There’s a firestorm going on today over freelance journalism and writing for free. It started with Nate Thayer, who published an email exchange he had with an editor for the Atlantic. Basically, the editor wanted Thayer to repurpose a piece he’d written for NK News — 1,200 words by the end of the week. For which Thayer would receive … nothing.
I was as mad and baffled as anybody — Thayer’s a veteran journalist, and the Atlantic’s a premier journalism brand, which makes the spectacle of an editor there performing the Our Great Platform cha-cha doubly embarrassing. And to don my dusty old digital-consultant hat for a moment, I don’t get their strategy, which seems neither fish nor fowl: Either pay Thayer to write something new and good, or don’t pay him anything and have a curator link to the piece he already wrote. (The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has been great in the ensuing discussion, by the way, tweeting candidly and thoughtfully about how things are done in that shop and how he’d like them to be done.)
But the real third rail here is whether or not to write for free. It’s a dilemma for all inexperienced writers, and if they ask two established folks for advice, they’ll often get two very different answers, followed by those two established folks fighting to the death.
I’ve been involved in such fights — a while back, I wrote this for the National Sports Journalism Center after Rick Reilly gave a talk to J-school grads decrying working for free. I thought that was bad advice and said so, for which I got pilloried by some smart folks and backed up by other smart folks. And so round and round we go.
The link’s right there, but here’s the quick version, after which I’ll have some thoughts for more-experienced folks:
Every new writer starts off in the same Catch-22: You need experience to get gigs, but the only way to get experience is through gigs. Today’s new writers have ways to jump-start the process that their forebears would have killed for: A small investment will buy a virtual printing press and distribution tools for instantly reaching a potentially world-wide audience. We’ve become so used to this that we miss how insanely revolutionary it is, so go back and read that again.
There is a downside, though: The ubiquity of magic printing presses/fleets of virtual trucks has created a glut of writers, with a corresponding drop in compensation. And those magical tools aren’t reserved for the little guys — big publishers use them and their attendant strategies too. Which has blurred boundaries between free and paid.
So what to do about it? In my opinion, all writers should start with the assumption that their work has value and they deserve to be paid for it. But it’s short-sighted not to allow for exceptions, and those exceptions will change over time.
For young and/or new writers, I’d suggest these are exceptions worth considering:
* The platform’s good enough that being associated with it helps build my CV
* The platform’s good enough that I can introduce myself to a larger audience and build a lasting relationship with readers
* I really like this editor and think he or she can improve my writing and will be a great addition to my list of contacts
But be ruthless in asking yourself if the trade-off’s really worth it. Is the platform really that prestigious? Is the give and take with readers really that attractive? Is the relationship with the editor really going to be that hands-on? Lots of platforms are open to all comers, meaning they have no prestige. Lots of editors don’t actually edit. And so on. In such cases, just do your own thing.
And finally, the goal is to get paid as soon as possible. These are short-term strategies.
(Let me save you an email: I get the irony that I just repurposed my own paid article for free.)
Now, should more-experienced writers work for free? Your default stance should be “no,” bordering on “hell no.” But there are exceptions.
I’m 43 and have been a professional writer for half my life. I keep track of work I’ve invoiced, how much I need to make a day, and the day on which that math indicates I’ll be broke. But yes, I do write some things for free, and I’d be willing to write some more things for free.
* My posts on Faith and Fear in Flushing are uncompensated. I write there because I love the Mets, because writing alongside Greg Prince keeps me on my game, and because it’s fun. It’s also true that FAFIF got my co-blogger a book deal and helped get me tons of paid work.
* These musings are unpaid, because what the heck. They’re an effort to pay it forward, a promotional vehicle, and a tool for therapy.
* I’ve contributed free work to anthologies for friends of mine and people I admire and want to be associated with.
* I’ve written for free because I saw a chance to champion the work of writers I like.
* I’ve written for free because I didn’t have access to the audience that a piece of mine needed.
That last exception is the one I consider most often. I’d like to write more about music, travel and genealogy, but I’m not well-connected with those audiences. Would I write for free on those topics if you gave me a good editor and a respected platform for reaching those readers? I might — but with the expectation that such work would soon lead to getting paid, either by that publication or by someone else.
That’s the key: If you’re going to write for free, make sure a) it’s in service of a larger strategy; b) it’s a short-term arrangement; c) you aren’t just kidding yourself; and d) you’re really not just kidding yourself. What the Atlantic asked Nate Thayer to do fails that test. I get why he’s mad — I was mad on his behalf. But it might make sense in some other situation.