Saturday, 9 March 2013

Media organisations relying on unpaid content reinforces elitism. So should journalists refuse to write for free, or is it a necessary evil?

Should journalists ever write for free? It's a knotty question.

Freelance journalist Nate Thayer sparked an intense debate this week when he published an email thread between him and the global editor of The Atlantic asking if he'd be interested in "repurposing" one of his recent stories for their website. All in all, it sounded like a relatively cushty commission. The catch? She wanted him to do it for free. 

I think we can all agree that a for-profit news organisation asking a veteran journo to provide free copy on the basis that it will boost their exposure ("We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month") displays a fairly staggering level of cheek. But how about lesser-known writers?

My gut response is that if we want high-standard content, we need to pay for it. Yes, it's possible to quickly churn out a blog or a reaction piece to unfolding events, but in-depth journalism takes time and research. And relying on free content, as with unpaid internships, means journalism is only accessible to those with a financial safety net. As Gawker's Cord Jefferson put it:
These people are right to be concerned about the homogeneity of media, a problem that worries me as well.
But it's then incumbent upon all of us to recognize that this is the culture we breed when we offer to pay writers nothing or next to nothing, thereby immediately eliminating anyone who needs a paycheck in order to feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads.
In other words, porfessional journalism becomes largely the preserve of the well-off. That said, I do think there are some occasions when it's okay as to write without expectation of payment, which I'd broadly summarise as:

  • When you're writing for your own personal satisfaction or to air your own views (this blog would be an example). 
  • When you're writing on a specialised or arcane topic that you're passionate about but there isn't really any money in. This could include writing for a non-profit alt periodical, or one with no freelance budget.
  • When the exposure - for example having a piece published by a well-known news organisation - is genuinely going to add to your CV and increase the chances of having work published by other sites. 

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