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Revisiting the Reilly debate: how writing for free can lead to pay day

Last month, the veteran sportswriter Rick Reilly addressed graduates at the University of Colorado J-school. This was part of his advice: "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! … 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!”
 
I thought that was bad advice, and said so in a column here. My objection was that journalism's supply glut has drastically reduced compensation, effectively creating unpaid apprenticeships that are displacing the cheap freelance assignments that once let writers start climbing the ladder to better-paid work. Reilly, I felt, was ignoring this unfortunate state of affairs, giving advice that was both absolutist and obsolete.
 
While I didn't recommend that young writers refuse to write for free — something I think would be career suicide — I did warn that they should look skeptically at such offers and be rigorous about asking what's in it for them. Not all free work is created equal. It can be simple exploitation, in which case it's not worth doing. Or it can come with a byline, association with a solid brand and access to the right audience — as well as valuable connections and the possibility of mentoring and good editing. If that's the case, free might not be a bad short-term answer.
 
Anyway, I got cuffed around for that on Poynter's site and by Slate's Tom Scocca, who's since become the managing editor of Deadspin. (Craig Calcaterra, another writer who took issue with Reilly, also took some fire.) It was an interesting discussion with some good points made — points that seem worth reviewing.
 
Someone asked if I'd ever written for free. The answer is yes — I don't do it very often these days, but that's because I now have enough experience that people who want to hire me generally don't ask. But I will write for free in the right situation — in fact, I'm actively trying to in a couple of areas where I'd like to expand my portfolio (travel, writing about kids) but don't have a name or a platform that's a good fit for those audiences. Would I like to get paid for that stuff? Of course I would. But if I can find some good combination of exposure, credit, an audience I want to reach and future possibilities, that would be valuable enough to make up for not getting paid — at least at first.
 
Those who took issue with writing for free also brought up Huffington Post's bloggers — particularly Mayhill Fowler, who stepped aside with a demand to get paid. Frankly, I thought Fowler's case was better evidence for my position than it was for Reilly's. Fowler's reached a level where she's proven herself and people know her — nowhere in the Poynter conversation did anybody need to remind folks of who she was. She wants to get paid, she should get paid, and I have no doubt she will. But how did she get to that level? She wrote for free.
 
People bashed the idea that there were writing outlets with the desired combination of good audience, a valuable name and solid editors. I cited two counterexamples off the top of my head.
 
One is from my own odd little world of Mets blogs. One of my favorite Mets blogs is Amazin' Avenue, which is part of SB Nation. AA has readers who write "fan posts" for free, the best of which get promoted to the site's front page. AA uses fan posts as a way to find new regular contributors. If I were starting out as a Mets blogger, I'd absolutely write AA fan posts for free, because of the audience, the halo effect of a good brand, and the possibilities it could unlock. (Come to think of it, I've written two pieces for AA anthologies, for free — both because I like the AA guys and because I wanted their readers to read my stuff. Not to mention I co-write a Mets blog – for free — that's led to paid gigs for me and a book deal for my co-writer Greg Prince.)
 
Another such site is The Awl, which has no shortage of folks who'd love to get paid nothing for writing for them. I'm definitely one of them, and Scocca noted he writes for The Awl, for nothing.
 
I asked a friend of mine about his (extensive) writing for The Awl, and thought he made the case rather better than I had: "those words are ones I'm really proud of, lots of people read them, and they've already gotten me opportunities elsewhere. Writing for free at a place you respect, for editors you like and respect, and for an audience that you want to reach is so manifestly wise that I would've been stunned if Rick Reilly HAD NOT recommended against it. If you do it right, you will get yourself seen by people who can pay you."
 
What surprised me about the whole back-and-forth is how people who agreed with Reilly seemed to cast the argument in terms of labor dogma, rather than seeing it as a question of practical advice. Scocca, for instance, seemed to think I was suggesting writing for free was an awesome new paradigm or should be celebrated. To the contrary, I think writing for free is an unfortunate byproduct of ruthless economic changes. But I also think it's the reality for a lot of new writers, and they need realistic advice for navigating that as they figure out the route to paid work.
 
At the end of May, Reilly himself weighed in, sans links: “The truth is, if you're writing your own blog for free just to get practice and a little exposure, that's fine. If you're in college and you're taking an unpaid internship at a website or newspaper, that's fine, as long as you're getting college credit. But if you're writing constantly for a website or magazine that is selling ads and making money and you're getting nothing? You're a fool. Demand to be paid. If you can't find anybody willing to pay you to write, maybe it's time to try something else.”
 
On one level, Reilly and I aren't really so far apart here. On another, there's a chasm dividing us.
 
I wouldn't write "constantly" for a website or magazine that was healthy and not get paid either. But once again, I think Reilly's not confronting the realities facing young writers who want to be him. There's no longer a stark divide between college and internships and professional work — the supply glut and falling wages have pushed that divide out a few years, into the professional ranks, with independent blogs the same wild card they are in everything else. Good young writers may indeed find no one is willing to pay them to write — not because they don't have what it takes, but because the sites that will take their work don't have to pay them. Rather than be told to try something else, they need advice for making this unpaid period valuable in other ways, and as short as possible.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
 
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