Who can work for free?

Since Arianna Huffington sold the Post to AOL, there have been lots of posts on all sides of the debate about whether bloggers working for free is a good thing, a bad thing or simply an unavoidable thing.

It’s true that many HuffPo bloggers arecelebrities or working people or other types who pure and simple don’t need pay, who do it for the platform. But more are unpaid, community bloggers who write for love, for dedication, and in some cases in the hope that their work for free is a gateway, a way to build their profile and to end up with a paid writing gig. No one’s forcing them to write for free. But to me this issue seems to fit neatly into a continuum with a free guest post on one end and months-long unpaid media internships on the other. Media and writing careers are desirable; people want a way in; editors want a portfolio of cuttings; the only way to get one is, often, to work for free. Online or off.

And that means that media diversity shrinks. There are thousands of aspiring, talented writers who can’t afford to work for nothing but expenses paid; hundreds of students who have to earn money during their summer breaks and can’t take time out to go do unpaid work experience. Very few people can afford to be a journalism entrepreneur or start up a hyperlocal blog, and genuinely spend the time and the money and the energy involved in covering their community well, when there’s rent and utilities and bills to pay.

Further down the line, what about those who can’t afford to drift from freelance paycheck to freelance paycheck, with no sick pay or holiday or job security, in the hope of getting something more permanent? Do they capitulate, go over to much-derided “content farms” like Demand Media or Suite 101 just to get some writing credits and try to earn money at the same time? Or do we lose those voices from the conversation because of the economic barriers to entering a media career?

I’m not saying that the HuffPo can or should solve those problems. But I do think they’re problems that need thinking about when we think about paying writers – because if media businesses don’t pay people with no experience, we’re guaranteeing that the people with experience will be a certain type of people. And that, in the long run, means a poorer public dialogue and a skewed view on the world.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

What do you think?