26 Oct 2012

Writing For Free...

...is never far from my mind, as it's something I do often, and far more often than I would like. I would love to make an income from my writing that I can survive upon, but instead I've found myself undertaking unpaid internships, 'voluntary' writing positions, and churning out thousands of words for nothing in return except the hope of exposure. To a degree, I accept that this is a) part of a writer's lot, and b) increasingly the nature of the beast as the internet makes paid content harder and harder to find. I write for free in the hope that it'll get exposure for my writing that will ultimately translate into paying work, but when a major UK newspaper tells me that it can't pay me for the 800-word assignment I spent my day on because 'we don't have a budget for online content', one does start to wonder if we're just being sold the emperor's new clothes. 

Like most writers I've had to diversify and offer other services, such as social media promotion, proofreading and website evaluations. I also do private tutoring and care work when the writing just isn't paying. I accept that many writers (see also actors, artists, musicians etc) do have to take other work in order to survive, but it's also a catch-22 - if you can't give your work your attention full-time, then you can't really call yourself a full-time writer. Thus your true passion ends up relegated to the status of a 'second job' or even 'hobby', for solely financial reasons. I know that paying nurses, teachers, police officers and fire fighters is far more important than paying the likes of me - but surely no one should be in the position of doing an honest day's work for sweet FA.

That said, I do feel ambivalent when confronted with crowdsourcing requests to fund publications that are floundering. Much as I appreciate the value of independent, quality journalism from diverse sources, another part of me does cynically wonder 'Why should I be putting my meager income from the few paid writing gigs I get, towards paying other writers?' There have been several campaigns this year asking for donations to keep magazines afloat, both major and independent publications, and it's left me wondering - Surely if a publication can't turn a profit, or even pay its writers, shouldn't it submit to the inevitable and shut down?

However, I know the other side of the story. I did an unpaid internship for the fantastic feminist magazine Ms. earlier this year. This may sound hard to believe, but the fact I had to fly to the US, pay for accommodation and live without a salary for 3 months failed to put even a tiny tarnish on my fantastic experience. I would honestly do it all again. I understand that Ms. has struggled financially, having dropped its circulation from monthly to bi-monthly, to quarterly, and having had to compensate with an online presence which, as tends to be the case with web content, doesn't make money and thus means bloggers can't be paid. I also appreciate that Ms is owned by a non-profit organsation, the Feminist Majority Foundation, so any spare money goes toward valuable campaigns such as helping Afghan women and girls, encouraging women to vote, and fighting for education equality. So, I was willing to accept that paying interns was just not viable for Ms, and I loved every minute working there anyway.

Would I want Ms. to fold because it's not as profitable as it used to be? God no - it's bad enough that there are no feminist magazines left in the UK. When people wondered why I was willing to fly 3000 miles to work for nothing, the latter was precisely my answer. Visibility of feminism has taken a nose dive in our media culture, and Ms helps keep a sane voice speaking out amongst the mindless, apolitical chatter of other so-called 'women's magazines'. But what do we do when capitalism comes calling? Writers need to make money to survive, ergo so do publications. If most magazines and newspapers are destined to end up online, should they all go behind a paywall? Will people bother to pay for online content when they know they can probably find similar elsewhere for free? Does that make writers who willingly write for free traitors to their compatriots who want to hold out for proper pay? 

As James Bloodworth points out in this article on the 'gentrification of journalism', turning journalism into an indulgence rather than a job will ultimately disadvantage us all. Bloodworth writes, "Any long-term reliance on free labour will certainly make newspaper balance sheets look better; but it will also give a labour market advantage to those from more privileged backgrounds who can afford to work six month unpaid internships or find free time to turn around articles for nothing – which in turn will mean an ever smaller section of society writing the news."
Gone are the days when the young Julie Burchill and the young Caitlin Moran could walk into music journalism jobs whilst still in their teens and fashion careers out of being witty feminist commentators. There are plenty of the latter still out there but most of them are blogging for free and working day jobs in between. And so I genuinely wonder, are the days of making a living from writing also gone? I'm not quite ready to give up hope yet - but it can be hard to see what the way forward for us hacks is going to be.

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