I have never had the luxury of being able to work for free. (Working for family is a different story, and it can be argued here that I was helping to pay my own expenses, finally.) In college, even as people warned me that I’d have to take unpaid internships to break into journalism, this was not an option. Instead of the more prestigious unpaid internships (that would have also required me to move away from home, effectively requiring me to actually pay to work at these more prestigious internships), I felt as if I were clawing my way up with minimum wage, part-time freelance reporter jobs/internships at weeklies owned by the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Orange County Register and working holiday overnight shifts at a local news wire called City News Service, all while doing part-time jobs at Coffee Bean, an art gallery and, of course, working with my mom (who was at this point at least giving me gas money).
There has been a lot of discussion this past week about writing for free after journalist Nate Thayer posted his email exchange with an editor from The Atlantic, who requested he condense a gigantic piece on North Korean basketball diplomacy to 1,200 words for free. Ann Friedman, on the Columbia Journalism Review, says she occasionally will write for free, for a few reasons, like raising her profile and establishing herself as an expert. (Although, reading through her piece, she doesn’t really work for free — she has accepted very low rates, but I didn’t see much about actually writing for free.) In The Atlantic — heheh — Stephanie Lucianovic writes that she writes for free, but not perpetually. And in reading her piece, the work she says is free appears to be more like marketing and promotion for her book, which, in my opinion, doesn’t count.
It so happens that last week, I participated in a MuckRack Twitter conversation about writing for free.
— Sara Morrison (@SaraMorrison) February 27, 2013
I don’t care what you do or what the glass ceiling is. If you’re good at your craft, you deserve to be paid well for it. Period.#muckedup
— Adam Popescu (@adampopescu) March 6, 2013
These are two of the tweets I liked most out of that conversation.
I am now in an unusual position — for me, anyway — on this issue. In November, I became the interim features editor at cbsla.com, and over the past two months, I’ve been recruiting writers. CBSLA does pay — its a small amount per article, but we’re not asking anyone to write for free, and whether or not we pay is the first thing I’m asked when I discuss freelance work with a new writer. (Coincidentally, if you’re interested in being a CBSLA writer, contact me via Twitter or LinkedIn, not this blog.) Its understandable — I don’t want to write for free, so I wouldn’t ask anyone else to. It’s shocking to me the number of people willing to write for free, just to get into, say, The Huffington Post. Maybe there’s value to you, but not to me or my kids, who still need to be fed and clothed even if I get exposure with 30,000 readers.
All this said, I have a good chunk of writing online that I’ve never been paid for. Does online advertising count? I don’t make much off darleeneisms, and this is my oldest site with entries that go back to 2003. And if I were to put all my archives on this blog, it’d go back to 1998. I have made a healthy chunk of change off Wedding Decorator, but its not enough to pay the rent, especially now as I struggle to adapt my site in the wake of Panda and Penguin algorithm changes from Google — thanks for that, by the way. I don’t consider blogging to be “writing for free.”
I’ve been blogging since 1998, generally in obscurity and for little compensation. But that’s OK, because all this content has value to me.
That’s all I’m saying. Make sure your content, your work, your writing has value. If you are writing it for yourself, then it has value. But if someone else wants to publish it on their site or in their newspaper or magazine — then you make them pay for it, because it apparently has value to them, too. Maybe they’re not offering much for it — I’ve seen freelance rates as low as $15 per piece, which is simply awful to me. But at least that’s some value, and you’re not giving it away for free.
*This Poynter Institute piece weighing in on the issue reminded me of the conversation I had with a friend who has been a freelancer and says I can feel this way because of the security I have with my staff CBS job. I pointed out, it doesn’t matter what work it is — writing, editing, wedding decorations, flowers, website production, graphic design (all the work I have personal insight into) — people are always going to try to get you to work for free. It’s really your job not to let them get your work for free.