When should journalists work for free?

by Lindsay Kalter
Mar 8, 2013 in Freelancing

Sometimes a byline is worth more than a check.

At least, that's what editors at The Atlantic had in mind when they recently asked a freelance journalist to provide content for its website free of charge. The incident prompted several media watchers to sound off about unpaid work.

Jeff Sonderman examines the controversy and notes a few points journalists should keep in mind when deciding whether to write for free:

Be selective

Sonderman quotes writer Jason C. Fry, who says a careful cost-benefit analysis should be conducted each time a writer considers an unpaid assignment. According to Fry, freelancers should only adhere to such an agreement if something significant can be gained, like an impressive addition to your CV or top-notch editing advice. "Be ruthless in asking yourself if the trade-off’s really worth it," Fry writes. "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?"

Are you better off blogging for yourself?

People creating content for free make the Internet more valuable for all of us, but writing for a specific publication may not be the best route, according to Slate’s Matthew Yglesias. Sonderman says Yglesias advises journalists to decide whether they want to have bylines with organizations, or take personal initiative by using social media and the blogosphere. "We should all be happy that thanks to the Internet there are now lots of people writing for free," Yglesias says. "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."

Don't rule out full-time options

Writing for free may serve as a stepping stone in the pursuit of paid freelancing gigs, but it's important to ensure that it's the right path before making that sacrifice. According to Sonderman, Reuters columnist Felix Salmon says journalists need to be prepared for the unpredictability and resulting frustration that can come with freelancing in the digital age. "There’s still real money in magazine features, and there are a handful of websites which pay as much as US$1,000 or US$1,500 per article," Salmon writes. "But in general it’s much, much easier to get a job paying US$60,000 a year working for a website than it is to cobble together US$60,000 a year working freelance for a variety of different websites."

To read the full Poynter post, click here.

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Photo CC-licensed, courtesy of EpSos.de.