Why “Don’t ever write for free” is bad advice
In my first piece for Bleacher Report, I touched a little on my own career path, including a small part reflecting on the necessity to work and write for free. I wanted to get a little more in depth. This is that.
It was almost four months ago when Rick Reilly made huge waves across the industry for telling the graduates of Colorado’s journalism school that they should never work for free, including advice like this (via Romanesko):
When you get out there, all I ask is that you: DON’T WRITE FOR FREE! Nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride! What you know how to do now is a skill that 99.9 percent of the people don’t have. If you do it for free, they won’t respect you in the morning. Or the next day. Or the day after that. You sink everybody’s boat in the harbor, not just yours. So just DON’T!
That from a guy who went from the back page at Sports Illustrated to the cushiest of jobs at ESPN writing columns and “a blog” while popping on TV in his awkward interview show, during major golf events or on the occasional “PTI” episode to justify the ungodly amount of money the Worldwide Leader dropped on his doorstep.
It’s not to say Rick Reilly isn’t good at what he does. Anyone who has gotten to his level of success—he’s been voted National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times—certainly got there with the right combination of talent, luck and hard work. I am no chemist when it comes to mixing together those ingredients in hopes of figuring out Reilly’s formula. He’s got the patent on that.
The thing is, past accolades or not, ESPN made a mistake giving Reilly a reported $17-million over five years. They know it, he knows it and everyone reading and watching knows it. Do you know how many writers could be employed at $30,000 a year for Reilly’s salary? One hundred-thirteen. ESPN could employ 113 writers at $30,000 for what Rick Reilly reportedly makes in a year.
The debate about writing for free on the internet is much bigger than just Rick Reilly. Other respected writers—really good writers—started blaming bloggers (and ostensibly people who write for free) for ruining the business. Back in February, Dave Kindred wrote a hit piece on the unprofessionally professional writing community, taking direct aim at Bleacher Report. Funny thing is, back in February, I probably agreed with most of what he wrote, until he brought up Fanhouse.
It wasn’t the fuzzy Fanhouse math that upset me most about the article. It was the “woe is AOL” attitude of his piece, centered on the notion that good writers were going to be losing their jobs because AOL couldn’t figure out a way to make Fanhouse profitable in the current economic climate.
Fanhouse, a site that was built on the backs of writers making almost nothing to cover their favorite teams and get some professional writing experience, was tanking because the site got top-heavy, not because too many people wanted to write for free. The company couldn’t justify the enormous salaries given to the likes of Jay Mariotti anymore, and AOL decided to throw the Fanhouse brand overboard.
Rather than lament the loss of jobs for dozens of writers who were barely making enough to scrape a living out of writing for AOL in the first place, Kindred quoted Lisa Olson, a very well-respected writer who had the unfortunate timing of being lumped into the group of high-priced scribes who were brought in to take Fanhouse to new levels (and, by popular opinion, ruined the site in the process).
A company obsessed with clicks quickly realized it would never be able to get enough to pay for all the big names it brought in. Whoops. (Note: it’s not lost on me that Fanhouse was dumped by AOL to make room for Huffington Post, which gets maligned more than any site on the planet for exploiting writers who work for free.)
Fanhouse was sold for spare parts to Sporting News—a move that still feels like the first little pig scurrying for shelter from his straw house to the second little pig’s house made of sticks—leading Olson to regrettably tell Kindred that she and her fellow writers “were all experienced and qualified, not some 25-year-old bloggers,” she said. “The motto was, ‘Go, go, go. Grow, grow, grow.’ And we did. Then, this. It’s devastating.”
If you follow me on Twitter you’d know that I am part of a group hosting the First Annual Untitled Sports Media Awards Project, with the public voting on 15 categories to determine the best in all of sports media at a huge event in New York City this weekend.
You can credit Olson for one of the awards: Best Sportswriter Under 25, a category created directly in response to her quote, pointing out that being young doesn’t mean you are unqualified to write. Shoot, being young no longer means you’re inexperienced, either. Some of the best writers and reporters on the planet are under the age of 25. The playing field has been leveled.
I’m sure we can find thousands of writers and reporters telling aspiring journalists they shouldn’t give away their work for free. Back in June, Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated, one of the most respected voices in sports media coverage in the country, asked Brian Grey, CEO of this here site, if the B/R model is exploitative to the writer:
SI.com: Old school media types would say there is an exploitative factor in using people to produce cheap content. You are not the only place that does this, but your writers are not paid, right?
Grey: We have evolved to where when we see contributors who perform and become experts in certain topics, that is another opportunity we want to make available, paid opportunities.
SI.com: Let me be direct. Why is this not exploiting a labor market?
Grey: We look at this as an opportunity for a lot of people that have never had a chance to get into where you sit. It is a chance to go on that path. And a lot of people want that. For us a great outcome would be our contributors to be hired by Sports Illustrated or ESPN.com or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We have had a handful of people who have become full-time writers at other outlets. That is something we really embrace and we think we are giving a platform for them to go down that path. But there are a lot of people that just do this because they love the game and love sports. It’s at their discretion. They own their content and they are free to take it and go sell it to someone else.”
Even today, one side of my brain is screaming “NO NO NO NEVER NEVER NEVER,” when I think about the idea of writing for free. But the new media side of my head keeps reminding me how antiquated I sound.
You should not give work away if you feel the company you are giving it to is taking advantage of you. Get everything in writing, even at places you that don’t pay you, and protect yourself from being exploited. Most companies make you sign a contract, even if you plan to write for little to no money. Read the fine print. Pay attention.
If you go into a deal knowing the terms, why wouldn’t you want to write for sites that get great traffic? For more than a year I wrote for the biggest sports blog in Philadelphia for nothing more than exposure. Eventually my goal of getting paid to write prevailed, leading me to pursue other opportunities; offers I never would have seen if it wasn’t for all the work I did for free.
I began contributing to WashingtonPost.com, sharing blog space with well-respected WashPost writers, former players and NFL analysts from around the country. Was I paid? Not a dime. I never even got the mug they promised! Heck, I did an entire three-part behind-the-scenes series on ESPN’s Monday Night Football that had video, audio and writing for nothing. Looking back, I totally could have sold that idea to any number of online outlets.
But I was building a name for myself. I could tell people that I had a legitimate by-line on WashingtonPost.com. I made friends with some great editors who have helped me so much since then. I’m pretty sure at one point I wrote something that made Dick Vermeil cry. You can’t put a price tag on that.
Those two unpaid gigs certainly helped me get my foot in the door at Sporting News, where I also started writing for free before I proved to be a valuable asset to their team and got a contract to be a blogger and sports media writer.
When Sporting News blew up their blogs and fired all the writers, I found myself out on my ass, working again for free. This business is hard, especially for someone trying to make a name out there and scrape together a living. Working for free is just part of the deal sometimes. Think of it like an internship on the internet. An internetship!
If you are a good enough writer, someone will find you and someone will pay you to write for them. You have to believe that. Every single day you wake up and sit at your keyboard with the goal of writing the next best thing you’ve ever written, you have to believe that someone will read that and want to pay you for the one after that … and the one after that, too.
Until it happens, working for free isn’t so bad, especially if you are given the chance to get your work in front of far bigger crowds than you could do on your own. Don’t you want as many people as possible reading your stuff? Wouldn’t you rather write an article that 1,000 people read—or 10,000 people—than 100 or 10?
Don’t feel exploited by the system. Exploit the system back. If you do it right, writing for free can become pretty lucrative.