Monday, February 1, 2010

We'll never give up our free-dumb

Like many, I read with interest Alan Mutter's post about how media outlets are trying to put the free in freelance journalism.

I can't tell you how many times I've come across opportunities to write, but without compensation. They offer exposure -- as if, after more than 15 years in journalism, I don't have enough experience to showcase my work.

Web sites in particular are the worst offenders. Some well-known ones like or offer promises of compensation if your writing attracts a lot of hits. But I've asked people who've written for them if they ever actually received a check in the mail. The answer is invariably no, or the amount was so trivial it was barely worth cashing.

It's the Arianna Huffington business model: Get people to provide content for your site for free, generating traffic and building your brand. Now the site has enough cash flow that she's actually hiring some people -- but I doubt the same ones that helped the site in its infancy.

I write as someone who's been both a willing victim of the tyranny of free, as well as a serial perpetrator.

Nearly a year before I got the axe from The Indianapolis Star, I started writing freelance movie reviews for a few newspaper clients. I offered to do so free of charge. The clients were all members of the New York Times chain in Florida where I used to work. In many cases, I personally knew the editors involved.

I did this willingly for a simple reason: The Star was only interested in reviews of a handful of "event" films per year -- perhaps six to eight -- and it simply wasn't enough to keep me professionally satisfied.

As I tried explaining to Star editor Dennis Ryerson, doing arts criticism requires very specific writing muscles. You can't just turn it off and on. It's like stopping your regular gym workouts for five months, and then returning one day and expecting to heft the same amount of weight you did when you left.

As for the free ... well, bad times were already setting in for the newspaper industry, and I knew my clients couldn't afford to pay me much of anything.

When I got laid off, I approached them and asked if they could start paying me something -- even if it was a pittance. Only one newspaper offered to. But after just a couple of months, their freelance budget (like so many outlets) was slashed, and the editor I dealt with told me he couldn't pay me anymore.

At that juncture, I had a choice to make. Take Mutter's high road, and refuse to keep supplying film reviews for free. The other freelance critic they were using at the time opted to do this.

Or, I could keep slaving away without pay. I would get the much-lauded exposure, but no cash.

I opted to go the second way. After all, I knew I wasn't going to drop my passion for film criticism. If I was going to do it, I might as well have it published.

Another thing to consider is the power of leverage. When you're able to say, "My work runs every week in a number of newspapers with a total circulation of over a quarter-million," then movie studios will offer you interviews with stars, press copies of DVDs and other things they won't give to some poor slob with a web site that gets a few thousand hits (like the one you're reading).

This isn't just about ego-soothing perks, but enjoying a level of access that allows me to deliver a more professional product. The stark truth is that an individual journalist only has as much influence as the outlet where their work is published. The small fry get the crumbs, or simply are ignored.

Things improved eventually. I'm still not getting paid by two of my newspaper clients -- although they occasionally throw me a few bucks for a special film article -- but the largest one was able to start paying me again regularly. And I added another client who pays a little.

It's not a lot, certainly not enough to live off of. But I'm getting paid to do the kind of writing I like and that I'm good at. And I truly believe that it wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't been willing to swallow my pride and do it for free for awhile.

Now to my own crimes against freelance journalism.

I have my own blog here, of course, but also co-founded with Joe Shearer The Film Our traffic is still low, but I'm quite proud of the content we provide. We publish at least two pieces every day, including reviews of new movies, DVD reviews, columns on classic films and schlock movies, interviews, podcasts, etc.

We've yet to make a dime of income from the site. (Although we hope to change that soon.)

That's fine for myself and Joe, who knew what we were getting into, but we've also recruited about a half-dozen other people who contribute to the site. None of them have been paid. We're able to throw a few DVDs and promotional giveaways their way. But, thus far, I'm nearly as bad as all those other sites out there exploiting talented journalists.

So while I agree with Mutter on the points, I worry that his "just say no" manifesto is unrealistic. With so many thousands of writers, editors and photographers who have lost their jobs -- not to mention the thousands of eager new ones being minted by journalism schools every year -- the stable of available talent is too large to remain in solidarity.

Too many journalists are willing to work free, in the hopes that one day the dollars will start flowing.


  1. I run the syndicate For nearly ten years, we have helped freelancers profit from the syndication of their work. We sometimes have luck selling think pieces about film trends. If we place an article, contributors receive 60% of hat we collect. Feel free to submit essays to Best--David Wallis

  2. It's just not sustainable. Sure, someone will write movie reviews because Everyone Likes Movies. But what Neighborhood Watch volunteer will write publicly about the local mafia, the departure of the independent bookstore, or the promotion of the rogue, loose-cannon cop?

  3. Nice piece, brother Lloyd. I wonder if I will have the passion to write, for free, again, if my fate becomes your fate. I doubt it.

  4. The scary thing is all that writing that people do for sites like the ones you've cited will one day end up getting scooped up into a pay-per-view net by some huge online combinator and will never see a penny of any residuals. I predict this will happen within the next five years (probably sooner). And now you have just handed your work off for nothing, and likely the byline disappears as there you go...working for free for the machine.

  5. Once you write for free, you've forever devalued yourself in the eyes of those you've done it for. "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Samuel Johnson.

  6. I thought this was a very good point: "My work runs every week in a number of newspapers with a total circulation of over a quarter-million."

    Though I wonder, does anyone ever call you out on it? It seems like you could just make that claim without actually having to do it.

  7. I did some writing for free as a beginner freelance art critic, and again when I moved from one state to another and needed to learn a new local and regional scene. In my opinion, the experience was invaluable as a lower-stakes way to get some clips for my portfolio and to make some contacts, but to this day there are some editors who perceive me as damaged goods because I ever wrote for free, and won't give me work because of it. They consider me amateur because I took unpaid work at transitional points in my career. Has anyone else ever had this experience? I find it utterly ludicrous, but I've also had a similar reaction from recruiters to other kinds of volunteer experience I've logged in the media industry. They don't seem to be able to see it as "real" if payment wasn't involved regardless of what you learned or accomplished. Every bit of career advice I've ever read recommends doing what you love for free until someone is willing to pay you for it, but my real world experience flies directly in the face of that, and I don't understand it.

  8. Great comments, all, thanks for dropping by.

    Rog -- keep fighting the good fight.

    Dan -- I agree with you. There's an old proverb, I think Jewish in origin, that advises against doing what you love for your work, because someone will exploit you.

    Anonymous 2:17 -- My real world experience is similar to yours. I doubt I would be getting any money at all if I hadn't had prior relationships with my client papers. I've only added one other paying client, and it's a very small amount.

    Anonymous 1:46 -- You just scared me.

    Greg -- To some extent. I can tell you getting on the press list for video releases is a pretty high hurdle, and they won't send discs to legitimate writers at smaller newspapers. I still get the high hat from one studio.

  9. From Anonymous 2:17 - Thanks for replying to my comment - I think this is a huge part of the reason old media is going belly up so fast. They stifle the pipeline to new talent and new voices unless they come from a pedigreed source like an Ivy League ivory tower instead of those of us who got started in the scrappy little bush leagues of the real world. They're suffocating from their own arrogance, and they deserve to.

  10. Interesting article.

    I agree with a lot of your thoughts here and would definitely emphasis that getting your name out there as a known-entity (brand) is important in helping you get any kind of writing work.

    I've also done an online zine since 1993 with no incoming revenue (no ads) so unfortunately, I can't pay writers and I don't get pay for my own work as editor. Nevertheless, I love doing this as I control the content and get to share information about music/bands that normally don't get coverage as well as unique points of view about more popular music. Over the years, our zine has worked with hundreds of great writers and provided a good forum about music online.

  11. Ok, sometimes a writer will want to write for free. And sometimes it makes good sense. But I believe when we do this we should INSIST on holding copyrights to our woks, and never ever ever sign them over to the "publisher" who puts them on the web or in a neighborhood weekly or anywhere else without paying a penny. If said publisher DOES pay a pittance, then make sure you've detailed what rights they get and what they don't. My rule of thumb is to keep the rights the publisher isn't going to exercise. I had a publisher ask me, "What are 'audio rights.'" Oh, that's ok, I told him. Don't worry your pretty little head about it, I'll just hold onto those. . .

  12. Anonymous 1:46 makes sense to me. But hold copyright? The Library of Congress has broken down (despite the steep fees)... registration forms submitted even in 2007 fail to come back (and those subsequent only haphazardly); meanwhile I have heard that copyright law favors the likes of Mickey Mouse but not you or me; besides who's going to enforce it?

  13. A very basic and unanswered question: If you're "still not getting paid by two of [your] newspaper clients" and you "added another client who pays a little. It's not a lot, certainly not enough to live off of" and you've "yet to make a dime of income from [your blog] site"....

    With what seems to be more-than-full time work writing reviews for pennies or less, how do you pay rent and buy groceries?

    If you can answer that, then many of us unemployed journalists can get back to reporting, albeit for free.

  14. Matthew--

    I do pick up other freelance gigs here and there, although as anyone out there nowadays will attest, they can be very sporadic. Some pay well, others pay about minimum wage.

    We survive off of my wife's salary, my freelance income, unemployment checks (which won't last forever) and rental income from my wife's old house. We've had to adjust to a lower income, but I know we're luckier than a lot of people out there.