I’ve been thinking a bit about Russell Smith’s article in the Globe, about how there’s a generational divide between young writers, who don’t expect to be paid for their work, and older writers, who do. “There now exists an entire generation of intelligent people who have grown up without any expectation of compensation for imaginative work.” That sort of thing. And that is the sort of thing that comes up a lot when you talk to young journalists—like me, sure—here, whether it’s in person or online, especially in a city where there are a whole lot of publications and is a whole lot of activity around them, whether it’s an old publication rebranding or a young one being subsumed by a much larger and wealthier new parent.
For me, the question of whether or not a journalist should expect to be paid for their work, and how much, has nothing to do with the amount of attention that that work receives or how much it helps their personal brand. (There are not enough quotation marks in the world to surround those last two words.) It has everything to do with the extent to which they’re taken advantage of in their producing of that work. Basically: it’s about exploitation, not exposure.
I sometimes get paid to write things, but I’m writing these words for free, because it’s not like anyone is profiting directly or tangibly off of them, and besides, it helps me prove a point. Maybe there are some intangible benefits to Tumblr for this post’s success if it has any, but eh. You could extend this argument to using Twitter. You could even extend this argument to writing for or contributing to a publication that is paying you what it reasonably can, even if that’s not very much: a community newspaper, say, like the one Sarah Millar cited in her blog post about all this. Or, to some extent, the online publication I edited for several years and left at the end of 2010. (Neither here nor there: I left Torontoist before it was acquired by St. Joseph Media. You’d have to ask someone who works for them now about how their financial situation has or hasn’t changed.)
So, I’m writing these words for free. But if I was writing these exact words I am writing right now for the Star, or the Huffington Post, I would deserve to be paid. Same goes for if this piece were to be syndicated somewhere, even though I’ve already done most of the work. Someone else stands to tangibly benefit, so I should, too. I could choose not to be paid—and that is very much an individual choice—but I would deserve to be paid. Why? Because they can afford it.
If I work for someone who has the means to pay me significantly more than they are, I’m being exploited. That’s it.
I’m a young journalist. I have worked a lot for little, because I liked what I was doing, and because I knew I wasn’t being taken advantage of. I’d rather not work a lot for little anymore, so for now at least, I don’t. It’s entirely possible that all that work I did before has helped me now—all that “exposure”!—but I didn’t do it for that reason, and it wouldn’t have been worth it if I did. Be wary of publications that sell you on the means to an end (“work here so you can work somewhere else that’s better one day,” essentially) not the end in and of itself (“this is fun”; “you’ll be fairly paid”).
A quick story: when I was in high school, I worked retail for one of Canada’s most successful companies. I made minimum wage—$6.85 an hour, I think—with no commission, and with a half-hour unpaid lunch break. To get to work, I had to take the TTC for at least an hour, each way. Usually it was an hour and a half. (I wasn’t a student all that long ago; the fare was about $2.00.) Let’s say I spent $10 on lunch. If I worked a four-hour shift, I was actually working at least seven hours, for $23.97. Take away my TTC fare, and my lunch, and I made $9.97, or about $1.50 an hour. The day that led me to quit was the day I sold somewhere upwards of $6000 worth of stuff in a four-hour shift and walked away with a net gain of $10 for seven hours of my time.
Why? I had something that looked good on my resume at that age, after all. And I was learning how to work with and talk to people, and how to sell stuff, and how to be managed and manage, and I was well on my way to building my personal retailing brand. But I quit, because there are easier ways to make more money, and there are a lot more fulfilling ways to work for nothing.
I originally wrote something like this on the Toronto Freelance Editors and Writers message board, but my opinions are obviously very important and so on and so forth.
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