Journalism is a particularly difficult industry to break into. Fresh out of university, brandishing first class degrees and sporting the sort of confidence only the young, and stupid, dare exhibit we soon learn that without a contact, or two, and some measure of good luck even the most talented among us struggle for a byline. The Pulitzer prize featuring so promintently in our ten-year plans is cruelly deemed highly improbable for at least the next fifty years. Complacency soon makes way for reality. There are few media professionals who find immediate success in the higher echelons of the game. And yes, like most other industries, we’re forced to roll in the mud, wrestle with the more ignoble among us, all the while preserving a sense of self that does not betray the reason we chose to be writers in the first place. With some prodding and at the cost of much self-esteem, editors like demi-gods, do eventually bestow upon us the pithy space in the national paper that we so dearly crave. And even if it is on a page that no one reads, that fateful decision to be a writer is immediately justified. Though we may often only half-jokingly complain about the easy ride accountants conversely have, we do not expect an easy ride. At best, I think, to be a writer is not a static state of being, it is the state of being in constant motion, in constant pursuit of word and thought.
Nobody becomes a writer/graphic designer/illustrator to make millions but adequate remuneration for work done, you’d forgive us for thinking it be a given. Original creative work is increasingly undermined by editors who prefer syndicated work to the homegrown blood, sweat and tears and financiers who see little value in said blood, sweat and tears. Owners want to turn a handsome profit, media professionals want just to be published and make a living while doing so. There has for some time now been a growing sentiment of discontent among professionals working within South African Muslim community media over working conditions, poor pay and shoddy treatment. The burgeoning number of Muslim publications in South Africa are looking to turn profits, and they cannot be faulted for trying, but too often profit is persued at the expense of creatives.
I speak from both sides of the divide. On the one hand, I manage a small publication so I am particularly aware of the financial constraints placed on Muslim media in the South Africa. It is difficult to secure sustainable advertising revenue particularly when there are a number of publications in South Africa who are heedless of copyright laws and think nothing of filling a magazine with copy-pastes en masse. We need our audience to recognise the difference between good writing and design and all round shoddiness. It is remarkably simple to set up a newspaper or a magazine, fill it with he-said-she-said-Mufti-said recycled mumbo jumbo, attach a masthead to it and sell it in bakeries for R8,00. The most successful Muslim magazine in the country pays writers a paltry R150 per article even though it has a monthly distribution of close on 10 000. The cost to profit ratio is staggering. There is little value, financial and otherwise, for good writing.
A couple of days ago, Shubnum Khan, an exceptionally talented writer and illustrator asked the gathering of the world’s know-it-alls, that is Twitter, ‘So, how much do you think one should charge for a cartoon drawn for a national community paper?’ While the more ambitious advised her to quote an initial one million pounds and then haggle, others were more helpful. One answer though appealed to Shubnum to do the illustration for free, reminding her that it was for a community paper after all. I then entered the conversation, arguing that creatives dangling precariously close to the bottom rung of the ladder like Shubnum and I, need community media to help us make a living. Hussain Sattar then responded to me, asking whether the difficulty experienced in breaking into media stemmed from the tendency for Muslim media to concentrate on Muslim issues thus significantly dimming the appeal of Muslim writers on a broader scale. I will agree that there are a number of Muslim journalists who are too insularly focussed and are unable to grapple with issues larger than the community. But I know too a number of media professionals who are exploited by community media. It is imperative that these professionals respect their own skills enough to continue to hone them enough to impact society positively. There are a number of new Muslim publications operating with the expectation of journalists contributing for very little, if anything at all, while cleverly manipulating Islam as a marketing strategy. The call for a better representation of Muslims in mass-media is made everywhere from the mimbar to dining room tables but it must be realised that the success of young, Muslim media professionals in South Africa depends on their reception at community level. Azad Essa a successful journalist, and a Muslim one at that too, also the author of the upcoming Zuma’s Bastard, has been a vocal advocate for professionalism in community media in South Africa,
For many of us, journalism is becoming our profession and while the community papers give us a good platform to make it in the big leagues one day, God willing, I think we need to show greater ambition with these community papers. It’s mutually beneficial. The papers themselves could only get better themselves as this would attract better journalists to write for them on a more regular basis and it potentially could lend a hand in preventing people from running away from journalism after a while. As is stands, journalists are so insecure about their copy and the fact that we are treated badly and so poorly, it is very rare that we can even feel good about our work or our skills. They do very little to point out good work, or good skills and their payment plays the part. We are just performing a perfunctory function. It is as if the advertising and the Muslim community propaganda matters more than anything else.
There exists a deep-seated disregard for writing as a profession, a disregard that is not unique to the Muslim community. Suzanne Brenner from proWRITE, succinctly puts it this way:
For those of us who make a living out of words and related industries, we are only too aware of clients who have no appreciation of the skill required, and who shirk at paying a fee comparable to the job.Everyone knows that if you call a plumber, an electrician or a handyman, you’re looking at paying anything from R300 upward just for the call-out fee. And yet, when it comes to writers- in my case, freelancers often with tertiary qualifications but without medical aid or other perks- it’s a constant juggling act to produce budgets my clients find acceptable. So why is there such a gulf between what clients will pay and what writers expect to be paid? It’s not straightforward , but I believe that it’s because most people think they can do it themselves. And far too often, they do.
Cape Town’s Muslim Views remains the only Muslim publication in the country that has recognised the need for fair pay to creatives. The difference can be easily told by the quality of work in the paper. I fervently believe there to be a market available for more than one Muslim publication. There should be enough ad-spend to go around. The problem however, lies is the quality of many of these publications, some cannot possibly be taken seriously. I’m defining my publication by superior content and design. It costs slightly more at the cash point and I’m phasing in per-word contracts for contributors. Shubnum has herself illustrated an article for Al Huda in the Spring edition last year that she very generously waived payment for. It would however be remiss of me to solicit another illustratrion from her without remuneration. I took up Al Huda magazine after all intending to create a platform for young, struggling Muslim writers to make their name on the way up to bigger things.