Jon Harris, the chairman of the National Association of Press Agencies and managing director of Manchester-based news agency Cavendish Press, says “timewarp” fees paid by the UK’s national newspapers and warns the industry will suffer if they are not urgently reviewed.
It may have taken 40 years but the strike by Reach journalists has illustrated how much the hard-working reporters and photographers who bring us so many nuggets of newspaper gold each day are so undervalued by publishers.
But compared to today’s newspaper and website journalists toiling for wages more akin to the 20th century, agencies and freelance journalists have to survive on what is effectively almost Dickensian pay – despite filing quality content to their tight-fisted customers on a daily basis.
Agency proprietors and freelances may have done well financially in the 1960s and 1970s, in the golden era of traditional journalism, but times have changed and they cannot depend on advertisers every day like newspapers and websites do.
They have to survive on their wits using their guile and great newshound skills to land scoops to earn a living, and despite having to run their operations on a shoestring they are hugely prolific in their work too.
Indeed, one agency recently claimed (with some justification) it was responsible for 25% of output in the national press.
Yet since the days even before Rupert Murdoch crushed the print unions back in 1986, fees for freelances and agencies have remained stagnant.
Despite us being regularly hailed by senior newspaper execs as “the unsung heroes” and the “lifeblood” of a daily news list, these “timewarp” rates have barely increased since the 1980s and have even been cut despite efforts from the National Association of Press Agencies to give its reporters a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.
The stark reality is that the publishers’ mantra of citing “challenging trading conditions” whenever we offer our begging bowl to them is utter nonsense.
National newspapers will typically charge advertisers £30,000 to take out a full-page advert in their publications but the money they are prepared to pay contributors for a page lead represents a maximum of just 0.3% of what the publishers themselves pocket in advertising.
Despite its owner Reach recording revenue in 2021 of £615.8m, the Daily Mirror, which in July ran a front-page splash bemoaning Britain’s “fat cats and their poorly paid employees”, will pay agencies and freelances just £120 for a page lead, while column sticks fetch a mere £35-£60.
Mirror Online still pays agencies £60 – a rate agreed in 2012 when the site first started despite the unfulfilled promise of a review after two years.
Sadly, Reach national titles are pretty much the worst offenders when it comes to paying agencies and freelances. The Daily Express, which reduced its picture rates in 2006 during the era of Richard Desmond, has now cut payments to photographers by up to 75% while the Daily Star, which pays as little as £10 for a story (nib), will often enrage embattled agency proprietors by claiming copy they filed is “free” to use.
The phrase “squeezing blood out of a stone” often comes to mind when doing credit control.
Currently, all Reach titles are now claiming to be introducing a “uniform” set of rates – but they are by stealth, ensuring all are commensurate with the lowest, which were set by each paper prior to the Trinity Mirror buyout of Express Newspapers in 2018.
At Murdoch’s The Sun – whose owner is worth $19bn – page leads will get agencies just £110, although bean counters there have recently issued an edict reducing rates to £100 for “small” page leads. No pay increase has been introduced for a “large” page lead.
Column sticks at The Sun fetch between £35 and £50, while live pictures range from the bizarre figure of £78.75 to £250 in the unlikely event a snapper might get a double-page spread.
The Sun Online, which recently boasted of almost 30 million readers in the UK, pays agencies just £25 for a story and as little as £10 a picture, and will even void payment if a different version appears in the paper.
Broadsheets like Sir Fred Barclay's Telegraph and Murdoch's Times are even worse.
Telegraph Media Group, which recorded pre-tax profits of £29.6m in May, pays only £110 for a page lead, while The Times pays £117. Column sticks can be as little as £20. Day commissions for both are just £110.
Despite reporting digital subscription revenues growing by 40% to £44.1m, Telegraph Online pays only £25 for a story (but only as long as it hasn't appeared in the paper) and £25 for a picture. The Times Online pays nothing.
The mighty Daily Mail, which proudly boasts of "investing in journalism", is indeed head and shoulders above the others when it comes to paying freelances and agencies. But even their £150 for a page lead is still more akin to the 1990s than the present day. Picture payments range from £75-£160.
The pay for agency and freelance reporters is so poor now – a window cleaner working eight hours a day could make up to £160 using a shammy leather while a freelance reporter or an agency can expect to earn as little as £100 covering a complex fraud case in court, doing a death knock or fronting up a violent criminal on his doorstep. And that sometimes includes the expense of petrol, phones and parking.
Even my own daughter once made more money doing a night's babysitting than I did covering a murder trial.
Sadly, freelances have become victims not only of corporate greed but also out of a fear their work will be overlooked if we dare rock the boat and complain. But the reality is if they are good enough, their stuff will always, always, always be used.
The blockade on increasing fees to freelances and agencies cannot go on.
If publishers continue to freeze and slash rates in the way they have done over the past four decades, agencies will no longer be able to operate, and the paltry pay will finally kill off the already "starving" freelance.
There needs to be an immediate root and branch review of freelance rates at publishers, otherwise publishers and their readers will lose out on a wealth of stories and pictures. And sadly this could affect us all.
Picture: Jon Harris
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