Journalism; when is it justified for a writer to work for free?

The Controversial Bit: yesterday morning, I posted on Twitter the following:

Hypothesis; people who write for free are using their secure financial situation as an unfair advantage. Any antitheses?

I got plenty.

To the tune of: Pete Seeger – Casey Jones

The Controversial Bit: yesterday morning, I posted on Twitter the following:

Hypothesis; people who write for free are using their secure financial situation as an unfair advantage. Any antitheses?

Notably, all the aspiring journalists I know were shocked that I asked this; most wannabe writers do work for free, as do most people in most fields that are difficult to get into but have (apparently) low skill criteria. Xero said “140 characters or less leaves no space for me to write why that’s so incredibly off the mark and kind of insulting… I’ve written for “experience” for 3 years and had a full time job so I can afford to. I’m not rich. I’m desperate to get in.”

I know of people who’ve worked for free for months to get into, say,  publishing, a median-wage profession with middling skill requirements. Notably, fields that need to find high-quality candidates amidst a sea of dross are more likely to support paid placements and internships (the law, say); those that have lots of suitable candidates can afford to exploit them (publishing, journalism).

However, writers writing for free to get into the industry aren’t the issue, though it’s interesting how this critique is applied to them.

The boring bit: Let’s think about journalism as a market, with a very few editors able to buy work. There are large numbers of writers supplying work, which would drive down the price of work to zero; this has been caused by a reduction of barriers to entry: networks, access, tools, literacy, relevant degrees, languages, etc. These barriers are going to decrease and  increase supply further, over time.

However, there are criteria that these editors need in their work which narrow the market; timeliness, quality, humour, analysis, reliability, accuracy; let’s refer to writers who fulfil these criteria as ‘talented’. If a publication had no criteria, the editor could literally employ anyone, though it’s unlikely he’d end with anything that was any good.

Now, it is likely, (as evinced by the huge number of acerbic wits on, say, RockPaperShotgun’s comments threads) that there’s a huge over-supply of potential talented writers. However, it’s a rare editor (normally an overworked writer himself) that has time to hunt down these writers and train away their flaws; so until someone comes up with an algorithm or crowd-sourcing solution that outperforms an editor in finding talent, they have to work with writers who have established their talent.

Erik Johnson argues that “Compensation brings about a type of consistency from a writing staff that a managing editor can trust much more than free help. As long as companies see the clear ROI when employing paid writers vs. unpaid, I doubt there will be a significant decline” (in paid writer’s rates).

So how do you prove talent?

Guild Wars 2 - Hamburg

Starting out:  To establish yourself in this market, you need to train on smaller sites or on your own blog, working for free, to improve your writing and profile, then submit your portfoilio to larger media; smaller websites are a good idea, as even if they don’t pay, you’re more likely to get noticed. As Debbie Timmins put it “People who write for free are honing their skills in the hopes that someone, someday will think it’s worth paying for.” Simple, right? No-one argues with their commitment to sacrificing time to establishing themselves. Martin Gaston agreed; “there is absolutely no chance I would have ever got a job without working for free.”

(If you want to know how to establish your talent, lots of people have written “How to get into journalism” pieces.”)

Who can write for free?  To write for free, you need some other means of supporting yourself. Often, for writers starting out, that means living at home with mum and dad, but the free time and state support of academia are also good; being independently wealthy is best of all. Those, like Xero, who work at a job as well as writing are somewhat rarer, if only because 9-5 jobs are excellent at leaving you unmotivated and jaded enough to put a severe cramp on your writing.

Basically, the larger your ability to subsidise yourself, the longer you can wait for success and the more time you’ll have to spend on honing your craft. As Benjamin White posited, “Rich people get experience for good jobs by virtue of being rich.” He’s missing out quite a lot of steps there, but we all understand the gist; basically, there isn’t equality of opportunity. When we talk about fairness here, then, we’re not talking about business being unfair; it’s about society having inequality built in from the start. Sad, but not much we can do it about it, and not particularly a problem of writing.

The established talent:  So, the writer has established his talent. The key follow-up question is; when do you stop working for free?

Regarding writing for free, Michael French, editor-in-chief of Develop and MCV thought that “there’s a big distinction between that ‘for the trade/community’ stuff and, say, doing the same thing on a national (newspaper).” Inventor of games journalism, Kieron Gillen gave me a good answer: “Generally speaking, the difference is between writing for free, and writing for free when someone’s making money from you… When I heard there’s a national paper who does it, it makes me want to drop napalm on everyone.”

“With an extra alarm for any use of the word ‘exposure’ in lieu of pay,” said freelance-hero Richard Cobbett. He told me “On PC Plus, I had several people offer free work. My reply was always ‘if it’s worth printing, it’s worth paying…’ The only time it makes sense if you’re directly pimping something else, like a book or some cause… I wouldn’t pay a press release writer for reprinting their words either.” Ben Furfie, who worked for free for two years to build up a portfolio, said “Offering paying publications free work is stupid. If I wasn’t good enough to be paid I found out why then went back and worked on it, until I was good enough. Didn’t take long.”

Richard also posited that working for free often doesn’t get the writer the advantage he imagines he’ll get. Kieron agreed: “And if they do, they’ve fucked over everyone else to get it. In which case, fuck ’em.” Price at this level is, after all, not dependent on the individual’s skills, but rather on how low they’re willing to go to get the work.

The Wii U in action.

The worst cut of all:  Undercutting, that is pitching a lower price than the competition, is a related thorny issue. When there is no established freelance rate, pitching a price is not a problem; but I know of at least two journalists who’ve successfully undercut an established price for work in order to ensure a proportion of a given freelance budget for themselves.

Again, to Ben Furfie: “Why people try to undercut people is beyond me. You get what you pay for. It’s the reason why I split my $1000 feature budget two ways rather than three. I’d spend more time editing the poorly written copy than it takes me to write the third feature myself.”

Like free work, if a person is undercutting the rate established by the editor, then the editor has to ask themselves; “Do I want this person writing for my media, yes or no? If yes, then I believe their work is of sufficient quality and I should pay them the rate I’ve set to attract that quality. If no and they’re not good enough, then I shouldn’t be influenced by their lower price.”

The free worker’s justification: Chris Schilling writes for the mainstream newspaper The Observer, for free, though he admits he’s not in a secure financial position. “Originally it was a profile-enhancer. Now it’s just about the only way I get to review games I really want to write about. I wrestle with the pros and cons every week. I realise working for free isn’t just doing me few favours but others, too. I do like the opportunity of having a platform to talk up smaller games I believe deserve the exposure.” However, he knows if he stops doing it, someone else will take it up and he’s happy sacrificing his free time to this, rather than trying to bolster his income.

The conclusion we can draw from this is that the onus is not on the writer; they’ve not set up the moral trap. It’s the editor or the business that is doing something wrong – like interns this is, after all, illegal. (I believe the precedent is London Dreams vs Nicola Vetta, though I’m no lawyer.) To employ someone, for piece-work, without paying them is illegal – but the law is very badly enforced.

Is there anything to be done? Is there any way of shaming the publications into conforming with the law? Probably not.

As the BBC’s Dan Emery said “’exposure’ – hah – it’s just another word for exploitation and usually when cost is more important than content. It’s been going on ever since I started at PC Zone 20 years ago and it’s in most industries in some form.”  Does he think we can shame publications into stopping? “In my humble opinion, when it comes to “shame” most business don’t care. Only when hit in their wallet do they change.” How about writers? “There’s no shortage of wannabe writers (or good writers needing a break) that think it’s their way in. For every one who wises up another three will fill his slot.”

Kieron agreed; “All you do is have the conversation. There’s a reason why I’ve said half the stuff I have in public. It’s just as much about shaming the writers who take it by saying; ‘You do know this is wrong, yeah?’”

Another vision: I asked Erlend Grefsrud of StrongMan Games whether the oversupply of writers was driving the unit cost of writing to zero. He replied: “Analysis is expensive, fandom is free. Enthusiast press is more vulnerable for that reason. You hire gushers willing to scribble for nothing, keeps everyone happy.” When I posited the unit cost of analysis also dropping to near-zero, along with all speed, quality, content, and assuming a huge over-supply of writers, he pointed out that advertising was the key shaper of writing style online. “Hm. I guess quality is less important than volume and speed. A function of the economics of advertising in transition phase.” So, fast, corpulent and overly positive coverage is the future of games sites?

The Playstation Stand, E3

Other countries: Dennis Kogel from Germany and Michael Tegos from Greece gave us their perspectives on other countries. Michael said “I can just add that I couldn’t have gotten my paid mag job if I hadn’t started off writing for free for a games site. Plus, things in Greece are such that it’s sadly all but impossible to write for a games site and get paid.”

Dennis added some perspective from being a freelancer for the German media. “As far as I can see, writers for “big” mags are paid well enough, small magazines…not so much (and they’re much smaller) but there’s a tendency to crowdsource news etc. on bigger sites and give readers a way to participate by blogging for free. There’s still a very palpable divide between reader-contributors and “proper”contributors which makes it weird in a way. However, online doesn’t seem to have a lot of respect in Germany generally. One major newspaper I wrote for doesn’t pay for online but promises carrot-on-a-stick paid print stuff. I stopped writing for them for that reason (though I’d love to find an outlet that pays for webcomic stuff).” Wouldn’t we all?

Rates: I’ll do a separate post later in the week with rates for various UK games media. Watch this space.

Stantonization: Richard Stanton of Edge said: “You know what happens when some fool asks me to write for free? This happens.”

Harlan Ellison – Pay The Writer

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