Writing for free and why words are worth paying for

There’s been a big stramash about online publications asking journalists to work for free, and Paul Carr’s post is probably the only one you need to read on the topic:

Advertising-supported sites like the Atlantic are trapped in a nightmare of their own making: reliant on delivering millions of page views to shift huge amounts of ad inventory which at best barely covers the cost of production.

If you’re a writer considering working for free, please don’t do it: I absolutely understand the problem of getting a profile when you’re new to the industry, but if you’re contributing professional quality work to a commercial entity in the hope of getting paid work later you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

We’ve already seen this happen in photography. Check out the photo credits on big sites and more often than not they’re Creative Commons, not photo agencies. Individually, photographers offering Creative Commons images are trying to boost their profile so they can get paid work. Collectively, they’re getting rid of the paid work.

(Not all CC imagery is from photographers who want paid, of course, but that’s a whole other blog post).

The wider problem here is that of course, we readers don’t really want to pay for stuff. We’ve gone from a situation of scarcity, where the only way to get what you were interested in was to buy a print publication, to extreme abundance, where you have 7,000 publications all covering the same story about Apple – and all dependent on advertising, because if it’s on the internet it must be free. As a result, ad rates are microscopic and you get sites such as The Atlantic claiming that despite having 13 million readers, there isn’t enough money in the pot to pay for the content it publishes.

I think Thom Yorke hit on something in his recent Observer interview:

[Google et al] have made all content, including music and newspapers, worthless, in order to make their billions. And this is what we want?

Carr is right when he says:

There is no universe in which it’s possible to maintain a site like the Atlantic or Forbes or HuffPost or, increasingly, Slate or Salon without falling back on linkbait blogging and cheap or free syndication.

I don’t expect anybody to care about freelance writers, but if you’d like more choice than just MailOnline stamping on the human race forever and 27 funny pictures of cats then it might be a good idea to pay for the writing you value to ensure it sticks around. For me that’s the print mags and iPad editions and interesting new titles such as Tech. that I subscribe to; for you it might be Carr’s NSFW Corp, or Marco Arment’s The Magazine, or McSweeney’s.

And please, don’t work for free.