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.