Tracey Spicer claims The Guardian is exploiting freelance writers to produce branded content

Tracey SpicerJournalist Tracey Spicer has accused The Guardian of “exploitation” of freelance workers after she was asked to write a 1,000-word branded content column on women’s financial empowerment for client ANZ for $140 – 14 cents per word.

Speaking to Mumbrella Spicer said: “This is a major media outlet that’s done a deal with one of the big four banks and the way it is making money for two very powerful players is by exploiting freelance writers.

“This column would have gone on both the Guardian and ANZ websites. So, women are being asked to spruik a bank, in a column about female financial empowerment that they’re being paid next to nothing to write.”

Branded content and native advertising – ads that appear in the main editorial stream of a media website – are becoming an increasingly important revenue stream for publishers like The Guardian, which has a division called Guardian Labs dedicated to the process.

The Fairfax and Debrief Daily columnist spoke out against the offer in a post on her public Facebook page this morning.

“Does anybody else see the irony here? Who else is being asked to work for next to nothing in this brave new world of branded media? Exploitation – especially of women and young people – seems rife,” she wrote.

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Spicer, who has more than 26,000 followers on Twitter, stressed this was not about her own pay but rather about making it fairer for all contributors.

“This is not about me, I’ve got enough work, Fairfax pays me well, Debrief Daily pays me well, Sky pays me well. I’m ok. I want to speak out for other people who don’t have the profile or power that I have,” she added.

McClelland presenting at BEfest

McClelland presenting at BEfest

Guardian Australia managing director Ian McClelland declined to comment on its rates publicly, however said in this case the “wrong rates were applied”.

“The Guardian doesn’t discuss its rates publicly – that’s a matter between us and our journalists, but we are comfortable our rates are industry standard,” he said in a statement.

“However, in this instance the wrong rates were applied to this particular project.

“Guardian Australia is now clarifying this with the writers concerned. We cannot discuss this project in any further detail, due to it being under NDA (non-disclosure agreement).”

According to the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the national freelance award rate is $925 for 1000 words or less, with 93 cents a word for each word after.

However Spicer did note “very few outlets pay the award rate”. Mumbrella understands magazines can pay between 30c and 80c a word while newspapers generally pay between 60c and $1 a word, still well above the 14c per word offered in this case.

It is likely to stoke the debate around who should be tasked with producing branded content, with some arguing it should be kept away from in-house journalists or risk jeopardising the divide between sales and editorial, often referred to as ‘church and state’.

ANZ Australia group general manager of corporate communications Paul Edwards tweeted an apology from the bank, which reported first quarter profits of $1.65bn, shortly after Spicer’s initial post, saying “that’s not how @ANZ_AU wants to be working”.

He told Mumbrella he expected more from The Guardian, but conceded the bank must learn from the experience.

“It’s somewhat ironic that this rate was offered by a media organisation who ought to know better,” he said.

“We’ve got a bit to learn about branded content, most corporates do. We clearly have parts of the bank who are new to working on branded content and with journalists.

“My strong view is we should at minimum be paying MEAA guidelines which is 80-90 cents per word, but clearly we have a bit of work to do in some areas of the bank and with some of our partners to be consistent on this.”

Edwards said the responsibility lies with the bank: “It’s more a matter of it being embarrassing from our point of view. Ultimately this is our responsibility and we should have clear guidelines on how we work with journalists for content whether that’s direct or via third parties.”

Paul Edwards ANZ

Spicer said she had received the ANZ’s apology: “I was delighted about the tweet I first got from the ANZ, in which they said they would talk to the media outlet involved because they want to insist on award rates.”

It’s a topic Spicer is passionate about, and has previously written about exploitation of women in the workplace for Fairfax Media’s Daily Life, saying women already work an average of 62 days a year for free.

“Many media outlets use the excuse of exposure and a lot of people who do need the exposure or need the money are more tempted to take the offer. The problem is it demeans the role, the task, and the job of being a writer,” she said.

“Now I’m thinking we should start a campaign of naming and shaming these media outlets, they’re the ones who chose to pay so little.

“In this case The Guardian might be pulled into line and forced to pay people a decent rate, and for that I’m thrilled.”

The post has sparked a number of people tweeting or commenting about their experiences of being exploited in the workplace.

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ANZ launched its own content site Bluenotes in April last year. Paul Edwards said the site offers $1.20 per word to freelance contributors.

The MEAA has been approached for comment.

Last year Mumbrella held a debate with practitioners on the issues arising from branded content.

Sam Buckingham-Jones and Miranda Ward

Related content:

Issues surrounding native ads and branded content will be discussed at next week’s Mumbrella 360 Conference. Click the banner below for more details.

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