3 December 2011

TEXTS FOR NOTHING: On writing for free and the future of journalism

A response to 'Money: Or, speeding ahead to the cliff's edge' by Musa Okwonga

Manchester, 2001-2002. Halfway through my History degree, I've decided to stop getting stoned and plan what to do with my life. Having failed to get my band, Zinoviev Letter (seriously) off the ground, and certain that Guillaume Apollinaire, Friedrich Nietzsche and Vladimir Mayakovsky are healthy influences who will guide me towards a stable and satisfied existence, I've decided to be a Writer.

Deep down, I’d always wanted to write novels, plays, scripts and poems: Works that would last. (Back then I didn't have Lars Iyer to show me how absurd this was.) Considering the relative obscurity of my main influences, I know that this writing is unlikely to be profitable so to support myself, as well as keeping me stimulated and providing access to interesting and influential people, I plan to become a Journalist, confident that I can write well enough about books, film, music, gender, sexuality or even football to pay my bills and allow me to develop my craft.

I realise that I'm probably too fringe, politically and culturally, for most mainstream publications, but I think that if I'm not writing about direct (parliamentary) politics, I can aim to appear in The Guardian, The Independent, TimeOut, The New Statesman and elsewhere, offering a distinctive, ideologically informed perspective on culture. This, I know, will never make me rich, but that’s fine: I want for little in my adult life besides a cat and a season ticket at Carrow Road, and I think that writing in these places will guarantee a tolerable standard of living.

In case even this more modest ambition bears no fruit, I have another option: go into academia, pursuing literary or journalistic writing as a hobby. In summer 2003, I join the increasingly bloated ranks of Britain's graduates, leaving Manchester with a First Class Honours degree. Moving to Brighton for postgraduate study, I can't get Masters funding, so I go part-time: the local authority treat this as they would a woodwork class, and present me with my first Council Tax bill on my 22nd birthday. Money, I tearfully realise, will be a big problem for the foreseeable future, however privileged I may be in terms of class and access to good university education despite my state secondary school background.

I'm not too worried about my student loan (the wage required to begin repayments looks only marginally more achievable than an Olympic medal) but I'm deep into my overdraft, and need a job soon. After begging an interviewer into employing me despite his reservation that I'm "overqualified" (I can't eat my degree, after all), I become a Sales Assistant at the Co-operative Department Store, spending 28 hours a week trying to talk people into buying dishwashers, for £5.07 per hour.

After six months, a break: my one distant family member connected to any form of publishing offers me a freelance contract to write for a couple of magazines - trade rather than consumer publications, but covering art and books. This pays enough for me to scrape by on two days a week in a jewellery shop in the North Lanes and provides impetus to pitch to newspapers and magazines.

Nobody answers my emails, and the writing contract ends after a few months, putting me back into desperate financial trouble. (Taking a loan to pay for my Masters, the bank clerk tells me that "there are a lot of people out there doing useless degrees like History" before hastily backtracking.) Looking for places to pitch means that I become aware of individual journalists, especially comment journalists, with their own recognisable tone and style.

In particular, I notice someone in The Independent, just a couple of years older than me, who seems to write prolifically on any number of subjects. How, I wonder, does Johann Hari achieve such a platform whilst I'm stuck at an assurance firm, doing work which my colleague Matt (who also has a Masters, along with several others in our office – a couple of our co-workers have two) describes as "the stuff that the computer finds too boring"?

As it takes up little travel time, or physical energy, I do this job for three years, at the height of the New Labour economic boom, working 25-30 hours a week, earning the absolute bare minimum so I can spend as much time as possible writing. Giving up on academia after I twice fail to secure PhD funding - there's no way I can afford the fees even for part-time study, which would take at least six years - I decide to focus on building a profile as an author-journalist, turning my Masters thesis on Rayner Heppenstall into a book and write features and reviews for Filmwaves, and other avant-garde film magazines. Besides the nominal fee of £50 for 3000 word features for Filmwaves (which always takes an age to arrive), this is all unpaid, so I do more and more overtime in my horrible job, and less and less time pursuing my dream.

As I turn 25, I realise that the frustration of the office, perpetual financial difficulties and worries about whether my goals are achievable have had a catastrophic effect on my mental health. I plead a counsellor, initially provided by my employer, into accepting £30 per session (well below her usual rate) so I can carry on addressing my depression and anxiety. Despite my struggle to pay even this, it helps, before a change in family circumstances allows me to finally escape the assurance firm and get a qualification that will help me to launch a more edifying career. I can't afford a PhD, but I can afford the NCTJ Diploma in Magazine Journalism.

Here, I learn how better to compose and target freelance pitches, and that for all my interests, what I really want to write about is transgenderism: my own, and the social issues that affect trans people. I send an article about my entry into the Miss Transgender pageant to Brighton's LGBT newspaper, one80news, and the editor loves it, giving me a regular column. This is unpaid, but I accept this as nobody is making much out of the publication; I can write about whatever I like as long as it's trans-related, and I'm working towards my political aim of making sure that the T in LGBT does not remain forgotten or marginalised (albeit in a very small publication) whilst boosting my portfolio.

I do internships as well: one with The London Magazine, for whom I commission some authors I really like (Nicholas Mosley, Trevor Hoyle, Luke Kennard and others), and one with The Independent, which proves useless until the Friday, where my irritated correction of a staff writer who thinks Johnny Marr was in New Order so impresses the section editor that I’m able to talk her into commissioning me. I also see why nobody replies to my emails – the editor who has enough free time to look after the ‘workies’ has a thousand unread in her Inbox when I go to ask a question, and I begin to understand why so many rely on people they know, or are recommended, without a PA to sift through all the sludge.

After I begin transitioning in spring 2009, my portfolio is enough to secure the Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian – once I’d befriended a sub-editor who could personally recommend me to the Life & Style section, compensating for the fact that I wasn’t in a position to make these contacts myself, no longer being in a position to work in London unpaid (sleeping on people’s sofas as I lived in Brighton). The blog helped change the attitude of one of the world's leading left-liberal publications towards trans people and culture, and (hopefully) challenged some preconceptions of the thousands who read it. (For more on how the column came about and what it achieved, click here.)

Finally, I thought, I've cracked it. I'd been advised to have a range of subjects but to have a niche - sorted - and not only had I secured a regular slot on the world's second most widely read newspaper website, but it seemed to have gone well, being numerous messages to thank me for writing it and eventually being longlisted for the Orwell Prize. (I'd seen other blogs go less well.) The expected barrage of abuse - "How did this get in The Guardian? Did you get paid for this?" - had not come.

The Guardian did pay for the column - but not enough to give up or even reduce my hours at my day job, which by now was as full-time Team Administrator at my local Primary Care Trust. However frequently my colleagues expressed their astonishment that I was doing their filing and photocopying, I felt extremely grateful that they had taken me on, not least because they paid and treated me far better than had my private sector roles.

Having sacrificed any sort of career, my CV was a jarring mix of dead-end temp jobs and the occasional impressive-looking publication, and I could not imagine who would employ me on its strength – the journalism looked dilettantish and the administrative roles had gone nowhere in seven years. In my late twenties, I had to pursue journalism, and freelancing at that. While there was an obvious public interest in my subject, I had to continue carving out my own space, as no specific publications or obvious salaried positions existed for a writer specialising in transgenderism.

As the column continued, I got the occasional paid commission for publications wanting something trans-related, so I went part-time in my job, reasonably confident that I could build on this momentum. Then, commissions stopped coming to me - my regular slot in The Guardian meant that, unlike before, people replied to my emails, sometimes wanting to commission but unable to find funds, but any further paid work fell tantalisingly out of reach. To keep busy and convince myself that I was working towards long-term financial security, I blogged on a number of other things - football, film and literature in particular – but the anxiety got worse with each passing month that I failed to meet my targets, and the budget freeze introduced after Andrew Lansley’s NHS ‘reforms’ meant that I could not even go back to full-time hours at work.

Increasingly, I was asked to speak on trans subjects, often in prestigious spaces: BBC Radio, EHRC panels, Queer Question Time or Westminster Skeptics. I always did it, nearly always for free (barring my travel expenses), because I knew it would bring my ideas to a wider audience and, more importantly, open positive dialogues on transgenderism in new places.

This took an awful lot of time and energy, giving me even less to devote to pitching, making contacts or finding out what editors wanted, let alone writing. It posed an awkward dilemma: did I spend time travelling and talking, networking in the hope of making contacts who might commission articles for money, or did I carry on writing for free in order to maintain a profile in an industry where those who do not keep their voices raised are swiftly forgotten?

By the time I moved to London in October 2011, tired of the expensive commuting, lack of job prospects and aware of the need to network, I'd done almost everything I planned for my journalism ten years ago. Through the Guardian column, which I could see making a difference to the media landscape for trans people, I met lots of writers whom I really like, some of whom I've admired for a years, and had some experiences that money really couldn't buy. (Facilitating a conversation between Rayner Heppenstall's daughter Lindy and George Orwell's adopted son, Richard Blair, who hadn't met since the Forties, remains a personal favourite, but there have been many others.)

I’ve been to some fascinating places and held some important conversations: after expressing surprise at being invited to the Stonewall Equality Lecture, given how Stonewall and trans activists have clashed, I spoke to people about how Stonewall works with trans organisations and why they should publicise this more; and I felt extremely proud to be invited to the House of Commons for the recent Diversity Role Models launch.

There, I met a Labour MP, who asked me what I did. I told her that I wrote for The Guardian and The New Statesman – online, not (yet) in print – as I dreamt of doing ten years ago. She seemed impressed with my explanation of why I write about trans issues in these spaces, in the way I do, and said: “You get plenty of work, right?”

“I’m signing on,” I told her. “I spent this afternoon in Tower Hamlets Housing Benefit Office.”

“No!” she said, genuinely shocked and appalled that someone like me should be in such financial dire straits at this point in my life. There’s this perception amongst the wider public (which this MP, who genuinely wanted to help me, may have shared as she did not seem, like some commenters on online articles, to distrust and despise and distrust journalists) that anyone who appears in a well-known publication is doing really well, but that’s often not the case. Now, we’re not just writing for small, minority-interest publications in provincial towns purely for the promise of exposure – we’re doing it for the websites, and even the print editions of long-established newsstand fixtures, too. Where does that "exposure" lead us?

The recent recession and the print industry’s inability to find a viable financial model in the Internet age have knocked the money out of journalism, but the Labour policy of getting 50% of school-leavers into university without any prospects for relevant, remunerative employment once they graduated (with little understanding of the correlation between scarcity and value) left me with little choice but to pursue the ever more fraught freelance route. (Incidentally, I’ve paid back £150 of my student loan, which I took out just a few years after their introduction, since 2003.)

What of the future? As far as I'm concerned, I’m surprisingly optimistic: my current plan is to write a book on Britain’s transgender history, which, ten years ago, I would have seen as resolutely uncommercial, but which I now consider the most plausible route to regular paid work with the publications I originally targeted as an undergraduate - and, more importantly, a hugely worthwhile project in its own right. Although I’ve never really fancied being a comment journalist – after the Guardian column started and I thought about what to do next, I looked at the pressures on emerging writers like Laurie Penny and the unravelling career of Johann Hari, despite all that educational and vocational privileges, and decided it wasn’t for me - the demand for writers who will bring heavy traffic to websites funded mainly by advertising may lead me to reconsider.

If the book proves unprofitable, well, I’ve found a temporary job which has allowed me to afford that long-desired season ticket at Carrow Road, at least for the rest of the Premier League campaign, and my new housemate and I are eagerly looking through websites to see which rescue cat we’d most like to home. (I want two: Guillaume and Vladimir.) After spending so long in administrative work, I can at least find temp posts that are reasonably salaried, even if they offer little satisfaction or stimulation, no security and no prospects. That should make it easier to write for my favourite publications, knowing I’ll get an audience even if I don’t ever get the money to lift me out of filing and photocopying.

In the future, people will need absolute privilege to even think about going into journalism: you already need to be able to work unpaid, in London, for an indefinite length of time to secure a ‘fast’ route into the profession, but now there’s no guarantee of pay at the end of it, or if you slog away for years writing in your spare time like I did. It’s becoming ever harder to see a career ladder, unless you want to write for the only newspaper that still pays well – The Daily Mail. I sincerely doubt, for numerous reasons, that the Mail would ever ask me, and nor would I approach them: as a socialist and a transsexual woman, I couldn’t and I wouldn’t, and besides, my readership would immediately disown me if I ever voluntarily appeared in their pages. The case would be the same, I suspect, for the vast majority of the emerging author-journalists whom I admire.

So the only people likely to make a living out of journalism are those with views amenable to the right-wing press, whose lowest common denominator positions sell better and attract more funding from organisations that prefer for their principles and practices to go unchallenged in the mainstream media. The rest of us will need ever more resolve to continue writing in our spare time, and to stay sane, aware that our intellectual and creative development is being stifled by whatever jobs we manage to get – if, in this climate, we can even do that – and to try to remember that the less money there is to pay us, the more desperately our voices need to remain raised.