Sunday Stroll.

Good Sunday to you! My Offspring are threatening to break down the door so I’m just going to dispense with lengthy introductions and leave you with some weekend reading:

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Free Lunch? Surely Somebody Has To Pay…?

It’s a funny thing, telling people you have a blog in which you’re attempting to write regularly.  I mentioned it to a friend a while ago, and she asked if I were making any money from it.  ‘Well, no,’ I admitted.  ‘But I’m trying to use it as a platform to write nonfiction stuff, you know.  Social commentary, philosophy. That kind of thing.’

I wanted a place where I could do some writing that was a bit more ‘serious’ than just the general blather with which I fill my livejournal, and to perhaps expand my horizons a bit.  And I’ll admit, I wanted a place where, if I were to apply for a writing position somewhere, I could point my potential employer, as examples of the kinds of writing I like to do.  I have some friends who have done just that, and who now have regular appearances on Huffington Post and in other well-known internet publications.  They have reached a decent level of internet success, and I’m proud of them — both for  their good writing, because they are consistently really good, and for their commitment to promoting themselves, while parenting fulltime or working fulltime or doing some of each.  And I think it is really very cool that they are getting the recognition they deserve.

But… like me and my little page of essays here, they’re not earning any money from it, either.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think it should always be about the money.  I do write for the pleasure of it, I write because I have something to say, and I want to have a conversation about it, and because I want to get better at expressing myself.  However, I’ve not ruled out wanting to also earn money by writing.  And despite what my spambot-followers would have me believe, I think it’s probably a lot more difficult than they make it appear.  Then it occurred to me the other day, that one of the reasons for this might be the way we access information these days.

How do you pay someone for her writing, when all the readers want to have it for free?

We are so used to getting everything for free these days (and I’m not even talking about piracy, here) from news to entertainment and everything in between.  One of the amazing things about the internet — possibly THE most amazing thing — is its accessibility, and there is no way I would want that to change.  However, if writers want to make an income, regardless of how small it is, then the sites on which their work appears need to be able to make money, too.  And I don’t know how we will turn around an internet public which is used to reading everything for free, and convince them that now they need to pay.  Because I can pretty much guarantee that people are just not going to pay, and are going to the go somewhere, where they can continue to read for free.  What’s silly, is that articles on the internet can see an incredible amount of traffic, with thousands of views apiece.  If each reader were only paying a few cents per view, it would still add up to a small sum — even just a thousand views would be around $30.  Granted, you’re not exactly going to be able to quit your dayjob on that amount of cash.  But it’s something.

I know there are already some sites which pay a small fee to their casual or freelance writers, but it seems that many of the more prestigious sites simply offer exposure rather than remuneration.  Of course, the exposure is brilliant to have, and writers absolutely need it.  However, it shouldn’t be the only thing they offer.  And it seems like they’ve convinced at least some of their contributors that internet stardom and the promise of thousands or even millions of readers is enough.  Is it?  Other writers certainly don’t think so, as Nate Thayer’s exchange with the global editor at The Atlantic illustrates, and The Atlantic took some criticism because of it.  Of course, in the vastness that is the world of online and paper publications, getting one’s name out there is hard, and even if the Nate Thayers of the world stand up and demand payment, there will be many others who are willing to take the exposure and accept the lack of remuneration.

Here’s the thing: it’s not all the fault of the sites that don’t pay.  It’s also the fault of the writers who write for them, and the readers who read their work.

We as writers are to blame, because we need to demand payment for our work.  I understand that heady feeling — really, I do! — when a piece is accepted for publication, and perhaps I’m alone (I’m not) in that I do spend time, very precious time, writing, then editing, then rewriting my work.  Surely that time is worth something other than simply recognition — especially if the publication is for-profit, which will be generating profits from your work?  To allow publishers to offer exposure is to agree that your work is not worth payment.  And we do deserve to be paid!  We’re doing a job, after all.

We as readers must also share some of the responsibility, though. For too long we have been demanding ‘free’.  We read articles for free, we listen to music for free, we watch TV for free.  As consumers of culture, we do so with seemingly scant regard of the fact that somebody has to create it, and if they’re creating it for free, it means it’s cutting into the time where they could be doing income-generating work.  In the scheme of things, unless writers start demanding payment for their work, this won’t matter, because there will always be free writing to read.  But for goodness’ sake, people pay for the Daily Mail, the Bild, the Daily Telegraph and any number of other tabloid newspapers.  They pay money for that!  And yet, they won’t pay money for meticulously researched, painstakingly edited, carefully crafted articles, essays and fiction.

So how do we change the status quo?  Leaving aside the fact that there are always going to be people who cheat and get their culture for free anyway, how can we persuade the average internet user that we need them to pay writers, so that writers can earn money from their work?  Well, first we insist that writers be paid, either from the end-user, or from the website where their work appears.  We change the expectation from ‘it should be free’ to ‘it should be paid for’.  And secondly, we make it worth their while.  We create easy ways to pay — how about a once-yearly, or even once-monthly fee tied in in with your ISP bill?  It doesn’t have to be much.  In the UK, yearly payment of a TV licence supports their BBC and means that those channels are advertisement free.  Would something similar be possible for online content?  Certainly, the internet is a far more complicated medium than television, and I’m not even sure what it would entail.  But whatever it takes, a dialogue needs to begin.  We need to consider what we’re demanding of those who create art.  Recognition of the work one produces is a great start — it is such a wonderful feeling when something is shared and complimented.  But having something go viral on the internet for a few days is not really recognition.  It’s a flash in the pan, and it rarely produces tangible results for the person or the writing involved.  We need for people to be rewarded for the time they’re taking to produce good work.  Do we still have the attention span for that, I wonder, or are we all just caught up, waiting for the next thing (and for it to be free)?

It’s not to say that people couldn’t still write in their blogs for others to read for free, or that there can’t be collectives and online publications which offer free work to view and consume.  It’s not that people would suddenly be able to afford early retirement, or buy a mansion.  It’s not even that money should be the ultimate goal, when sitting down to write — in fact, it shouldn’t be!  It’s just that instead of it being the norm that someone’s work is available for free, it might be the exception.  And that might mean that we value it, and the process taken to create it, a little more.

Poverty and Shame.

The Handsome Sidekick and I were doing some catch up shopping on our childfree day, and as we were talking about something else, I caught the tail-end of an announcement ‘… this bargain won’t last long, so head over to the Fresh Produce Department now.’  Bargain?  I thought.  Guess I’ll check it out!

It turned out they were doing their $3 bags. You get given a shopping bag — the regular grey recycled ones — and there are a few crates of fruit and vegetables on a large storeroom trolley.  Fill up the bag with as much as it can hold, with whatever you want from the crates, and all you’ll pay is $3.  It’s a win-win-win: the store gets rid of (and paid for) fresh produce which is past its best, the food gets used rather than thrown into landfill, and the customer gets a bargain.  And there are bargains to be had.  I ended up with a pear, eight slightly grubby potatoes, three kilograms of bananas, six lemons and a large head of lettuce.  The bananas alone would have cost me around $12 — and they’re overripe which makes them perfect for muffins, cakes and smoothies.

So if it’s win-win-win, why did I feel so scummy, while other shoppers stared at me as I rummaged through the crates to find what I wanted?  It’s not like I was the only customer taking advantage of this, but I did have the sensation that what I was doing was not a desirable thing to do.  Surely, I should be buying my fresh produce for full price?  Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?  If you get it cheap, it means you’re cheap.  Or poor.  Either way, it’s not good.

I turned this around in my mind for most of the day.  I mean, don’t get me wrong: I was very pleased with my food!  And I felt as if I’d done a good thing for our budget and for the planet.  But I did wonder about this general idea of asking for discounts, of getting things cheaper, of using second-hand or second-best.  Most of the furniture we own was new for someone else before we got it.  As was our car, as were our clothes, as was our house.

Sitting down with the Handsome Sidekick that evening, I asked, ‘Why is it shameful, to be poor?’

We talked about where this came from — is it a remnant of a more class-based society (not that we’re so classless now, despite what people might like to believe!), or it is it more due to the consumerist culture in which we find ourselves?  Why is it so embarrassing to admit that you can’t afford something?

Several years ago, I was working at a call centre.  Leaving aside the fact that it was a depressing, soul-destroying job (the people I worked with were lovely, just the job was shocking; I’m sure others can relate!), we were paid a pretty modest wage, and to add insult to injury, we were paid monthly.  You should know that in Australia, most jobs pay fortnightly, and so most people pay their rent or mortgages fortnightly, too.  This usually works out fine, of course.  When you get paid monthly, and just put aside two rent payments out of the paycheck.  But you know how some months have five weeks?  Well, sometimes the rent falls three times within that five weeks.  And that… is quite hard to budget for, especially when you’re a single-income household.

So it was payday, at this job, and I just did not have enough money to get to work.  From memory, I had about five dollars.  I desperately needed the pay to have gone through by the Friday morning, but it wasn’t there, and I couldn’t afford to put fuel in the car.  So I rang work, and told them that I was going to be late.  My car had broken down, I said, and I was going to catch the bus.  Which I did, and I got to work late, and was able to work back an hour and get a lift home with a colleague.

Why didn’t I tell them that we’d had three rent payments that month?  Why was it so shameful that I couldn’t afford to get to work?

Last year’s US election campaign raised some similar issues about poverty and shame — and about what people deserve.  There is a tendency to blame people for their poverty, to demonise them.  The area where we live has a high unemployment rate, and high poverty rate* and I know, when I tell people where I live, that they’re already deciding what kind of person I am.  It’s as if there is some unwritten rule, that people must be poor by their own design.  Surely, if you were more resourceful, you’d have a (better-paid) job?  It’s probably that you just can’t manage your money.  You must like welfare-dependency.  You should just stop smoking/drinking/taking drugs/eating junk food — that’s probably where all your money goes.

It’s these kinds of unspoken assumptions which perpetuate this idea of poverty being shameful.  Since moving from a very affluent area (where people made a whole different set of assumptions about what kind of person I was), I’m a lot more aware about the different aspects of relative poverty which some of us experience in this country.  This has come from both observing others in my community, and from personal experience.  There are so many reasons why people struggle to make ends meet — from family responsibilities, to unexpected and chronic illness, to debts building up and out of control.  And on top of that, there is the shame that you sometimes need to admit that you can’t afford something.  Yet there’s really no shame in that, when you think about it.  Everyone has a budget, and some are larger than others, but we all have to prioritise our expenditure.  It’s hard enough, being poor.  Being ashamed of it just makes it harder.

If only we could remove the stigma from being ‘poor’, and realise that in this developed nation, where we have a comprehensive welfare, education and health system, and where the weather (at least in this part of the country) is generally warm and friendly, that we are, in fact, very, very wealthy!  What does it matter if you buy something new or second-hand?  What does it matter if you buy it at all, as long as you have sufficient to see you through?  

I once read a quotation: ‘There is no shame in being poor, only in acting poorly’, and it has buoyed me up on several occasions where money has been somewhat scarce and we’ve had to really pool all our resources as a family to get through.  My children are well aware that we’re not rich, but I refuse to have them think they’re poor.  If anything, I want them to realise that even if money makes the world go round, it’s a pretty empty world if that’s all you have, and that are plenty of things to be ashamed about, but being poor is not one of them.  What’s more, wherever this notion comes from — whether it’s based on class or capitalism or is simply a way for some people to try and put others down so they can try and justify their own lives — it’s a label other people are using.  I have a clear conscience that I am doing the best I can with the financial resources we have.  I wonder if everyone who looks down on buying the seconds from the fresh produce section can say the same?


*I’m talking, of course, about poverty by Western standards.  I can guess that many of these households have potable water on tap, and most basic needs.  That is not to say all of them do, or that life is a breeze when you’re living on welfare.  But it is quite different to being poor in other parts of the world.

Be Careful What You Wish For.

I actually enjoy grocery shopping.  I realise for many people, it can be tedious and time consuming and sometimes stressful, but I quite like it.  I look forward to challenging myself to come in on budget, and to buy as many products as possible which are locally produced — and if not West Australian, then at least Australian.

Here’s the thing you should know about grocery shopping in Australia: there are two major supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths.  They basically have a duopoly in the supermarket business; there are a few others, but none of them has the overwhelming distribution that these two have.  And as with most supermarkets, each has its own ‘home’ brand, which is sold at a very competitive price.  That’s not news.  What is interesting, is that in recent years, both Coles and Woolworths have been expanding their home brands, and — perhaps more importantly — improving their quality.

It used to be the case that you’d buy the home brand butter or toilet paper or baked beans because you really wanted to save money, but given the choice, you’d buy another more expensive brand, because frankly, the home brand stuff was kaka.

That’s no longer the case.  Not only have they improved their basic lines, they’ve also added other ‘brands’, so that they’re now offering a cheap brand, a mid-range, and a more expensive, higher quality label.  In addition, they’re branching out into organic produce, plus they’re also offering insurance and credit cards.

Now, despite the pleasure I get from grocery shopping, I’ll admit that it is sometimes difficult to fit it in around all the other household- and child-related jobs I need to accomplish.  So it’s certainly very convenient that I can get almost all the things I need at one place, not to mention at low prices.  That’s part of the appeal, isn’t it?  It’s a one-stop-shop, and it’s marketed as that.

And there would be nothing wrong with that, only I’ve noticed something a little disturbing about the way the supermarkets’ own brands are merchandised.  I guess it’s been creeping up on me without my noticing, because it only became apparent when I recently went to get milk.  I was specifically there just for milk, which is unusual, so perhaps that’s why I was so observant that day.  I spent some time comparing prices and checking use-by dates, as I often do.  And then I realised that the supermarket brand milk took up around forty percent of the refrigerated cabinet.  That’s forty percent of the cabinet which houses the fresh, fermented and flavoured milk.  So that means the other fresh milk brands are sharing just over half the cabinet with other milk products.

Two thoughts sprang to mind in response to this.  The first was about bulk merchandising.  Back in the day when I was in retail, one of the ways in which we drew attention to products was through bulk merchandising.  A classic example of this is Coca Cola.  Think of the last time you were in a supermarket in the soft drinks aisle.  Coke takes up a huge amount of shelf space. The red and white labels on against the dark liquid in the bottles makes for a striking contrast which catches your eye.  It is something you notice even when you’re not looking for soft drink.

Bulk merchandising the store-brand milk has perhaps an even greater impact than the Coke.  This is because it’s something most of us buy everyday, and while some customers have undying brand loyalty, many will buy what’s on special or what’s cheapest.  If you notice one brand over the rest, and it’s cheap, chances are, you’re going to buy it.

The other issue is purely of space, which is why I noticed it.  If there is less space for the other brands of milk, then fewer bottles are ordered.  This means that if you normally buy a branded milk, and that one is sold out, then you must choose another brand.

Guess which brand never sells out?

After this, I began to look a little closer at some of the other departments in the supermarkets.  The bakery section is overwhelmingly store-brand products.  The cheapest fresh bread is the store brand one.  The tinned pie apple, of all things, is no longer available in large tins, except for the store-brand.  And it makes no financial sense to buy the smaller tin from the competitor, because the store brand tin is almost the same price for double the amount of apple.

This isn’t so sinister, in itself.  Every business wants to make profits; every business wants to have as much of the market share as possible.  Coles and Woolworths are just doing what any other business wants to do.

The trouble is, their methods are, quite possibly, a little underhand.  Recently an investigation into how they negotiate contracts with suppliers has raised questions of blackmail and bullying.  A 10-year milk contract between Coles and a milk-processing co-operative has been promoted as a way of giving suppliers certainty, but a cynic might view this as piecemeal, given the way in which these supermarkets can essentially dictate the success or failure of individual suppliers.  There are also some concerns about how the volatility of the market will affect such a long-running contract.

It makes me ache a little to realise just how much we have allowed large companies to take control of what we buy.  We no longer need to go to several different shops to get what we need, and that’s very convenient, but at what price is this happening?  When there is a supermarket brand product in every category, is that really choice?  Or does it mean that they can start pushing out other brands until we don’t have a choice but to buy theirs?  And what happens, if we are then unhappy with that brand?  Where is the choice, then?

This kind of business model is certainly not unique to us here in Australia, and that fact both saddens and delights me.  It’s upsetting to think that we have allowed big business to get this far, and that we accept a kind of  ‘market will prevail’ philosophy.  The market in this case is not fair, in the same way that a match between a bantamweight and a heavyweight would not be fair.  I’m sad to think that we allow this to happen without thinking of the long term consequences.

But I’m also confident that consumers can turn this around.  Farmers’ markets, boutique stores, a focus on customer service and niche goods — all of these are ways in which small businesses can push back against a powerful supermarket chain.  And they are pushing back.  It’s up to us as consumers to decide where we stand.  Will we stick with the store-brand goods, or will we choose to pay a little extra to support a different business?  Granted, economic situations sometimes limit our choices, but while we’re still spending money, we’re still making choices.

It’s up to us, to choose wisely, because if we don’t, we may find ourselves with very little choice at all.