Is there an ethical conundrum of working for free?
Now on the cusp of graduating from college, I find myself wondering if any of my classmates in different fields of study have had to wrangle with this issue as much as I have.
In his column, “Slaves of the World, Unite!” New York Times opinion contributor Tim Kreider commented on the insulting practice of approaching journalists to work without pay.
“I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us,” Kreider said. “They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.”
Immediately, I’m put off. As an aspiring journalist, I’ve never really considered myself an “artist.” Second, this is an argument I’ve heard a hundred times before, and I don’t need someone else to patronizingly explain to me how the world works.
Still, at the risk of sounding like a naïve, idealistic child, I’ll spare you the more impassioned critiques of Kreider’s diatribe; he graciously enumerates them himself.
“I will freely admit that writing beats baling hay or going door-to-door for a living, but it’s still shockingly unenjoyable work,” Kreider wrote. “I know I sound like some middle-aged sourpuss who’s forgotten why he ever wanted to do this in the first place.”
He said it, not me.
To gain some context on the war journalists have been waging against publications that won’t pay them, we can look back to a few months ago when the issue was particularly contentious.
In March, journalist Nate Thayer was approached by The Atlantic to repurpose one of his articles for their site. They did not offer Thayer any compensation.
Annoyed, Thayer also took to the Internet to express his distaste for the whole ordeal.
“I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets, so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children,” Thayer said. “Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them.”
I’m honestly torn about what to say. Since deciding to pursue a career in journalism, one thing has been made inexplicably clear to me by family and friends: marry rich or start bartending on the weekends.
Journalism has never been a lucrative career field, but since when have journalists signed up to do this job for the money?
I can understand the concerns and frustrations of both Kreider and Thayer. If you’re making your living as a freelance writer, it’s imperative that you are conscious of the work you are taking and the opportunity cost of your time versus the compensation you’re receiving.
But what about the journalists that aren’t like Kreider and Thayer? What about those young, student professionals looking to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of obscurity?
“If young people never write for free, they may never get the level of editing or the editorial leeway or favors from friends that they need to publish their own Times op-eds someday,” Salon writer Daniel D’Addario wrote in response to Kreider’s column. “So why is he telling them, unschooled, underpaid people in a precarious position, what to do?”
I’m inclined to agree. While I would hate to come off as naïve and confined by my own personal experiences, I still believe the rantings and ravings of seasoned journalists like Kreider and Thayer can be very dangerous.
These kinds of inflamed rantings can foster a sense of gross entitlement and general haughtiness in younger journalists. Early on in their careers, it’s important young writers learn the value of hard work for little reward so they don’t one day turn into a journalist that looks down their nose at anything that won’t pay them.
Our generation is being pulled every which way in regards to the decisions we need to make for our future. However, as cheesy as it sounds, we can’t forget the real motivating factors that drive us to pursue our dreams. Money is important, but we shouldn’t ever let it make us jaded to the point that we can’t see beyond it when it comes to our careers.
Reach the columnist at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @lolonghi