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June 29, 2009

Working for Free

Google did it to artists, LinkedIn did it to translators, and both managed to infuriate the people they'd sought to woo. The offense? Each organization, neither of them starved for cash, wanted experienced professionals to trade their services not for money but for exposure.

Similar offers (albeit by start-up publications) have long insulted journalists, many of whom would never deign to accept such an exchange. And yet any journalist who has lost a job, or a once-reliable freelance gig, is encouraged from all sides to start blogging feverishly -- for, of course, the exposure, which will, in theory, draw paying work.

But how does this square with reality at a time when almost no one is hiring and nearly everyone's freelance budgets have been slashed, if not done away with altogether? The market is so far in employers' favor, not just in journalism but in many fields, that even some wealthy ones no longer believe they have to part with cash in order to acquire the work of professionals whose lengthy résumés reflect plenty of previous exposure.

I'm not contesting the necessity of journalists' blogging (something I do here, obviously, and also on ArtsJournal), or at least maintaining an online presence, if they've lost their regular platform. What's objectionable is what's become the conventional wisdom in some quarters: that working for free -- which takes time and energy -- is sustainable; that blogging is an acceptable substitute for real reporting; and that if we do enough work for free, and promote ourselves tirelessly enough, someone will step up to pay us for it.

By giving our work away, we depress the market. By pretending that blogging is the equivalent of reporting, when it very rarely is that, we debase journalism. And by hoping that blogging will translate into any significant income, we may well be deluding ourselves.

Isn't this give-it-away-for-free mantra the guiding notion that's driven the newspaper industry into the ditch? By putting their product online without requiring that either readers or advertisers foot the bill, newspapers have vastly enlarged their audience, but that enormous exposure hasn't paid off. Instead, publishers find it harder than ever to convince the people who rely on their work to part with any money for it, which means they can't pay their staff and freelancers, which means more bloggers are released into the world to toil without pay, even as newspapers' ability to practice journalism is further diminished.

There are those who argue that journalists need merely work hard on establishing their brands through their blogs, then rake in the cash from personal appearances -- in the manner of musicians who make money from touring rather than recordings, which have become mere branding tools (and which, not incidentally, people are unwilling to pay for when they can get them online for free). In theory, this income would allow journalists to fund their own reporting, although probably without the safety net an editor provides. But the number of people who will find financial success according to this model is limited. Extremely. So is the number who'll make more than a pittance from advertising.

Exposure doesn't pay the rent. Never has, never will. We need to find a better way. We need to put journalists back to work, for pay.
June 29, 2009 9:44 AM | | Comments (5)


Hi Laura, Well said. If you haven't seen it, check out the article by John Nichols and Robert McChesney that was in the Nation, (
They argue for a federal stimulus package for journalism. Sounds fanciful, at first, but the argument is powerful and their solution makes sense.

Finally, someone is telling the truth about the plight of journalists -- and not just journalists, but also composers and other creators of what we like to call "content" today. As a journalist and composer, I constantly hear that my work should be given away for free, as if everybody on the internet had an automatic right to read, hear and perform it without any compensation to the person who wrote it.
And yes, newspapers have helped kill themselves by giving away their content for free ... but so have sites like Artsjournal, which cannibalize and pillage the work of the remaining viable media outlets. What will happen to Artsjournal when it, and others like it, have assisted most of the "real' news sources into the grave? The organization certainly doesn't have a significant staff of international real journalists who can provide the content they now grab from existing media sources. But since so many people think that any blogger is the equivalent of a professional journalist, perhaps that distinction will cease to matter to on-line readers.

I know it's rare, but there are people who make money with blogs by providing solid and regular content. It can be commercialized. So when people are encouraged to blog, it's not necessarily a call to give work away - just as we don't pay for a television news report seen in a bus station, the costs are still there, just not experienced directly.

Now, a lot of the greatest blog content is available commercial free and done by people who don't get paid, but that is often a choice - aesthetic for me, since I simply don't like advertisement on my site, but still a choice.

Amen, Laura.

Arguably the greatest-ever critic and most impressive personage to have written about the arts in English was Samuel Johnson, who said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Johnson was a father to all essayists, columnists and bloggers -- but you had to pay twopence for each piece he published in his series, "The Rambler."

And surely no sane man or woman ever cracked open a Form 990 or an audited financial statement to do real nuts-and-bolts arts reporting (then called up an arts organization's executive director or CFO with follow-up questions), or did an extensive preparatory Factiva/Nexus/Web search before an interview with an artist -- except for money.

Opinion comes cheap; good or even merely competent reporting is work beyond the comprehension of those who fancy themselves journalists without ever having done it.

As someone or other once said, "You get what you pay for."

Brava, Laura.
About time someone said it, and so well.

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