Times don’t change.
“Writers, who are the core of the industry are given little consideration by most publishers. Their remuneration is extremely low and uncertain. Raising writers’ rewards should be a priority for government, not simply because doing so might increase the quality of writing, but mainly because simple justice demands action,” said a management consulting firm to the Department of Communications in 1984. Writers are still underpaid.

Lynn Cunningham, executive editor at Toronto Life, has looked into the issue of freelance fees. She has found “a handful of freelancers for consumer magazines do earn close to $40,000, but most of the remaining full-time freelancers make below $25,000.”

Conditions within the magazine business seem to perpetuate the problem. Marq de Villiers, editor of Toronto Life, says “freelance journalists are shamefully underpaid by magazines. We hate it, but there’s no escape.” De Villiers explains that the economics of magazines depends on advertisements and that most magazines have a small profit margin of usually two to four per cent. The essential costs, paper, circulation, printing and editorial, must be paid first to assure the survival of the magazine, and freelance fees are budgeted for after the fixed costs are taken into account. He says “publishers don’t deliberately exploit the freelancers but it’s the only place to squeeze.”

The “squeeze” will be put on the freelance budget more than before. Many publishers are worried about the survival of their magazines which are threatened by the recent changes in government policy. A recent headline in The Toronto Star sums up the impending crisis: “Federal policies on postal subsidies and taxes mean a lot of Canadian magazines are doomed.”
Michael de Pencier, president of Key Publishers which publishes 30 magazines including Toronto Life, says he knows freelancers are under paid and they deserve more but publishers have to cut costs. He says that Toronto Life’s profit dropped in 1988 because of an economic downturn which is affecting the entire industry.

In fact he says, “Many established magazines are phoning to ask if [we] would like to buy them.” De Pencier says that larger magazines such as Chatelaine and Canadian Living are better able to increase freelance rates because costs would be distributed over more subscriptions. In response, Telemedia president Jeff Shearer says costs are increasing faster than inflation and even Telemedia’s profitable magazines couldn’t afford a quantum leap in freelance fees. He says “it’s a challenge just to hold onto present rates and keep up with inflation.” Shearer says that this is the worst time to consider raising freelance fees because costs are rising and government subsidies are decreasing.

Yet if conditions don’t change soon, many of the best writers are going to be forced out of the industry. As Sylvia Barrett, former science editor of Equinox, says, “Their talent will not be used and everyone will suffer-the writer, the editor and the reader.”

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About the author

Margaret Ashbourne-Townsend was an Associate Editor for the Spring 1990 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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