Online publications: the issue of ‘respect’

There has always been quite a lot of palaver about the differences between online publications and printed publications. For the most part, these debates have tended to focus on specific areas: cost, environmental impact, delivery, readerships, marketing, and so on. In all of the debates there has been one key thing missing: the issue of audience perception and the impact of respect.

As a publisher, I have the joy of producing material in print and online. As a music journalist I’ve also worked in both media, though the majority of the work that I produce has been for the online medium. I’m a self-confessed workaholic, too, so I’ve always approached anything that I do with a sense of professionalism and dedication. So, imagine my surprise and disappointment in publishing an online zine, to be met with general apathy amongst a tiny proportion of the people that I work with. Some people consider this apathy to be endemic amongst Australians, that it’s the national condition, and that I should just deal with it. Well, maybe that’s the case.

But, in a sense, the fact that apathy exists is unsurprising. To give you some background, writers for music zines – except large ones like Terrorizer – typically work for no pay, and the releases that they receive to review are considered recompense for the job done: because they get to keep them. Similarly, gaining entry to shows is “payment” for the job of turning up on time, writing a review, and submitting that review on time. Granted, it’s quite low “pay” – given many international shows’ tickets range from $40 to $120 – but it’s the experience of going out, being social, and have a good time while doing it that makes the job so attractive. Then occasionally you get to interview people who are so far out of the normal realm that it’s quite amazing. It’s an incredible opportunity, and if you add it to a “regular” job it can make your life bloody good.

And yet, despite the so-called perks, anything approaching a specific guideline is met – by some – with total disgruntlement. What one tends to discover is that they’re fanboys or groupies who want the music and begrudge having to work for it. Why these people even offer, then, is a good question.

To get back to the topic at hand. In publishing an online zine, what one tends to find is a general disregard for its seriousness: from some readers right through to the publishing industry itself. As a publisher, I take the job very seriously: it’s a commercial venture and our house has literally spent multiple thousands on the project: this is dead-set, absolute serious work. You should see the administrative side of the work on a day-to-day basis. It’s enormous.

So, when the publishing industry doesn’t take what you do seriously (all the professional organisations will only have you as a member if you produce material “in print”, for example), that bites. Add to that the few people, scattered amongst your golden stars of a team, that don’t take it seriously, and it could easily be perceived as a big problem.

Lack of respect for an online publication manifests itself in a variety of ways: people talking about “that website that you do”, as though it were a cute little thing you do on the side, is one of them. Among those very few with whom I deal that display a lack of respect, one tends to find it displayed in all sorts of ways. It comes as guidelines that aren’t followed, style sheets that aren’t followed, sometimes not taking the ‘accepted form’ or the publication’s set rules of work seriously, not meeting deadlines, not communicating an inability to meet deadlines (sometimes not communicating at all), requesting albums or events that haven’t been publicised yet (and may never be), being pushy, being demanding, and so on. Looked at in terms of employment, if you were officially paid for what you did, would you turn around to your boss and treat him or her with a total lack of respect? Of course not. People who work for online publications, however, do seem to feel a greater license because it’s impersonal and, in a sense, ‘informal’.

One could also argue that payment in kind, for what is relatively intense work, is akin to slavery, and so therefore people have a right to treat the publishing team and the publication how they like. If our zine, which is very young at the moment, was raking in the cash and I didn’t pay anybody, then I’d agree with you: thankfully I have a much more collaborative sense of work and couldn’t stand to see team champions go unrewarded – either financially or through gifts – if I was making that much on it. In fact, by April 2010 we may well be working on a different team model.

In a sense, it could easily be my fault for being “too nice”, but I think that it’s far bigger than that. I think that work done “for free” is often taken as not being “real” work. I also honestly believe that if I published this project as a printed magazine, many of the issues outlined above just wouldn’t exist. If it’s on paper, after all, it’s “real” (think of the huge joy people experience when they see their work published on paper versus on a website). And, if you have a print deadline, people see that as a real deadline because it involves printing houses, proofs, and all that jazz; an online deadline appears to be far more flexible because “you can update it whenever you like”. Well, I hate to break it to ya: deadlines still matter.

Let’s also not forget that the electronic sphere, for all that people bang on about it being necessary to gain readerships, a good spread and “distribution”, is still the people’s land. It’s an environment in which anybody can publish anything. From MySpace to WordPress, to more advanced CMSs like Drupal, you can get the site for close to nothing if you a) know what you’re doing and b) are happy to go with basic design. You can do amazing things with it. The interface between this element of the web and the commercial element of the web is uneasy and always has been. The two sides rub against each other dramatically, and they don’t cohabit easily. It’s partly, in my estimation, why online publications aren’t taken seriously: it’s because space on the interwebs can literally be anybody’s – for free. I love that about the internet: but it also gives me pause when I consider that shifting interface between the two sides of it.

It’s a strong measure of this problem that the professional organisations dedicated to publishers don’t acknowledge online publications as being valid, even if they work on a very similar structure to any printed publication. While such organisations are at the top of the tree, the decisions made by them are simply a general reflection of the attitudes of the people who make up the organisation, and the people they deal with on a daily basis.

So, what’s the answer to this? I’m not going to pretend to have the answer, because I don’t. Realistically, our publication has been online for less than five months: it’s early days yet and I’m a reasonably patient person who knows that things will change. The question is whether they’ll change quickly enough.

What do you think? Drop a comment here and let me know your opinion on this sticky issue.

5 thoughts on “Online publications: the issue of ‘respect’

  1. Yes, I can well imagine! I recall lots of people bitching about it with print mags when I was a wee little undergrad 🙂

    I’m not sure if it would meet the requirement, and it’s definitely something I’ve thought about pretty strongly. Kind of Year Book-style publication. Given that we have some killer galleries that would be a beautiful book. Even if it didn’t make the grade it would be a fun thing to do. 😛

  2. A lot of these issues you mention occur with print magazines too, believe me! Offering contributor copies in lieu of payment equals a similar lack of respect. But with many indie print magazines, this is the reality.

    With regard to the membership requirements of certain professional organisations requiring print publication, would producing a short-run/POD annual of the best articles each year, or a special themed edition, meet that requirement?

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