The joys and perils of writing for free

As I write this entry, the sun has not yet come up on a Saturday morning.

This has become my habit. Typically, after a long workweek and a nice Friday night out, I fall asleep quickly and wake up early, seemingly before the rest of the world — or, at least, ahead of the sun.

I get up, write my blog entries for the week, and then begin my weekend.

And I do it all for free.

This, of course, was the choice I made when I started this blog. I did not have a problem with it then, nor do I now. Eight months in, I have truly enjoyed watching this site develop; as I Tweeted last week, it has now been read in all 50 states along with 88 countries. Meanwhile, I possess a steady, satisfying full-time job in journalism that fulfills me financially as well as in other ways.

In short, I do not feel cheapened by giving these entries away for free.

But then there’s this.

Last week Tim Kreider wrote an article for the New York Times entitled, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”. He bemoaned the number of writers and artists willing to do their job for free, especially when asked by others (not necessarily when self-publishing blogs). Kreider is a terrific writer in his own right, peppering his column with vivid imagery and painfully funny anecdotes. Here is a choice example:

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it.

Kreider’s column drew more than 650 comments and more than a few follow-ups from around the Internet. One such “Here, here!” came from my old guitar teacher, Michael Kovacs, who criticized a similar atmosphere in the music business:

I am not going to say that all new Music sucks. … I am not going to say that nobody goes to live shows … But I will say this: the value placed upon Music has, by all quantitative measures, reached a low point that nobody had seen coming. … No medium can truly grow when the makers of it are not given some affirmation of its value by the outside world.

This is the point I would like to examine.

(For what it’s worth, Kovacs said all of this in a blog entry he, I’m assuming, wrote for free.)

One could easily apply Kovacs’ words to journalism. I have known many writers and reporters who left the business when they realized the very low ceiling they faced. For these journalists, the opportunities to make substantial money and leave a substantial impact seemed fewer and fewer; they decided to use their considerable talents for less grueling and more lucrative work.

I cannot fault them for that.

And I cannot fault folks like Kreider who wish journalists would stop giving away their work. The Internet has opened up the floodgates for younger and lesser-exposed writers, who are all told that the best way to get exposure and experience is to write as often as possible. If you don’t believe me, listen to any of my podcasts, and listen to the advice given by accomplished journalists across different types of media.

Those same podcast guests will then turn around and convey their concerns about the future of the industry, wondering how journalists can develop financially rewarding careers when so many of them give away their work, making for-profit journalism less essential.

And this is where Kreider makes a fare more stinging point: This new world order has cheapened not just the journalist, but the journalism.

The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.

The best journalists and artists, by their nature, believe in the power of what they do. They certainly do not want to think of themselves as “content providers”. For many former journalists I know, this was the breaking point that led them out of the field. Suddenly their hard work seemed to have lesser and lesser value, both to their employers and to their audience, and they stopped trying to fight an uphill battle.

The business is not changing; that’s for sure. The Internet has created an extraordinary spirit of freedom and sharing that has absolutely permeated the worlds of art and journalism. Only recently have newspapers begun charging for premium content; most media leaders are still scratching their collective heads as to how to develop a reliable revenue stream in this new landscape.

And within that landscape sit folks like myself.

I write these blog entries for free, knowing that even if I stop, the sun will still eventually rise, and the business will remain the same.

FOR SOME UPLIFTING ADVICE: Telling The Story podcast guests on: changes in journalism
FOR MORE PODCAST WISDOM: Telling The Story podcast guests on: advice for young journalists

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at

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