Posted by: J M | September 8, 2011

U is for unpaid

The launch of a UK edition of the popular US news site Huffington Post has brought to the surface a familiar wrangle – the question of whether a writer should be paid for work they produce if the company they write for is making money. The more you think about the issue, the more impossible it becomes to volunteer a straight yes or no. Like the ‘citizen journalists’ before them, bloggers are ruffling the feathers of an industry that can feel the hot breath of extinction on the back of its neck.

How you feel about unpaid blogging rather depends, I suppose, on whether you think that someone who is blogging for free is doing something a journalist could, or should, be paid to do. Most blogs at the HP are updated weekly and not particularly in-depth. You could say, then, that they are not particularly time-consuming and so wouldn’t warrant any pay. They are also voluntary. There are, of course, a number of journalists out there who are paid to submit weekly columns. There are megastar columnists who are trading on their name and can be published pretty much anywhere, charging huge amounts – think Julie Burchill and her ex Tony Parsons to name just a couple – and there are also the scribes who are lesser-known and contribute to a variety of publications alongside a day job and very much rely on every bit of income. Is blogging killing off their revenue stream?

For years, the creative industry has encouraged a culture of working for free. Whether it’s an intern writing all the copy for a corporate site because the company can’t be bothered to hire a content expert, a runner on a TV production fetching endless cups of tea in the hope they’ll be noticed by someone important, or a designer sending speculative work in the hope of exposure, getting something for nothing isn’t a new phenomenon. The reason it continues largely unchallenged is the sheer amount of competition out there for creative jobs – everyone’s a designer, a writer or a film-maker. In the confused, overcrowded market, only the lucky few manage to rise to the top, an ascendance not always based on talent. Connections and an ability to make yourself noticed, by any means necessary in some cases, can triumph over being good at something any day of the week.

Interns are on the increase. At least 50% of the job ads I see are for unpaid interns, or work placements. I’m sure that a few years ago, these placements would gave had set timeframes, perhaps of a few weeks, but these internships are now indefinite, with no guarantee of a ‘proper job’ at the end of them, whatever a proper job now means – one where you actually get paid, I imagine.

It’s true to say that the existence of amateurs in any field doesn’t have to mean the professional side suffers. Thousands of amateur football matches take place every weekend, but nobody is claiming that they harm the professional game, or reduce anyone’s chances of becoming a paid footballer. In fact, they are known to feed into it, with scouts standing on the sidelines looking for new talent. But what if league football teams started taking on unpaid intern players, players who would work for free for the first year or so. What would happen to the game then? Would the demographic of both players and spectators change a great deal?

The bloggers on HuffPo aren’t being forced to blog. Nobody’s ripping them off, they retain copyright and can republish their work anywhere they want. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. It has always been their content model and they are very transparent about what they do. iI’s merely another outlet for talented people – as some of them are – to get the exposure and recognition they deserve. There can be no denying that the inclusion of being a HuffPo contributor in your portfolio could open doors for you – if you were any good of course. Hell, I’d do it.

It only becomes a concern for me when this model becomes the norm – established publishing outlets following suit, having seen the success of HuffPo balancing user contributions and paid-for journalism. Will amateur writers become more abundant on national newspapers, with paid contributors restricted to merely reporting news and facts, while any opinions or deeper analysis are handed over to the bloggers? Are we already on the way there with the Guardian’s Comment Is Free articles? One of Britain’s biggest newspapers has taken to hiring interns to do its blogging for it. What does this mean for future generations of journalists, and indeed those hunting for jobs today?

Everyone has an opinion, after all – should we expect to hold our hand out for a fiver every time we tell a friend what we think of their outfit? How much is your opinion worth?

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