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The Great Debate: To Write for Free or Not?

March 5, 2010

We hear it all the time, that journalism is being killed by the Internet. I’d argue that it’s being a paid journalist/writer that’s being killed by providing free content. I could get on a soap box about my worries regarding integrity, ethics and the blurring line that once existed between journalism and publicity, the way church and state were once ostensibly separated. Everyone with Internet access has something to say, but not everyone has someone vetting the information they spew. Owning a computer and knowing how to type doesn’t make you a good writer or journalist any more than me buying a scalpel and knowing how to cut a straight line would make me a good surgeon. But hey, we’ll save that for another post.

Few writers/journalists would say they’re in it for the money, because it has never been an occupation where big bucks are made, at least for the majority of us. An honorable profession? For sure. Becoming a millionaire doing so? Not so much. However, it is getting increasingly more difficult to make a living doing so when many publications have folded and many of the ones that remain, especially those online, don’t pay (at least right now). So what’s the best advice for aspiring journalists and writers when it comes to writing for free? There are some good arguments here, from both sides of the table. This stemmed from Huffington Post’s business model, which does not compensate the majority of its writers, and one of its writers suggested a paying model for the website.

Here’s the thing, I’ve always been of the mindset that you should be compensated for your work. It demeans its worth when there isn’t compensation. The very first professional article I wrote for one magazine, now defunct, was the ONLY ONE I wrote for free. Have I written for peanuts? Sure. Have I written in exchange for something of equal value, such as a bio for a graphic designer friend who in exchange designed my business cards? You betcha. The barter system to me is still a form of compensation. Writing for free as an intern falls in that barter realm, you are getting something for your work: experience, connections, published.

On the flipside, you get what you pay for.  I was the editor of a blog for a major music magazine who didn’t have the money to pay the bloggers. This was much to my chagrin, but I negotiated that writers at least receive free subscriptions of the magazine and they all had the possibility of their stories being upstreamed to the main site, where they were paid (not much, but it was still something). Many of them did get paid in this manner. However, because there was no guaranteed compensation, what I found as an editor is inexperienced writers (I had some great ones, too) and a lot more work to do. Which leads me to my next point. I do think when you’re first starting out, that it is acceptable and unavoidable to do some free writing. I have colleagues who wrote for free before moving on to some pretty respectable staff writing jobs. However, you should NOT do it if you aren’t getting something in return: Intern and/or choose to write for reputable publications. Building clips and getting published is important, but they don’t matter much if they’re edited poorly and/or appear somewhere not established. I also think that free writing in order to build clips, establish your name and get published should be happening WHILE YOU’RE STILL IN SCHOOL.  That way you have a body of work and some experience by the time you’ve graduated, which should increase your chances of getting hired/being paid to write professionally.

This brings me to my final advice on this debate. Once you have established yourself as a professional journalist/writer, i.e. you have a bevy of well-written, published clips from reputable publications, have proven talent and have been paid for your work, should you still write for free for others? My answer is a resounding NO. The argument that writing for free once you are established “helps build your brand” is a bunch of hooey. The only brand you’re helping build is that of the publication/website that is not paying you. By providing free, quality content you are helping set the precedent that there is no intrinsic or monetary value to your work or for writing in general. I liken this to the great music download debacle. Once people acquire music for free through illegal downloads, how do you then get them to want to pay for it? As a society, we need to decide if art, whether it’s in the form of music or writing or whatever, has value (my music journalism students heard a lot about this from Bloodshot Records’ Rob Miller). And if you don’t value your work, no one else will, either. If you’re a professional writer/journalist and want to “build your brand” with some free writing then build it for you. Start your own blog or website, publish your work yourself, keep writing and keep pitching to outlets that compensate you. Strong writing and reporting is arguably more important today than ever. It’s an awesome and noble responsibility that’s worth a lot. Be a part of keeping it that way.

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