To Free, or Not To Free

File photo.(photosteve / Flickr)

On March 4th, American journalist Nate Thayer posted an e-mail correspondence between himself and a representative of The Atlantic, in which he was offered the chance to submit a retooled version of one his older articles for their website. There was a catch, however: he would not be paid for it. Thayer not-so-politely declined the offer, responding “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.” Two days later, Atlantic Senior Editor Alexis C. Madigral responded to Thayer, not necessarily disagreeing with him, but laying out the budgetary limitations faced even by prestigious outlets like The Atlantic, as well as the fickle nature of online ad revenue and the need to constantly create content that can generate hits. This exchange presents, in microcosm, the increasingly heated argument over fair compensation for work – especially in an uncertain job market, and as numerous business models gradually shift in the digital age.

This is a perennial debate in the online circles of many fields – music, illustration, writing, photography, and more – and it has been one for as long as major ad-supported sites like The Huffington Post have utilized unpaid bloggers. There seems to be a recent uptick in stories like the Thayer/Atlantic situation as more organizations move their operations into digital formats, as well as the rise of sites like Kickstarter providing both new avenues and new complications. Concurrently, there is the increasingly publicized issue of internships, both paid and unpaid, which are an important part of many students’ post-graduation plans. Given the precariousness of most careers and livelihoods these days, it is no wonder this is becoming a front-and-centre concern.

There are many distinct flavours of the free work versus paid work issue, but common to all of them are the usual arguments for free work: the twin canards of “experience” and “exposure”. Both are admittedly important to getting you anywhere in most vocations, and there are many paths via which one may pursue them. Many artists, for example, post online portfolios, utilize social media like Twitter and Tumblr, and take part in collaborative projects to improve their work and make connections. On the other hand, there is a fine line between employers or benefactors actually providing experience and exposure, versus simply exploiting those seeking them. This is especially true as more and larger employers try to utilize free labour – making it entirely reasonable to scrutinize the actual costs and benefits for both parties.

The unfortunate reality of the situation is that unpaid work for someone else may not even benefit you at all. The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2012 survey shows that students who took unpaid internships in the US were only marginally more likely to find a job than students who did not take an internship at all (37% vs 36%), and are far less likely to find a job than students who had a paid internship (60%); a NACE survey from 2011 also showed that students taking unpaid internships had worse starting salary offers than those with paid or no internships. One can only wonder what the situation is like in the arts world, where career progression and employment are much more nebulous.

The problem here is that the rise of unpaid work has paralleled the decimation of the of the job market in general. The paid careers, which the unpaid work supposedly works towards, disappear, because employers can now fill the void with people working for less, or even nothing at all. Venues for journalism, fiction, and art are no longer willing to compensate contributors fairly, as there are plenty of desperate neophytes willing to take their place if they decline (that many websites are becoming content mills that eschew any sense of quality for easy hits does not help matters). This, in turn, creates a new, lower standard in the market, and puts pressure on less thrifty employers (like The Atlantic) who enviously eye the bottom lines of their competitors in this gangrenous economy. The corporate struggle ultimately trickles down to those seeking employment, who are taught to devalue their own labour and keep accepting less and less in order to get anywhere, perpetuating a vicious cycle.

We can therefore argue that by accepting the culture of cheapening labour, we help sustain it. By believing that our careers can only start at the absolute bottom of the barrel, we let people take advantage of us – and it certainly does not help our future options, as we broadcast little or no confidence in our own worth right out of the gate. In an uncertain economy and a transition into new modes of commerce, it is only by refusing to help the exploitation of the chaos that we can prevent the current situation from sinking to further depths.  In this, too, we may be able to lay down a foundation for a better future.

Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 103, Issue 26, March 26, 2013.