Repair cars...for free! Fix elevators...gratis! Clean a stranger’s toilet...out of the goodness of your heart! In any other field, even the notion of working for free causes an eye twitch of cognitive dissonance. That’s unreasonable, you say. After all, that repairperson or craftsperson or otherwise working person is devoting their time and energy to perform a service with the understanding that you will compensate them for it. That is certainly not the economic system I favor, but it’s what we’ve got for now.
But there are still some corners that would have you believe this clear-cut distinction does not extend to journalism. This is patently insane.
Nick Douglas, my colleague at Splinter sister site Lifehacker (which I’ve often said in Splinter’s internal chat is my favorite site in the GMG universe next to the unimpeachable Goodness of Kinja Deals) published a story on Tuesday arguing a simple premise: Actually, you should write for free. (The art for the piece nicely cues up the problems with this argument with a photo of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, who was afforded the luxury of writing “on spec” because she was the only child of famous people and married to the son of a member of Parliament.)
If you want to write for a living, you should write for free. Hell, if you already do write for a living, you should write for free. And that free writing should be some of your best work.
But Lifehacker then draws a distinction between the types of writing you should and should not do for free (emphasis mine):
None of the above means that you shouldn’t ask for what you deserve. Don’t write free work if you don’t enjoy it, and don’t write free for just anyone who asks.
If you’re writing for a well-known and well-financed publication, you should absolutely request payment. (Most well-known publications won’t even ask for free work. But they might take months to pay you.)
Anyone who asks you to write for free should make their gratitude clear. They should also make it clear what they need from you, and offer you every opportunity to say no. If they act like you owe this to them, run away.
Yes, write for free in your journal. Write free poetry in a little Moleskine notebook. Write for free on your secret erotic fiction Tumblr. I do not care! But writing for free as an individual trying to break into journalism is terrible advice. Who cares about gratitude when your major city’s monopoly of choice is turning your lights off!
There is a decent point here that you should run from anyone who acts like they’re doing you a favor by running the work you’ve done at no cost to themselves. But you should respect your fellow working journalists and respect yourself more: Do not accept “exposure” or anything less than cash as payment. You cannot eat or pay your rent with “exposure” or an editor’s “gratitude.” If your chosen profession is to be a journalist, you should be paid for your work.
The piece also makes the dubious argument that you should view the fruits of your labor as a kind of donation to fledgling sites that “can’t afford to pay at all.” This thinking is easily exploited by rapacious bosses—look what happened in the case of SB Nation, the sprawling blog network of hyper-specific sports sites. SB Nation pitched itself as a DIY passion project to its borderline-criminally underpaid (or unpaid) network of contributors, who powered the venture as a part of Vox Media, a digital media conglomerate valued at $1 billion. People write for that site because they love the game, yes, but as Deadspin reported last summer, the value they’re bringing to the company is far outpaced by any measly stipend from Vox. Are your friends pinching pennies to start a new website and asking you to write for free? What you choose do is ultimately between you and your (content) god, but it’s a bad look out of the gate for any new venture.
Which brings me back to Lifehacker:
Write about stuff that interests you. One typical method is to start a blog; I got my first job (writing for the former Gawker Media site Valleywag) by writing about Gawker in college, at a site called Blogebrity that some guys had set up as a joke. (I was not the first or last person to get hired at Gawker by writing about Gawker.) A more recent example is Kate Wagner, who turned her blog McMansion Hell into a promising career as an architectural critic, writing (for pay) at sites like Curbed and 99 Percent Invisible.
Everyone has a different journalism origin story; if you’ve had the immense privilege of working on your passion project without worrying about money, you are one of the lucky ones. And of course it’s possible to point to people here and there who rose from humble Tumblr person to media superstar. But they are the exceptions, not the rule. Because the days when “start a blog” can be viewed as credible advice for getting into journalism are mostly gone, as are the days when you could write for publications for free and be taken seriously. Even HuffPost, that digital media juggernaut which carried the content of unpaid “bloggers” the world over, phased out the practice under its new editor earlier this year, because it’s the right thing to do.
In 2018, it’s foolhardy advice to suggest that if you just pour enough time and effort into your personal blog, you could be the lucky one plucked from obscurity. A better idea for writers looking to get bylines: try pitching publications that will pay you for your work!
By setting the precedent that you, a young writer with no bylines in publications the Big Media types care about, are ready and willing to work for free, you undermine everyone else already working in your field not-for-free. Why hire a freelance reporter to write a story for $1,000 or $250 or even $10 when you could do it for free? If you’re a content mill who’s just looking to protect their bottom line, the choice here is clear. (For what it’s worth, Kate Wagner, the writer cited by Lifehacker, tweeted me to say she’s never written for free and “immediately monetized my blog because I was a starving intern.”)
Many of the threats our industry faces today are of our own making: Newspapers are still bloodletting because ad dollars went online; digital media shops are far from immune as those fickle dollars go still elsewhere. There will always be someone trying to undersell you. In an industry this precarious, all we can do is band together in solidarity—like, say, by forming a union—with our fellow writers and drawing red lines to denote what practices are not acceptable. We have enormous latitude to build the world we want if we stand together. And until the revolution comes, I’ll start here: Don’t give your work away for free if someone would pay you for it.