She Meant Well

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Mizzoumafia is a listserv on which journalism graduates of the University of Missouri (my alma mater) — most of them recent — compare notes and share tips on jobs. Thursday morning a young graduate who now works for a PR agency in a big city tried to do a good deed. She posted a notice announcing that her agency was planning a big event in February and needed a photographer. "Unfortunately," she went on, "we won't be able to pay or provide equipment, but it may be a good opportunity for a photographer just getting started/looking for future business as you will get A LOT of exposure! It also is a good opportunity to network with people who might be in attendance."

The graduate picked the wrong time to try to be nice. Possibly the wrong year, decade, and century — but definitely the wrong day. On Wednesday afternoon another grad had posted a new article from the LA Times, "Freelance writing's unfortunate new model," that observed there are plenty of reporting and writing opportunities around for the journalist willing to work for nothing.

"Today's reality is that much of freelancing has become all too free," said the Times. "Seasoned professionals have seen their income drop by 50% or more as publishers fill the Web's seemingly limitless news hole, drawing on the ever-expanding rank of under-employed writers."

Publishers who pay anything at all pay pennies, the Times observed. "Other publishers pitch the grand opportunities they provide to 'extend your personal brand' or to 'showcase your work, influence others.' That means working for nothing, just like the sailing magazine that offers its next editor-writer not a single doubloon but, instead, the opportunity to 'participate in regattas all over the country.'

"What's sailing away, a decade into the 21st century, is the common conception that writing is a profession — or at least a skilled craft that should come not only with psychic rewards but with something resembling a living wage."

One Mizzou grad read the Times piece and moaned, "This is exactly how I feel and why, after 20 years as a journalist, I'm thinking about getting a masters in social work."

So it was that the announcement of the photography gig that paid nothing fell on poisoned soil. The first response: "As long as photographers take free gigs like this, it is undercutting the industry for the rest of us." The second: "If you are a photographer, donate your time to charities and causes that you believe in." The third: "I had one of the worst years of my professional life last year, so if you are a 'beginning' photographer and have any aspirations of ever making money doing what you love, politely ask [her] for the $1000 or so she should be paying."

The eighth: "This posting made me sick at my stomach."

The 17th: "Please don't post 'work for free' offers on the list. It's an insult to all of us, and honestly it devalues the work of the entire profession."

By this time the original poster had written again and apologized. She said she didn't mean to be rude. "Being a recent college graduate I know that a lot of young people are looking for work and trying to get their foot in the door anyway they can. Sometimes doing something for free can lead to a great opportunity. I do currently have a full time job, but I worked as an unpaid intern for six months before being hired and have written many articles [for] several magazines and newspapers for free and know that hard work does pay off. I do apologize if you found my post insulting."

There were posters who told her she had nothing to apologize for since it wasn't her choice not to pay the photographer and posters who said nobody had anything to apologize for because not paying freelancers has simply become the way of the world. When I reached the poster by phone, she told me she'd done a lot of writing herself for nothing before she found somebody who'd pay her, and she took a PR job because she couldn't find a job in journalism. Soon she was sobbing. "It's been a horrible morning," she said. "There are hundreds of thousands of people looking for writing jobs every year and there's 200 available. I've used the Mizzou listserv before. People are willing to help you out and I thought that's what I was trying to do -- help my company out and give a recent grad a chance to build a portfolio."

If you're a pro you want to be treated like a pro, but it's a terrible time to walk the walk — or even talk the talk. But here's what the talk sounds like. Here's a clip of Harlan Ellison laying down the rules he lives by: "They always want the writer to work for nothing. And the problem is there are so goddamn many writers who have no idea they're supposed to be paid. Everytime they do something — they do it for nothing.... I don't take a piss without getting paid for it."

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