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If you write for free, prepare to do so for a long time.

March 27, 2011 \pm\31 2:26 pm

This is my broken record rant.

Decide what your writing is worth.

My grad school is partnered with media outlets that publish student work for free. When work goes up in The Daily News (through our school’s news service, not pitched separately) students don’t make a cent. The Times local blog for Forte Greene, Brooklyn is run by a specific class at my school, and also does not pay its bloggers.

The Local class is good experience. It’s a crash course in the workings of hyperlocal journalism. Students help to make editorial decisions. I’m not in the class, but I gather that it’s the kind of incubator situation where you learn a lot. I also don’t think the Times would be able to afford The Local if it was not run by our students. Fine.

The Daily News? I don’t know the justification for that. Students need clips so they can get internships, which are mandatory over the summer. But that’s not an excuse to pay them nothing for well-reported articles that feed, um, a real estate billionare’s News Corp’s pockets. Especially since these are freelance articles; The Daily News is not providing a learning experience or academic credit, let alone money.

It’s different in the context of an internship, which is, like The Local, a learning experience and not comparable to freelance work. Or if you are writing for a smaller paper, or a startup, or a paper you truly believe in. (I’m thinking of myself, here: my upcoming, unpaid, summer internship at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans fits in the “paper you truly believe in” and “internship” categories.)

There comes a point in time when we are deciding the value of our work in the future. If we are deciding that value is free now, I’d like to know where our paycheck is coming from after graduate school, when the loan checks that bolster our present existence come knocking on the door. (To break the door down.)

There will always be legions of students and soccer moms with a journalism hobby who will accept that the value of their work is nothing in order to get their name out. But they are contributing to their own demise, in the long run.

Our own demise, I should say. I personally refuse to contribute to it as well.

I’ve gotten shit for this. I’m not publishing a hell of a lot of my work. And yes, I should be pitching more often, and will. But every decision is a step towards something larger. And I’d rather get paid nothing for a story that sits in my bedroom than get paid nothing for it or 4 cents for it by AOL.

And, yes, I am publishing this for free. On a literary group blog, with people I like, who are also writing for free. Not for a corporation. Not for anyone who is making money off the free words. For me. That’s the difference.

Now that the record is fully out of my system, I will try to stop replaying it. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

There’s also a handy reference chart: Should I write for free?

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17 Comments
  1. March 27, 2011 \pm\31 2:56 pm 2:56 pm

    Isn’t it the Post that’s owned by News Corp, rather than the Daily News?

    • March 27, 2011 \pm\31 3:02 pm 3:02 pm

      You’re right.

      That’s what I get for speed-rant-writing. Will correct.

  2. March 27, 2011 \pm\31 3:32 pm 3:32 pm

    Since the advent of the internet, people have grown accustomed to getting the written word for free. I know that I’m personally annoyed that the New York Times is about to put up a paywall rather than rely on income from advertisers!

    However, people will always pay for what they value, so it comes down to getting your work out there and read (free or not) in a competitive marketplace of soccer moms, and once they’ve (the newspaper industry or Joe Public) recoginse the quality of your work in comparison, they will hopefully pay for it. There’s nothing wrong with paying some dues, as long as there is a clear benefit to yourself involved somewhere along the line.

    Or perhaps to put it a better way…give away the milk, not the cow. Once they taste that the milk isn’t sour, they will keep coming back to the cow time and time again.

    Not that I’m comparing you to a cow. Or saying that I want to suck on a teat…

    • March 27, 2011 \pm\31 3:49 pm 3:49 pm

      Re: paywall: Online advertisements do not pay as much as print advertisements did. And reporting costs are high, especially when it comes to the investigative reporting I’d like to see more of in every news publication, the Times included. Good reporting costs a lot of money. Now, consider how many people read the Times digitally rather than in paper form — where is the profit coming from?

      I mean, if people are to wait around for the industry to notice them, the news industry needs to be making a profit.

      I think that yeah, people have grown accustomed to getting things for free. And in doing so, they are capable of something very scary: thinking the Times is a great, respectable paper, while at the same time believing they are entitled to all of its reporting and writing and editing and work for free. I blame a larger problem — an economy based on virtually nothing, floating on credit — as much as I blame the internets. I never really blame the internets. I like the internets. I just think that the disassociation between what makes up The Times (and how much of other news on the internet comes from AP and Times reporting) and paying for The Times is a sign of a lack of awareness of the news process.

      For reference, Nate Silver posted a chart which shows how much of the news on the internet comes directly from the Times: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/a-note-to-our-readers-on-the-times-pay-model-and-the-economics-of-reporting/

      I do agree that it is good to write and get your voice out there in order to even be taken seriously by the people who will pay you. But I’d rather do that on a personal blog or for a paper I believe in than for free for company that is capitalizing on my situation, and the situation all aspiring journalists are in.

      • March 27, 2011 \pm\31 4:43 pm 4:43 pm

        Agreed. My original point (that I didn’t word very well) being that I have been so accustomed to getting something for free online that I am now reluctant to pay for it, and I’m still annoyed that I will have to, even though I realise that good investigative reporting actually costs something.

        If we continue to rely on ‘free reporting’ subsidised by low revenues from advertising, sooner or later we come to the point we are now reaching, where newspapers consist purely of rewriting the copy of press releases, or from the wire services. That is not acceptable. See this for an example: http://churnalism.com/

        As a journalist, you want to be able to reach as wide an audience as possible, without sacrificing the quality of your original reporting. Unfortunately, that may no longer be possible, with people so used to getting something for nothing that they will seek their news elsewhere rather than pay for it. This in turn will not increase revenues by much due to a likely drop in circulation, and the monies that are earnt are likely to be taken out as profit, rather than reinvested into investigate journalism or new journalistic talent. It’s a similar situation to what is happening with the e-book market and its battle with legacy publishing now.

        There are only two organisations that spring to mind that can afford to do otherwise. The first is NewsCorp, due to their media monopoly and cross platform revenues, but then we end up with such biased and slanted reporting that it’s not worth the paper it is printed on. The second is the BBC, independent from government, impartial in its reporting, funded by the taxpayer. Yet even that is struggling in the competitive digital age. Other than that, you can argue that traditional journalism and profit-making from news media is dead.

        I would say that you are making the right decision when it comes to choosing to publish for free on your own terms, rather than have someone capitalise on your blood, sweat and tears. I agree with your principles and I don’t doubt the quality of your work either. But it’s not the easy path and you may end up having to shout a lot louder than the others willing to prostitute themselves for the attention to your work in the first place to be able to forge a career. But then, where would be the challenge if it were easy? At least you will be able to hold your head up in pride when you do make it.

        Thanks for the link btw.

  3. March 27, 2011 \pm\31 5:46 pm 5:46 pm

    I generally agree with you when it comes to commercial writing (ie, journalism). But creative writing is a different story. I don’t think anyone who writes stories or poems expects to make money. Most print journals don’t pay with a few exceptions.

    • March 28, 2011 \pm\31 12:07 pm 12:07 pm

      I agree.

      It takes even bigger balls to try to make a living creatively. I tip my hat to those who do.

  4. March 27, 2011 \pm\31 5:58 pm 5:58 pm

    I don’t know. I’m one of those people that thinks information should (and will) be free. So I have a hard time with pay-walls on news sites. I think the Times’ effort to do it based on how much a reader is using it is an interesting solution. But ultimately, they’re going to need to figure something else out. I’m sorry papers are dying. But at the same time, you know what? I could really care less. Lots of things are dying these days. Let’s let ’em already and see where we end up, shall we? I guarantee you that death will lead to us figuring it out.

    At the same time, I’m a writer, and I think writers should be paid. I also think writers should realize they’re in a profession similar to teachers. They’re necessary, but they won’t be rich. It might be sad, but at the same time, the writers I know (I’m talking big-name novelists here) who wind up rich in their lifetime aren’t necessarily ones I aspire to be. Writers get paid (at least partially) in popularity points.

    I’m probably contradicting myself. I sure as hell hope so.

    • March 28, 2011 \pm\31 12:06 pm 12:06 pm

      I don’t think that the work of reporters, writers and editors amounts to simple “information.” The information may exist in the world, but they are finding and synthesizing and providing it for you.

      There’s an attraction to the “let it burn,” theory. I thought of that theory before the bailouts. Let it crash to the ground. Then rebuild the system in a way that does involve inflated excess.

      But I think newspaper are “dying.” Changing, often suffering while they change, sure. There’s uncertainty but I have no doubts that people need to get their “information” from a place they can trust. There are also positive signs of change and innovation. There are emerging outlets for the longform, which is the opposite of what most people would predict: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/28/business/media/28carr.html?scp=1&sq=Atavist&st=cse

      I ain’t trying to be rich. Just paid.

      “Do I contradict myself?
      Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

  5. March 27, 2011 \pm\31 7:49 pm 7:49 pm

    Northwestern’s grad journalism program has a student news bureau: do they get paid, or is it folded into course credit?

    • March 28, 2011 \pm\31 12:09 pm 12:09 pm

      Not sure about Medill. I assume it’s course credit, or part of the program, because that’s pretty standard. But I’ll look into it.

  6. Dana permalink
    March 28, 2011 \am\31 10:47 am 10:47 am

    Ha ha ha. You are funny. I admire your anti-corporate stance. But do you think people like you and me get it easy? Do you think people are forking over money for you to rock the boat? Ha ha ha. That is funny.

    I will be interested to hear your thoughts on this after you’ve been stuck in a job you hate, doing other people’s writing for a few years. You probably won’t slam the soccer moms scribbling out their souls in their few spare moments then, because you will be doing the same thing.

    • March 28, 2011 \am\31 11:52 am 11:52 am

      Ah, yes. The repeated argument that I am naive for wanting to get paid.

      I don’t think it’s easy for us. And nowhere did I make any indication that I think it is.

      As for “scribbling out” my “soul,” I do write without pay when it is my soul on the page. I blog, and the creative non-fiction and poetry I’ve had published has not resulted in a paycheck, with a couple of exceptions. The difference: most literary magazines are not making a lot of money. They do not have corporate sponsorship. And I am happy to have an outlet for my voice. For the stories that are not “other people’s writing.”

      I also don’t believe that journalism is “other people’s writing.” There is editorial control, for sure. Over content as well as the actual words you type. But you are the one reporting and crafting the story and putting in the time. And if a corporation is making bank on the work you produce, you should be paid for it.

      That’s all.

      I do not think that I’m trying to do an easy thing. I do not think that the odds are in my favor. But I’ll be damned if I stop myself before I even begin. That would be failure in its truest form: resignation.

  7. Dana permalink
    March 28, 2011 \pm\31 3:20 pm 3:20 pm

    So you are going to leave your program and go to work for a newspaper or a magazine? And you are going to do journalism? Or you are going to be a free-lancer?

    If you go to work for a newspaper or a magazine, I bet you will end up writing crap that you would rather not be writing.

    You’re going to be a free-lancer? Well hopefully you will catch some breaks before your resources run out.

    In your original post, I believe you confuse worth with value. You say that people are submitting to the Daily News and getting nothing but clips. Well, that means the market has decided that student articles are worth clips for the writers. And most of the students agree. Clips then are the the value, the worth. Maybe there is an emotional charge to seeing one’s name in the News, that is a kind of return as well.

    Same with the soccer mom “getting her name out there.” She lets some articles be printed for free for nothing? Well, no, she’s getting clips and building her name and reputation. That is the value or worth of what she’s doing.

    And I think your analysis in this paragraph is flat wrong:

    “There comes a point in time when we are deciding the value of our work in the future. If we are deciding that value is free now, I’d like to know where our paycheck is coming from after graduate school, when the loan checks that bolster our present existence come knocking on the door. (To break the door down.)”

    It sounds like getting those clips and internships now is THE way to get an actual job in your field when your program is done, no?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t grad school the place where YOU pay to do tons of work? And now you can’t get yourself to hand over some work for free as part of the investment you are making for a future position?

    It just so happens that I agree that unpaid internships and unpaid articles are a terrible scam. However, it looks like you’re holding your nose and stamping your feet in the face of a very large and well-established market. More power to you. Maybe you can change it. I hope you can.

    BUT, do you think this unpaid article business in the News was something you might have been able to research before handing over that first tuition check? That’s where you lose some of my sympathy for your plight. You willingly paid money to a program that makes you ineligible for payment upon publication in the Daily News. If getting paid cash money is so important to you, why would you pay to become ineligible?

    And, are there other newspapers that might run your stories for cash money payment?

    What you are doing, holding out for actual money is another approach and it’s a fine one at that.

    • Dana permalink
      March 28, 2011 \pm\31 3:22 pm 3:22 pm

      Paragraph 4 should begin

      In your original post, I believe you confuse worth and money.

    • March 28, 2011 \pm\31 3:47 pm 3:47 pm

      It is not a requirement of my program that I submit clips to The Daily News and not get paid for them. I can, have, and will continue to pitch things on my own.

      If I go through the school’s “news service,” I won’t get paid at the Daily News, specifically. If I were to use the service — I haven’t yet — there are other papers that take student articles and do pay them. Many local papers, websites, etc do.

      As I have said in the comments, I do believe it is worth something to get your name out there. You cannot really find work — freelance, or otherwise — without clips. You also can’t, um, get into my grad program, without a fairly extensive portfolio.

      I understand the “you pay to do work” grad school model. My school tries to be a little different in that regard. It’s city funded and tries to create more of a real world, less academic, environment. That doesn’t mean there aren’t academics involved. It just means that we’re actively writing things we hope to publish. It doesn’t always pan out that way. Sometimes, a story is old news by the time it’s graded, or even by the time it’s written, when you consider we pitch to professors, then write, then edit, etc. But the model is more real world. That’s what drew me in to the program.
      (Also, full disclosure, I’m not paying to attend school. I am paying to live while in a full time program that doesn’t leave room for more than a part-time job. So I have living loans. But I wouldn’t be able to be here if I had to pay tuition on top of that.)

      I’m happy I’m here.

      I am hardly “holding my nose and stamping my feet.” I am simply saying that when I report something thoroughly, and it goes in a publication that makes money off of that work, I deserve to get paid.

      So, yes, I am holding out, or rather pitching on my own to places that will pay me and not try to take advantage of the fact that I’m a student.

      I say “pitching,” but the issue with verb in the ongoing tense is that my workload — and the demands of professors being different, a lot of the time, from publications — often prevents the time to re-work and pitch my stories for publication. But I’m trying to do better in that regard. (Instead of wishing there was an extra day of the week to edit and sleep.)

      Thanks for commenting, Dana.

      • Dana permalink
        March 28, 2011 \pm\31 4:23 pm 4:23 pm

        Thanks for replying. Good luck.

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