanity’ publishing is no longer a maligned business.

But as a leisurely freelancer after a full-time career in daily newspapers, I find that the expectation of many online publishers that one should do something for nothing or next-to-nothing has a familiar echo. It’s not only big publishing groups that wonder about the future of online advertising. In the digital world it’s often an excuse for being unable to pay the writers (‘We’re trying to establish ourselves.’). Well, fancy that!



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