“Free” freelancing: is it ever worth it?

The past couple days, a post about unpaid internships has been making the rounds on Twitter, and its writer, Bethany Horne, has been getting a lot of support for declaring that she will never (again) work for free, after completing an internship as part of her school program. She argues that unpaid work is detrimental not just to the people toiling for no compensation, but also to the publications that take them on and to the journalism field as a whole.

Horne notes, rightly, that between unpaid internships and “rights-grabbing freelance contracts,” some publications are asking too much. She also contests the premise that unpaid internships are a “foot in the door” and argues that they only increase access to the “Fortress of Journalism” to those with privileged backgrounds. As a result, the field is less diverse, and, since J-school students and other aspiring journalists are told that unpaid internships are their only paths to paid work, many give up their dream before they get started.

Horne’s principles are admirable, and we join (many) others in applauding them. Her post got us thinking, though: is unpaid freelance work becoming as much a menace to the field as unpaid internships? The idea of working for exposure isn’t totally new, but it seems to be gaining in popularity. It’s a practice that helped turn the Huffington Post in the U.S. into a $315 million business—and HuffPo isn’t the only publication that’s bolstered by uncompensated content.

People doing unpaid work for “exposure” usually have two goals: for some, it’s a means to build a portfolio and make contacts that lead to paid work; for others, experts in fields other than journalism, it’s a means to boost name recognition, sell copies of their books, or promote their research. Again, HuffPo.com is the best-known example of the latter; here’s a recent post by Alec Baldwin, on his life-long desire to appear in a Broadway show. Unsurprisingly, he is also currently shooting a musical version of Rock of Ages.

And now we ask: how often is the first of those goals accomplished? When freelancers give away their work, how often does it lead to paid contracts? Has “free freelancing” become a requisite stepping stone into the field? And, whether that’s the case or not, how many up-and-coming freelancers believe it to be true?

Horne questions the likelihood of unpaid internships leading directly to paid work, and, similarly, whether uncompensated freelance work translates into paid gigs is debatable. But we don’t have all the answers. So tell us, freelancers: Have you done unpaid work for exposure? Why? And did it pay off (either directly or indirectly)? Do you regret it? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Posted on June 21, 2011 at 9:14 am by editor · · Tagged with: 

5 Responses

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  1. Written by spanked
    on June 21, 2011 at 12:35 pm
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    Alec Baldwin is not a journalist.

    • Written by editor
      on June 23, 2011 at 9:35 am
      Reply · Permalink

      Didn’t say he was! But, yes, you are correct. I was including him amongst the people who write for “exposure” for their projects (books, movies, charity work), not journalists who write for free to add to their portfolios. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  2. Written by Keith Maskell, staff representative, CMG
    on June 21, 2011 at 5:17 pm
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    My admittedly glib response to the whole “but think of the exposure!” thing is “yeah… people *die* from exposure”.

    If you’re good at doing something, and someone wants to engage you to do it, it’s not unreasonable to expect and demand appropriate compensation. Agreeing to work for free devalues your work and the work of others.

    On the issue of interns: I think internships, even (gasp!) unpaid ones, can be a useful way of building skills and contacts. In all too many cases, though, employers are becoming more and more reliant on banks of interns as a source of free labour. That’s decidedly not cool, and we need to work on ways of making sure that interns and freelancers don’t wind up being exploited by organizations that make $$ off their contributions.

  3. Written by tintin
    on June 22, 2011 at 11:12 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Harlan Ellison sums up the situation nicely.


  4. Written by Keith Maskell, staff representative, CMG
    on June 23, 2011 at 10:55 am
    Reply · Permalink

    I’ve always loved Harlan Ellison… but every once in a while it’s good to be reminded just *why* I love him. That video clip is pure gold.

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