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Writing for our supper

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.

8 replies on “Writing for our supper”

As an occasional writer who has struggled to get things published in such community publications, reading this opens my eyes to the struggles that exist within the sector – so thank you for writing it.

I’m encouraged by the NUMBER of publications we have, but disappointed that the quality is so lacking in many cases. I often find myself picking up these publications, finding very little that appeals to me, and then throwing it in the recycling bin. That may be more of a personal issue – that I’m not really a ‘news’ type person. But regardless, I find that there are very few publications that carry quality, inspirational type pieces that would make me want to get the newspaper / magazine regularly.

Locally, I’ve never purchased your magazine (we seem to get it rather late in Cape Town, and we haven’t had a new issue for ages) – but I have paged through it, and I recognise many of the contributors from the blogosphere.

Internationally, I think “Sisters” and “Al-Jumuah” are the best to have made it to our shores – but unfortunately, neither have survived locally (at least in my part of the country).

Locally, I think there’s a big gap when it comes to quality creative and inspirational pieces – whether those be written or illustrative. I would gladly pay even R30 a month for an excellent local publication that met this need. But no such publication exists here, to the best of my knowledge.

But the gap is not the result of a lack of adequate material. There’s no doubt that we have a lot of talented people who can contribute to such publications. You can see it by just looking at the local bloggers we have and the material they publish on their blogs.

The problem, in my view, is exactly what you talk about in this post: getting publications to take quality on board, and pay for quality.

Maybe it’s simplistic to put it all down to financial woes – but I think finance plays a massive role.

I see the same thing in community organisations: we have many of them who have noble visions, and do outstanding work. But, because they lack the finance to operate like a corporate company, they’ll always struggle to be as effective as they should be.

They have good, dedicated people – but many can only do the work on a part time or volunteer basis. And as you know, as good as it may feel, volunteering doesn’t pay the bills – so you need to have a ‘proper’ job too.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why Islamic organisations and publications can’t get funding from our multi-billionairre Arab brothers, who are supposed to be SHARING their oil wealth with the ummah (because that oil is not theirs alone – it should belong to all of us).

I think if our publications and organisations had the money, they could attract good, highly-skilled and qualified Muslim professionals to work for them -and I think that would make a huge difference.

The same goes for publications: if you don’t have to focus on money all the time, you can make your publication the best in terms of quality – and not have to sacrifice quality for profits.

Then again, funding might come with strings attached – because ‘owners’ have the power to interfere with something which is better left to people who have the experience and talent to run such ventures. I don’t know the full story, but just look at what happened to Islamonline.net. That website was awesome, yet ownership issues has sunk it -and it’s left a big void in terms of quality Islamic websites online.

As for creativity, I think writers and designers still have something positive in that with the Internet, they have the means to self-publish via blogs etc. They don’t NEED a publication in order to get their work out there. A simple blog post is easy enough to publish – for free – and yet it can touch the hearts of so many who read it.

That doesn’t do much for them financially – but creatively, I think it must fulfill a need for them to be read; to share their work with others. At least, that’s how it is for me 🙂

You are very right about the price people are willing to pay. I feel this is a unique problem for muslims. Many doctors, are often chastised for being rich or for their well off lifestyle. Its as if people forget that doctors, or writers, have bills to pay, and dreams and ambitions of them own, ones that well wishes, duas, and sadaqah work just isnt going to pay for.

For me, the problem unfortunately I think stems from the fact that there are essentially two groups in a muslim community. This is a massive generalisation. Those that value new/other opinions/ideas. And those that don’t.

Since those that dont really value new ideas/opinions, all they are interested in is reading what corresponds to the way they already think. Its almost like the tension felt in struggling with new views is too high in the muslim community to be bearable.

This means that they arent interested in what some young writer has to say. Not about politics. Not about religion. Not about anything. Unless he/she is singing their tune.

So to me, writers would have to be writing to the more open minded in our community. I feel the best way to do this would be to build a name outside of the community. I feel reading someones work for alot of people is almost a fad, and the persons hype alone and reputation can make you like his work before youve even read it. Peoples time are limited, it takes time to invest in something new, so if theres a writer whos had a big track record versus some new kid on the block, most people who spend their time on the experienced guy. Writing more broadly also gains you insight into people, and what makes them tick, and this is ultimately what writers, good ones, really bring out. And this is what will gain you a following, if people can relate to what you are saying.

The problem with this is that muslim writers are very confined, because they can easily be reprimanded by all factions, family, friends, community for writing and doing things in their eyes wrong. trying to juggle being true to yourself and survival is perhaps their hardest challenge, and perhaps one thing we can all do is start becoming more critical and open to peoples ideas.

I think establishing a standard is easy. I think if more people know about it and refuse to give up hours and skill for free, employers, in this case publishers will be more likely to start behaving in a professional manner. However the working for a Muslim magazine and not getting paid properly is not exclusive. I worked in the non-Muslim Industry and you got paid what was felt your deserved based on… who knows. I think as young writers we need to start valuing ourselves and showing a bit more confidence. Its the art of negotiation. Never be afraid to say no and walk away. Oh I owe you and email.

I had a conversation with a friend that did some work for a prominent Muslim magazine in the UK and they told me a similar story of Muslim’s being expected to do contribute their work either for free or a paltry fee because of their Muslim-ness.

It goes into other fields too, I know of a group of people that were volunteering for an entire day at a prominent Muslim/Islamic event and the organisers didn’t even bother to get them lunch.

I myself entered a photography competition last summer and was shortlisted and then told that I had to buy a £35 ticket to the event where my picture would be displayed.

http://thatmashguy.blogspot.com/2009/08/me-good-news-i-got-shortlisted-for-that.html

This is however a two way street, everybody needs exposure but I feel there’s a definite culture that verges on a kind of exploitation.

I have absolutely no problem with giving some time/writing/photography for a good cause, but there is always a limit to everything. Too often specifically in the Muslim community there is an expectation of willing youngsters to give their time and energy without even so much as a thank you or acknowledgement of their hard work. It’s all about the Sadaqah.

The South African Freelancing Association has a rate guide. As does NUJ in the UK. We need to create one specifically for the SA Muslim media market, & insist on getting what’s deserved.

Bravo Khadija. Although this does not just pertain to Journo/Illustrators Etc. As an MC and Comedian I am expected to perform for Free for causes. Not to mention speakers as well. I understand for fundraisers for a good cause, however if you’re paying for a venue, a cook etc. Surely your entertainment should be covered too?

I think of not just me, but a speaker Like Quraisha Dawud and Riaad Moosa too. On several instances I know we have all made travel arrangements ourselves (and spend atleast 3 hours) and had to pay for meals.

Media/Entertainment is not taken seriously as a career choice. But our skills should be sadaqah. Our mentality that we “know” each other should mean we get things for free.

I look forward to the day Al Huda becomes a flagship glossy magazine with loads of articles that I can relish hours paging through it.

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