All-star panel of writers discusses working for free

Nate Thayer tossed a grenade into publishing last week when he said The Atlantic asked him to work for free. The Atlantic apologized, and writers discussed working for free. That continues.

Write for free, but don't write free stuff for publishers: "The thing about creativity is that, secretly, it's all marketing," Ernie Smith writes.

You should have an unvarnished outlet for your creativity: It's your voice. It's your writing. Even if it doesn't make you a penny, you should be an entrepreneur about it. You should tell the world, hey, I got this new thing, and it's awesome, because it's my vision.

Too many journalists are hoping that someone will give them the answers about their work. Why? Even if you can't write your full destiny, write part of it. You don't have to wait for someone to notice your work. You just have to be savvy, creative, and ready to hustle.

Sources have always worked for free; now they're publishers, too: The "transaction between journalists and their sources is that the sources work for exposure — either for themselves or for their ideas — and the journalists repackage that work and sell it for money," Ezra Klein writes. But now sources can cut out the middleman.

If you look at who’s turning out copy for major media outlets but isn’t being paid, it’s not, by and large, professional journalists, or even wannabe professional journalists. The former typically won’t write without pay and editors generally don’t want to publish the latter. It’s people who, in another world, would be sources for professional journalists. It’s academics and business consultants and market analysts and former politicians. They have the expertise that makes editors –and readers — trust them. They have good ideas for articles. They have day jobs that are happy to subsidize the time they spending working for media exposure. And they’re often very good writers.

Journalists work for free all the time: Ta-Nehisi Coates was delighted to work for exposure after getting laid off by Time, he writes. And he still does it:

And lest you think The Atlantic is somehow unusual, ask yourself how often you've seen writers/thinkers/historians/intellectuals etc. in online "conversation." Ask yourself how often you've seen guest-bloggers at sites like The Daily Dish. Do you believe these people to be paid? Do you believe them to not actually be doing work? Tomorrow I will go on television, a prospect that I try (lately unsuccessfully) to avoid. I try to avoid it because it is work. I have to prepare information that I hope to provide. I have to think about what I'm saying. I have to make sure I know what I'm talking about. I have to tell my nervous self to shut up. No one pays me -- or any other guests -- for these contributions. We work "for exposure."

Only a chump works for free: At SXSW Sunday, David Carr said "Working for exposure for exposure only is a fool's errand, can't pay your landlord in exposure," according to Kelly Leonard. Carr asked who in the audience had worked for free:



  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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