Being a New Journalist and Mixed Messages

I’m not going to talk about Nate Thayer, because I think that case is dumb. Olga Khazan made a mistake in her first two weeks of a job (Olga, I don’t know you, but if I ever do meet you I will buy you a drink because damn the internet sucks some times) and Nate Thayer feels the need to turn everything into an investigative take-down. Whatever. I’m over it. What I want to talk about is being a new journalist. Because I have some confessions. I am a professional journalist. I am also brand new at being one. And, most shockingly, I have worked for free.

So what I want to talk about is mixed messages. Should you ever work for free? There is obviously no single answer. Hello, this is the world, things are complicated, sorry. But let’s pretend for a second that you’re a spritely young/early career/newb journalist. Here are some of the messages you’re getting:

Message #1. Just do your thing, and if it’s good someone will notice.

Robert Krulwich probably has one of the best versions of this message. He gave a talk to the Berkeley School of Journalism in which he said:

But there are some people, who don’t wait.

I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this… hunger. It’s almost like an ache.

and then he said:

Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something. No one will pay you. No one will care, No one will notice, except of course you and the people you’re doing it with. But then you publish, you put it on line, which these days is totally doable, and then… you do it again.

After they wrote, they tweeted and facebooked and flogged their blogs, and because they were good, and worked hard, within a year or two, magazines asked them to affiliate (on financial terms that were insulting), but they did that, and their blogs got an audience, and then they got magazine assignments, then agents, then book deals, and now, three, four years after they began, these folks, five or six of them, are beginning to break through. They are becoming not just science writers with jobs, they are becoming THE science writers, the ones people read, and look to… they’re going places. And they’re doing it on their own terms! In their own voice, they’re free to be themselves AND they’re paid for it!

Lots and lots of other people have said this sort of thing. A lot. I can’t link to them all because I’m a newb freelance journalist and I’m kind of supposed to be working right now.

The message is that the internet is the great democratizer. On the internet, you can just publish your own work. You can tell the stories you think need to be told and you can tell them your way. And anyone in the whole world can read them. That’s how some really big names started – look at Alexis Madrigal and Ed Yong. They wrote for nothing, or peanuts and they’re now some of the most respected writers and editors around. The message is that if your work is good enough, and you put it somewhere on the internet, you will get noticed. You will get hired and become the next Jad Abumrad or something.

I was once at a talk where a New Yorker editor was a guest. An early career journalist asked him whether he had advice for breaking into the vaulted halls of the New Yorker. His answer (I’m paraphrasing): “Just go out there and report the story. If you really believe in it, just do it. And then publish it on your blog.” Her response (again, paraphrasing): “So I’m supposed to go report a 30,000 word deep dive into something, and then publish it on my blog and hope people notice?” Obviously that’s ridiculous, but that was his actual answer and I’m a reporter so I reported it. Bam.

Message #2. DEAR GOD WHATEVER YOU DO DO NOT WORK FOR FREE. If you do you are betraying every one of your colleagues, friends, coworkers and their children and their children’s children.

But the idea that anyone should work for free garners strong reactions. From one comment on an Atlantic piece: “Ask any other professional, such as a doctor, auto mechanic, plumber, accountant to do a job for free and sit back and wait for the swearing or the laughter, followed by “get out.” Why should a professional writer be expected to work for free, especially for a national publication?”

And there’s a lot of “if you work for free you’re destroying the careers of everyone around you” that happens on the internet. I have been personally told that projects I’ve done for free were directly hurting my friends.

So, you’re supposed to write for yourself because PASSION, PEOPLE but you’re not supposed to give that writing away. Even though the whole point of you writing on your dinky blog is so that some place, like, say, The Atlantic, notices it and says “hey that’s good we should put it on our website.”

So look. Like I said before, it’s complicated. Obviously you should not report at 30,000 word piece for yourself on your blog unless you have some other income stream. And obviously those who blog for free aren’t evil. What I’m saying is that young writers get mixed messages and we’re sort of confused? Nate Thayer is an amazing professional journalist. It’s easy for him to say no to doing anything for free ever. But for a lot of us, it’s not. So let’s all play nice and try to agree on a few things:

  1. Writing for money is better than writing for free. Okay, cool, glad we cleared that up.
  2. Sometimes it’s okay to write for free without being the actual worst person in the entire world.
  3. If an editor can pay for something, they should pay for it.

That’s all I’m going to say because I am actually supposed to be working for money right now and I agree with Christopher Mims that no one actually cares but I just had these THOUGHTS and the world really needed to know them.

Are journalists aware that hardly anything is less interesting to the general public than debates about journalism? Who do we serve, again?

— Christopher Mims (@mims) March 7, 2013

Top image: mikeschilli 

4 Thoughts on “Being a New Journalist and Mixed Messages

  1. While I have not done sny research on this, I think the whole working-for-free thing only applies to creative endeavors for some reason. My undergraduate degree was in Music Composition and I remember composing seminars with lecturers who were pros in the field telling us to not work for free. We should not get suckered into the fantasy of how much we would benefit from the exposure gained by someone using our music in a film or “commissioning” a work for a concert/recital without payment.

    This elicits mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, writing a piece of music takes A LOT of time and the creator should be compensated. However, if someone like Joshua Bell came along and said, “Hey, write me a solo violin piece and I’ll play it on my next tour. Oh and I’m not going to pay you,” that has a tremendous amount of value in itself given his status as one of the best, talented, most recognized, and in-demand violinists of our time.

    But noone would ever expect a construction worker to work for free just for the honor of building the largest skyscraper in the world. No one would expect a heart surgeon to work for free just because she was going to operate on a celebrity.

    As you stated, it is complicated and I don’t think there is one catch-all answer.

    PS – I wrote this on my phone on a city bus. So I’m sorry if there are typos/grammar errors up the wazoo. But I ain’t gonna proofread ;-)

  2. As a veterinarian trying to break into science writing, I feel like I have to point out that a lot of different professionals DO give away their services for free. Vets are notorious for not only volunteering time and doing free spays and neuters, but for discounting or not charging for services if people have trouble paying (and we do that way too much). Physicians to some extent will do the same thing. Lawyers volunteer for LegalCORPS, or do free seminars. I could go on. It might not be EXACTLY the same as asking someone to create a piece of writing or art for free, but to believe that many professions don’t work for free, often with some regularity, is not true.

  3. Mindy on March 8, 2013 at 10:36 am said:

    I think many, many people fall back on the old argument that there are different rules for “Artists” and “Professionals”, and that’s what tends to bung up the topic of compensation—for people who work with artists, and, frequently, for artists themselves.

    Artists are EXPECTED to do their thing because they have to, because their heads will explode if they don’t. So budding novelists live on oatmeal and ramen noodles and painters freeze in garrets and filmmakers beg, borrow, and max out fistfuls of credit cards, all in the name of Getting Art Done.
    Are they hoping there’s recognition or money at the end of the tunnel? Sure, but that’s not the spark that lights the creative fire.

    But what if you’re an artist AND a professional? That’s where it turns tricky, because often you’re expected to care so much more about the craft-and-recognition part that you should be willing to forego the money. And that’s why writers (and graphic artists, and video editors, and animators, and illustrators, etc., etc.) who swim the murky waters of the Working World and are asked over and over to give it away are so pissed off. Because it’s one thing to set the idea of money aside if you’re creating something that’s 100% yours, but it galls when someone else asks you to do it—particularly when it’s someone in a for-profit business.

  4. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links right here (9 March 2013) – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science

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