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November 25, 2010


An ex-hack writes

I thought I'd made it when I started getting reviewing work from New Statesman and Society (as it then was); previously I'd been writing for Tribune, who didn't pay contributors. NSS sent out actual cheques... at a going rate of £90/1000 words. (This was about 20 years ago.) I didn't give up my day job - at least, not until I could get work as a feature writer for business and commercial media, which paid £200-£250/1000. (About 10 years ago.) Which was enough to live on, but only because I always had (a) at least one big regular client (b) relatively cheap accommodation and (c) a partner with a proper job.

Tom Freeman

I too was horrified by the programme. Student Logan was shown writing a diary entry dated during "Martinmas" term, when everybody from even the lowliest polytechnic in the land knows that while St Andrews may have such a thing, Oxford has Michaelmas.


One of my favourite books.


I missed that, Tom. It's a puzzling howler, because Boyd did go to Oxford, as student and lecturer.


At last you tackle the real injustices, Chris.
Typical media conversation,
Smooth-skinned middle manager, "We have a really EXCITING IDEA, we are all PASSIONATE ABOUT."
Hack: "Oh?"
Smooth-skinned middle manager,"We are launching a new blog site and we want YOU to write for it!"
Hack: "And how much will you pay me?"
Smooth-skinned middle manager (looking frankly appalled by the vulgarity of the question) "Well nothing, but it will be a GREAT platform for your work."

john b

On the other hand, the job is much quicker and easier now than it was 80 years ago.

Then, to write 2000 words on Bilbao, you'd not only have had to visit Bilbao (taking about a week from London, given the difficulty of travel at the time), and then spent almost as long in the library on your return reading outdated travelogues and old newspapers about Bilbao. So while you're getting GBP2,000 for the piece, it's a fortnight's solid work.

On the other hand, if you wanted a piece on Bilbao today of the same calibre, you could commission a London writer to spend a day or two researching online and making phone calls, go there on EasyJet for a couple of days, and write it all up - it's a week at most. Or get a native Anglophone living in Bilbao to write the piece and email it over.

(alternatively, if the editor just needs to half-arse something passable to fill space, you could do the whole thing based on research plus a couple of phone interviews to get new quotes. I've done this kind of thing in an afternoon in emergencies, albeit in less glamorous publications.)

So if - and sure, it's a big if - a writer can get enough commissions to stay in work full-time, they're able to write at least twice as many words as they would have been able to in 1930, for the same working hours.

john b

Should be "based on desk research". Doh.

Dave Weeden

I tried writing a reply to this, but Tim Harford http://t.co/Hk2urdT beat me to it. I'm really doubtful that there can be a conversion rate from the past to the present.

Apart from the logic that Tim uses, the basic "basket" of necessities has changed almost entirely. We consume food differently, we treat clothes differently, we expect there to be pensions after retirement, and, in this country, healthcare available. University education was until recently free; it wasn't in the 30s.

Although it's probably even harder to calculate, I think a better guide would be where Mountstuart appeared on a distribution curve of income, and how that graph compared to a contemporary one.


The problem of choosing a standard of comparison for incomes across ages is not just difficult, it is charged with social implications.

A professional in the 30s would still have expected to be able to live in a different manner to a tradesman. Today, even if the ratio of incomes is as large or larger, there isn't the same divide.

Having said that, my impression was that journalism pre-war carried a status near that of tradesmen than of professionals, which makes a relatively high pay surprising.

Indeed, on the alleged decline in quality of journalism, http://anomalyuk.blogspot.com/2010/01/flat-earth-news.html I speculated that the increasing cost of skilled writers had made thorough, accurate journalism uneconomic.

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