You don't know what you've got till it's gone

“IS THERE MUCH more of this stuff?” A familiar whining put-down from
a copy-taker, and any freelance reporter from the ’60s or ’70s who
denies hearing these words must have wiped the mental scars from their

It was calculated to intimidate young hacks, but I never
recall one who replied: “Oh, in that case, I won’t bother…” If anything
it strengthened our resolve to file every dot and comma. What else did
they expect?

We have come a long way since those distant days
when the headcounts in traditional Fleet Street newsrooms ranged up
beyond five hundred.

Or have we?

Whenever freelances get
together the talk inevitably turns to money. And when freelances share
a doorstep or a pint with staffers their complaints about underpayment
or double-dealing invariably elicit a put-down on the theme of “Moaning
freelances. We know you’re all millionaires!”

Complaints of
burgled bylines are legion, but the way publishers systematically abuse
the system – especially in the area of submitted stories and pictures –
is getting beyond a joke.

The chief weapon in this abuse is the
way payments have been held down under the the Self Billing Agreement
that freelances grant to publishers for purposes of VAT collection.

agency covers a story, invests time and money to file copy and
pictures. It’s a gamble whether it makes the paper. Fair enough.

when it is used, the publisher decides how much to pay, often
regardless of the real cost of obtaining the material – and the rates
paid in most cases have either failed to increase at all in recent
years or, at best, have lagged well behind inflation.

Take an
example of the rates paid for submitted page leads in the 40 years
since Press Gazette’s launch: In 1965 the Daily Express typically paid
around £30 for a page lead, and remember these page leads would almost
invariably be used in four or five papers as a “good all-rounder”.

Today, a similar page lead in the Express might pay around £150, and “good all-rounders” are now extremely rare.

Take into account inflation – at officially recognised rates – and that page lead should now be paying £347.47p.

Perhaps we should round it up and call it £350?

Even if we were to round it down to £300 it is still worth only half what it was 40 years ago in real terms.

joke? Yes, a very sick joke since £350 is the kind of payment – a
proper return for effort – that agencies need for continued success and
to keep up the flow of good stories that newspapers require.

when you combine the fact of these really shocking and harmful
reductions in the level of payments to agencies with other changes in
the industry, you have a recipe for disaster.

It is often said that freelances are the lifeblood of national newspapers, a unique and vital resource.

want newspapers, and the entire media, to be successful. But part of
the deal has got to be fair reward for effort, and clearly the agencies
that are vital to the industry need their work to be properly valued
and rewarded.

So what do the next 40 years hold for agencies?

The honest answer: anyone’s guess!

ever, the law of the jungle will prevail: the survival of the fittest.
Agencies know this and they are constantly changing and adapting the
way we work in order to stay ahead of the game.

Back in the ’80s,
agencies were the first to push away from outdated working practices
such as dictating copy. Agencies led the move, first to Telex, and
later we were among the first to adopt the then “new technology” to
file our copy on screen from computers.

Agencies also led the way
in the switch to digital photography and many are now tooled-up for the
video now demanded by many websites.

Today the prophets of doom
look at the growing importance of the web and predict the demise of
newspapers. I disagree. Newspapers will continue to thrive for a long
time yet, by constantly changing and adapting.

And that is just
what agencies do: they change and adapt to survive. Agencies also serve
the demand from the market, and these days they are just as likely to
land a page lead with a TV or showbusiness story as they are to
weigh-in with a quirky picture story or a fantastic court case.

itself has proved an invaluable asset to agencies, and it continues to
fight their corner as no other organisation can. It has identified
copyright as an increasingly vital area of importance to its members.

recent example came when NAPA was alerted to a class action in the US,
in which authors have agreed an out-of-court settlement for breach of
copyright with electronic database operators.

The settlement had
a deadline for claims of 30 September and NAPA was alerted only about a
month before that date. The nature of the settlement was complex, with
a website that ran to more than 40,000 words.

But NAPA hired
lawyers in England and the US to advise on exactly how to make valid
claims. More than 20 NAPA members entered extensive claims, and some
stand to collect valuable sums as a result.

It has served as an
encouraging example of what can be achieved in this field, and NAPA is
examining the potential for joint action in the UK, Eire and across
Europe against publishers who fail to pay proper royalties to authors
for publications in all mediums and domains.

Getting paid what we are due for these copyright infringements is all part of the underlying message.

survive and to remain a driving force in the industry, agencies must be
properly rewarded for the material they supply and the material that is

Newspapers that short-change agencies are shortchanging themselves.

Of course there are honourable examples of publishers who pay a fair rate and pay for all mediums and domains.

beyond doubt they are a minority and it is high time for a rethink on
the part of those unscrupulous publishers who try to get away with
paying the same fees (in reality less) year on year, and seek to ride
roughshod over the laws of copyright.

Thanks to the death of a
thousand cuts, a handful of agencies have gone out of business, some
have scaled down. Many continue to be successful despite the adverse
trading conditions.

In 1970, Joni Mitchell had a hit with “Big
Yellow Taxi” and its catchy refrain “You don’t know what you’ve got
till it’s gone…” Short-sighted newspaper publishers could learn from it
in their dealings with agencies.

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