Telling wannabe journos “Don’t work for free” doesn’t help

“Don’t work for free,” they were saying at the So You Want To Be A Journalist conference yesterday. “It’s fear, not freedom, that drives creators to succumb,” argued Jonathan Tasini in the Guardian.

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.

The fact is that this leads to a media industry which does not represent the diversity of its readers, viewers and users.

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 may aspire to be for the people — but is not by any metric 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’: 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.

12 thoughts on “Telling wannabe journos “Don’t work for free” doesn’t help

  1. Chris Wheal


    Working on your own blogs is a great idea and I agree. Proper work experience, as part of a course, can be invaluable too.

    But far too many wannabejournos are encouraged to work for for free for profitable international corporations run by millionaires.

    The problem with that kind of working for free is that is doesn’t open up opportunities for paid work – it reduces the overall opportunities for paid work.

    If companies can get copy for free, what incentive to they have to pay for it?

    AOL took over HuffPo. If he HuffPo model works – not paying contributors – the company will try to move that model to is other sites and channels that currently pay journalists.

    There will be fewer paid opportunities left for aspiring journalists the more they work for free.

    As I said at the event yesterday, it is rare to hear a working journalist recommend working for free but common to hear journalism academics recommend it (or excuse it, at least). Do they feel guilty for training too many students when there are simply not enough jobs?

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      That’s exactly what I’m saying in my post: if you work for free for a large commercial organisation you are probably contributing to depressing the wages and jobs market you want to enter.

      I don’t recommend working for free to my students, and I don’t think this post is excusing it either. I think the media industry should be ashamed of some of its practices in this area – and also that universities need to take a fresh look at how (and if) they manage placements, because the growth of journalism courses has flooded the placement ‘market’, and further restricted opportunities for different people to enter journalism (for example, many media organisations now won’t take placements from people who are not on journalism courses). There’s a lot of scope for doing something much more constructive with the time of journalism students, such as setting up entrepreneurial hubs, research labs, etc.

  2. Stuart Goulden

    Better advice would be to encourage students to become entrepreneurial journalists, feeding and growing their own mini media company whilst studying, or to simply write for a cause they believe passionately about. Do either well and you’ll walk into any publishers on graduating. Money shouldn’t enter the equation.

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      I think a lot of courses do do that – certainly I do. But encouragement isn’t always responded to!

  3. Pingback: Telling wannabe journos “Don’t work for free” doesn’t help | Computational and Data Journalism |

  4. Pingback: Consider the ‘unless’ factor in not working for free « Behind the Press

  5. Sharon Wheeler

    I tend to advise students to decide how much it will benefit their CV before making a decision to work for free – and then, if they decide to, to put some sort of time limit on it. In terms of work experience for university courses, a couple of weeks is fair enough. Beyond then, I’d want the student to ask themselves what they’re getting out of the deal.

  6. Ido

    As an independent journalist, practically, I cannot afford not being paid for my work. Yet, there have been a handful of cases where I did work pro bono. I clearly remember a conversation with an experienced journalist who warned me at the very beginning of my career not to work for free (or “for a byline”, as it’s sometimes put by editors who either couldn’t care less or are desperate themselves), since it backfires, as explained in this post. I fully agree with this point, even though I’m aware of the different views from the perspective of the individual journalist – here presented as strategic investment decisions.
    However, I do think that the question of unpaid journalism or not in fact goes to the heart of why do journalism in the first place. After all, even a full-time journalist position is not the best paid job in town, to say the least. So, I’d say that choosing this career path necessarily needs additional motivations. This is not to say that journalists do not deserve to be properly paid – society has a clear interest in ensuring that it has a viable, functioning ‘fourth estate’, and journalists must be able to make a living in order to fulfill their important role in society. If anything, media organizations, and particularly commercial ones, that make use of unpaid content – textual, visual or other – are ultimately contributing to the degradation of democracy. The Huffington Post case is probably the best known example for this kind of blatant exploitation, but it surely isn’t the only case.
    By the same token, I believe, if journalists are to serve the public interest, they (read: we) should avoid making any unpaid contribution to for-profit media outlets. Some might say I’m plain naïve, but if taken as a collective (or at least majority) decision – perhaps as a professional union policy, as soon as more journalists acknowledge this is a shared interest – things might just start changing.

  7. Karl Schneider

    Spot on Paul. Setting up a blog and getting their hands dirty practising their trade & building an audience is the best thing an aspiring journalist can do to boost their chances of landing a job. When I first became a journalist it just wasn’t practical to expect people entering the profession to start in this way – the costs involved in setting yourself up as a publisher in print were too high. But online the costs have dropped to zero. Today, expecting a digital publisher to offer you your first job when you haven’t already proved yourself on a blog is like asking a record label to sign you up as a rock star when you haven’t learned to play an instrument or played a gig yet.

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  9. Pingback: Newsquest charging students for a byline? They could at least sell it properly | Online Journalism Blog

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