Write Now: Unpaid journalism

Write Now: Unpaid journalism

By Luiza 16/02/12

Increasing numbers of aspiring journalists are writing for free on a long-term basis – with no end in sight. Our deputy editor, Luiza Sauma, explains why talented writers should push to be paid...

Should I write for free?

It’s the question all young journalists ask themselves, particularly those who haven’t yet found a satisfying full-time job.

It’s a prerequisite these days, isn’t it? You graduate, get a job in an unrelated field, write for love, not money (for the many magazines and websites that fuel themselves on unpaid writers), and if you’re talented and ambitious enough, you bag yourself a full-time role after a few years. 

Well, that’s the story that so many of these “freegan” publications sell to young people desperate to get into journalism. But journalism is a job, not a hobby – and does a portfolio full of unpaid bylines actually lead to a career? 

It depends on the individual. A trained young journalist, a few years into her career, told me: “I’m still taking on a lot of free work due to the sheer scarcity of opportunity... I do enjoy it, but I think people get past the point of no return with regards to working for little or for free.” Another agreed: “The exciting perks of journalism more than compensated for the lack of payment… After a while, though, it all becomes a bit tiresome. Last weekend I spent my two days off writing nonstop for unpaid deadlines. It’s very demoralising.” 

Hopefully, their unpaid work will lead to full-time careers. For many unpaid journalists it never will, for various reasons. Lack of ability aside (those people are wheedled out even by non-paying editors), a few years spent writing for free can lead to a portfolio full of cuttings from obscure publications that lack the resources and experience to develop their writers from the good into the great. 

This is the thing: no one really expects a new graduate to be the full package, but if you’ve got potential and drive, and you get picked up by an experienced editor at a decent publication (call me biased, but 99% of these are the paying ones), you’ll get trained up in no time at all. Quality control is much lower in unpaid journalism because most non-paying editors are reluctant or too inexperienced to ask more of their writers – to do a rewrite, for example. 

Perhaps I’m displaying some old-media naïvety here. After all, I graduated eight years ago – before the number of journalism vacancies took a serious nosedive. It was bloody hard to break into the industry and I did a few bits of unpaid work, but even so, writing for free for an extended period of time wasn’t a consideration for me and my contemporaries.

In many ways, it’s an exciting time in journalism: new, independent publications are popping up every day, and I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from setting one up themselves. But when you do set up a publication – and if it becomes wildly popular and starts to make some money (naming no names here) – you need to think seriously about how you’re going to pay your writers. If not, prepare to take some flack – not just from journalists, but from the NUJ. As a journalist closer to my age put it: “I fundamentally don’t agree with people – anyone, in any sector – working for nothing... It cuts out talent based on financial circumstance and I think in many cases it borders on unethical.”

Remember this: there aren’t many good writers around (trust me on this), so if you’re good, you should be paid for the skill you’ve spent years honing. If your portfolio is looking decent, I’d advise you to pitch to the publications that pay and forget the others. As Cheryl Cole would say, you’re worth it. You really are.


Luiza could talk about this topic until the cows come home, so do leave comments and questions below…


More Write Now:

Pitching to IdeasMag

Writing and running


Image: Underwood typewriter keys by 3fold, available under a CC BY-NC license.

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