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May 30 2012

Stand-Up Journalism

The Frontline Club published its interesting freelancers survey about safety this week. We will get back to the subject of safety on the GRNLive blog soon, but this week I would like to address something we found quite striking before we even reached the main findings. One of the questions asked of the 171 freelancers who took part in the survey was “do you fund your own journalism?”

Photo Credit: Flickr

31.3% answered “almost always” to that question; 20.9% said “often”; 34.1% replied “sometimes” and only 13.7% were able to say “I only work when commissioned”.

This tells us some quite alarming things about who could afford to try their hands at freelance journalism nowadays, and who might be forced to persue other dreams. For me, as a journalist who has not written an un-commissioned piece in hope of selling it in years, if ever, it was a bit of a revelation about the state of the world today. It made me see with painful clarity the extent to which my profession, journalism, has turned similar to my new-ish hobby, stand up comedy, and to the current music scene.

Comedians are by and large self funded for the first two or three years of their career, sometimes for much longer, sometimes forever, unless they give up and drop along the way. They keep day jobs, write their sets during their journeys across the country or around town, run small comedy nights for which they make posters and flyers they get designed and pay for themselves, charge no entry fees to make sure the audience comes in, spend a thousands of pounds taking their shows to the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals every spring and summer, all in service of their dream.

The dream varies – some want to become famous household names, which nowadays involves television stints, others want to become paid club comedians and make a living doing what they enjoy most – performing; many others want to express themselves artistically and enjoy the ride, but they want to get paid for their work, as in the world of comedy, as in all arts, getting paid for what you do indicates that somebody appreciates your work. All those dreams have one thing in common – they all involve an agent who’d be waiting at some turn of the road, recognise their talent, represent them and hence make sure they get salubrious gigs, and even more importantly, get paid for them.

In the world of comedy, as in other performing arts, nobody sneers at the idea or management agencies who represent artists. On the contrary, being represented is a sign of approval which makes promoters more inclined to book a comedian’s services and assume they’ll get their money’s worth in punters’ laughs. Coming to think of it, the same applies for writers and authors. Most publishers refuse to read unsolicited drafts handed to them and demand to only receive applications through literary agencies.

In the world of news the idea of an agency representing journalists like GRNLive, is still sometimes met with suspicion. The business is constantly growing as more and more broadcasters realise that outsourcing the search for on-the-spot freelancers to experts is the way forward. It is just the side of it which involves paying realistic fees for those reporters’ services that some of them are not too keen on. Not to mention (very reasonable if we say so ourselves) commissions.

Our own Henry Peirse often says that journalists deserve to have representation in their dealings with clients like everybody else in the entertainment industry. I used to cringe secretly (as you do when your boss says something cringe-worthy) at this comparison between journalists and entertainers. Journalism is a calling – entertainment is for laughs, I thought rather old fashionably. I still hold that journalism’s calling is to inform and challenge its audience rather than to appease and regale them (then again, so is in my opinion the role of most arts, comedy included). But the emerging pattern created in the news market certainly justifies the comparison. Represented freelances are in the interest of the freelance industry, the broadcasters, and at the end of the day, the audiences. We raise this flag proudly.

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