Hey Kids, Write Free! Exposure Will Pay Next Year's Tuition — Dartmouth Now $52,275

WASHINGTON - MAY 06:  Arianna Huffington (C), ...
Pay for content? You're kidding, right? Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The Huffington Post continues its tradition of trading “exposure” for lots of unpaid hard work. Sign up, kids!

The new vertical, HuffPost College, will rely on that sexy, growing and emerging new class of journo’s — “citizens” (aka free labor) — to contribute/donate their time, skills and talent for exposure. Exposure won’t pay Visa or Mastercard or put gas in your car or groceries in your fridge. It’s BS, plain and simple, and it’s sucking in entire legions of the desperate in the race to fill the web with free or low-paid content.

I have been writing for a living, earning four-figure checks for my ideas and skills, since my sophomore year of college, (no, not J-school). It meant, from an early, unconfident, less-experienced position — which is where many of us start out from –learning how to negotiate with editors many decades my senior. Not fun, not easy, not always successfully.

I once overheard an editor pleading with a fellow columnist, whose work filled the same weekly Toronto newspaper section I was writing for as well, to stay — “You’ll lose $200 a week!” she said. I was making $125. Hm. I went into her boss that day and asked for a raise. I was 19. (Didn’t get it, but learned how totally random “value” appears to those who buy your copy.)

Whatever your age, writing is a job, not a hobby!

The endless ugly secret of who gets to write for “free” and wh0 doesn’t boils down to who can afford to do it. Very few students can afford to give away their time  — and those who can continue to form a media elite of the middle-class and up whose parents pick up the costs for them while media mavens pocket profits.

Enough already!

I have written without pay, in 30 years, maybe 10 times, as a pro bono choice to support a cause I believe in or to promote my books. Riley Waggaman, a full-time student at Wheaton College, is a T/S contributor, is getting paid to write here, as are we all.

Just. Say. No.

16 thoughts on “Hey Kids, Write Free! Exposure Will Pay Next Year's Tuition — Dartmouth Now $52,275

  1. Colin Horgan

    hmm… but might it not be worth it simply to have it on a resume? For the sake of argument, I can see the appeal, frankly – people who will write for free would most likely be writing anyway on their own site (for free, no doubt), so why not attach themselves to a popular site? There’s so much content out there, that unless yours is in a recognizable (hopefully popular) place, it will lost in the noise, and in a lot of cases might as well not exist. That’s just the nature of the internet.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    I don’t buy it. There are still many outlets that pay — even in unfashionable dead-trees media. Why give your skills away to make others wealthy?

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    Colin, many of us here — no? — came to the attention of True/Slant through our print work, for which all of us (?) have been paid or we would not have been doing it. This drive to the bottom on the Net facing a enormous pool of competitors working for nothing is insane. Nuts.

    What is the upside?!

  4. inmyhumbleopinion

    The cheap/free labor thing is a fact of life and has been for as long as I’ve been a working adult. It’s particularly true of so-called “glamour businesses”–publishing, advertising,film, TV, etc.–in which unpaid internships and slave wages are the norm, because so many folks are trying to make it in the biz. Twenty years ago, a former boss of mine at a globally-known New York ad agency once commented to me that “(agency to remain nameless) is a great place to work if your parents can afford to send you there.” The practices haven’t changed, which is why advertising remains one of the last bastions of some of the most homogeneous workforces you’ll ever see.

  5. Michael Roston

    I often agree with your thoughts on media, but this is one particular instance where I disagree. I think when you’re in school, it can be a great time to write for free. If you can do it for pay, great. But students often labor for free on school newspapers (and increasingly school-linked blogs). We have a few bloggers on this site who came to our attention because of the great work they did, for free, as students, and given how much more experimental you can be when you’re not making a career of something, the flexibility and freedom of publishing as a student, even without pay, can be very much worth the opportunity.

    Of course, I think it’s less cool to do it for a massive site like the Huffington Post where you’ve got a built in audience. One of the advantages of laboring, even for free, on a student paper, is that you learn to cultivate a particular audience (usually your classmates) and to serve them – skills that serve you in a big way down the road. Starting with a massive audience, I think you’ll be less capable of developing the ear for what works and what doesn’t. That’s a good reason not to give it away to my former employer, but I think not a good reason to give it away overall.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    It’s getting worse though, when anyone who hopes for eyeballs on their blog work is being inveigled into working for no pay at all — at least in advertising, etc. (at least in the old days), there was a fairly clear line into the real possibility of even an entry-level paid job at the end of it all. Same with journalism. None of which excuses the practice, and, as you point out, makes for a stunning lack of racial or ethnic diversity along the way.

    And blogging pays when…?

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks, Michael for weighing in. I was always, rightly or wrongly, determined to earn income from my writing as soon as possible, partly because I paid my way through school by so doing; my first year’s tuition was (yes) $660. The most I ever paid was about $1,200 a year; today U of T is still only about $5,000 a year. Even way back then I was making four-figure checks from my work, so giving it away seemed pointless to me.

    I did a lot of work (free) when at the U of Toronto for our weekly school newspaper but only for one year; by my sophomore year I’d amassed enough clips to win paid work from national publications. I didn’t see the point of hanging around campus focusing only on students when my larger goals meant talking to a much wider audience. Which is why I am fairly ferocious on students learning early and often to place a value on their skills whenever and wherever possible.

    But to each his own.

    1. Michael Roston

      Well-put, and although I started out working on my grad school paper, I sought every effort I could to get paid for work I published, and managed to about 4 times during a very busy graduate academic career, and I know other who accomplished even more. But the average 18-, 19-, etc. year-old may not have as much moxie as you showed, and it might take some time to get yourself into the right position. That said, when I was at the Sun, some of the best beat reporters we had were summer interns from area college campuses. In picking talent, websites that pay (like True/Slant) shouldn’t consider age as a primary factor.

  8. Aby Tharakan

    In India, a very huge media market, newspapers still recruit students out of college as interns and kick them out when its time to start paying.
    Armed with a post graduate degree, and experience in writing (unpaid) I started my career earning less than US$ 50 a month.

    Huge western news agencies, even today, recruit local Indian lads with experience in journalism for $10 per story. The huge unorganized army of stringers in third world countries, are willing to earn this pittance, because big bosses say, its a privilege even to write for free.
    And thankfully, for many like me, who survived my initial years just with cups of tea and enthusiasm, free writing or writing for pittance was a real third-world-honor.

    By the way, I still write for free, not because I want, but there is no choice.

  9. Michael Peck

    If you’re paid zero by your employer, then that’s how much you’re really worth in the eyes of your employer, no matter how much empty praise they offer. I’ve also been amazed over the years at how many publications that cry poverty always seem to find money to pay for something when they need to.

    As a paid professional, I feel an obligation to deliver good, accurate copy by deadline, if for no other reason than my mortgage payment depends on it. If the new media business model is to rely on hordes of unpaid college students to write for free, then I don’t envy the editors.

  10. Michael Salmonowicz

    I think this a terrific opportunity. I spent four years of college working at (and eventually running) my university’s television station, where I got no pay and no course credit for the 30-40 hours of work I put in each week. But I loved it, it was a huge piece of my resume (I actually used it this summer during my job hunt), it helped me make great connections and get wonderful letters of recommendation, and it gave me the chance to be a professional–to do something outside of class that was real. Likewise, I spent a summer as an intern at a Detroit news station, for which I received just 3 course credits. But again, the experience and contacts I gained made it worth it. Finally, I’ve spent hundreds of hours both during grad school (outside of my paid graduate assistantship) and in the years since, writing journal articles for academic outlets that do not pay authors. Professors, of course, get paid in part to produce scholarly work like this. I don’t, because I’m not a professor. But it’s still important for me to add to my vita and get my name out there. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you have to know when you’re in a strong enough position to say no to an opportunity. For the most part, young people should be saying yes to any opportunity that comes their way, especially one that gives them the exposure and cache that comes with writing for the Huffington Post.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    Interesting range of opinions!

    Michael S. , here’s the essential and primary difference I see — your world is academia and unpaid labor (vita building) is one model. I believe it’s also the dominant model, so what choice do you have but to embrace it?

    I learned at 19 that cheap and disreputable publishers are forever delighted to profit handsomely from the ambition, talent and hard work of anyone who’ll do it, student or freelancer. They are fully prepared to pay for office space, lights, phones, printing and and every other cost associated with producing “content” — commercial realtors do not zcceptc”exposure” or “experience” in lieu of cold hard cash.

    Nor should writers. Your only value is what you can — and must — negotiate.

    My perspective is very much shaped by my family of origin, all freelancers. It taught me early how rapaciously creativity is abused and to fight hard and persistently against it.

    I have a mortage and write for money. Those giving it away free are, long-term, doing no one but profiteers any favors.

  12. The “media elite of the upper class and up” problem is less because of people working for free, and more because the good jobs go to people who know people (i.e. the children of the elite).

    Paying jobs at even the smallest media outlets are far more elusive than they were a decade ago — so young people write for free to amass clips more than to gain exposure.

  13. Caitlin Kelly

    But even making $50 for a story is still a powerful reminder — you are selling a product! Who else gives away their skills? It sets a lousy precedent and “teaches” young writers they have no choice or voice. They do. They may have to look harder for paid work but it is an essential element of learning to value your skills and negotiate even the toughest markets.

    This is the third damn recession I have survived since moving to NY in 1989 to write for a living. You figure it out and survive, paid, or fold your tent. You do not work for nothing until or unless you decide to deliberately volunteer your time.

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