On Working for Free

Periodically, this discussion flares up again, especially in the web-driven model of content production many of us work in today, where, let’s face it, freelancers are typically radically underpaid for their work—when they receive payment at all. Consequently, many of us are stuck cobbling bits and pieces of work together in a frenetic struggle to stay one step ahead of the electricity bill, save for those few who manage to leverage themselves into staff writing positions, grants, fellowships, book deals, and other means of making a living. Even these, though, can be tenuous. For freelancers, there’s a heavy burden on high production to stay competitive and with the market, and to produce enough to live.

Talking with a staff writer at the New York Times recently, I was struck by the cultural differences between her generation and mine, and her shock and horror at how much freelancers typically make, and how much we’re required to work—if we want to actually make a living freelancing, that is. For here’s the dirty secret: many people labeling themselves as freelancers are actually leaning heaving on other people for financial support, like their parents and partners. Very few people can strike out on their own at the start, and some find themselves reaching for that safety net long after they might appear ‘established.’ Confession, for example: my father paid my taxes last year.

For the most part, though, I support myself; I pay my utilities, rent, and other costs of living. I pay the server fees so you can read this site (for free). I pay for conferences and other events I need to attend in order to advance myself professionally. Yet, I do so in the awareness that if something horrible happened, my father would be unlikely to let me starve or allow me to be turned out onto the street; I have a lot of skin in this game, but not as much as someone with her back against the wall who has no means of secondary support in an emergency. Yet, a lot more than someone who has a partner, or parents willing to pay New York rent while she pursues her dreams in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The discussion about working for free sometimes feels alienating because of who and what is involved, and numerous pompous statements are made, but they don’t address the core underlying issues. I don’t like to work for free because writing is work that requires time, intellectual effort, and cognitive processing. Because I respect my work and I want others to do the same, and because I firmly believe that creative professionals should be compensated like other service providers. And because I don’t want to weaken the market by making it clear that writers are willing to work for free.

Yet, like almost everyone else, of course I work for free. If The New York Times came knocking, would I write an unpaid op-ed in a heartbeat? Of course I would. I produce commentary here daily, also for free. I do other free work here and there as I see fit, usually because it will advance my profile in some way or it will provide a platform that wouldn’t otherwise be available, and many writers will tell you the same. Not because I need the ‘exposure’ cheap editors will suggest writers agree to when they consent to being exploited for media platforms that loathe paying their freelancers, but because it does provide an advance for me, or the causes I promote; writing for me is not just a career but a mode of activism and expression as well. Sometimes I offer work for free as a charitable contribution, as well.

But it’s not just about respect for work, and making a living, and the cheapening of journalism. This is also about the paradigm set up by demands that people work for free, in unpaid internships, as freelancers, as other creative professionals. Because this system dictates, from the start, who is allowed to work in media, and who is allowed to stay there. Many people cannot afford to work for free, and are cut out from the start; yet, we wonder why media isn’t more diverse, with a broader spectrum of experiences represented. It’s because the diversity of media producers determines the stories that get told, and the diversity of producers is limited by the gatekeeping system that determines who gets in.

For those with wealthy parents or a trust fund, it can be easy to get a break into media. They have the funds to support themselves while they get started, assemble clips, complete internships, and gradually work their way into paid positions. Even if those positions offer low pay at first, they offer the experience needed along with the shiny names for a resume, and they allow people to become dominant forces in media. For the rest of us, entering media is a struggle from the start, one fraught with peril. Some are fortunate enough to land one of the very few paid internships, fellowships, or other sponsored positions specifically designed to increase diversity in media.

Others fight for survival in a harsh media landscape, working multiple jobs, trying to freelance on the side, and questioning whether they want to keep doing this—whether they can keep doing this—every month, hoping for the lucky break, the moment that pushes them through the barrier and into some kind of success. And it is this that troubles me when we talk about working for free, because this is an issue I don’t see acknowledged enough, except by journalists who cover labour issues and are sensitive to the subject of unpaid labour.

As long as you demand that working for free is the price for admission to an industry, you cut out a lot of talent at the start.