I used to be an editor with a tiny budget who was constantly apologizing for our rates. Now I’m a freelancer who pays my rent exclusively through writing. And sometimes, I allow my work to be published for nothing, or next-to-nothing. Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the deterioration of journalism!
It seems like a good week to make the controversial case that sometimes—and only sometimes—it makes sense to write for free. On Monday, journalist Nate Thayer published an exchange he had with an editor at The Atlantic in which she requested permission to reprint a post without compensating him. It’s spurred a spirited discussion about how much writers should be paid.
I’m of the mindset that it’s impossible to speak in absolutes about this subject, because every writer (freelancer or not) is at a different career stage, with different interests and different strengths and financial concerns. Only you know how much time something took, what sort of benefit you seek from your work, and how each assignment you accept or pitch you send fits into a larger financial or career plan.
My personal freelance patchwork involves two weekly columns (which together create a reliable base of income), at least one other short (often low-paid) Web assignment, a handful of higher-paid print assignments that are in development at any given time, and a sprinkling of unpaid or extremely low-paid work.
I try to double dip, writing about the same topic for multiple outlets to cut down on my research time (for example, this recent book review and reported Web piece).
When I agree to write for free, it’s usually been for one or more of the following reasons:
To establish expertise. Let’s say you’d really like to be a tech reporter, but you’ve got no clips to prove your interest in and knowledge of the subject. Maybe you’re transitioning from another beat or type of journalism. It can be worth writing on spec or for little to no payment in order to build up a few clips that prove to future assigning editors that you know your stuff. The established career ladder—in which you start as a paid intern or a clerk, then work your way up the ranks with steady pay raises along the way—may still apply in other professions. But in modern journalism, there is no ladder. Especially if you’re just starting out now, you’ve got to find creative ways to prove you’re smart and competent as substantive entry-level jobs are scarce.
Because I was writing it anyway. If you love to write, I’m guessing you find yourself with odd notes and journal entries and weird essays that you wrote just because you felt like it. And maybe you want to find a more public home for some of this work—somewhere that’s bigger than your personal website. I, for example, make these silly, hand-drawn charts, which I publish at The Hairpin. This is something I do for fun, and I’d make these pie charts whether or not anyone wanted to publish them. After I published a few and people seemed to like them, I made it a goal to find a publication to pay me for similar work. And I did—a monthly magazine commissioned me to do a recurring chart feature for its front-of-book. It’s a paid gig I never would have gotten without an unpaid one.
To raise my profile. Some of the lowest rates I accept for reported work are for the Web counterparts of prestigious legacy print publications. I do so because I want to be affiliated with these publications. I want to reach their readers. And I want higher-up editors there to know my name and recognize my voice as one that’s a good fit with their editorial product. At many legacy publications, the website is the farm team for the print product, which has higher barriers to entry but also pays much higher rates. I believe that earning a mere $200 for a piece it took two days to report is an investment in my future—and this is a financial choice that I balance by saying yes to higher-paid assignments that may be less interesting to me or result in less exposure. It’s up to individual writers to determine when “writing for exposure” is a scam and when it’s a career boost. Personally, I play a long game.
To be part of a project I love. Sometimes you just really want to make something with a group of people you respect, and the reward is in the collaboration and the product. That’s what Tomorrow magazine was about for me. (Even though we did manage to pay everyone something, the financial model of a Kickstarter-funded publication was not feasible—an amount of underpaid work I couldn’t abide.)
Absolutists who say it’s never okay for any writer to write for free tend to add that, since journalism is a business, you should never give anything away. If you agree to write for a super-low rate or for nothing at all, the logic goes, you hurt everyone who’s trying to make a living as a writer. While I’m sympathetic to this argument, I don’t think it’s realistic for everyone—particularly aspiring magazine journalists who are just starting out now—to construct the freelance career of their dreams and get paid for every word along the way. But luckily, I also don’t claim to know what’s best for every freelancer. And I respect those who have found success by holding firm to a certain pay rate.
Just kidding. Now let’s fight about this in comments!