As a writer and journalist, being asked to work for free is something with which I’m very familiar.
In the early days of my freelance career, I spent quite a bit of time looking around at various websites and message boards where people were looking for writers to help them out with a project – usually a website or blog. I quickly learned that it was a complete waste of time: most of them were unpaid, but argued that the exposure would be good for my portfolio and therefore great for my future earnings. Better yet, if their website or blog took off, they would begin to share the profits out with those who were helping them.
Hmm. That seems unlikely. If something is available for free, why would someone decide to pay for it?
Well, there are exceptions to my general cynicism, as Sian Meades, editor of Domestic Sluttery, explains. It’s not just small start-up businesses which want to pay their writers more, either – the Guardian’s Northener website doesn’t currently pay (although other parts of the Guardian do) and the recently installed editor of the Northerner, Helen Pidd, has been impressively honest about wanting to change that situation.
The trouble is, people will always do this kind of work for free. Students just out of journalism college need something to make their CVs stand out from the crowd and getting published online – especially for something as prestigious as the Guardian – can be a way to achieve that. Equally, budding writers want an outlet for their talents and blogs can offer that. But how often does that really lead to paid work?
Exposure is something you certainly need as a journalist or writer, but I’ve learned to pick and choose who I work for – particularly if they’re not paying me. I don’t mind offering help to friends who are starting up businesses, or to charities and organisations whose work I want to support. Very occasionally, I will work for free if I can see very clearly that doing so will bring me other paid work in the short term, but those kinds of opportunities are few and far between.
What I refuse to do is work for free for someone I don’t know, who will probably (because otherwise he wouldn’t bother) make a profit out of what I write, either directly or indirectly. Seth Godin went into more depth on this issue in a blog post earlier this week.
The trouble is, working for free also puts other writers and journalists in a more difficult position. Once a website or blog has managed to find contributions for free, what incentive is there for them to pay for a professional in the future? No matter how you look at it, writing is a profession. It requires skill, dedication, time and energy – and people who do it for a living need to be paid in order to live.
You wouldn’t ask a plumber to work for free on the basis that if he installed your bathroom well, you’d tell all your friends how good it was and he would get more work.
Why should writing be any different?