is it legal for publications not to pay their writers?

A reader writes:

After being unemployed for 8 months, a friend suggested I look at volunteer websites to do writing and design for free, just to start doing it again. I felt a bit reluctant, but did. Eventually I found a city magazine in my area looking for writers, but they couldn’t pay them, just “incentivize” them (i.e., you get into magazine-hosted events for free).

I’ve since quit doing this because other things have finally worked out, but I wondered the whole time if it was legal—the whole thing that they weren’t paying their writers. It wasn’t a situation like the Huffington Post where you contribute one story, then kind of go on with your life. If you were a writer, you were expected to meet a quota of x stories per week and they’d give you a “strike” if you didn’t schedule your posts in time. There were compulsory staff meetings. Your title was, in fact, “staff writer.”

I know the publishing industry as a whole is suffering, but I guess what always rubbed me the wrong way is some people there were getting paid. The editors and other management positions were getting paid, some of the photographers, and some of the writers. The magazine has been around for 10 years—I see that it’s suffering like everyone else, but it’s not exactly a fledgling thing. They put on shows and events in the region that draw in money. I feel like it’s such a gray area because no one really respects writers anymore and people feel like they should get content for free, but is it actually legally for a publication like this to not pay?

Writing for free has become A Thing. Like every other blogger on the planet, I get emails all the time from various websites and publications asking me to write for free. When I explain that I charge for my work, they tell me with an inexplicably straight face that they don’t pay but instead can offer “exposure.” They, of course, will be profiting financially from what they want written for free.

The frustrating thing is that if you want to write professionally, sometimes it really can help to agree to do a small amount of this early on. I did used to write for free when I was trying to build my reputation — and the reality is, it helped. I was careful about which assignments I said yes to, but it did give me more exposure and more credibility. That makes it harder to issue a blanket “never do this,” because I know that it benefitted me and helped me get to the point where I now get paid for what I write (and now can happily turn down the people offering exposure as payment).

But people who want to earn money from writing are in a tough position when they’re starting out. You can take a principled position that you won’t write for free, but often that just means that other people will write for free while you don’t get published anywhere at all. Having published clips has always been the way to get writing work — you need them to get most writing jobs, so it’s hard for an inexperienced writer trying to break into the field to turn down offers that will provide those clips but don’t pay. As a result, profit-generating enterprises are getting tons of talented young writers to provide free work to subsidize their businesses and offering very little in return.

But that’s not your question. You want to know if it’s really legal. To get you an answer, I turned to the awesome Donna Ballman, employment lawyer extraordinaire and author of the excellent Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired. She says:

It does seem like there’s a fine line between employee and volunteer writer these days. The Huffington Post suit was dismissed because the court found that the bloggers knew they weren’t getting paid, and that what they got was exposure. On the other hand, HuffPo didn’t treat these writers like employees. I’d say this situation sounds more like an employee/employer situation. Where the company is making the writers meet deadlines, issuing discipline, and requiring attendance at meetings, then those writers may well be employees. I’d suggest this reader contact an employee-side employment lawyer or the Department of Labor to explain more about the situation and explore her options.

In other words, this is similar to the laws on independent contractors. If an employer is treating you like an employee, then the law probably views you as an employee regardless of what the employer calls you, and thus you’re entitled to minimum wage and other worker protections. But if the employer truly treats you like an independent contractor (which is often the case with freelance writers), then those protections don’t kick in, and that means that you can in fact legally work for zero pay, “exposure,” thrills, or any other arrangement you want to agree to.

* I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 208 comments… read them below }

  1. Felicia*

    A lot of publications like this hire only a revolving door of interns that they treat exactly employees but don’t pay. This is technically illegal , particularly when they generally don’t even train the interns, but this is extremely common and the law around this is rarely enforced. Your case does sound a bit more like being treated like an independent contractor. And I’ve done some writing for free before I landed my job, but I was very picky on what kinds of assignments i’d take, and didn’t do anything that required more than I was confortable with. In fact I’m currently doing volunteer writing that’s one article per month even though I have a job, because I love it. I bet you could find something like that! Good luck!

  2. LBK*

    I’m curious where this crosses the line from being a volunteer. I know there have been previous LWs that were asking about “firing” a volunteer, so obviously you’re allowed to set expectations for someone you’re not paying and then ask them not to volunteer for you anymore if those expectations aren’t met. Does that only apply to certain industries or positions where volunteering falls under certain legal requirements (like non-profits)? Can you technically “volunteer” for a for-profit company that’s making money off your work?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Only nonprofits and government orgs are allowed to have volunteers. You can’t volunteer for a for-profit company. (But you can, it turns out, work for them as an independent contractor and accept something other than money as your pay. But you’d need to truly meet the legal definition of independent contractor, which many contractors don’t.)

      1. Case of the Mondays*

        You can be an intern for a for-profit company, however. There are rules the company has to follow but if they follow those rules they don’t have to pay you.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes — but the difference there is that that’s interning, not volunteering, and the law has pretty strict (although often unenforced) regulations for who qualifies as an unpaid intern at a for-profit business. Most people called “volunteers” wouldn’t (because it has to be heavily weighted toward an educational experience).

  3. Eliz87*

    I whole-heartedly agree with the OP about the unfairness of higher-ups expecting people new in the industry to work for free. I’m not a writer, but I am a musician and people in the arts get this all the time. “You expect payment for your work? You should be willing to do this for exposure/to serve the community/for the love of the art!”
    I feel like the solution would be for everyone to stop agreeing to work for free, but realistically I don’t see this happening in the near future.

    1. some1*

      I always notice these suggestions in articles for couples who want to throw a wedding on the cheap: “Get your musician/photographer friend/family member to provide their services as their gift.” Yeah, do that if you don’t want them as a friend anymore.

      Of course it’s different if a relative or friend volunteers completely of their own volition.

      1. ExceptionToTheRule*

        +1 – Been there, done that, didn’t get to enjoy any of my cousins’ weddings.

        1. Lizzy May*

          Me too! I’m an amateur photographer and I took the main set of photos for a cousin’s wedding. I edited them and gave the couple an actual gift too because as an amateur I didn’t trust that the photos alone were enough. Didn’t even get a thank you card. Never again will do something like that for free.

          1. GrumpyBoss*

            I have been married for 15 years. I found out about a month ago that my cousin, also an amateur photographer, has been holding a grudge for all these years because I didn’t ask him to shoot my wedding (he was only 18 at the time!). He has even griped that he would have done it for free.

            Something about weddings brings out the worst in our relatives, I think.

            1. Kai*

              For my upcoming wedding, our policy for friends (like the friend who shot our engagement photos) was to ask them if they’d be interested in doing the work and say that we would of course pay them for time and resources. At that point, if they wanted to offer it for free as a wedding gift, we could talk about it from there. But we would never assume.

              1. Sydney Bristow*

                We asked a friend of ours who is a professional photographer if she would rather shoot the wedding for her regular fee or come as a guest. She said she would rather be there as a guest, so that is what we are doing. Still trying to find a photographer whose work we love as much as hers!

                We also asked my brother who is an artist and doing it as a side business if he would design our invitations. We told him the prices we were seeing from other vendors and offered to pay him that or whatever he thought was fair if he wanted to do it (making it clear he could turn us down). He refused to take money and is doing it as his gift to us, but that was totally his choice. I’m making him sign his work and put his website on the back of the cards. I’d love for him to ultimately get more work from this. We are super grateful for what he is doing and could never just expect it!

                1. Cucumber*

                  Very classy of you to put it like that. It’s when someone asks you to do your “magic” for free, on account of your friendship, that people get in trouble.

              2. Felicia*

                I think that’s a good policy. And I’d probably do that with my photographer friends because I like their work and so would want to support their business.

            2. JMegan*

              Yes. We had a friend throw a hissy fit at us because he’s an amateur photographer and we did not ask him to shoot our wedding. Which we did quite deliberately, because we wanted him there as a guest and not feeling like he had to work.

              But instead he just ended up being offended that we didn’t think he was good enough. He then spent the day complaining about “Mr Professional Photographer” getting in his way and ruining all the good shots!

        2. AVP*

          I’m a good photographer with a really nice camera – I’ll do this if it’s an event that I would go to by obligation and not particularly enjoy anyway (christenings, baby showers) – at least it gives me something to do that I find fun. But if I’m hoping to have a good time and a few drinks, I politely decline – taking wedding photos is so much work and pressure!

      2. Diet Coke Addict*

        I hate seeing that. For starters, it presumes that everyone HAS family and friends who are capable of baking an awesome cake/taking professional pictures/providing music/cooking for 150/arranging flowers professionally/whatever, which is trouble enough in articles devoted to frugality or whatever; but secondly and more importantly….those things are valuable services! And even if you do have someone who does those things, it’s not kind of thoughtful to ASK them to give that as a”gift” to you. I mean, you should not be requesting a gift of any kind, especially one of that kind of magnitude, but it just gets so crazy when people think that artistic endeavors are somehow less worthy of being paid or “oh it doesn’t take that much time” or “I’ll do it for just expenses!” or whatever.

        My coworker is getting married next year and has a friend who owns a farm. She has informed the friend that she will give him the seeds, and she would like him to grow peonies for her wedding. Never mind that A) he doesn’t grow flowers, let alone B) flowers from SEED, and C) didn’t want to do this in the first place, that’s her request.

          1. Diet Coke Addict*

            I had no idea. I don’t think my coworker knows that either. I am not going to be the one to tell her.

            1. fposte*

              Very wise. But it does make the situation even funnier. “Here’s a seed–I want the apples for my wedding next fall.”

              1. Diet Coke Addict*

                I would love to hear it! I just don’t want to be in the line of fire–this coworker got all bent out of shape because her sister chose a wedding dress with lace on it, and the coworker’s wedding dress ALSO had lace on it.

                I’m not kidding. This provoked a 20-minute digression on how her sister was Copying Her Wedding (that has not yet happened) and how horrible her sister was being.

                1. Cucumber*

                  Sounds like a submission to Etiquette Hell. It’s only going to get rockier as you edge into the next year.

                  But thank you for the laugh.

                2. Laura*

                  You could find an article on raising peonies and how long it takes to get from seed to flower, print it, highlight the relevant bit, and leave it anonymously on her desk?

                  Very passive aggressive – but honestly, you’d be doing her and her friend a favor.

                  And, incidentally, possibly providing yourself a little entertainment value.

                3. Anonsie*

                  I would be pretty offended if someone did the anonymous drop, but not if someone just told me it wouldn’t work– what with it being a helpful thing to know. People be cray and all (see: lace on dress) but in this case I doubt it would be directed at the messenger right away.

                  But if it was, who cares.

        1. AVP*

          Also, if they’re people you would have invited anyway, it means they won’t get to have fun and won’t really be a part of the event or able to socialize.

          1. Clerica*

            Tbh, if I were invited to a wedding and asked to do something as my gift (I sew, make candles, arrange flowers, a whole bunch of things that someone could ask for), I’d always wonder if I was invited because the person liked me and wanted me there on their special day or if I just happened to fit a need on their checklist of wedding prep.

          2. Cucumber*

            This is true, but I threw a big anniversary party and invited many friends who didn’t know each other. A now VERY dear friend who I had known for about a year asked me if I had a photographer for the event – I didn’t – he offered to shoot everything. On the spot. He had a ball, and I suspect it was a great icebreaker for him. Would you believe that one of my husband’s co-workers did the same as well? Come to think of it, my father (who’s a very gregarious guy) also loves to take photos at all kinds of social events.

            1. Cucumber*

              Hit reply too soon. I meant to say that, for some people, the camera is a kind of social lubricant. I would gather that many weddings would be improved by buying a couple of cheap digital cameras and letting the guests share it, then grabbing the cameras and sharing all the pictures with guests.

              1. Fucshia*

                That is actually a Thing in the US. A couple disposable cameras are left on each table at the reception and they get dropped somewhere when they are full.

        2. Artemesia*

          Peonies don’t produce flowers for a very long time (as in years after being planted); no way seeds are going to produce peonies. What kind of a jerk would ask that of a friend?

          1. AdAgencyChick*

            One who hasn’t done her research. I hope to god the friend didn’t say yes, because you KNOW that when the friend has flowerless peony plants in a year, this person is going to blame him.

            1. fluffy*

              After a year, they will be 2 inch tall plants. Expect mature blossoms in 5 or 6 years

              1. Heather*

                It would be kind of awesome if the friend said yes without correcting her, and then gave her a couple hundred 2-inch plants for the wedding.

                1. Fucshia*

                  Those could be great wedding favors for the guests. Something like “as the plants grow and blossom, so will everyone’s love”.

        3. some1*

          It also assumes a pro should give a gift = cost of the goods + labor + a paid job they’d have to turn down. My close friend is an awesome cover band that does weddings for hundreds of dollars; certainly way more than she’d spend on a gift for anybody.

          1. Diet Coke Addict*

            Especially this. Professional photographers can charge thousands of dollars for photo services–asking them to do a job for free on a busy weekend in, say, June, is asking them to essentially give double the cost of their goods. Which is cruel.

          2. Red Librarian*

            YES. That also goes to questionable judgement as to what their friend would actually charge and the assumption they would spend that much on them for a gift.

        4. Clerica*

          There are people who (not necessarily consciously) collect “friends” based on a skill or profession they might need someday. My landlady is like this–she’ll say things like “Well, so-and-so down the street is a lawyer, so I know I can call him if I have to go to court about [ex-tenant].” She’ll meet someone once and file away what they do in her head and expect they’re going to help her (for free) if she ever needs it. So she’s the type the article was probably written for (or by), but then again, those types usually don’t need to be explicitly told how to use people. :/

          I’m still a little baffled by her knocking on my door the other night asking if I have my sewing machine set up yet. I said no, and she started into a long tale about how her jeans hem came apart in the washer and ended by staring at me. I said something like “Ugh, that sucks. Maybe they didn’t like the heavy cycle.” So she asks if any of my coworkers from job at [art store] have sewing machines. Um, I’m sure they do, but the real question is whether they (or I) should spend their/my free time doing something you could go to a dry cleaner and have done for a few dollars.

          I can’t fathom how someone could look at a skilled person–say a musician–and assume that the cost of the instrument itself, the cost of upkeep, and the thousands of hours of practice were somehow all done for the chance to possibly be of service to someone else someday.

          1. Cucumber*

            I had a friend like that in college. (I dumped her.) I think if you’re asking someone to share some of their professional knowledge – AND you have a reputation for sharing your knowledge and skills with other people like themselves, then people will be flattered and try to be helpful, as long as you’re not an abuser. Your landlady is definitely not one of the good ones, but perhaps entertaining in how far she will go to squeeze dough out of someone else’s dime.

          2. Elizabeth West*

            Exactly. When I’m seeking expert advice for writing, I always explain what I want and why I want it, and offer to pay for expertise if necessary. I had some stuff to ask my vet, and I offered to make an appointment and pay for it as if she were seeing my cat. She was happy to help and offered to give me the information without even charging me for her time, which was uncommonly generous.

            Public and government agencies will usually help without charging (the FBI has an office in Washington specifically for this–you write them and they hook you up with someone near you, but I’ve also called the local office). But a busy professional might not be able to. So I always make sure I can pay for an appointment and at the very least, prepare my questions before I get there so we don’t waste time.

        5. Karen*

          Ugh oh God. I bristle at these “pressure a creative friend into doing free work for your event so you can save money!” advice articles, too. It is SO inconsiderate to ask someone to do that, even as a gift, especially if the service will take all day (like photography or videography) or requires them to work for HOURS beforehand and to arrange logistics and delivery (like baking or catering would).

          I totally get that money is a concern, but if you want to throw a party, be prepared to spend money on it. And if you actually have friends who are great photographers or bakers or whatever, I think it’s cool to ask them to provide their services and honestly I think in many cases friends would offer to do it at a discount (or maybe even for free) but to come out and ASK… It seems rude and awkward, especially since you will of course expect them to bring their A+++ Game to your event.

          1. some1*

            Totally. I dated a guy years ago who was a DJ for weddings & parties and I went along a couple of times. It’s hard work and you have to set up way beforehand, and then sit and twiddle your thumbs for 2+ hours.

          2. Kerry (Like the County In Ireland)*

            Not just arts people–about 10-12 years ago the big idea was “Librarians should offer to do research in Second Life! Great way to reach patrons!”

            No. I deserve to be paid.

            1. Cucumber*

              I participated in a fantastic, live conference in Second Life, so it wasn’t all bad.

            2. LibNonymous*

              I started library school in 2007 and they were trying to make us do Second Life because it was THE FUTURE!!!11!! and one of our grads got a job because of it, so, FUTURE!! It really made me not so trustful of their vision of the FUTURE. Especially since we kept being told that we were being prepared for jobs that DIDN’T EXIST YET!!

              Yes. We deserve to be paid.

      3. Katie the Fed*

        I asked my uncle to play guitar for our ceremony but only because 1) he brings out his guitar every chance he gets and 2) it’s only the ceremony – he’ll still get to enjoy the whole reception. I told him he was under no obligation at all but he was super excited about it. Apparently he can’t stop talking about it :)

        Otherwise though, yeah, don’t crowdsource your events.

        1. Karen*

          I think that kind of request is perfectly fine mainly because, like you said, it’s only for a very small part of the day (the ceremony). You didn’t ask him to DJ your whole wedding for free, which would be way too much.

          At my wedding, one of my bridesmaids is a make up artist and I did ask if she would do my make up and the make up of the other two bridesmaids. She agreed and it took her about an 30 minutes to do. But if I had had a HUGE bridal party, I would not have asked her.

        2. Natalie*

          Isn’t it kind of an honor to be asked to read or perform during the ceremony? At my cousin’s wedding, her now-husband’s relative was thrilled to be asked to sing during the ceremony.

          1. Katie the Fed*

            I would think so, especially since you still get to enjoy the reception, which is the fun part :)

          2. Elizabeth West*

            I used to be asked to sing and it was, but these were very close friends who asked. If it were a mere acquaintance or someone I didn’t know who, say, heard me sing at someone else’s wedding and wanted me at hers, I would have had to charge them something.

      4. Stephanie*


        My friend was trying to get me to bake her wedding cake. I love to bake, but not for 200 people. I don’t even know how’d I’d pull that off at home. Plus, I’m a terrible decorator. I finally talked her out of it like “Look. The cake will look terrible. It will taste delicious, but look terrible.”

        1. Artemesia*

          Our family has a tradition where a pattern is drawn and then friends each bake a square or rectangular cake and decorate it for their part of the pattern. They then fit together like a quilt. Makes very cool cakes and of course only enthusiastic local relatives or friends are involved. For my daughter, we didn’t have locals to do it so we bought 9 square cakes from a high end wedding baker and then when the relatives arrived various of them decorated a square with materials we provided. We thought it was pretty neat.

      5. Vanilla*

        Even cheaper – just crowd source or get other people to fund your wedding. I actually saw an article suggesting that today and it made me livid. Here’s an idea – don’t have a wedding you can’t afford!

        1. Diet Coke Addict*

          Articles like that are SHOCKINGLY popular. It’s couched in a sort of “Weddings are celebrations of family and friends and life! Instead of gifts, get your friends and family to help throw your wedding!” with all the associated “find someone with a huge yard to hold the event” and “friends can do the set-up and tear-down” and I’m truly shocked that people would ask that of their friends.

          1. Stephanie*

            My friend asked me to help her with logistics for her wedding, but: 1. She asked nicely and didn’t assume I’d help; 2. I was in her city already settling my aunt’s estate and could use a break from house cleaning and probate court; 3. She had a wedding planner do all the heavy lifter and was asking me to do one-off simple things like construct streamers.

          2. some1*

            +1 on the popularity and the how gross it is. I have a FB friend from grade school (who was an entitled asshat back then) who got engaged and FBed asking if any of her friends had a farm where she could hold her wedding (for free). I remember thinking, if one of your friends or family members were close enough that you could ask them this, wouldn’t you already know they had a farm?

            1. Heather*

              She obviously also thinks farms are just pretty trees and red barns and scenery. I would love to see someone offer her the use of their pig farm.

              1. Stephanie*

                HAHA, yes. The farms around me are all dairy farms in the desert that aren’t particularly scenic and literally smell like sh*t.

              2. Cucumber*

                And I’m thinking here, you didn’t see that awesome spread of the hobo wedding. It would’ve been great at a piggie farm!

        2. Karen*

          “Here’s an idea – don’t have a wedding you can’t afford!”

          – THIS ^^

          Weddings are expensive, but there are ways to throw modest celebrations without begging for money from family and friends, or pressuring loved ones into free labor.

        3. Elizabeth West*

          That’s ridiculous and very poor etiquette. The people whose wedding it is are the HOSTS. When you host a party, you don’t ask your guests to pay!

          My cousin got married and wanted everyone to bring potluck to her reception. I went to the wedding but not the reception. I wasn’t going to make food for 100 people (seriously!) I didn’t know, most of whom were apparently on the B list, because they weren’t at the ceremony! You don’t invite people to your reception but not the wedding. So rude.

      6. Al Lo*

        We work in the arts and did have a ton of our family and friends help out with our wedding, but it never felt inappropriate.

        We had a wedding choir of friends and family — whom we didn’t pay, but it was a large enough group that we weren’t dependent on any one person for it to work. We also both come from hugely musical families, so half the choir were our parents/siblings/etc. Also, none of them do it professionally — it’s something that, in general, they do (in church or community choirs) for the love of it as a volunteer, so that felt different. We did pay the director, accompanist, and string quartet, even though they were all also friends, because they did do it professionally.

        Our photographer was my husband’s aunt and uncle, and they charged us their “family rate,” which was a good discount, but their set rate for people they wanted to give that rate to; it wasn’t negotiated by us.

        There were some other examples — people who loaned us equipment or provided services — but I don’t think we took advantage of anyone…

        1. Laura*

          I don’t think there is anything wrong with this sort of thing, as long as it’s clearly set up so the people can decide and are willing to take part. Because lots of people LOVE to take part that way.

          But if someone doesn’t want to, how that’s handled – and how it’s made *comfortable* for them to not want to – is key.

          1. Zillah*

            Agreed. When two of my good friends got married, a few of us stayed after the reception to help them and their families fold up tables and chairs and do other cleanup stuff like that. It was something I was happy to do because I love them, but it certainly wasn’t something anyone asked of me – they and their parents repeatedly told me that it wasn’t something I had do and thanked me for helping.

            It all depends on how it’s approached.

      7. Jen M.*

        I was thinking of doing this as a gift to my sister-in-law for her wedding next year, but I have not decided yet for sure. I think in cases like that, it makes a really nice gift, but like you said: It has to come from the GIFTER–it has to be his/her decision.

    2. MJH*

      I really wish we could spread the word to all writers and other artists to STOP WORKING FOR FREE.

      Seriously, if no one is willing to do it, then people who need good content will be forced to pay, even if it’s not much. But seriously. DON’T WORK FOR FREE.

      (There are a few exceptions for massive exposure/a one-time thing. But otherwise: nope.)

      1. AB*

        The exceptions are part of the problem. They start as exceptions, but everyone draws the line somewhere different. For one person, massive exposure might be getting an article in the Huffington Post, for another it might be getting an article in the local paper.

        Once it becomes an ingrained part of the culture, it’s extremely difficult to change. You have to have near-complete participation or it won’t work. But once you start working with a body of people that large, too many people think they’re the exception.

      2. GrumpyBoss*

        Not a writer, don’t know many writers, but I have friends in the graphic design industry that say the same thing. All those freebies hurt an entire industry.

        I feel for anyone trying to start out in any creative field these days. Seems that it is more challenging than ever.

      3. Joe*

        I feel the same way about people working ridiculous overtime in salaried positions. Companies get away with it because if one person won’t do it, they can fire that person and hire someone else who will. If everyone would refuse to do it, then companies would have to actually hire enough workers to do the amount of work they need do, instead of piling it onto fewer and fewer people.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      Oh God, if one more person tells me I should want to write for the love of it, I’m going to clout them with a ream of paper.

      I actually wrote a blog post about this. And it’s why I sucked up and paid the professional writer for the professional critique. He wasn’t doing it out of the kindness of his heart.

    4. Mints*

      Yeah there’s a big difference here with gifts. If someone asked me to make them a cake I’m likely to be thinking “bridezilla” but if I offer to pitch in, and say I’m available to help bake or fold origami or whatever, then I can gift them services.
      If it’s free, expect free quality; it’s a gift and you can’t complain as much

    5. Sunflower*

      I just went to Nashville for the first time and was shocked as I was bar hopping down Broadway. They have live music all day, in every bar, and NONE of them pay the musicians. The singers literally walk around the bar with these huge water jugs and BEG for tips. Like walk up to people and ask pretty pretty please. One even yelled at my friend for requesting a song and not giving them money going on a 10 minute rant about how this is how they pay rent. Mind you, 95% of us are tourists and don’t know how this stuff works. But they have no other choice and the bars capitalize off of them and they get little to nothing in return.

      I was appalled when I found out the amount they were charging for drinks(A LOT) and the amount they were paying the talent(nothing). It kind of felt like the singers were prostituting themselves, I felt pretty bad.

    6. Anonsie*

      I like to direct people to the Should I Work For Free flowchart (which is at but there are also static images of it all over the place) whenever they talk about this.

  4. Ali*

    This is part why I quit going after sports media gigs, and pretty much stopped writing in general except for my own blog that I don’t expect to get famous from. The one site I used to write for didn’t pay writers, but the publisher/founder expected you to meet a ton of formatting criteria, promote your work and others’ work and meet SEO standards. It got to be too much for nothing except maybe a traffic bonus if you got enough pay, and people were recognized for quantity over quality. Shortly before I left, I remember one writer getting praised for writing 20 articles in a month. As if that really matters that he had more free time than I did.

    Sports in particular is bad about this though, as several internships even also expect long, near full-time hours and pay very little or nothing at all. I can’t wait till the day I’m out of the industry.

      1. Ali*

        I’m referring to somewhere different, but I’m familiar with Bleacher Report. If you feel comfortable posting your e-mail, I can tell you about the other place.

    1. Felicia*

      Entertainment is like that too. Its also becoming increasingly common for most (or all) of the content in certain magazines to be written by unpaid people

        1. Vanilla*

          So true. Just take a look at and check out the typos/grammar errors on any given day. It’s a perfect example of why good writers (and proofreaders) are still needed.

          1. Mints*

            Thought catalog, ugh
            My Facebook friends share articles that look interesting, but are usually badly written, and the arguments aren’t well reasoned

  5. LMW*

    I’ve had a career as a writer and editor for over a decade now. I’ve never written for free (except my own blog) and I would never expect someone to write for free for my publications. Even the hobby magazine I worked for paid it’s “writers” (quotes because they were designers, not writers. Very talented, just not necessarily with instructional writing.
    The fact that people are willing to write for free is part of the reason it’s so dang difficult to make a livable wage writing. I really wish that universally people would say no.

        1. apostrophes*

          And written the possessive its, not it’s.
          Typo. It happens. Just wanted to throw that out there.

  6. ThursdaysGeek*

    I wonder how that would work in other industries. A poster above mentioned musicians, but I’m thinking of other industries where we just assume that jobs will paid. “You want to be a programmer for us? Ok, here are the specs for some software we need, get it back to us in 2 weeks. And you can add that to your portfolio of work so that you can eventually get a paid gig.” “So you want to work here and you have your MD. Go down to the emergency room and see if they’ve got an overflow. If we like your work, we might consider paying you in the future.”

    1. Felicia*

      I think it’s because a lot of people undervalue good writing and a lot of other creative skills. They think anyone can do it.

      1. Kay*

        Very true, but also very sad. When you want something to be done in a particular way, you have to be willing to put out the money for it. I know when I got married, we paid a LOT for photographer, DJ, even invitations… I wanted certain things done a certain way and it took a monetary commitment to get them done. Did it feel expensive? Yes, yes it did. But I was happy with the result and that’s what’s important.

        1. VintageLydia USA*

          I have several friends that are artists. Actually just got a giant piece I commissioned from one of them a few months ago. And I paid her. Because artists deserve to be paid. (She gave me a discount but I feel guilty about that. She could have charged twice as much for it easily.)

          1. Kay*

            Definitely. I have a friend that’s a massage therapist, but I’ve never had a massage from her because I know how much she’s worth per hour and I can’t really afford it. If she wanted to give me an hour of her time as a birthday present, I *might* accept it, but I’d probably still at least tip her on top of it. These are skills that people have honed over time and they deserve to make a living for their efforts.

          2. Felicia*

            My friend who’s an artist gave me an awesome piece for my birthday, but I’ve bought pieces from her too, because shes super talented, particularly in what I specifically like, which is something not many people do. And I’d never ask her to do somethign free.

      2. ThursdaysGeek*

        Oh how true! It seems like everyone who can’t write has figured that they took English classes in school, so of course they can write.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Ha ha, yes. An ex-boss–one English class in college and that apparently made her an expert. Inappropriate quotation marks, out-of control capitalization, etc.

      3. Cath in Canada*

        Ugh, yes. I know someone who has his own IT business, and his website is absolutely riddled with typos. I pointed this out to him and offered to fix the text for free (he’d helped me with some computer issues), and he said no because he didn’t think it was important – “we’re computer people, not writers! No-one cares about that stuff”.

        I told him that if I see sloppy mistakes in text written by any business, I worry that they’re similarly sloppy about everything else I do, and if faced with a choice between two, say, plumbers and one of them has a website full of typos, all other things being equal I’m going to pick the one without the typos. (I’m not alone in this – there have been studies on lost business due to typos on websites – although I do realise that there also tons of people who really don’t care). He apparently thinks I’m a freak, and the typos are still all over his website years later.

        1. Melissa*

          That’s definitely true. Even for unrelated businesses – even my dog sitter – if I see a website or ad riddled with typos I move onto the next. It’s just a statement about professionalism – if you can’t even take the time to edit your website/ad so that it’s well-written and professional, how do I know you are going to take care with my business?

      4. Anonsie*

        My mom does graphic design and some illustration, when I was growing up she did everything from billboards to tshirts and product labels. She would always say, when stuff like this happened, “They think a trained monkey could do our jobs.”

    2. Bill*

      Yeah, its not just confined to writing. Starting out as a programmer, I definitely worked for free, either contributing to community projects, or having friends/contacts approach me about developing something for them. Of course, I had the same caveats as a lot of the other posters above with writing projects where I was pretty selective and there was always the understanding that paid work took precedence, but it was a great way when starting out to learn and end up with a finished product I could show off to prospective employers.

    3. fposte*

      On the other side, though, writing well enough that people want to pay money to read you is harder than most people give it credit for. A lot of people think they can do it and can’t. A “no more writing for free” natural law wouldn’t mean everybody writing for free gets paid; it would mean a large percentage of people writing for free no longer have anybody to write for.

      1. AVP*

        I read a story about a professional writer, who had an older friend that was a brain surgeon. They were playing golf and the surgeon said to him, “You know, one day when I retire I plan to write a book about my life.” And the writer replied, “Thats so funny, when I retire I was thinking about taking up surgery and hopefully operating on someone!”

        The thing about writing is that, everyone assumes that just because they’re literate, they can do it. (And they can…but not particularly well.)

        1. Felicia*

          That’s the problem I have with saying I can read, write and speak French. I can, but not well. I can write significantly better in English. I am totally literate in French, but that doesn’t automatically make me a good writer in that language.

      2. Jill-be-Nimble*

        They can write for themselves. Journals! Blogs! Poetry! Short stories! Share it with the coffee shop or friends! They don’t have to stop–they just have to stop taking paying gigs from me.

        I’m no good at programming, but I like to dabble in a little web design now and then. I’m not going to charge anyone for my work (or try to do it for anyone else for free), but that doesn’t mean that I can no longer do it.

        1. fposte*

          Sure, I’m not saying that they have to stop writing. But for a lot of writers, publication is really important (which is why they’re willing to write with it as the only reward), and I’m noting that if all publication had to be paid there will be a lot fewer people published.

          1. Jill-be-Nimble*

            I guess I just don’t see how that’s a bad thing. I mean, there are plenty of ways to self-publish, even on Amazon and Kindle–not just on personal blogs. If you so badly want to reach a public, you can go that route. I’ve worked extremely hard to get good enough to be published in magazines and books. Why should an amateur who isn’t that great take my place? It makes the publication look bad and sets a lower standard for everyone else. If the whole reason for someone to write is to be published, they can either work hard enough at it to be paid for it, or they can pay for the privilege.

            1. fposte*

              So what you’re describing is pretty much what we have now :-).

              I also think this is somewhat falling back on the myth of writing not being work–it’s a little rosy-lensed to think that people should be satisfied with doing that hard work to share with their friends, and nobody says, “Even if you don’t pass the bar, you can always talk about law in a coffeehouse.”

              But I’m also not entirely disagreeing with you on the notion that fewer writers might not be a bad thing; my main point was that a lot of people arguing to get paid would simply lose publishing opportunities. Kind of what I think the result might be if all internships were required to be paid.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                a lot of people arguing to get paid would simply lose publishing opportunities. Kind of what I think the result might be if all internships were required to be paid.

                Exactly this!

              2. Jill-be-Nimble*

                Not exactly what we have now–if all you want is to be published, you would self-publish. You wouldn’t work for a for-profit place for free, which is how it is now. Those places would actually hire writers and pay them to write. They can mine writers based on their self-published works and then pay them (as often happens now.)

                1. Jill-be-Nimble*

                  Hah! I know I am–and believe me, I’ve written more than my share of free blog posts to get out there. (And apologies if I am coming off as cranky–trying to dash comments off between tasks isn’t making for the nicest tone.) I’m just really frustrated by the lack of quality I see in writing by really big (formerly excellent) publications just because they no longer want to spend money on good content. Instead they hire and overwork editors who have to try to shine poo into gold, thinking that will compensate. I know that I’m talking in ideals here, but a woman can dream, right?

                2. fposte*

                  Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. (I’m an editor and a writer in a field with a lot of volunteerism, and I do pay my writers.) The problem is that so many people support the freebie-writer system that it’s not likely to change any time soon, even if many of the freebie-writers are supporting it the way you support the lottery–in the hopes that it will translate into something better that it’s not likely to.

      3. Mints*

        Yeah, and when a blogger I like starts making money, I’m happy to pay money for a book or click through to a paid article because I feel like “well I got all this free content, I should at least pay for something.” But there are also blogs that I only read for free, and wouldn’t really be interested in paying for a book

        Actually, I think there are only two of those (first group) for me. AAM and one on Tumblr

    4. Elizabeth West*

      Ian McKellan just said something about actors in repertory companies needing to be paid a decent wage. Of course, the comments on that article were ridiculous. :P

        1. Stephanie*

          I am always amazed at the horribleness of NPR comments. You’d think those would be better…

    5. AnotherAlison*

      People mentioned mechanics below, but this does happen all the time in all the skilled service type industries.

      My husband is an electrician. He works for himself & gets paid well, so no, he doesn’t want to come wire up your basement for a case of beer. (He’s also not 18 years old, so he can buy his own damn beer.)

      It’s not a widespread thing like with writers, of course. But, there are some people who contact him for work like they’re doing him a favor. It’s usually some asshole former neighbor or someone who thinks they are a big deal, “Yeah, if you wanna come give me a bid on my bathroom remodel, we might be able to work something out.” Seriously? You aren’t doing him a favor by giving him work. He’ll bid it at full price, and if you like the price, use him. If not, he can find plenty of other work.

      1. Kerry (Like the County In Ireland)*

        I’m a librarian, and periodically there are these pushes that “Librarians should do reference in Second Life! Librarians should be editing Wikipedia!” that follow the nonprofit, volunteer spirit of libraries (a spirit that often comes along with spousal support, low wages and pink collar jobs ) and it’s just bullshit. If that’s how you like to spend your time, great, but I like to get paid and my hobbies need to make me some money!

    6. Natalie*

      It definitely happens in other industries. My dad designs and builds websites and isn’t remotely in the “starting out” phase but he gets requests all the time. He does a couple of volunteer gigs but they’re organizations he has been involved with forever.

      Within five minutes of meeting my bf, one of my acquaintances was asking him for plumbing advice. At least he didn’t expect bf to come over to his house and look at the sump pump in person.

    7. Bwmn*

      The nonprofit world is also notorious for this kind of attitude. The notion that “anyone with a college degree can figure out a grant application” or “start volunteering and then if the work is good enough and if the money comes in – then we *might* hire you”. Or my favorite – “write yourself into a grant and if it is funded, then you’ll be paid”.


  7. grasshopper*

    Awareness is one of my pet peeves.

    Awareness can be useful in some scenarios, ie doing self-checks for certain diseases. However, the solution for a problem usually requires money, ie research to find a cure for the disease.

    A non-profit is better off doing fundraising than awareness raising.

    1. grasshopper*

      Just to clarify for the OP, money is going to be much more useful than exposure when it comes time to pay the rent and buy groceries.

    2. Heather*


      I hate the entire month of October for this reason. I’m pretty sure anyone who’s not aware of breast cancer at this point is not going to be made curious by pink shoes on football players, so how ’bout we spend that money on researching treatments instead?

      1. Kai*

        ME TOO. Stop trying to get me to buy pale pink trinkets for “awareness.”

        I think the yogurt lids are the worst part.

      2. Dan*

        I thought raising awareness was synonymous with raising funds.

        Makes me wonder at what point organizations are really about the money machine and not the issue itself.

        1. Melissa*

          It’s totally not, especially for breast cancer awareness. There have been a couple of articles in the last few years about “pink washing,” how many companies will make a subset of their product(s) pink for October (or year-round) implying that they are donating money to a breast cancer cause but either donating so little that it’s exploitative or not donating anything at all. And even when they do, a lot of times they donate to Susan G. Komen For the Cure, and there have been a lot of questions and controversy about how Komen spends their funding.

    3. Ehlers-Danlos anon*

      I agree. My disease (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) isn’t that well-known, but I’m kind of disturbed by how much “awareness” seems to be putting the EDS acronym and zebra print on something cheap and selling it for $20.

      Sick people already have medical bills to pay, stop trying to sell us junk :(

  8. Katie the Fed*

    Yeah, I had a blog for a bit and got similar offers. My thinking was pretty much “you can take your exposure and shove it” but I also had another income stream.

    Crappy business. Good writing is a skill and it deserves to be paid.

    Of course plenty of people were fine with straight up stealing content as well, especially my carefully composed pictures.

  9. Adam*

    This is the flip side of the internet. There are many stories out there of people who got astoundingly rich doing things pretty much for free on sites like Youtube and such who likely never would have had that opportunity had the interwebs not been open to them.

    But since the internet is both a free-for-all as well as a flash-in-the-pan when it comes to creative content, getting your work to show up anywhere is practically a miracle and where commercialized publications sit them giving you exposure for your content is a borderline act of charity.

    I realize that sounded kind of bitter. It wasn’t meant to be. I’m not in a creative industry at all. This is just how it appears to me.

  10. Vanilla*

    I’ve been a working freelance writer for almost 10 years. I learned early on to not work for free because I got burned a couple of times. It really burns my biscuit to hear about situations like the OP’s because to me it’s nothing more than a business taking advantage of desperate, sometimes naive people.

    Whenever someone presents me with an “opportunity” and mentions that there is no pay involved, I politely ask them this -“would you go to your auto mechanic and ask them to work on your vehicle for free?” They always say no. I then say (in the nicest way possible) that writing is a similar field. If you want good, honest work you’re going to have to pay for it. Writing is a skill, just like fixing cars. This usually shuts them up pretty quickly.

    1. Pleasefilloutthisfield*

      We get good, honest work for free everyday on this blog. I think this is part of the rise in unpaid work – we expect (generally) content for free. Whereas we have to pay for a car, for a house, for this and that, etc. etc.

      1. Vanilla*

        Good point – AAM is one of the few exceptions to the rule. :) I’m just saying for me personally, I don’t write for free anymore. I have a full – time job in addition to being a writer, so my free time is a bit limited, so I have to be aware of the ROI on how my time is spent.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        But I’m actually getting paid — through advertisers. Same thing as when you read, say, a newspaper online. They pay their writers (or at least most of them still do), and the newspaper makes money through advertisers. The content is free to you (usually), but the people producing it are getting paid.

        There’s no way I could post here with this frequency if this site didn’t produce a reasonable amount of revenue in return.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But this is one reason why this issue is a tough one. When I started this blog in 2007, I wasn’t getting paid anything from it. It took a couple of years to start earning money from it. However, it’s now a not-insignificant source of revenue for me — which wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t put in those first years for free.

          Additionally, writing this for free early on led to other paid opportunities, and all of it combined led to a situation where I now don’t do anything for free and am paid pretty well. But if I hadn’t worked for free in the beginning, that wouldn’t have happened. So it’s tricky.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Ooooh, and complicating it even further: I wrote professionally for years (I was a staff writer as my full-time job in most of my 20s) and had a number of published (and paid) clips, which ultimately may have helped me make money off my current enterprise more quickly.

            1. Mitchell*

              While you may not have been making money off of the site in the early years, no one else was either.

        2. Anonsie*

          Isn’t the saying “when you get something for free, you’re the product?” Via advertising or whatever other data mining might be done, usually.

        3. The Cosmic Avenger*

          Thank you for reminding me, Allison…I just put AAM on AdBlock’s whitelist. There are many, many sites that I would just give up rather than look at ads, but this is not one of them. :)

      3. SherryD*

        “We get good, honest work for free everyday on this blog.”

        Is it free, though? We pay for our Internet connection, and for the device we’re reading this on. Even if you’re using the Internet at the library or at work, you’re paying for that Internet through your taxes or , in a roundabout way, through your pay cheque. And even though there’s no paywall to access this content, you know what they say… “If you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

        Sorry to be so contrary, this misuse of “free” is just a little gripe of mine.

    2. Clerica*

      Well, they might not go to their mechanic and expect work for free, but in line with what others have been saying here, if someone knows a mechanic personally (and if that someone is a d-bag) they figure they’re getting free repairs for the cost of parts. (Or free parts, because parts grow on the part tree out back).

    3. Case of the Mondays*

      As to the mechanic question – in some circumstances, yes they would. I was on the board of an animal shelter. I was shocked to learn that they were run almost entirely on volunteers and only had 3 or so paid management. They had an accountant and lawyer that took them as pro bono clients. The accountant and lawyer get their names on the shelter’s facebook and website and they get to list the shelter in their bios under community service. They got someone to plow for free, someone to mow for free. If they had a van, I’d guarantee they would try to find a mechanic to service it for free or at cost. This is how some non-profits operate.

      1. Stephanie*

        In the law firm case, sometimes big firms will allot time for pro bono work (my friend’s white-shoe firm does at least) as part of associate’s goals. So the animal shelter attorney may still be getting paid, just not from the nonprofit.

      2. AnotherAlison*

        and I think this is BS, too!

        My electrician husband (mentioned above) volunteered for a big annual event run by a large nonprofit. They charged $100/ticket. They charged vendors for booth space. Ummm. . .they can afford to pay an electrician. (After 5 years, this was his final year.)

        He was also asked by a mechanic to do free electrical work. A church had set up a service to repair and give away cars to the needy. The new shop needed wiring, and since it was for a good cause, shouldn’t my husband want to do it for free? He told them no, and they paid him.

        1. Anonsie*

          Plenty of professionals care about specific causes and like finding ways to essentially donate their expertise to support them, myself included. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking people if they’d like to volunteer as long as you graciously take no for an answer.

  11. Lily in NYC*

    Crap like this is why I am glad I left journalism, even though I loved what I did. I make almost twice as much now as an executive assistant, which is ridiculous when you consider I was a manager at a very well-known national news magazine. I have so much less accountability and stress now. But it’s a shame because I really miss the work I used to do.

    1. Ali*

      That’s how I feel. I’m looking for a job away from journalism/media, and I love the direction I’m headed in (looking for social media work), but I also miss writing about my favorite sport. I’m an editor now and the work has gotten just exhausting for me, as have all the late hours and weekend/holiday work.

    2. Felicia*

      This is why I never really got into journalism after j school and two journalism internship. Most of the people who graduated with me aren’t in journalism either. Paying jobs that don’t require 5 years of experience or more have almost entirely disappeared.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        My former magazine has been laying off their experienced, highly paid writers -my ex also worked there; he won a Pulitzer, has published 3 books and was laid off and replaced by someone with barely any experience who was willing to work for more than 50K less than my ex was making.

        1. eemusings*

          I left journalism this year for all those reasons. But I’m lucky to have gotten out at this time, I think. I work in digital content now and actually feel better resourced to do great publishing online (even if it isn’t straight up journalism).

  12. Red Librarian*

    I think some of it comes from the idea that writing (or any other creative pursuit, like photography, music, etc.) is still often seen as a hobby and not a professional job, therefore people who don’t actually *do* the work in question don’t understand why someone would want to be paid for it. The “exposure” or whatever of their craft should be enough.

    Plus, with some things — like freelance bloggers — there is the idea that just anyone can start a blog so they are undervaluing the work of the person in question.

  13. EM*

    Having worked on the editorial side of a publication that is volunteer-run, and doesn’t typically pay contributors (or staff!), I do want to add that writing is a field where there are a LOT of novices. There are very few barriers to being a published writer, now that anyone can submit to HuffPo or run a blog. There are downsides if you are a writer, obviously– the field is crowded with people willing to do what you do for free, and many of them not as well– but as an editor, it’s also tough because you are often dealing with submissions from writers who are lacking some basic skills in writing, reporting, editing, pitching, etc. Some of them are, naturally or through hard work, but writing well is a skill like anything else, and I think it’s become a field where people think “Anyone can do this!” I have heard from photographer friends that the advent of regular folks with big, fancy DSLRs has had a similar effect.

    I don’t know if this LW was one such person– but if she just took up writing as something to do, it’s very likely that the quality of material she was submitting to editors was just not high-quality enough to be published in a paying outlet.

    1. AVP*

      I get what you’re saying, but as a creative professional there are a couple of bones of contention that I have here.

      1. If something’s not high quality enough to be published in a paying outlet, why is it being published in a venue that people are paying for (with their impressions, with their venture capital funding, by buying the city magazine that OP worked for)? Of course people need to learn how to write well, and it takes awhile, but that used to be what local and regional outlets were for.

      2. It seems so short-sighted to me – no one is worried about the long-term health or prospects of the field, funders and managers included. I majored in journalism, and have a lot of friends who have undergrad and grad degrees from j-school. So few of them are working in journalism now – they do PR, they do commercials and branded content, they are exec assistants like Lily above, they got more degrees and went into nonprofit work. If it becomes widely known that journalism & writing is a field that no one will be paid for in the future, you aren’t going to have very good journalism in 20 years when the current young people cycle up to what would have been top-level media positions.

      EM, this is not to pick on your individually and I know that you’re not the representative of the field, but these are the things that worry me about this trajectory. And if anyone thinks crowdsourcing is just as trained professionals carrying out long-form reporting….please go read Patch.

      1. fposte*

        Local and regional outlets were a lot stricter than the internet, though, even for stringers. What’s happening, I think, is that the writing pyramid has gotten much, much wider at the bottom but then narrows much more abruptly. It’s not that no one will be paid; it’s that the leap is no longer between being unpublished and being published but between getting published unpaid and getting published and paid.

  14. KMN*

    I’ve been lucky enough to be able to never have to write for free, but I tell my friends that are thinking about breaking into it that,
    A. If you’re willing to write for free, you better make damn sure that the site/magazine/journal is actually reputable.
    B. If you’re willing to write for free or for pennies a word, you better make damn sure that you actually get a byline.
    C. You better actually read (and understand!) the contract they send you.

  15. E.R*

    It’s easier than ever to get published, but harder than ever to get paid for it. The magazine I work for makes a point of paying all its writers, even editorial interns (though, rather poorly), but the quality of writers is very high. As in, I’ve been a bit starstruck to meet them.

    As someone mentioned upthread, the fact that people don’t pay their writers is really showing. But I imagine the vast majority of readers don’t notice, or don’t care enough to truly stop reading en masse.

    One way I’ve noticed my writer friends and colleagues who are most successful at getting published AND paid, (I work in publishing, but I”m not a writer myself) to to be very knowledgeable in a specific subject area and build such a reputation over time. It’s not just the ability to write, which is indeed a talent, but the ability to provide an authoritative voice and impart meaningful knowledge on a subject that makes a writer a true commodity on the marketplace. Again, of course, this doesn’t offer a way to get paid on Day One.

    1. Chinook*

      “As someone mentioned upthread, the fact that people don’t pay their writers is really showing. But I imagine the vast majority of readers don’t notice, or don’t care enough to truly stop reading en masse.”

      I am one of those readers who has noticed the drop in the quality of content and cares. I once had half a dozen magazine subscriptions and now I have none. I dropped them all because they all started to have bite-sized content that was superficial and reflected what was available on the web for free (because they obviously are going for what sells). These magazines may pay their writers but they are drawing from a market where it is harder to find great writers because great writers are often great at other stuff and look elsewhere for work.

      I often wonder if part of the death of magazines is not that content is now easikly available on-line but also that they think they need to mimic what is found on-line, thus turning off their dedicated readers. (and yes, I am a curmodgeon)

      1. AVP*

        I think it’s a combination – expenses changed, readers’ expectations changed, work/life balance changed (ie., people have way less time to sit down and read a 36-pg New Yorker article than they used to, but Talk of the Town is digestible for a subway ride.) I’ve also dropped my subscriptions to everything except a very few that I regularly read and love.

        Signed, someone who is still sad about the death of Gourmet and the subsequent success of Bon Appetit.

      2. E.R*

        Right, good point on the print subscriptions ( I was thinking about how awful so much online content is, but we still click and read because there aren’t many good alternatives)

        I have one magazine subscription (to Ms.) but most out there are not worth the paper they printed on. I actually get a headache from reading magazines like Cosmo, Elle, Flaire, Fashion, and even the somewhat-better Marie Claire because the content is redundant and thoughtless. The Atlantic and New York Times Magazine often have good content, but I can read it online for free..

        For now, the online content that drives me most crazy is Forbes, I think. And Linkedin, if that counts :) All headline, no content!

        1. Natalie*

          And SOOOOOOOOOOO much advertising these days. I counted in a copy of Cosmo or Vogue or something once, and content didn’t actually start until 1/4 of the way in.

        2. AVP*

          The only fashion magazine I don’t hate is Elle. Sometimes they have smart/interesting stories.

          For food, I like Saveur, where they seem to hire “essayists writing about food/travel” rather than straight up food and travel writers.

          Other than that, New Yorker in print, New York Times Magazine and Atlantic online, and that it is for me.

    1. Adam*

      It kind of amazes me the lengths people/organizations will go to just to avoid saying “We apologize. We were wrong.”

      And that second one never fails to get me to crack a smile.

    2. Mints*

      Hey I forgot about that “urban whore” mess, wow

      Also the “No” pie chart is probably the snarkiest funniest pie chart I’ve seen

  16. Stephanie*

    A more insidious effect of free creative labor (aside from devaluing creative work) is that it favors those who can afford to work for free, which traditionally excludes a lot of historically disenfranchised groups and can be problematic in media.

    1. fposte*

      Absolutely. And none of this is new–spouses of the rich used to be the traditionally blamed for being able to afford to write without pay, or without much pay.

  17. Jen M.*

    Do not write for free. Do not write for free. Do not write for free. Later. Rinse. Repeat.

    Same goes for any other kind of artistic job: Photography, graphic design, etc.

    The more we give our work away for free, the harder it becomes for most of us to get paid gigs. I can’t TELL you how many photography clients I’ve lost, simply because I actually CHARGE for my services.

    Sorry–This is one of those things that really sticks in my craw!

  18. Jen M.*

    Ok. To amend what I said: I absolutely agree with what Allison says about doing so SELECTIVELY in the beginning of your career. I have done that sort of thing.

    In 2010, I left a volunteer position as a journalist/editor, not because they were not paying me, but because of an internal dispute within our news bureau. My time there was invaluable, as far as experience goes, but we could not make things work as a team.

    I will also occasionally do small photo shoots on a volunteer basis for organizations I support.

  19. anon-2*

    Many years ago, I dabbled in sports writing and stringing (this is freelance work, in which you might attend a sporting event, and then phone in a radio report for some far-off broadcaster who has an interest in the event — or — you may do it in print).

    I gave up and built a career in IS/IT.

    Today the world of “blogging” is dominant. There might be 2,500 blogs covering anyone’s favorite team. Very few make a dime off of them.

    I advised one young enterprising , budding writer.

    A) If you ever want to get PAID for writing, you should intern/volunteer for a print publication while you’re in college. Yes, the weekly “Pennysaver” may want to have a report on the HS game.

    B) Finish your degree.

    C) You have one favorite team. Can you write or comment on ANYTHING other than your favorite team? Or are you destined to be a “one trick pony”? Because a major news outlet won’t give you a job based on that.

    D) If you DO get a paid gig, it might not be in sports. If you apply for a job at a paper, they may expect you to do obituaries, or movie reviews, or provide news reports on a school committee meeting. BUT — if you don’t do that, you’ll never make it to the press box at the stadium.

    I suggested what I would do if I were interviewing a writer. I’d role play. “I am a widow, who just lost her husband. You’re talking to me over the phone to prep my husband’s obit. Begin.”

    If he passed that phase – I’d say “one more test.” I’d pick up the movie page. “Have you seen this picture? or that one?” — and then, I’d say = “Here’s 15 bucks. Go buy a ticket to see ‘(whatever)’ and you CAN use IMDB for background info. But I want a 600-1000 word review on my desk tonight. That’s your acid test.”

    Because that IS the real world in which you draw a paycheck.

  20. Suzy*

    The biggest problem in the last few years is the rise of the content mills — basically you are either not being paid, paid through clicks, or paid about $5 an article. So many people try to write for these mills because they think that they are now published writers – but if they use these clips as proof of being published for they are not taken seriously.

    Now, there are definitely places when you are starting out that it may be worth it to write for free just to get those clips — but content mills are definitely not those places.

  21. Zach*

    I worked for several years as a “volunteer” editorial contributor to a city-oriented news/culture website. Never got a dollar, but I did get entry into lots of events, free food, and other minor perks.

    I also got a lot of clips that helped me land paying gigs and a fulltime job.

    So yes, the exposure aspect was nice and it sometimes works out to something bigger. However, after a while, I found my interest waning because I was disincentivized to create content because I wasn’t getting any money from it. Tickets to a concert are nice, but cash is different.

    I do know that the owner/editor/publisher of the website wasn’t making real big money off the website and right before I quit (on very amicable terms, I might add), he was working out payment to writers.

    I dunno how I feel about the situation, as you can probably guess. Everyone’s expectations and experiences are different, true.

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