March 6, 2013

This week’s controversy over the Atlantic asking a freelancer for an unpaid contribution has reignited a debate among journalists — when, if ever, does it make sense to write for free?

Jason C. Fry says that even a seasoned writer, like himself, may occasionally choose to write for free to help out a friend or to get a particular piece in front of a particular audience. But it’s especially tempting for young, unproven writers, he says.

Fry advises young writers they might consider writing for free if the platform is prestigious enough to bolster a résumé, big enough to reach a huge audience and build a lasting relationship with readers, or has an editor who can improve their writing.

But, he also cautions:

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.

Slate’s Matthew Yglesias stands up for the benefits of free writing: “We should all be happy that thanks to the Internet there are now lots of people writing for free. Some of them are publishing for free under the umbrella of an established media brand. Some of them are publishing for free on Twitter. Some of them are writing Tumblrs or blogs. But everyone’s doing it and it’s amazing — it means there’s way more content out there for people to read than ever before.”

Write for money if you have an opportunity, he says, but if not, “you should definitely be writing for free. The tough choice is whether you want to write for free for some other publications or just under your own header. Maybe you just want to tweet vigorously. To each his own.”

Reuters columnist Felix Salmon argues that the Web is just not a friendly medium for most full-time freelancers, and you’d be better off looking for a staff job:

The fact is that freelancing only really works in a medium where there’s a lot of clear distribution of labor: where writers write, and editors edit, and art directors art direct, and so on. Most websites don’t work like that, and are therefore difficult places to incorporate freelance content. The result is that it’s pretty much impossible to make a decent living on freelance digital-journalism income alone: I certainly don’t know of anybody who manages it. There’s still real money in magazine features, and there are a handful of websites which pay as much as $1,000 or $1,500 per article. But in general it’s much, much easier to get a job paying $60,000 a year working for a website than it is to cobble together $60,000 a year working freelance for a variety of different websites.

The Atlantic incident and the resulting discussion leaves me with a couple more big questions to ponder:

  • Will there ever be a secure living in freelancing full-time, in an age when so many other writers are happy to publish for free? Or do writers need to accept that their skill must be leveraged into other income opportunities like book deals, speaking fees, etc.?
  • Is it really so wrong of the Atlantic or any publisher to ask an author, politely, if he is willing to provide a piece of content for free? Can’t the author simply decline and move on? Does an incompatible business negotiation have to result in moral offense?
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Jeff Sonderman ( is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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