Should I write for free?

I’ve noticed a bit of an upsurge in emails asking me if I want to be part of something exciting!, BIG! or fantastic!. These are, invariably, invitations from some massive corporation to provide professional copy for them – for free.

The way this model works is fairly straightforward. The company takes your copy, and that of several dozen other journalists or bloggers, hosts in on ad-heavy sites or syndicates it to larger media organisations and watches the cash roll in.

In exchange it gives you nothing of real value, beyond vague promises of link juice, raising your profile or potentially the odd bone thrown from central office – a DVD or trip.

There’s another model a step above this that promises revenue share – a split of the advertising revenue generated from the page on which your articles sit. This will literally add up to a few pennies a day.

I’m aware of a few services that have contacted me in the past, offering decent copy at under a penny a word. How can anyone make a living out of that?

Likewise, there’s a whole host of subcontinental outfits offering cheap content from skilled writers. The costs from a client side don’t really stack up when you look at everything, but you can bet there’ll be plenty of agencies weighing them up against employing a UK-based hack.

Now, the market and collapse of newspaper and online ad revenues is ultimately to blame for all of this – that’s globalisation for you. Simply put, there are not enough jobs out there for skilled journalists, or snappers for that matter.

But I’m extremely uncomfortable with the way certain companies are taking advantage of this. They are, essentially, using free labour and making money off the back of it. Where to begin with the moral ramifications of that one?

Journalism is a skill without compare in many ways, in that it’s extremely hard to put a value on writing. Most quality stuff rises to the top in journalism but, in the online arms race for more and more content, crap will suffice a lot of the time.

So it’s becoming harder for good writers to stand out in a crowded market. Quite simply, that market isn’t too picky at the moment.

You might provide an article for less than you’d like, but someone else will do it for less. And if they do it for half the amount you would, who’s to say that it’s only half as good? Certainly not the Community Managers scavenging out-of-work journos and bloggers these days for free copy.

I find it hard to blame any journalists who do provide copy for free – that nebulous offers of ‘influence’ and ‘exposure’ may be a valuable one further down the line.

And short of some kind of universal ‘all for one’ stand by writers of every stripe on the planet, refusing to work for free is a rather empty – if noble – gesture, I fear.

To an extent working for free – especially in PR, journalism, advertising – has always been part of the equation, but when companies actively go out soliciting free work from professionals it’s a bridge too far.

What’s to be done? Send a polite but pointed reply turning the offer down?

That’s certainly my choice, but I’m gainfully employed. Who could blame an out-of-work journo or freelance hack for taking a punt?

There is no answer: there’s demand and there’s supply – no amount of wailing or gnashing of teeth is going to do anything about it.

I’m reminded of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: the powerless and exploited workforces; the lowering of standards; the compromise of quality for a fast buck.

It’s not edifying, but it’s the economic system we live in. Manual workers have been exploited in the way for decades, centuries even. Now it’s the turn of professionals.

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