Saturday, August 04, 2012

Friends don't let friends write for free

I got into a tiff earlier this week with the new editor of an industry blog. After the abrupt departure of the previous editor, the new editor was appointed, and the site's senior writer resigned a few days later. So, the newly-appointed editor wrote a post asking for new contributors. One of the site's readers asked if writers would be paid for the posts, and the new editor responded that the only compensation would be "good karma."

That's not how I'd describe it. In my opinion, I'd describe the editor's and publisher's behavior as exploitation. Writers should be fairly compensated for their work, and in this case, "good karma" doesn't count as compensation. Let me give a concrete analogy: If you're a farmer, and you give your tomatoes to a food bank, that's "good karma." If you give them to a supermarket, you're stupid. A supermarket is in the business of selling tomatoes, and you should get paid for supplying them.

The blog that this editor works for is owned by a large publishing company. They're not a charity or a non-profit. By his own admission, he and his senior writer both get paid. I recently came across an article on the ProVideo Coalition's website titled "Philosophy: On The Subject of Freebies." The article was written by Art Adams, a Director of Photography, who noted that film and video professionals are often asked to work for free. There are times when it makes sense to do so, but he applies a common-sense rule:
The trick is to make sure that no one is making money on the project. If I’m not making money, no one else should either. If the project is going to be sold down the line then I don’t work for free. I might work deferred, but generally not. As a rookie camera assistant I worked on several deferred projects and I made a total of $75 between all of them. (That’s about $150 more than most people make.)
In the blog's case, the decision is easy to make: It's run as a commercial enterprise, has a paid staff and is owned by a successful publisher. It therefore falls under the "don't work for free" rule.

The reason that I'm so sensitive to this issue is that I was in a very similar situation not long ago. A local website that covers startups in the Chicago area posted a call for contributors, which I responded to. Like the blog in question, it was a for-profit business, but unlike the blog, it was a startup, and the editor/publisher was funding the operation out of his own pocket. So, I agreed to write an initial article for free, which required a great deal of work on my part but turned out to be very popular. The editor/publisher asked me to do a follow-up article, which I agreed to write. The subsequent experience was so frustrating, however, that after the article was published, I told the editor/publisher to keep the small amount of money that he'd agreed to pay me. (By the way, the articles are still two of the most popular posts on their site, almost two years later--and the editor/publisher still asks me to write for him.)

Are there times when it makes sense to write for free? Here are two:
  • When it's a charitable, religious or political organization whose goals you support.
  • When you're directly or indirectly promoting yourself or your business, and that promotion serves as compensation for your writing time and effort.
But, you may ask, what about a site like The Huffington Post that gets much of its content from unpaid contributors? If you like making the very rich people who run AOL even richer, then by all means contribute unpaid writing to The Huffington Post. Otherwise, you might look at a site like, which compensates bloggers on the basis of the traffic that their posts generate.

It's laughable to ask people to work at a company for nothing and call their compensation "good karma." It's actually the company that's creating "bad karma." If you can't afford to pay the people you need to run your business, you shouldn't be in business.

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