A confession: I am writing this blog post for free. And given last week’s online brouhaha over freelance pay rates I’m not entirely sure I should be. But the reality is that I write for free with some regularity, and encourage my college students to do it, too. We have what I think are good reasons, but are we taking food off the tables of hard working freelance journalists in the process?
The outcry started when freelance journalist Nate Thayer posted an exchange he had with an editor at TheAtlantic.com, the online arm of The Atlantic magazine. Olga Khazan asked if Thayer might like to condense an article on basketball and North Korea he wrote for a specialty website and republish it to TheAtlantic.com’s larger audience – for free. By my reading, the original exchange was civil enough. But it laid bare the reality that innumerable websites, premiere for-profit brands included, often pay peanuts or less for quality content. And that led to a dam burst of payment frustration that every working freelancer has felt.
As a formerly fulltime freelancer, I’m emphatic that quality journalism demands reasonable pay. In the past, I’ve been zealous on the point with my own writing and photography. And now that I make my living teaching science writing and journalism I’m zealous about it in the classroom. I don’t just teach my students how to produce excellent writing and journalism: I teach them how to sell it, too.
But does that mean a journalist, whether a beginner or a seasoned pro, should never write for free? I don’t think so – or at least, I hope not. But I do think you need to know why you’re writing for nothing, or near it, and for beginners, to have a strategy to move up quickly.
“Exposure,” the usual justification, doesn’t strike me as reason enough – certainly not for a veteran journalist such as Thayer, but not really for a novice, either. “Experience,” another common justification for not paying beginners, is a canard unless the unpaid writing experience includes thoughtful, engaged editing. Which it never does. But for someone just starting out the difference between one professional clip and none can make all the difference for internship applications, future pitches and eventual jobs. To say nothing of the irreplaceable thrill of seeing one’s byline in black and white for the first time.
Alexis Madrigal, another editor at TheAtlantic.com, jumped into last week’s fray with a post that started with a moving reminiscence of his own early days in journalism. To me that was the most striking part of a 4,000 word post. I found Madrigal’s lede moving in part because I first met him during the period of struggle he describes. I’ve met a lot of exceptional people in journalism over the years, but I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who worked harder or faster than Madrigal did then. I feel lousy that didn’t know about his financial struggles at the time—a time when he did me a substantial professional favor that I wish I’d repaid with something more than a beer or two–and lousier still with the realization that if even Madrigal couldn’t make a financial go of fulltime online freelancing, I’m really not sure who could.
At the end of the day, I think the main issue is one of expectations. I tell my science journalism students that this is a wonderful way to make a life, and a tough, tough way to make a living. I bring experienced freelance science journalists into the classroom – one part “scared straight” for would-be freelancers, one-part financial strategy session – and assigning editors, too. We study pitching, and each student is required to pitch at least one story to an off-campus publication. Professional publication earns an automatic A. And I warn them that working for free should end the day they graduate, if not before. On Madrigal’s larger point, I do agree: even with training, skill, connections and a good situation, “…this game is still really, really hard.”
I tell my students that science journalism is the near edge of Bohemia. They can expect to struggle to do good work and be paid for it; they can expect to need day jobs to support their passion for science journalism; and they can expect a more interesting life than any of their peers who opt for square jobs in Silicon Valley. It’s still much easier to make a living as a science writer or journalist than as a poet, say, or a jazz singer. But today, those are the reasonable comparisons to make – not to the journalism of a generation ago.
That’s why when students come to me now saying they’re interested in science writing as a career, I caution them — heck, I try to scare them off. I tell them how much they can expect to earn, even if they get lucky and land a job. I tell them to talk to former students, and don’t just pick the successful ones. And now I’ll show them Madrigal’s post, too. And if their interest survives all that, I do my best to share what I know about making a living doing quality work – while secretly hoping that many of them will stay in science (itself no guarantee of fair employment or satisfaction). Either that, or help invent a future for journalism that will get us beyond these years of turmoil and uncertainty.
Image by U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation