The advice is understandable. But it’s also easy to say when you’re not an aspiring journalist competing against hundreds of others for entry level jobs.
The fact is that people do work for free to get a foot in the door, or experience, or both – and that many employers exploit that.
When opportunities are limited to those who can support themselves for months without a wage in an expensive city, to those who can fund degrees and postgraduate courses to boot, we end up with a journalism which is for the people but not of the people.
But telling people not to work for free won’t change that unless it offers an alternative opportunity.
“The only profession”?
Jonathan Tasini claimed that:
“We are the only profession I know of who work for free. No coal miner, nurse, shipyard worker, accountant, or any other person with bills to pay works for free.”
He’s not looking very far. Musicians work for free. Artists work for free. Designers work for free. Sadly or encouragingly, depending on your point of view, journalism is becoming more like those professions.
They work for free because it makes them better musicians, artists and designers. They work for free because they enjoy getting better at what they do. Sometimes they work for free because it makes the world a better place. Journalists (including many of the investigative journalists on the final panel yesterday who do work on their own time) share all of these motivations. But the key difference is this: when they work for free they typically choose who they work for.
And here’s where I add a big practical “unless” to the “Don’t work for free” argument:
Don’t work for free unless it’s adding to your value in the market
I agree with Tasini that I wouldn’t work for HuffPo for free, because the value to me would be negligible. But that doesn’t mean that all ‘free work’ doesn’t have value.
Aspiring journalists now need to make the same business decisions as publishers do – because we are all publishers now. They need to ask: will investing my resources in this piece of work make me more valuable in my market?
That includes the skills learned, contacts made, and experience gained. But it also includes the effect of working on the market itself: for instance, working for free for a publisher might contribute to depressing wage levels and reduce full time opportunities.
UPDATE (29 Oct 2013): Mary Hamilton has a similar take: “if you’re writing something that might get a thousand views or fewer for a site that doesn’t do much to jazz up your CV, then it’s worth asking yourself whether you’d be better off cutting out the middle man and putting it on your own blog. After all, big media companies don’t own exposure on the net; if anything can go viral online, it’s worth asking yourself if you’d rather those views went to your portfolio site rather than someone else’s platform.”
I considered this carefully when designing the work placement element of my MA in Online Journalism, ‘Labs’. This is explicitly not an experience where the student sits at a desk doing someone else’s work (most have already worked as journalists); it is designed as a consultancy relationship with an industry client, focused on an identified industry problem, so that the client benefits from the unique knowledge and experience of the student, and the student benefits from time, space, and access to develop much-needed knowledge.
If addressing that problem increases the client’s future capacity, that will lead to more work. Simply making more content for free wouldn’t help the industry employ more people.
Like so much else in the media industry, the internet has changed the market for internships and work experience, and as a result they should be considered carefully: for the first time, they are not the only options.
If you want to get into a journalism job you can add to your value by being your own publisher, and you can do so without having to spend your own money to work in someone else’s office doing the jobs that no one else wants to do. That is what one group of students did with Wannabehacks (currently on its second round of editors after the first round all landed jobs); that is what Josh Halliday and Dave Lee did before landing jobs straight out of university, at The Guardian and BBC.
When magazine publishers like Future and Reed Business Information are hiring from – and acquiring – specialist blogs and online communities, the canny move is not to spend your own money on months of fetching coffee, but on becoming your ideal employer’s competition.
It’s a big step to take: internships at least provide that tangible hope that you will strike lucky, and the illusion of working as a journalist. Doing it yourself means taking on more responsibility and initiative, and trusting more in your own ability to improve. But those are the qualities employers – or owners – are looking for.
This isn’t a post saying that blogs are going to solve everyone’s problems. Internships will still work for those with the resources and contacts to pursue them. But they shouldn’t be the only route – and encouraging people to think critically about the options open to them is better than shutting them off entirely.